​​​​​​​​​​​​​When Blackburn Rovers Went To War

Britain declared war on Germany on the 3rd September 1939. Later that same day, France also declared war.  Blackburn Rovers’ war preparations commenced the previous month, on the 25th August. On that date, Grimsby trawler GY102, and named after the famous old club, was requisitioned by the Admiralty.  Six days later, the trawler sailed to the Cammel Laird shipyard in Birkenhead. There, the boat was put into dry dock and found to be in good condition before being equipped with Asdic (1) submarine detection equipment, depth charge racks and a cannon mounted on her foredeck. She was now ready for war.

640 Bburn Rovers trawler from Bburn Library Collection.jpg
 ​Copyright unknown.  Image taken from Blackburn Library's Uncatalogued Collection.

Blackburn Rovers was built in 1934 for Consolidated Fisheries of Grimsby, by the Smith Dock Company of Middlesbrough. She cost a grand total  of £20,832, including fitting out the vessel with the required equipment.(2).  Officially launched in November 1934, she attained speeds of twelve knots (nearly 14 mph) following her trials.  The name Blackburn Rovers was given to the new ship by Sir John Marsden, soon to become chairman of Consolidated Fisheries, and was she one of five new trawlers ordered by the Company in that year.(3) 
Under the command of Skipper Alfred Cambrum, Blackburn Rovers sailed on her maiden voyage; and for the following several years successfully fished in the waters around Iceland. Her life was not without incident however.  The trawler ran aground in the Orkneys in thick fog in 1937, eventually managing to free herself. Later that same year the mate Archibald Freshwater was lost overboard in the Humber.  A boat was lowered but a strong running tide quickly took Archibald out of reach.  Despite an extensive search, his body was never recovered.  The following year, while passing Faroe Bank in heavy weather, a huge wave struck the side of the boat and flooded the wheelhouse, chartroom and wireless room, sweeping away the compass and various other equipment, together with the lifeboat.  Such is the price of the produce that we take for granted on the fishmonger’s counter.  



​Once her war service commenced, Blackburn Rovers, now a full-fledged anti-submarine trawler carrying the new pennant FY116,(4) was crewed by men from the  Royal Navy, Royal Naval Patrol Service and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (Trawler Section).(5)  The latter would have been experienced pre-war trawlermen.  The Royal Naval Reserve, later to become part of the Royal Naval Patrol Service, was affectionately known as ‘Harry Tate’s Navy’, an appellation first given during the First World War. Harry Tate was an English comedian who worked in music hall and film.  His name became a by-word for the clumsy amateur whose attempts to master devices and contraptions always went hilariously wrong.  But reality was no laughing matter, however.  The RNPS lost approximately 15,000 sailors during the Second World War, including 2385 who ‘have no known grave but the sea’. 
The ship’s first action came on the 13th October when, along with another trawler, she made contact with an enemy submarine, but the U-boat escaped. The following month, Trawler FY116 met with disaster while patrolling off the Goodwin Sands near Dover.  During a south westerly gale a cable was washed off the foredeck and became wrapped around the screw propeller.  Despite dropping anchor, the boat began to drift into a minefield.  The Dover lifeboat, Sir William Hillary, was despatched to assist the helpless vessel.  The lifeboat, commanded by Coxswain Bryant, also had on board Admiralty Assistant Harbour Master Lieutenant Richard Walker, whose chart confirmed Blackburn Rovers was in mortal peril.   All sixteen crewmen were rescued however, and the decision was taken to scuttle the boat; prior to which the Asdic equipment and accompanying documentation were removed.  All presumably held their breath and hoped the sinking boat would not strike a mine before they could sail clear.  For their part in the daring rescue, Coxswain Bryant, Lieutenant Walker and second Coxswain Sidney Hills were awarded the RNLI Silver medal.  The other crew members were also given awards.(6)  And that was the end of the story for HMT FY116.  Or so it seemed. 

