Thomas Crisp, born in 1876, was a Lowestoft fishing captain before the First World War. His age and the importance of his profession to the war effort meant that he continued to be a fisherman in the early stages of the war. U-boats, however, were sinking fishing vessels as well as larger merchant ships and Crisp was recruited serve in a force of secretly armed fishing vessels that would protect the fishing fleet.
By the summer of 1916, he had joined the Royal Naval Reserve and was captain of the HM Armed Smack I’ll Try, formerly the G & E. Like other fisherman captaining fishing vessels requisitioned by the Royal Navy, he held the rank of Skipper. His son, also called Thomas, was a member of his crew.
I’ll Try frequently operated with another secretly armed smack, the Ethel & Millie, which sometimes went by the name Boy Alfred. On 1 February 1917, they claimed to have sunk two U-boats. The Admiralty paid the crews a bounty for this action and awarded Crisp and the other skipper the Distinguished Service Cross. However, no U-boats were lost that day. 
Crisp was offered a position on a larger Q-ship, but declined as he wanted to remain close to his terminally ill wife.
On 15 August 1917, the two smacks were operating together off the coast of East Anglia, acting as bait for U-boats. I’ll Try had by then been renamed Nelson. Just after 2:45 pm, Skipper Crisp spotted something on the horizon, realised that it was a submarine and ordered the Nelson, which was armed with a 13 pounder gun, to clear for action just before a shell landed 100 yards off her port bow.
About the fourth shell fired by the U-boat hit the Nelson on the port bow just before the waterline. Three more then hit her, the last of which passed right through the Nelson without exploding, hitting Skipper Crisp on the way. Tom junior took over the tiller, but the smack was sinking. Skipper Crisp ordered that the following message be sent by carrier pigeon:
‘Nelson being attacked by submarine. Skipper killed. Send assistance at once.’
Skipper Crisp ordered that the Nelson be abandoned and her confidential books be thrown overboard but declined to be lowered into the lifeboat. He asked to be thrown overboard but was too badly wounded to be moved. He was therefore left on the deck of his sinking vessel whilst the rest of the crew rowed away in the lifeboat.
The survivors rowed for the rest of the day and all the next. They saw several ships but were unable to attract their attention. On the morning of Friday 17 August, they moored to the Jim Howe Buoy and were rescued later that day by the minesweeper HMS Dryad, 41 hours after they abandoned the Nelson.
After sinking the Nelson, the U-boat turned on the Ethel & Millie, which had only a 6 pounder gun. Her crew abandoned ship after running out of ammo and were last seen by the Nelson’s crew lined up on the U-boat’s deck.
Nothing more was heard of Ethel & Millie’s crew. Tony Bridgland suggests that the U-boat may have been UC-41, which was blown up by her own mines in the Tay Estuary five days later, in which case the survivors could have been taken on board and shared the fate of the captors.
U-boat.net, however, says that it was UC-63, which survived that patrol to be sunk by the British submarine E-52 on 1 November 1917. In that case, they were probably left to drown. The Germans regarded merchant seamen who fought back as being francs-tireurs or partisans and thus liable to execution: see the fate of Captain Charles Fryatt, a British merchant captain who was executed on 27 July 1916 for attempting to ram a U-boat.
Another possibility is that they were interrogated, put back into their lifeboat and lost at sea.
None of Ethel and Millie’s crew were civilians. Two were RN sailors: Able Seamen Edwin Barrett and Alfred Preece. The others were members of the RNR: Skipper Charles Manning, 2nd Hand Spencer Gibson and Deck Hands John Lewis, Arthur Soames and Hugh Thompson: source naval-history.net
Skipper Crisp was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Tom Crisp junior collected it and his own Distinguished Service Medal from King George V on 19 December 1917, when Leading Seaman Percival Ross, the Nelson’s gunner, received a bar to his DSM.
The full citation for Crisp’s VC, along with all those awarded for actions on Q-ships, was not published until after the war for security reasons. It is below: source naval-history.net.
Action of H.M. Armed Smack “Nelson,” on the 15th August, 1917.
On the 15th August, 1917, the Smack “Nelson” was engaged in fishing when she was attacked by gunfire from an enemy submarine. The gear was let go and the submarine’s fire was returned. The submarine’s fourth shot went through the port bow just below the water line, and the seventh shell struck the skipper, Thomas Crisp, partially disembowelling him, and passed through the deck and out through the side of the ship. In spite of the terrible nature of his wound Skipper Crisp retained consciousness, and his first thought was to send off a message that he was being attacked and giving his position. He continued to command his ship until the ammunition was almost exhausted and the smack was sinking. He refused to be moved into the small boat when the rest of the crew were obliged to abandon the vessel as she sank, his last request being that he might be thrown overboard.
(The posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to Skipper Thomas Crisp, D.S.C., R.N.R., 10055 D.A., was announced in London Gazette No. 30363, dated the 2nd November, 1917.)
 T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), p. 118.
 A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. iii, p. 59.
 Ibid., p. 60.
 Ibid., pp. 60-61.
 Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 120.
 Ibid., p. 42.
One response to “Thomas Crisp VC: Father and Son against a U-boat”
Fascinating and interesting post as well as a great human interest story. I have no idea why Martin but I can’t “like” on a number of blogs I read. On others it works fine. Strange. Nevertheless, I love your blog.