Lost Patrols

Bell from the Etoile Polaire that sank in December 1915 after hitting a German mine

It is a little known fact that there are at least twenty Hull and Grimsby deep sea fishing vessels sunk within eyesight of the Goodwin Sands. It has not been the fish stocks that have attracted these vessels to their doom, but two World Wars. Arctic and North Sea trawlers were an ideal ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ craft for the Royal Navy. The majority were easily converted into minesweepers and anti-submarine vessels. These gallant little ships made up the mainstay of the Dover Patrol. Throughout the First World War, it was estimated that the trawlers had swept the equivalent of 12 times around the earth, just to keep the Dover Straits shipping lanes relatively clear of mines.

The total complement of crew in a trawler would be at least 10 hands, which ranged from the skipper to the decky-learner; although now that they had become navy personnel they were ranked lieutenant to ordinary seaman.  Most of these men were ex-fishermen whose calling had been disrupted by the war. Nevertheless, these brave men were patriotic enough to volunteer as soon as they were needed.

They were a rough and ready lot with characters to match. The streets of Dover reverberated on many a Saturday night to their northern accents. Slowly but surely they realised the dangers of war and conformed to orders and discipline. Their increasing duties gave them less time for ‘the beer’ and they always worked with a will. They became fearless and did not question their tasks that, at times, were hard and dirty. It was their courage that helped Britain win the war.

Bell from the trawler Bonar Law which foundered on the Goodwins in October 1915

Although most of these vessels had a length of 120 feet and weighed around 250 grt they were built to withstand conditions in the arctic waters; however, they were still susceptible to the violent seas of the English Channel. The Saxon Prince was lost less than a mile and a half from the cliffs (opposite to where the Dover Patrol Memorial was erected as a monument to the brave men who crewed the small ships) between St Margaret’s Bay and Kingsdown. On that stormy night in March 1916, she did not return from patrol and it was not until the 1980s that divers managed to identify her position by finding the wreck.

Even though some of the trawlers were rigged for minesweeping it did not help the Aragonite, commissioned from to the Kingston Steam Trawling Co. A magnetic mine exploded under her on the 22nd of September 1939, and lifted the 315-ton vessel out of the water. Although there were no fatalities, four of her crew were hospitalised with serious injuries.  At that time she was in the northwest corner of the anchorage in the Downs and drifted half a mile to be opposite Sandown Castle before she sank. Up until the late 1960s there was a large green can wreck buoy marking her position … a sad reminder to the lost trawlers of the Dover Patrol.

This trawler was only identified from its maker’s plate