In fact, the scuttling attempt was unsuccessful.  The apparently doomed boat did not sink and was found drifting 30 miles away, off the Kentish Sands.  Lazarus-like, she had come back from the dead.  That the attempt to scuttle her failed is understandable, given the circumstances. The usual method of scuttling a boat is by opening the seacocks, which are essentially large valves, allowing seawater to flood in.  Timing is all when scuttling a boat, particularly when the sinking is to take place in a minefield. Possibly in the haste to get clear the valves were not opened adequately, or became blocked.  Bilge pumps could also have become activated in response to the sinking, leading to the vessel being stabilised.  
Now refurbished and rearmed, by February 1940 Blackburn Rovers once again took her place in the fight, and had become part of the 21st Anti-Submarine Group. This Group had been withdrawn from Dover to be fitted with anti-aircraft protection.   

At this time the British Expeditionary Force was continuing to build, and was in the process of deploying in northern France along the Franco-Belgian Frontier.  Things were relatively quiet.  So much so that this period became known as the Phoney War.  This had never been the case at sea however.  When the Germans launched their offensive on the 10th May, a combination of superior preparation and equipment in some cases, compounded by the inadequacies of a French army not up to the standard of the previous war - although some French units fought well - quickly led to the British withdrawal to Dunkirk and the eventual evacuation of most of the BEF - which was a junior partner in the land-based army - along with around 140.000 French troops.  During the course of the evacuation, Blackburn Rovers met her end.  Now with a crew of seventeen, she was the lead boat of three trawlers, the others being Westella and Soan, and heading away from Dunkirk.  Some sources state Blackburn Rovers was involved in the evacuation, but there is no evidence that she collected any soldiers.  More likely her task was to protect the larger Navy ships, the real target of the U-boats, as the German Navy and Luftwaffe made a determined attempt to halt the evacuation of the BEF.   

The trio of ships made Asdic contact indicating a possible U-boat and turned to investigate, unknowingly heading into a British minefield.  Blackburn Rovers struck a mine (Admiralty records say possibly she was torpedoed) and broke in half.  The explosion and sinking also triggered the depth charges held on the racks.  Westella went to the rescue, but also struck a mine and had her bow blown off.  Amid the mayhem and carnage Soan managed to rescue the survivors from her stricken sister ships.  Due to the exploding depth charges, many of the Blackburn Rovers crew suffered from internal haemorrhage.  Six of the crew died on that day.  Two more died a few days later.(7)   

​The wreck of the FY116 now lies in the Dover Strait at a depth of 24 metres (about 13 fathoms in old nautical language) on a seabed of soft sand, about 18 miles north of Dunkirk.  Close by lies the Westella.(8)  

As for a link between the fishing port of Grimsby, the trawler Blackburn Rovers and the club of that name, alas there was no direct one, although the football clubs of Blackburn and Grimsby did mark the connection.(9).   According to Sir John Marsden, the naming came about during a ‘brainstorm’ when it was decided to name newly-ordered vessels after football teams, mostly First Division.  The trawler team names included Grimsby Town (recently relegated from the First Division in 1932) and it was that same boat accompanying Blackburn Rovers during her first action in October 1939.  For some reason, one trawler was also named Real Madrid.  Also lost in 1940 were Aston Villa, sunk by aircraft during the ill-fated Norway campaign in May 1940, and Arsenal, sunk in a collision in the Clyde in November.(10)
The name Blackburn Rovers was revived as a fishing vessel in 1962 when the Goole Shipbuilding and Repair Company built a new trawler, which was registered GY706 to the Wendover Steam Fishing, a subsidiary of Consolidated Fisheries.   She made her maiden voyage from Grimsby in January 1963.  On several occasions GY706 set new records for catches by a vessel of her type.  In 1978, the boat was sold to the Huxley Fishing Company, Lowestoft, and re-numbered LT306, although she was never used to catch fish.  Instead the vessel was converted to become an oil rig supply vessel.  Nine years later, Blackburn Rovers, having been sold to the Y & P Fishing Company of Limassol, Cyprus, left British waters for the final time. After arriving in Piraeus in November 1987, she eventually resumed her fishing duties in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean, now glorying in her new name ‘Giant Fish’. 

