<div style="display:inline;"> <img height="1" width="1" style="border-style:none;" alt="" src="//googleads.g.doubleclick.net/pagead/viewthroughconversion/1028731116/?value=0&amp;guid=ON&amp;script=0">
CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to EADT Suffolk today click here

The Suffolk fishermen who fought for Britain

PUBLISHED: 11:42 01 August 2017 | UPDATED: 11:42 01 August 2017

Thomas Crisp VC (photo: John Holmes)

Thomas Crisp VC (photo: John Holmes)


First World War German U-boats did their worst to naval boats and fishing fleets off the Suffolk coast, until skippers like Thomas Crisp started fighting back. Sarah Doig recounts his heroic story

Skipper Tom Crisp was awarded the Victoria Cross during WWI. The original medal is held by the local council (photo: Nick Butcher) Skipper Tom Crisp was awarded the Victoria Cross during WWI. The original medal is held by the local council (photo: Nick Butcher)

When we think of bravery and self-sacrifice during the First World War, our minds usually travel to the trenches of France and the battles to halt the advancing Germans. But equally courageous acts took place off the coast of Britain. The heroes are often forgotten, but the memory of one Suffolk man, Thomas Crisp, lives on in his home town.

At the most easterly point of the UK, the townspeople of Lowestoft found themselves at the forefront of the war at home. It was soon after the start of the conflict, in September 1914, that the Royal Navy sustained its first serious losses, as three cruisers were sunk by a German U-boat in the North Sea. Two Lowestoft trawlers were fishing nearby. The skippers steered their ships to the battle scene and rescued 156 British sailors from the water.

The Lowestoft fishing fleet, which comprised smacks – wooden sailing ships – was soon heavily involved in the war at sea. Many of the boats were sunk by German submarines. A common tactic of the U-boats was to surface among the trawlers, come alongside, take the catch of fish, order the crew into their lifeboat, then blow up the vessel with dynamite. It was part of a German strategy to strip Britain of its food supplies. One of the smacks destroyed in this way in 1915 was the George Borrow, captained by Thomas Crisp.

Thomas was born in 1876, one of 10 children of Lowestoft boat builder William Crisp and his wife, Mary. The Crisp family were shipwrights and fishermen, so it was not surprising that after his early schooling, Thomas went to sea. He spent several years as a herring fisherman before joining a trawler operating out of Lowestoft. Crisp gained his mate and then skipper qualifications which entitled him to captain a vessel. He first crewed, then skippered the George Borrow. By this time, he was married with three children, including a son, Thomas, who followed his father to sea.

A Commemorative plaque has been erected at the former home of Skipper Tom Crisp, in Stanford street, Lowestoft (photo: Nick Butcher) A Commemorative plaque has been erected at the former home of Skipper Tom Crisp, in Stanford street, Lowestoft (photo: Nick Butcher)

Because of the continued destruction of Lowestoft’s fishing fleet, some of the more enterprising skippers persuaded the Admiralty that some of their smacks should be secretly armed and operated to decoy the U-boats. The volunteer crews of these boats, code named Q-ships, were not to wear uniforms, nor were their guns revealed until the enemy had been lured within range. They were, however, given naval pay of three shillings and sixpence per day, as well as danger money of two shillings per day in recognition of the peril in which they were putting themselves. When the U-boat was close enough, the cover was whipped off the gun, the Royal Navy’s White Ensign was run up the flagpole, and the crew donned naval caps and armbands, so that if they were captured, they could claim prisoner of war status.

The Lowestoft Q-ships continued to operate successfully throughout the war, the crews receiving many commendations. Crisp was recruited into the Royal Naval Reserve and, by the summer of 1916, he was commanding a Q-ship called the HM Smack I’ll Try, joined by his son, Thomas, the ship’s mate. The rest of the personnel comprised a fishing crew of four, and three naval gunners, four more than a normal smack’s complement. On each trip, they would be away on the fishing grounds for five or six days, trawling and packing the fish, as well as keeping watch for enemy submarines. In February 1917, Crisp’s smack, along with another Q-ship, had a confrontation with two U-boats and, despite near misses from German torpedoes, the smacks scored direct hits on the enemy, earning the two skippers the Distinguished Service Cross and ‘prize money’ of £200 each. Crisp’s smack was renamed Nelson to maintain its cover.

