During my summer leave a dispute had arisen between the British and Icelandic Governments, and I was about to become directly involved.
Iceland had increased her three-mile territorial waters to twelve miles, and this caused a huge uproar within the British fishing industry. Iceland declared that any foreign trawlers found inside her new territorial boundaries would be arrested and towed into Reykjavik.
To enforce their new territorial waters they deployed three gunboats to patrol the area. Britain refused to recognize the new limit and insisted that the British trawlers would continue fishing in their traditional waters. In response to the gunboats, the Royal Navy would provide protection for her trawler fleet.
So at the end of July 1958 we sailed for Iceland, and the beginning of what became known as the Cod Wars! We remained on station for the month of August, patrolling the disputed waters.
The northern most part of Iceland is on the Arctic Circle, in the land of the Midnight Sun. The darkness lasted for about two hours, starting around midnight. The same couldn’t be said for the fog. It was endless. In such conditions radar becomes a very necessary and vital piece of equipment. The operators needed to be on constant alert. Steaming in dense fog amid dozens of trawlers who were liable to suddenly alter course as they chased the fish was a nervy experience.
One morning in early August I was on radar watch in the usual foggy conditions. A long four-hour watch under these tense conditions could be very exhausting work, especially when the officers on the bridge depend solely on radar. The Royal Navy didn’t want to be responsible for sinking one of the trawlers we were supposed to be protecting.. We posted extra lookouts on the bridge wings as well. But visibility was barely a hundred yards.
At around 1000 hrs someone brought me a cup of tea but I set the cup to one side. Things were too hectic to drink with so many active contacts on the screen. I had a radiotelephone link with the bridge and I gave constant updates of ship movements within a two-mile range.
Suddenly a strange voice cut into my com-link. It was a trawler trying to relay a message from another trawler. I was confused at first, wondering how he’d reached me on an in-ship system. He sounded very anxious as he transmitted his message. “Trawler Northampton boarded by gunboat. Crew required immediate assistance.”
The message ended with the approximate position.
Apparently the radio operator on the Northampton had barricaded himself in the radio shack and was frantically sending messages for help. I immediately relayed the message to the bridge. The alarm was sounded and the ship came to action stations, and within minutes our speed increased to eighteen knots. No one ever asked, but they must have wondered how the radar office came by the information in the first place.
Racing at speed in thick fog and with trawlers all over the place was a very risky and dangerous situation. I was kept busy searching for the target and I had to watch the screen intently, warning of nearby contacts.
Then at the top of my screen I picked up two contacts close together. They were probably the trawler and gunboat. I reported them, then quickly followed up with an intercept course. Then I prayed that I knew what I was doing.
The motor launch was ready to go with our armed boarding party already aboard. The moment the Eastbourne stopped the launch was in the water and on its way to the rescue.
Stuck in the radar office I didn’t have any idea what was happening up on deck. And in all the excitement I’d lost track of the time. I was startled when my relief arrived to take over. I rushed out on deck, but it was too late to see what had taken place. The boarding party had returned and the launch was back on the davits. The ship had returned to normal routine. Disappointed I headed back down to the mess for lunch.
It was probably fish again. Since arriving on station the trawlers had showered us with a daily supply of fresh fish in gratitude for our protection.
Over lunch I learned what had taken place and I was a bit surprised to hear that no action was required in rescuing the trawler. The moment we appeared the gunboat ‘Thor’ steamed away leaving her boarding party behind. We hailed them only to be ignored, and we were left holding eight prisoners.
The prisoners seemed friendly enough and not overly upset at being abandoned by their shipmates. Nevertheless, they were the enemy and had to be treated as such. The Eastbourne didn’t have a brig large enough for eight people. I’m not sure if we had a brig at all. A lower mess deck was vacated and the prisoners were accommodated there with an armed guard at the hatch. Our displaced crew had to doubled up in other messes.
The ship provided the prisoners with fresh clothing, food, cigarettes and a can of beer per day. While they didn’t appear threatening, the guards had to remain vigilant. They were escorted at all times for meals, exercise and washing etc. Sabotage was a real possibility. If the ship was damaged or disabled in any way, we were a very long way from home, and it was unlikely we’d find any help locally.
The question of what to do with our prisoners arose as the end of the patrol approached. I wasn’t privy to any negotiations between the Captain and the Admiralty, but speculation on the mess deck was that the government wouldn’t want us returning to England with eight Icelandic prisoners. It was easy to imagine the sort of field day the news media would have. I could see them hovering around the docks, scrambling to interview any sailors they could catch. And God only knows what nonsense some of our lads would have told them.
However, a simple solution was found and the decision made. On the last night of our patrol, and in the brief hours of darkness, we rigged false lights to disguise ourselves as a merchant ship. Then we sailed as near as we dared to the entrance to Reykjavik Harbour, lowered the ship’s whaler with the prisoners aboard and told them to row for shore.
The sun was rising as Iceland disappeared over the horizon and we headed for home, less one Admiralty-issued whaler. Many years later I heard that our whaler was on display at the Reykjavik Maritime Museum.
And that folks was my one encounter with enemy prisoners!!!
God Bless and keep reading