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Thomas Crisp VC: Father and Son against a U-boat

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. [1]

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.[2]

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.’[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.)

 

[1] 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.

[2] A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. iii, p. 59.

[3] Ibid., p. 60.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., pp. 60-61.

[6] Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 120.

[7] Ibid., p. 42.

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Coal, the Royal Navy, and the British Empire

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Frank’s panda in Burma

As it turns out, Red Stahley wasn’t the only member of the family who had an interesting pet experience during the war.  My uncle, Frank Morris, serving in the Army in Burma was the proud own…

Source: Frank’s panda in Burma

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Quite amazing blog

Blog full of excellent pictures of ships. Thanks to Pierre Lagacé’s equally excellent Lest We Forget blog for the link.

Lest We Forget

Click here.

This blogger has stopped blogging since 2014.

What he did is most impressive work.

If you like ships of course.

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Happy New Year!

Happy new year and thanks for reading, commenting on and liking my blog in 2015.

I will probably be posting a bit less in the next few months as I have signed a contract to write a book based on my PhD thesis on British Strategy and Oil 1914-1923, so will be prioritising that, but will keep the blog going.

 

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The Capture of German New Guinea 15 September 1914

The Commonwealth of Australia was formed on 1 January 1901 by a Federation of the six self governing British colonies of Australia. Five of them had maintained naval forces, which were amalgamated into the Commonwealth Naval Forces on 1 March 1901. It was granted the title of Royal Australian Navy on 10 July 1911.

In August 1914 the RAN consisted of the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the light cruisers HMAS Pioneer, Encounter, Melbourne and Sydney, the destroyers HMAS Parramatta, Warrego and Yarra and the submarines HMAS AE1 and AE2. All were modern ships built for the RAN in British yards to British designs, except for Encounter and Pioneer, old light cruisers transferred from the Royal Navy in 1912.

Warrego was built in Britain but then dismantled and the parts sent to Australia so that Australian shipyard workers could reassemble her and obtain expertise in warship construction. In August 1914 a light cruiser, HMAS Brisbane, and three destroyers, HMAS Huon, Swan and Torrens, were under construction in Australia.

Another old British cruiser, HMS Psyche, was in New Zealand waters. The battlecruiser HMS New Zealand was paid for by New Zealand taxpayers, but was part of the RN and was based in the UK in 1914.

At the outbreak of war the RAN was put under the control of the British Admiralty. Its initial missions were to capture German South Pacific colonies and to protect shipping against the German East Asia Squadron. The higher positions were held by British officers, as it would take time until Australians were ready to hold them. Rear Admiral Sir George Patey RN commanded the Australian Fleet.

The first British Empire shot of the First World War was fired by an Australian coastal defence battery. At 12:45 pm on 5 August 1914, Sergeant John Purdue of the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery fired a warning shot across the bows of SS Pfalz, a German merchant ship attempting to leave Melbourne harbour.

A significant Australian contribution to the war at sea came on 11 August when the German merchant ship SS Hobart was boarded and her code books seized, although they did not reach the Admiralty in London until October.

On 6 August the British Government sent the Australian Government the following telegram:

If your Ministers desire and feel themselves able to seize German wireless stations at Yap in Marshall Islands, Nauru, Pleasant Island and New Guinea, we should feel that this was a great and urgent Imperial service. You will, however, realise that any territory now occupied must be at the disposal of the Imperial Government for purposes of an ultimate settlement at conclusion of the war. Other Dominions are acting in similar way on the same understanding, in particular, suggestion is being made to New Zealand in regard to Samoa.[1]

Arthur Jose writes in the Official History of the RAN in WWI that many Australians were puzzled to be told to use their navy not to defeat the enemy fleet, but to capture territory, ‘exactly the purpose against which all their previous advisers had warned them.’[2]

The main threat came from the German East Asia Squadron of the armoured cruisers SMS Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and three light cruisers. The armoured cruisers were greatly inferior to HMAS Australia but superior to any other Australian warship. Their location was unknown.

An initial plan to seize German wireless stations expanded into one to take territory. This would deny the German cruisers possible bases. However, Jose suggests that this plan was devised in London, where some, expecting a short war, wanted to ‘have in hand some German territory for bargaining purposes, possibly to exchange for Belgium.’[3] On the other hand, Hew Strachan notes that ‘[b]oth Australia and New Zealand harboured their own imperialist ambitions’ and accuses Jose of ‘glossing over [the] sub-imperialist thrust’ of their actions.[4]

The RAN covered the move of a New Zealand force to Samoa, which was taken without a fight on 30 August.

It then, accompanied by the French cruiser Montcalm, escorted the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, comprising 1,000 Australian  infantry and 500 Australian and British naval reservists and commanded by Colonel William Holmes, to capture German colonies in New Guinea. Melbourne was despatched to destroy the German wireless station at Nauru.

The main force reached Rabaul on 11 September. Sydney put a 25 man naval landing party ashore at Herbertshöhe, now Kokopo, and Warrego and Yarra landed a similar force at Kabakaul They were ordered to find the wireless stations. Patey thought that there were two, one, inland from each landing point.  In fact, both were at Bita Paka. The Herbertshöhe party was therefore unable to find its objective. The Kabakaul one was fired on as it advanced.

Two companies of naval reservists and two machine gun sections were landed from HMAS Berrima, an armed transport. They encountered a force of about 150 local police commanded by German officers and were reinforced by four companies of infantry from Berrima. Progress in the Battle of Bita Paka was slow, but the Germans retreated after the destroying the radio mast. The attackers removed the rest of the radio equipment.

Australian casualties were two officers and four men killed and an officer and three men wounded. Able Seaman W. G. V. Williams became the first Australian to be killed in action during the war.

The Official British Naval History says that ‘[f]or the Germans further resistance was now hopeless, but the Governor…[was] bent on making negotiations as dilatory as possible.[5] On the morning of 14 September Encounter bombarded a German fortified position on a ridge. Australian troops advancing towards it in the afternoon were met by a flag of truce. The German governor surrendered German New Guinea on 15 September.

On 14 September AE1 disappeared on patrol off Rabaul with the loss of all 35 men on board, a mixture of RAN and RN personnel. She probably struck a reef or other submerged object and was the first RAN warship to be lost and the first British Empire submarine to be lost in the war. Her wreck has not been found but efforts to do so continue.

[1] Quoted in A. W. Jose, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, vol. ix, the Royal Australian Navy, 1914-1918, Ninth ed. (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941), p. 47.

[2] Ibid., p. 48.

[3] Ibid., p. 52.

[4] H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). p. 464 and footnote 44 on p. 465.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 285.

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2013 in review

Thanks and happy New Year to all readers and contributors.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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