1.  This was an early method of detecting submarines, first developed during the First World War.  It was most effective when used by two or more vessels acting in conjunction. The technology was much improved as the war progressed.
2. Deep Sea Trawlers  Provides a fascinating history of the Grimsby Fishing Fleet 1876-1976.  I am grateful to Trevor, of this website, who was very helpful in answering all the questions that I fired at him.  My thanks also to Mary Painter, of Blackburn Library. 
3. www.munro-tain.com.  The website gives a brief outline of the growth and decline of Consolidated Fisheries Ltd.
4. The letters FY were given by the Navy to auxiliary fishing vessels. 
5. The website Royal Naval Reserve Lists  the approximately 260 trawlers lost during the war.  The men of the RNPS were given a unique silver badge, worn on the sleeve, and given a special mention by Churchill at the end of the war in Europe. 
6.  Dover Historian
7.  The Skipper of HMT Blackburn Rovers, W. Martin RNR, was injured but survived.  The crewmen who lost their lives on 2nd June 1940 were:-
David Burgon, Seaman RNR, of Tweedmouth, aged 32.  Memorial: Lowestoft Naval Memorial.
Benjamin Crockett, Seaman RNR, of Nairn, aged 20.  Memorial: Lowestoft Naval Memorial. 
William Angus Macdonald, Leading Seaman, of Lochs, Isle of Lewis.  Memorial: Lowestoft Naval Memorial.
James Nicholson, Stoker RNPS.  Memorial: Lowestoft Naval Memorial.
Samuel Leslie Stubbs, Engineman RNR.  Memorial Lowestoft Naval Memorial.
Robert Dixon Tait, Stoker 1st Class Royal Navy.  Memorial: Chatham Naval Memorial.
6th June
Charles A Hartley, Seaman RNR, of Hull, aged 24.  Died of injuries. Memorial: Dover (St. Mary’s) New Cemetery
12th June
Richard Jones, Stoker RNPS, of Rhymney Monmouthshire, aged 21.  Died of injuries. Memorial: Rhymney Cemetery.     Information from Deepseatrawlers.co.uk and wrecksite.eu   
8.  Wreck Site​
9.  ‘Looking Back’, Lancashire Evening Telegraph April 15th 2002.  A reader sent in some records of the 1962 reincarnation of the fishing vessel, and the column also delved into the Blackburn Rovers – Grimsby Town match reports of 1935.  When Town played at Ewood Park in August of that year, on behalf of Consolidated Fisheries the visitors presented the hosts with a framed photograph of the trawler, and the post-match ceremony was attended by the trawler’s Skipper Camburn, and skippers of the Grimsby Town and Stoke City.  Before the return match was played in December, the Rovers’ players were guests aboard ‘their’ boat.  Just a few days before the boat was lost off Dunkirk, the club received a photograph of its new crew under its RNR Captain W. Martin.  Sadly, Rovers appear no longer to have a record of these momentoes.  

10.  The trawlers of the ‘Football Fleet’ were sometimes replaced and/or re-registered, but the list is: Aldershot GY612, Arsenal GY505, Arsenal GY48, Aston Villa GY508, Aston Villa GY428, Aston Villa GY42, Barnsley GY651, Blackburn Rovers GY102, Blackburn Rovers GY706, Carlisle GY681, Coventry City GY422, Crystal Palace GY683, Derby County GY514, Derby County GY194, Everton GY58, Gillingham GY622, Grimsby Town GY81, Grimsby Town GY246, Huddersfield Town GY702, Huddersfield Town GY521 (renumbered GY261 then renamed Leeds United GY261),  Hull City GY282, Leeds United GY62, Leeds United GY261, Leicester City GY106, Lincoln City GY529, Lincoln City GY464, Manchester City GY53, Norwich City GY503, Notts County GY487, Notts County GY643, Notts Forest GY649, Port Vale GY484, Preston North End GY82, Real Madrid GY674, Sheffield Wednesday GY519, Spurs GY515. Spurs GY697, Stoke City GY114, Wolves GY104, Wolverhampton Wanderers GY31, York City GY503.  ​​

Dave Whalley, 2020

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