The King Stephen was a fishing trawler, with the registered number GY 174, owned by the Consolidated Steam Fishing Company, and operating from Grimsby. In February 1916, she set sail to fish off the Dogger Bank, in the North Sea, a hazardous task in itself, because enemy ships sailing to the North Atlantic chose to pass through east of Britain, as opposed to using the English Channel with the high risk of interception. Nevertheless, Skipper William Martin knew of the dangers and accepted them as his way of life. But he was not prepared for what was going to happen.

During the early hours of
Wednesday 2 February 1916, the vessel was trawling with the Mate George Denny on watch when he saw distress signals some distance away. He aroused the skipper, who ordered the trawl to be brought it than laid off a course in the direction where the signals had been seen, but it was some hours before they reached their destination and they were not prepared for what they found. It was a
German Zeppelin No L.19 which must have been shot down in an aerial gunfight, and was now half submerged. As the trawler brought up nearby, the skipper counter a crew of 19 men waiting to be rescued, all of them probably armed.

He had a quick conference with the crew then made the decision not to take them off. Had they done so, it would have been a simple matter for the rescued airman to overpower the eight crewmen of the trawler, take over the vessel and sail for
Germany, with the prospect of a prisoner of war camp for the duration of hostilities facing the trawlermen. So they turned and sailed away. Radio communication was not so common in those days, otherwise assistance could have been obtained, as it was, the Germans perished. Skipper Martin sailed straight for Grimsby and reported the facts to the authorities, who decided that this incident should be kept under wraps, but following an intervew by a Grimsby Evening Mail reporter, Mate Denny told the full story and it was published the next day, then taken up by the National Press. The
Germans were soon aware of the full facts.

Skipper Martin never sailed again. The incident had a tremendous impact on him, and although he had scores of letters from well wishers who assured him he had done the right thing, he never really recovered, and died just a few days later

The
Stephen did not sail for the purpose of fishing again. She was taken over by the Admiralty, and converted into a ‘Q’ ship. These were really decoys, to all outward purposes they were fishing vessels, or merchant ships, but had concealed armament which could be brought into use very quickly. The idea was that if they were sighted by a ‘U’ Boat, the German captain might think it was not worth while using a torpedo
to despatch his victim, so would surface, close the vessel, and sink her by gunfire. To make sure the enemy was taken in, some of the crew were used as a panic party, they would run round the decks, not knowing what to do, eventually launch the ship’s boat, get into her, and pull away from the doomed ship. All this was to put the enemy’s mind at rest, so that they would get quite close before they brought their guns into use. But
once she was close enough, hidden armament would be revealed to the victim, and before the enemy guns could be brought into use, she would have suffered, hopefully, some serious damage.

So at the
24 April 1916, H.M.Trawler King Stephen, under the command of Skipper Lieutenant Tom Phillips R.N.R. set sail for the North Sea in the hope of luring enemy ships to destruction. The plan was to reach Smith’s Knoll Bank, 25 miles off Lowestoft Ness, and wait for some unsuspecting ‘U’ Boat. One was sighted about 2 miles away, but showed little interest, so the King Stephen went after her, firing six rounds from the Hotchkiss Quick Firing gun, without scoring a hit. They also released a carrier pigeon with the message that they were engaging the enemy. This was the start of a number of events. They sighted two enemy zeppelins but could do nothing about it as their armament could not be elevated to fire into the air, then shortly afterwards they sailed straight into the path of the German High Fleet which had been bombarding Lowestoft with gunfire, so Skipper Lieutenant Phillips and his crew were taken prisoner.

They were put aboard a destroyer, and
Phillips was interviewed by the Captain. When he gave the name of his trawler, the Captain said that he would be shot for the previous incident involving the trawler, but although Phillips explained the true position and that neither he nor his crew had been the ones aboard at the time, once he was landed in Germany, he was taken to Berlin to face an enquiry into his actions. He explained the
true position and it was only when an English newspaper was examined with a photograph of
Skipper Martin, than it was realised they had got the wrong man. He and the crew were taken to Hamelin Prison Camp and remained there for the duration of the war. When hostilities ended, they were returned to England where Phillips was given the Distinguished Service Medal to join a previous award, the Sea Gallantry
Medal, but gave up seafaring to return to his home town of Lowestoft and start a new life as a market gardener.

A most unusual story but it had a grave effect on certain members of the British public.
‘Q’ ships never had any publicity, otherwise if the enemy knew about them, the whole object of the exercise would be damaged, so fitting out and repairs to this type of vessel was always undertaken in great secrecy. But now the cat was out of the bag, everyone knew from articles in the press how these decoys operated, and it was thought that actions of this nature was ‘not cricket’ so ‘Q’ ships were taken out of action and never used again.

1.6.2003

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