Such Men Are Heroes
Such Men Are Heroes
by Dennis Bardens
This article first appeared in the magazine "Everybody's Weekly" in 1955
and is reproduced by kind permission of Dennis Bardens.
Photos Dennis Bardens
Here is the story of the Ramsgate lifeboat and the men who sail in her...
it is symbolic of all those who have no thought of profit and are indifferent to the perils of the seas
Into such stormy seas lifeboatmen go fearlessly-each year saving nearly five hundred souls
HUMANITY, not fame, is the spur of those lifeboatmen who almost every day answer distress calls around the coasts of Britain. Strangely, radar, radio telephony and all manner of devices have not lessened the demands on the lifeboat service.
It is certainly not for gain that these men risk their lives to save others. Nominal payment of £1 for the first two hours and five shillings for every other hour at sea-with the possibility on every job that your wife may be left a widow and your children fatherless-is not in itself an incentive.
Last year 668 launchings from 151 stations was the highest figure ever recorded in time of peace. The lifeboats rescued 490 lives; three Lifeboatmen lost their lives in the service of the Institution. These three were members of the Scarborough lifeboat which overturned after escorting fishing boats into harbour one day in December.
What of the drama which crowds round the men who go down to the sea?
If you turn the pages of wartime newspaper files, you might find that the school-children of Hailsham, Sussex, had saved their pennies to present to a 15-year-old boy who had risked his life going backwards and forwards to Dunkirk, helping his father rescue our stranded soldiers.
Only by writing to the mayors of all the South Coast towns was the anonymous hero traced. He was Joe Reed of Ramsgate, whose father owned-and still owns-a pleasure boat. With this vessel Joe and his son brought home nearly 3,000 men.
Bombs and bullets could not-deter them. Men were in danger, and needed help. That was that.
But Joe was brought up amongst lifeboatmen, whose quiet courage and selfless devotion-almost all of them are volunteers-are one of the most splendid traditions of British life. From the foundation of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1824 to December 31, 1954, no fewer than 79,058 lives have been saved by lifeboatmen.
Joe Reed has seen a good many more rescues since the miracle of Dunkirk. But the seas are cruel and unpredictable, and often bravery is unavailing. In the early hours of the morning of November 27 last year, the South Goodwin light-vessel began to drift. The first man on shore to notice anything amiss was the Deal coastguard, who wondered why the lightship was not showing her light.
He rang the Ramsgate coastguards, who listen for distress signals and keep an eye on all lightships off the coast. The Ramsgate coastguard passed a message to the coxswain, Arthur Vernon, of the Ramsgate lifeboat Michael and Lily Davis. The time was just nine minutes past one.
Neither the South Goodwin nor the East Goodwin lights could be seen because of misty rain. Tremendous gales had been blowing for days, and it was feasible that the South Goodwin vessel might be drifting. Yet there was no murmur from her radio telephone; she had no fore and aft lights; she fired no distress rockets or flares, nor, as it now transpires, did she drop her spare anchor when she was drifting.
At 1.27 East Goodwin lightship reported by radio telephone that the drifting vessel was bearing north-west by west of her. From Ramsgate pier the lifeboat maroons were fired. Soon Tommy Cooper, the second coxswain, came running towards the pier, followed by Charlie Crisp, the chief engineer, Bob Cannon, second mechanic and bowman Joe Reed.
More hands were needed. Bob Cannon, who paints yachts for a living, hurried around on his motor cycle rustling up the others; Bert Pettitt the lorry loader, Jimmy Gisby, who works for Ramsgate Corporation as a life-saving safety boatman and has rescued 200 people from drowning; David Ayes the whelker and shrimper, and Harry Goldfinch the shrimper. The howling wind had prevented them hearing the maroon, and this was the only way.
The lifeboat Michael end Lily Davis is always afloat, and always in trim, ready for an instant take-off. The men boarded her, the twin Diesel engines roared into action and by 2.42 she put to sea with a full crew. A full south-west gale was blowing and the sea was breaking heavily on the sand banks.
Somewhere in the blackness a lightship with its crew of seven and a passenger was drifting helplessly, how, why or where nobody could yet tell. The lifeboat's searchlight prodded the darkness; the engineer listened anxiously and hopelessly for distress signals.
Charlie Crisp spoke to the Dover lifeboat by radio and it was agreed that the Ramsgate lifeboat should search to the south while Dover searched to the north-east. But not until just before seven o'clock did the Dover boat get a message that the lightship had been located. At dawn, the Ramsgate lifeboat found the South Goodwin vessel lying on her beam ends on the treacherous Goodwin sands, the white letters on her side pointing to the sky.
The crew of seven had perished. The sole survivor, a bird-watcher, was rescued by an American helicopter.
Once again lifeboatmen had braved the seas. That time the weather had won.
Four men with danger as their job
Each lifeboat station in England, Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, is managed by a local committee, the honorary secretary being responsible for administration.
The overwhelming majority of the crews are volunteers, who follow other occupations for a living, though the mechanic is a full-time employee of the Institution, and needs to be. Looking after these vessels which cost between £14,500 and £32,000 is a never-ending job.
