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Monday 17 March 2014

Fact 10. Hull nearly caused a war with Russia.

At these times of heightened tension with Russia it reminded me of an other occasion when Hull was at the centre of events. 110 years ago, and 99 years after the Battle of Trafalgar Russia and Japan went to war in Feb. 1904. Both countries were trying to extend their power over Manchuria in China and the Korean peninsula. Japan had carried out a preemptive strike over Russia by striking the Russian fleet in Port Arthur, their naval base which was leased from China. The Japanese then blockaded and put the port under siege.  The Russians decided to mobilize their Baltic Fleet to lift the siege. They assembled a fleet of 42 ships and after a few false starts they set of 15th October 1904. Russia had suffered many setbacks at the hands of the Japanese and they were paranoid that the Japanese would again strike early and attack the fleet on the way there with either mines or torpedo boats. The Russian Admiral Rozhestvensky had his men at a high state of alert and they saw danger everywhere. They fired on a Japanese torpedo boat that turned out to be a Swedish freighter. Eventually they got in to the North Sea and 'avoided' an imaginary minefield.
The Russian fleet included 8 battleships and one of them still survives. The Aurora is a floating museum in St Petersburg and played a part in the revolution of 1917.

Approaching midnight on 21st October 1904, 99 years after the Battle of Trafalgar the scouting ships of the Baltic Fleet reported sightings of torpedo ships. It so happened that the Gamecock Fishing Fleet from Hull, about 38 ships, was in the path of the Russians. Along with other trawlers they were operating on the Dogger Bank fishing grounds as a fleet with their own 'Admiral' Henry Foot. The trawlers remained on the grounds as directed by the 'Admiral' and transferred their catch to other ships that took the fish to market. The 'Admiral' directed the trawlers by flag and lights which could well have added to the suspicions of the Russians. The fishermen thought that it could the British Channel Fleet returning south after a port visit and they were not worried although the boats were told to head to windward, most would have their nets down making any movement very slow. The first wave of warships passed and then all hell broke out. At first the fisherman thought it was gunnery practice but then searchlights shone and fire was directed at them.

A postcard from the time. The attack came to be called the Dogger Bank Incident.

Fire was directed at the trawler 'Crane'. She was badly hit and the the Skipper George Smith and the 3rd Hand were killed by severe head wounds. The Skippers son Joseph was aboard as cook for his first voyage and found his father dead. Most of the rest of the crew were injured, some severely. Damage was also done to the Mino, Snipe and  Moulmein.

The Crane started to sink and the trawler Gull bravely launched their boat and went alongside and managed to take off the dead and injured and transferring the injured to the hospital ship 'Joseph and Sarah Miles'. The Doctor aboard probably saved several lives by his swift work.

The action stopped after about  25 minutes after midnight as they had 'spotted' large vessels attacking. This turned out to be vessels of their own fleet! It resulted in a death of a Russian seaman and a Padre.

The trawlers damaged or with injured aboard went back to Hull with the news. The public were outraged and the British Fleet raised steam to attack the Russians. Cool heads prevailed but the Russians were denied use of the Suez Canal and British and their allies also prevented the Russians using their coaling stations around the world. The Russians had to employ 60 German vessels to supply them with coal etc. Whilst in Madagascar the Russians heard that Port Arthur had fallen so the reason for their voyage had gone. They continued to try to get to Vladivostok to replace the sunk Pacific Fleet. They chose to pass through the Straits of Tsushima and the Japanese Fleet lay in wait. The battle was decisive with eight battle ships and 5000 men lost by the Russians and only three of their  fleet actually made it to Vladivostok where as the Japanese lost three torpedo boats and 116 men.

File:North Sea Incident 1904 - Memorial - - 264822.jpg
The memorial Statue that was erected by public subscription in 1906. The statue was in Portland stone by Arthur Leake of a life size George Smith, Skipper on the Crane, and with a memorial to William Leggett 3rd Hand of the Crane who died on the night and also to Walter Whelpton the Skipper of the Mino who died of his wounds (or shock as it states on the memorial) in May 1905. The King donated 200 guineas to the fund.

Later the King presented four Albert Medals for the action. Albert Medal 1st Class went to W. Smith, Mate and A. Rea 2nd Eng. of the 'Crane' for their steadfastness and bravery under fire and 2nd Class Medal to C. Beer Mate and H. Smith Ch. Eng of the Gull for their rescue of the crew of the Crane. Another 2nd Class medal was awarded to E. Costello, Bosun of the Gull but he was unable to make it to the ceremony at Buckingham Palace so it was presented later.

After an international enquiry later the Fishermen were awarded £68000 but I don't know how it was shared out. The death and damage would have been much greater if the Russians had been at all competent in  fire direction and gunnery. The current tension in Ukraine seems to be history repeating itself in so many ways. I hope that cool heads on all sides will once again pull us back from war with Russia.

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