Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Deal boatman regrets ...

A Deal boatman regrets …

By David Chamberlain

At 11.30am on Wednesday the 11th November, 1914, the small motor boat Elsie left Deal beach on a sunny autumn day. Onboard were the owner, Harry Pearson and his crewmate Thomas Heard. Pearson’s boat was one of the few on the beach that was motorised and was in demand for ship attendance work throughout the busy anchorage of the Downs. With the First World War in its early stage the Downs was being used as a Contraband Control area, forcing all ships to anchor and undergo searches for war materials that could be used by the enemy … and also spies. To enforce any reluctant vessels captains’ to comply with this order was the gunboat H.M.S. Niger.

The Niger was a torpedo gunboat of 810 tons and carried a complement of 85 men. Although she was old, being built in 1892, she had enough fire power, with her two 4.7 inch guns and four three pounders – plus three 18 inch torpedo tubes, to make any contraband runner think twice. Her presence could be seen by all as she was anchored in the fairway opposite Deal Pier.   

Harry Pearson and Tom Heard were old friends and part of the lifeboat crew, with Harry as second coxswain of the North Deal lifeboat and Thomas the ex-skipper of the then defunct Walmer lifeboat.  They both worked the Elsie in all the occupations that the Deal boatmen did in those days. Netting for herring and sprats in the winter, mackerel in the summer and accompanying the new trend of channel swimmers. Harry Pearson was famous for piloting the second person to ever swim the Channel, Thomas Burgess on his record swim. This particular day they were doing ship attendance work and had aboard Captain Jorgensen, the master of the sailing vessel Majorka.

The Majorka had been in collision with another ship and Jorgensen had been ashore to telegraph the owners to make arrangements for his damaged vessel. As the Elsie motored back out towards the sailing ship, Jorgensen exclaimed he had sighted a mine. Harry Pearson viewed where the Norwegian captain was pointing and stated that it was probably the mast from the steamship Adjutant, that had been sunk a week earlier in another collision.

Little did Pearson realise that what he saw was the periscope of a German u-boat that was stalking H.M.S Niger. At 10 minutes past midday, in a freshening southerly breeze, the U12 released a single torpedo which struck the Niger a fatal blow on her starboard side. Within 30 minutes the old torpedo gunboat slid beneath the sea in eight fathoms (48 feet) of water.

Later that day, Harry Pearson related what he had seen. The four feet grey like spar, which had been the U 12’s periscope, was only yards from his boat. He had motored over the stern of the submerged u-boat; and if the periscope had been raised at that time, Pearson speculated, it would have gone through the planks of the Elsie. He reminisced, in hindsight, that he could, if he had known it was a u-boat, smashed the glass of the periscope with his boathook and saved the Admiralty a loss of one of their ships. This was possibly a regret he harboured for the rest of his life.

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