Six little known World War One lifeboat rescues

On 28 July 1914 war broke out in Europe, marking the beginning of World War One (WW1).

Six little known World War One lifeboat rescues

Photo: RNLI

It was to last over four years, claiming the lives of more than 15 million soldiers and civilians, 8 million horses and thousands of other animals.

It ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 – Armistice Day.

Now known as Remembrance Day, it's the day we honour those who have fought for our freedom and remember our fallen heroes. Not just in this Great War, but in all other wars since then.

But it's also a day of hope. To honour the courage and determination of those who have risked and lost their lives to save others in the midst of conflict.

Here are six little known lifeboat rescues that took place during World War 1, saving 234 lives at sea.

Whitby rescue

On 30 October 1914 the HMHS Rohilla, a naval hospital ship travelling to Dunkirk to pick up the wounded, struck Whitby Rock.

Although metres from shore, the high seas and storm force winds made any rescue difficult.

Whitby lifeboat volunteers carried the lifeboat by hand over a seawall and launched from the beach.

Eventually volunteers from six lifeboats battled the sea to reach the ship, fill up with desperate passengers and return them to the shore.

RNLI lifeboat crews and the community of Whitby worked for over 50 hours. And their unrelenting courage saved 144 lives.

Three Gold RNLI Medals for Gallantry, often referred to as the lifeboat crew's Victoria Cross, four Silver Medals for Gallantry, the Empire Gallantry Medal and the Bronze Medal of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) were awarded to Whitby and Tynemouth RNLI volunteers, and to others, involved in the rescue.

Fraserburgh rescue

On 8 August 1915 the RNLB Lady Rothes made her very first rescue.

Just four days earlier, the lifeboat had been donated to Fraserburgh RNLI by a Titanic survivor's father. And it was the station's first motorboat.

Following a report that a submarine had been sighted near two ships some 15 miles off shore, the lifeboat was launched and made a search of the area.

Fraserburgh lifeboat volunteers found the steamer SS Glenravel, and 14 crew on a boat nearby, who had been fired on by the submarine. Bombs had been thrown on board, presumably to save torpedoes and shells.

The 14 crew were all saved.

Port Eynon rescue

On 1 January 1916 the steamer Dunvegan ran aground.

When the Port Eynon lifeboat crew formed they were two short. But two men home on leave from the war volunteered to help.

They launched Janet, the Port Eynon lifeboat, but were unable to get near Dunvegan. So anchored nearby to await better conditions.

After a couple of hours the lifeboat volunteers could see the steamer's crew were being rescued by a land-based rocket team. So they started to head home.

But the sea conditions were so rough, the lifeboat capsized, throwing everyone overboard. When they at last got back onboard, the Second Coxswain and another crewman were missing.

The lifeboat then capsized again and this time the Coxswain also failed to reappear when the lifeboat righted.

Unable to find the three men, the crew reluctantly turned the lifeboat towards Mumbles. They spent the night huddled in the bottom of the lifeboat trying to keep warm and eventually landed at Mumbles at dawn on Sunday 2 January.

The three men lost at sea that day were Coxswain Billy Gibbs, Second Coxswain William Eynon and Crewman George Harry.

Falmouth rescue

On 3 November 1916, the tanker SS Ponus was stranded during a full southerly gale in very heavy seas in Falmouth Bay.

Some of her crew managed to reach the shore in the ship's boats. And 19 sailors were rescued by Falmouth lifeboat volunteers.

The Second Mate of Ponus remained aboard. But when the tanker later caught fire, he had to improvise a raft which, after boarding, became pinned against the burning vessel.

Two servicemen, Second Lieutenant Badger and Lieutenant Frank Stephens of the Royal Engineers and Royal Naval Reserves, braved the rough seas in a dinghy to rescue the Second Mate.

They brought him ashore tied to the dinghy's stern as it was too small to have him onboard.

Both servicemen were awarded the RNLI's Silver Medal for Gallantry for their outstanding bravery.

Baltimore rescue

On 29 December 1916, steamship SS Alondra was wrecked on the Kedge Rock, off Baltimore.

Sixteen of her crew left in one of the ship's boats but sadly drowned before reaching the shore.

Baltimore volunteers launched a lifeboat, but failed to reach the vessel. The crew included the Venerable Archdeacon John Richard Hedge Becher, who was the Honorary Secretary of Baltimore RNLI.

They tried a second time but again failed to reach the wreck and had to return to shore.

At daylight they set out with rocket apparatus. And about the same time, two Royal Navy trawlers arrived at the scene.

The efforts of all saved 23 survivors, some of whom were lowered down a 45-metre cliff.

Archdeacon Becher and Lieutenant Sanderson were each awarded the RNLI's Silver Medal for Gallantry.

Cromer rescue

On 9 January 1917 the Greek steamship Pyrin ran out of control 2 miles offshore.

Forty men, including troops, launched the Cromer lifeboat, Louisa Heartwell, into heavy seas. And the lifeboat volunteers saved the 16 crew members of the Pyrin.

Meanwhile the Swedish ship Fernebo struck a mine laid by a German submarine and eventually split in two.

Six sailors attempted to reach the shore in the ship's boat, which capsized. But all were saved by a chain of men reaching for them from the shore.

The lifeboat crew, recovering from the Pyrin rescue, launched to Fernebo.

In worsening weather they attempted several launches, at last succeeding, but broke five oars and lost three more overboard.

After returning for more oars, the volunteers launched again, rescuing all 11 remaining Fernebo sailors from the wreck.

Cromer RNLI volunteers returned to shore on 10 January having saved a total of 33 people from the two ships.

Coxswain Henry Blogg, the RNLI's most highly decorated lifeboat volunteer, was awarded the RNLI Gold Medal for Gallantry.

Second Coxswain Davies was awarded a Silver Medal for Gallantry.

Twelve of the lifeboat crew were awarded the first ever Bronze Medals for Gallantry.

And Private Stewart Holmes, who took part in the human chain, was awarded a Silver Medal for Gallantry. Poignantly Private Stewart Holmes was killed in action only a few months later, aged 19 years.

Hope in the Great War

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War. And to commemorate the centenary, these six heroic lifeboat services will feature in an RNLI national touring exhibition.

Called Hope in the Great War, the exhibition captures the spirit of the time – a time of great hope in the midst of great struggle; a time of communities rallying to serve each other in any way they could.

Funded by Arts Council England, the RNLI World War One exhibition will open to the public on 4 February 2014 at the RNLI Henry Blogg Museum in Norfolk.

And it will then continue on a four-year tour visiting RNLI museums, lifeboat stations and other venues across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

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