How the sacrifices of fishermen in WWII hit British trawling

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Throughout the Second World War, mines remained the most deadly enemy for fishermen going about their work.

Sea mines sunk more fishing vessels than any other weapon, leading to the creation of a special programme.

Fishermen saved a lot of lives at sea, rescuing crews from stricken ships

Scarborough Maritime Museum

In September 1939 a programme was introduced through which fishing fleets of four to eight vessels were created, with two vessels armed with twelve-pound guns.

In May 1940 those trawlers which had been fitted with guns were swiftly requisitioned and sent to help with the evacuation of Dunkirk and elsewhere.

Fishermen also saved a lot of lives at sea, rescuing crews from stricken ships as well as British and enemy aircraft.

When the first Schedule of Reserved Occupations was drawn up all classes of fishermen were reserved from the age of 18, except for service in the Navy.

Though quite a number joined the Merchant Navy or the Royal Navy of their own accord, most fishermen continued fishing until required for naval service.

Those recruited were usually used on small craft, particularly those of the Patrol Service, so that their skills could be best deployed.

The war had a profound effect not just on the fishermen themselves but also on the British fish supply.

The total supply from all sources, fresh or frozen, amounted to 22,417,780 hundredweight (cwt) in 1938 but by 1941 this had slumped to 7,771,016 cwt or 35 per cent of the 1938 total.

Thereafter, there was a gradual improvement and by 1944 supplies were running at 48 per cent of the pre-war total.

The years 1940 and 1941 were probably the worst of the war for the British trawling trade.

Working vessels were subject to intense enemy attack; indeed, nearly two thirds of the English and Welsh trawlers lost through enemy action whilst fishing over the six years of the war went down during 1940 and 1941.

Although it is not possible to single out exactly how many fishermen died whilst serving with the Royal Navy, it is known that some 2,385 officers and men of the Royal Naval Patrol Service, aged 16 to 65 lost their lives.

The Patrol Service lost nearly 500 vessels.

The fish trade as a whole and working fishermen in particular had also paid a heavy price.

At least 1,243 British fishermen lost their lives whilst following their livelihood during World War II.