With the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of VE Day this Friday, 8 May 1945, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution looks back at the lifesaving role the charity’s volunteer lifeboat crews played during World War Two, including a remarkable rescue which resulted in 106 lives being saved.
Throughout the war, RNLI volunteers put themselves at risk to save others. From the start of the war in 1939 until VE Day on 8 May 1945, lifeboats launched 3,760 times, assisting a variety of craft from ships to aeroplanes, and saved a total of 6,376 lives – an average of 21 people each week. This was more lives saved by the charity than in its previous 18 years.
The last lifeboat launch happened one minute before the end of the war, with Salcombe lifeboat launching to a Norwegian minesweeper which had encountered an explosion off the coast of Devon. Torbay and Salcombe lifeboats conducted a search of the area but, sadly, only two cushions were found.
During the war, many lifeboat crew also lost their lives during rescue efforts. In all, twelve lifeboat crew lost their lives trying to save others and a total of seven lifeboats were lost in various ways – from air-raids on lifeboat stations, to being captured.
Many lifeboat men were recognised for their bravery and a total of 204 RNLI gallantry medals were issued.
Of the many significant lifeboat rescues during World War Two, one of the most notable is the Peterhead launch to two steamers in danger in terrible conditions – a rescue which resulted in 106 lives saved; an RNLI Gold Medal awarded to the lifeboat’s coxswain; an RNLI Silver Medal awarded to the lifeboat’s motor mechanic, and Bronze Medals awarded to the rest of the crew.
On 23 January 1942, two Whitby steamers, the SS Runswick and the SS Saltwick, collided in gale force conditions near Peterhead Bay, off the east coast of Scotland. Peterhead’s volunteer lifeboat crew 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. 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 able to take 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 John 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 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.
Hayley Whiting, RNLI Heritage Archive and Research Manager, says: ‘The RNLI has a longstanding history of saving lives at sea since being established in 1824. The valiant work of our volunteer crews during World War Two demonstrates the courage and determination of our volunteers to save lives at sea, whatever the conditions, as they still do in this current day.
‘The boats and equipment have certainly changed from World War Two. Several different classes of lifeboat were in service, including the older pulling and sailing lifeboats at some stations, and some new motor lifeboats were also serving which were capable of around 6 knots. It’s certainly a contrast to the all-weather lifeboat fleet of 2020, which are capable of 25 knots and all self-righting.
‘The protective kit our crews currently wear has come on a long way since the war. The volunteer crew kit then comprised of sou’westers, hand-knitted woollen items such as mittens, scarves and socks along with a kapok lifejacket which was made from cotton-like material, an improvement on the previous cork lifejackets.’
Funded by voluntary donations, the RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea around the UK and Ireland. It relies on thousands of dedicated volunteers who are on-call 24/7, ready to risk their lives to save others in danger on the sea.
Key facts about the RNLI
The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and, in a normal year, more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.
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Contacting the RNLI - public enquiries
Members of the public may contact the RNLI on 0300 300 9990 (UK) or 1800 991802 (Ireland) or by email.