1939–1945: Second World War

Despite having to contend with extremely dangerous conditions, RNLI lifeboat crews saved 6,376 lives between 1939 and 1945.

Painting of the Chebogue rescue in 1944: Lifeboat crew from The Mumbles aboard Edward, Prince of Wales rescued 42 crew mambers from the Chebogue during hurrricane conditions.  Artist unknown.
Painting of the Chebogue rescue in 1944.

Between 1939 and 1945, RNLI lifeboat crews not only went to the aid of ships that had been wrecked, but also:

  • towed vessels loaded with explosives and top secret information
  • navigated minefields
  • rescued downed aircrew
  • ferried food to remote villages
  • brought doctors to the injured
  • took priests to the dying.

Fortunately, unlike the lifeboat fleet of 1914, the majority of lifeboats available to RNLI crews during the Second World War had been modernised to give them the strength and power to cope with the extremely punishing demands made of them.

Casualties of war – Chebogue rescue

In 1944, the Canadian frigate Chebogue suffered heavy casualties when her stern was blown away by an enemy torpedo, leaving her stranded in dangerous waters.

She was towed to the apparent safety of Swansea Bay, but unfortunately, the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse.

Changing from a 40-knot gale to a 70-knot hurricane, the Chebogue was dragged stern-first on to Port Talbot Bar. When the crew of Edward, Prince of Wales at Mumbles got the call, they all knew that the bar in a storm of this magnitude was a place of extreme danger.

In 1883 and 1903, Mumbles lifeboats had capsized and lost crew during two particularly violent storms. One crew member from 1903 was aboard the Edward, Prince of Wales that went out to aid of the Chebogue.

Giving no thought to past tragedies or immediate danger, the crew launched into darkness, sleet, and enormous waves towards the damaged frigate. 

Coxswain William Gammon immediately recognised the perilous nature of the situation. The plunging bow and swinging anchor chains made it extremely difficult to come alongside the boat to rescue the crew.

In an extraordinary feat of seamanship and bravery, Coxswain Gammon drove full speed over the bar to reach the seaward side of the wreckage and then held the boat still just long enough for some crew to make the dangerous leap aboard.

The commander of Chebogue, Lieutenant Commander M. F. Oliver RCNR, hailed Coxswain Gammon and asked if all his crew could be rescued. ‘Yes,’ he shouted back, ‘if they keep their heads.’

With the Chebogue crew keeping their heads, Coxswain Gammon repeated this remarkable manoeuvre 12 times, rescuing all 42 of the frigate’s crew, with only a few suffering minor injuries from the life-or-death leap onto the lifeboat.

For a crew made up of young volunteers, this rescue would be extremely impressive. The fact that crew of The Mumbles had an average age of 55 - with two crew members over 60 and two more over 70 - makes this rescue all the more remarkable.

In the report of this rescue, the Naval Commander at Swansea wrote: ‘The commanding officer and all his men were unanimous in their admiration of the splendid way in which the lifeboat was handled by Coxswain Gammon and say that the whole crew were magnificent.’

For this rescue, Coxswain William Gammon was awarded the Gold Medal for Gallantry, with Second Coxswain Tom Ace and Mechanic Gilbert Davies receiving the Bronze Medal.

Battle of Britain

As the war continued, RAF and the Luftwaffe aircraft repeatedly entered into dogfights over the Channel. As such, another common call-out for lifeboat crews was to rescue both Allied and Axis aircrew that had been shot down into the sea.

RAF Pilot Officer Richard Hillary (who later went on to write The Last Enemy and the subject of a rumour that he was a descendant of RNLI founder, Sir William Hillary) parachuted into the sea near Margate after his Spitfire was shot down.

With bad visibility, the Lord Southborough from Margate eventually found the airman very badly burned and nearing death. The crew pulled him aboard, bandaged his wounds and made him feel comfortable with a generous helping of brandy which, according to the original report, had ‘wonderful results’.

Business as usual

However, not all rescues between 1939 and 1945 were the result of enemy action – the wind and the sea continued to take their toll on commercial vessels and the RNLI were there to save fishermen, sailors and the public in danger, as they always had been.

On 23 January 1942, two Whitby steamers, the SS Runswick and the SS Saltwick, collided in poor conditions near Peterhead Bay, off the east coast of Scotland. Peterhead’s Julia Park Barry of Glasgow went to their aid and escorted them both to the safety of the bay to wait for better conditions. It was here that they were joined by SS Fidra, which also came to seek shelter from the storm. Unfortunately, the gale soon became a hurricane and drove the SS Runswick inshore. Having had only a few hours of rest, the crew returned into the darkness and snow to rescue all 44 of the crew aboard the SS Runswick.

Again, the lifeboat crew were allowed only a short rest before being called out a third time. The hurricane was now blowing directly into the harbour, destroying the breakwater and driving the SS Saltwick and SS Fidra onto the rocky foreshore.

Coxswain McLean risked all by turning head to sea and running alongside the SS Fidra, managing to keep the ship alongside for 50 minutes in terrible conditions. This display of extraordinary seamanship allowed the 26 men aboard the SS Fidra to leap to safety. Dropping them ashore, he then returned to the SS Saltwick, whose situation was now equally desperate, and made it to the sheltered side of the wreck to help the 36 survivors onboard.

Over the course of the night, Coxswain John McLean and his crew saved 106 lives. For this brave rescue, Coxswain John McLean was awarded a Gold Medal for Gallantry, Motor Mechanic David F. Wiseman was awarded the Silver Medal and the rest of the crew were awarded Bronze Medals.

6,376 lives saved

Over the course of the war, and excluding those saved at Dunkirk, RNLI lifeboat crews saved 6,376 lives between 1939 and 1945.