The final conflict

Tom Crisp Way, Lowestoft (photo: Nick Butcher) Tom Crisp Way, Lowestoft (photo: Nick Butcher)

On August 15 that year, while the Nelson was fishing off the Lincolnshire coast, skipper Crisp spotted a German U-boat on the surface of the water. The U-boat saw the smack and began firing, scoring several hits before the Nelson’s gun was in range. By this stage of the war, enemy submarine captains were aware of the decoy ship tactics and tried to sink them with the crew on board, rather than stopping the ship and saving the British men. Although hopelessly outgunned, the Nelson fought back, but its hull was hit below the water line. The seventh shell hit Crisp, blowing away half his body, but he continued to direct the crew, ordering confidential papers to be thrown overboard. He also dictated a message to be sent by the boat’s carrier pigeon: “Nelson being attacked by submarine. Skipper killed. Jim Howe Bank. Send assistance at once.”

The crew, tried to remove their captain from the sinking smack, but he ordered them to throw him overboard rather than slow them down. They refused, but were unable to move Crisp, and he died in his son’s arms. They left the dead skipper in the Nelson, which sank shortly afterwards. The survivors escaped in the lifeboat and were found two days later by a search vessel, thanks to the carrier pigeon that had delivered Crisp’s message.

A court of enquiry into the incident praised the surviving crew and their dead captain. Skipper Crisp was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, and his son, Thomas, and another crew member were given Distinguished Service Medals. Thomas’ body was recovered and laid to rest in Lowestoft Cemetery alongside his wife, who died a few months before him. After the war, a small exhibition about him was established in the Lowestoft Free Library, but it was destroyed during Second World War bombing. Today, there is a display in Lowestoft Maritime Museum.

At St Margaret’s Church, Lowestoft, Crisp’s name appears on the war memorial, and one of the church bells, VC Bell, is dedicated to him. And two roads in the town are named after the famous skipper, Crisp Close and Tom Crisp Way, part of the A12 approach into the town from the south. Testament to the high regard in which Thomas Crisp, Lowestoft’s foremost First World War hero, is held.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other EADT Suffolk Magazine visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by EADT Suffolk Magazine staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique EADT Suffolk Magazine account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from People

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

You’ve all been very busy with phone or camera in hand this week in Suffolk - here are some of our favourite pictures taken by you

Read more
Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Not many people know it but a lot of your favourite films have been made in Suffolk. From blockbusters to independent, here are 21 films made in Suffolk.

Read more
Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Interest in craft beers is at an all-time high and the choice on offer is daunting. We went to the Arcade Tavern, winner of Best Pub in the EADT Suffolk Food and Drink Awards, for some inside knowledge

Read more
Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Thirty years ago this month Suffolk was badly battered as hurricane force winds wreaked havoc across the UK – and forecasters famously got it wrong. Veteran East Anglian metorologist Jim Bacon recalls the event and tells Mike Trippitt how forecasting has come a long way since then

Read more
Thursday, October 5, 2017

Lucy Etherington discovers the company dedicated to giving young people a chance to explore their talents and enjoy making opera together

Read more
Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Fiona Melrose’s acclaimed debut novel spans the globe from Suffolk to SouthAfrica. Catherine Larner talked to her about the inspiration for her blossoming second career as a writer

Read more
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Mary Ann Sieghart became one of our best known political commentators, in the days when women in Westminster were few. But, surrounded by grey-suited male MPs, she struggled to tell them apart, due to a rare condition which makes it hard to recognise faces. She talks to Pat Parker about politics, face blindness, bullying and how Suffolk soothes her

Read more
Tuesday, September 12, 2017

When her world fell apart, Kit Bradley found a happier life looking after sheep. Matt Gaw met her at Nowton Park, near Bury St Edmunds. Photography: Jennifer Leavy

Read more
Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Cheesemaker Julie Cheyney has been winning awards for her truly artisanal products for more than a decade. Now her Suffolk-made St Jude is a contender in The Great British Cheese Awards. Tessa Allingham went to see how she does it.

Read more
Monday, September 4, 2017

Five decades of his family’s links to food and farming are being celebrated by local butcher-grazier Jeremy Thickitt reports Glyn Williams

Read more
Great British Holidays advert link

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory
EADT Suffolk Application Link

Local Business Directory

Suffolk's trusted business finder

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search