In the old days most lifeboats were propelled by oars or sails, but Ramsgate's Michael and Lily Davis is streamlined to ride rough seas; she is equipped with wireless, a loud hailer, twin Diesel engines, which are shut off by a waterproof hatch, a floodlight and a powerful winch.
To describe the men of the Ramsgate lifeboat as weather-beaten is literally true; they look it and they are. They like a pint of mild and bitter at the local, a game of darts and dominoes, a snooze in their trim parlours, and family life. But most of their lives are in the open.
The majority are seamen and fishermen, although some insist that they cannot make a living in Ramsgate any more. Jack Hawkes, a fisherman who has been forty years in the lifeboat service and who helped to rescue 2,800 men in the lifeboat Prudential at Dunkirk, said he has had to sell his boat. "Before the war there were 300 fishing boats at Ramsgate," he said, "and now there's only one."
Now Jack is 'a labourer's labourer' at Rochester. At the age of sixty-nine he has to get up at 4.30 in the morning, and gets back to Ramsgate at about 7.30 p.m.
When Jack Hawkes went with the lifeboat Prudential to Dunkirk, he took seven boats-four wherries and three motorboats-with him. They ferried the soldiers from the beach to the lifeboat, and ferried them in the lifeboat to the waiting destroyers.
Once he helped fill a Dutch boat with 800 men and at the captain's request-the ship had engine trouble-accompanied him on board. There was a heartbreaking moment when the ship, bombed and shelled all the way, broke down within sight of the English coast. But they were towed in at last.
The unity of lifeboatmen is due partly to the fact that they are often related to each other, or all know each other well, or come of families in which there is a long tradition of service.
Charlie Crisp, who was a volunteer for ten years before he became a full-time mechanic, is the son of a lifeboatman, and his uncle, Charles Crisp, was one of seven lifeboatmen drowned at Aldeburgh in 1904.
Tom Cooper, the second coxswain, has been at sea all his life and claims that his family were the first in the lifeboat service. His great-great-grandfather, great grandfather, grandfather and farther kept up a continuous record of life-saving.
What stories have these men stored up in their memories! Of how the French trawler Cyclone went ashore on the Goodwin sands in 1926, of the men's refusal to leave and their imprisonment in the battered vessel by the gale that sprang up. Of how they were battened down in the forecastle, with the deck awash. Of the awful moment she heeled over and then, as by a miracle, righted herself . . .
They spoke, too, of the day eighty-five men were rescued from a ship blown in halves by a magnetic mine; of that bitterly cold day when a Belgian cargo vessel was in trouble, and it was blowing an easterly gale. Sea water froze as it came aboard, and the lifeboat's aerials were six inches thick with ice.
What makes men take on the work? Certainly there are modest rewards, and pensions based on Royal Navy rates for the widows of crewmen-about 42s. a week. But basically it is pride and courage that make men do it; they are undramatic, diffident and down to earth when their fellow-creatures are in trouble.
The seas are calm and ships are passing in safety. In the "Queen's Head",Ramsgate,
there is relaxation for Walter Reed (left), forty years in the service, and his son Joe
(in light coat). When Joe was fifteen hr went to Dunkirk with his father and helped
rescue 3,000 of our men. Sitting next to them is Tom Hurst, now retired from the
crew, and his son Chris, at twenty four the youngest member of the crew
As I was leaving Ramsgate a tiny old man came hobbling down the steep street that leads to the pier. His peaked hat and navy coat and rugged face proclaimed the seaman. He was John Verrion, father of the present coxswain of the Ramsgate lifeboat, and after a lifetime in the service his mind is filled with memories of midnight alarms and storm-lashed seas.
"I'd like you to see this," he said. From the recesses of his coat, he produced an old tobacco tin. His fingers, some of them paralysed from the day they were jammed between the lifeboat and a ship he was helping, had trouble in opening it, but he refused assistance and managed it at last.
Inside, wrapped in a handkerchief, lay a gold medal, presented to him by the President of the United States. It read:
To John Verrion, of the Ramsgate Life-
boat, the 'Charles and Susanna Stephens,'
in recognition of his heroic service in
effecting the rescue at sea on January 31,
1919, of the Master and Crew of the
American steamship 'Piave.'
He replaced the medal in its tin. "Of course, I don't do much now-getting on, you know," he said. John is eighty-nine.
Lifeboatmen are inclined, like soldiers, to grumble, some of it justifiable as fishing isn't as good as it was, and there is much unemployment amongst them. But the grumbling amounts to nothing. Let the maroon go off, whether at Lerwick or Yarmouth, Walmer or Holyhead, and the men of the lifeboats come tumbling out of bed and racing to the pier, buttoning their jackets as they go.
There never was an alarm yet that didn't bring more volunteers than were needed to make a crew. And my bet is that there never will be.
Our thanks go to Dennis Bardens, for allowing us to use this material.
Tommy Cooper has been at sea all his life
Joe Reed is the bowman in the crew
Arthur Verrion, 35 years in the service
Charlie Crisp looks after the engine and operates the radio
John Verrion shows his medal
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