'You never saw him panic' - Billy Fleming, Norfolk's great lifeboatman
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He was one of the bravest but least known of all Norfolk seafarers. Steve Snelling salutes the gallant services of Billy Fleming, one of the heroes of a new book chronicling the exploits of some of the nation’s greatest lifeboatmen.
As heroes go, William George Fleming is something of a conundrum. That he was brave to a fault is undeniable. Half a century of lifeboat service drenched with distinction and death-defying deeds is proof enough of his exceptional gallantry.
Again and again he put his own life on the line, amid conditions and in circumstances that would have cowed all but the stoutest of men, in determined and sometimes desperate efforts to save hundreds of imperilled seafarers.
His was a relentless, remorseless courage which never showed any sign of flagging. Or, at least, that was the outward appearance. As to his innermost feelings, any moments of self-doubt and human weakness, we know virtually nothing because, like so many of his ilk, he was a man of action rather than words.
Beyond the bland, matter-of-fact reports he dutifully compiled and which betray nothing of his emotions he left hardly any record of a life that was at once ordinary and extra-ordinary.
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Such is the enigma that persists about the fisherman turned ferryman who became one of the most highly-decorated coxswains in the history of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution that we can say little with certainty about the source of his valour, leaving writers like Martyn Beardsley with no option but to speculate as to his motivation.
“I suppose,” he says, “it has something to do with an innate modesty and a probable belief that he and his fellow crewmen were only doing what anyone else in their line of work would have done.
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“An awful lot of the lifeboatmen were fishermen like Fleming. The sea was their life. It provided them with their livelihood and they wouldn’t have thought anything special about what they did. They probably saw it as just something that was almost expected of them.”
His latest work, Heroes of the RNLI: The Storm Warriors, is testament to a particularly selfless brand of bravery that was, as he suggests, tantamount to a calling. A stirring, page-turner of a book, it is awash with seemingly superhuman feats of seamanship and brimful of towering personalities whose acts of daring all but beggar belief.
Not surprisingly, given the region’s long association with the institution and its reputation for rescue work above and beyond the call of duty, Norfolk and Suffolk men loom large even among such brave company.
The much and deservedly lauded Henry Blogg, who in an epic Cromer career spanning more than 50 years earned an unprecedented three Gold Medals and four Silver Medals along with the title ‘the greatest lifeboatman of all’ takes his place alongside Caister’s ‘Never turn back’ hero James Haylett, who at 78 defied age and a raging sea to haul men from the wreck of their capsized lifeboat.
Then there is Trafalgar veteran Thomas Leigh. A coastguard stationed at Winterton, he was awarded two RNLI Gold medals in the space of three years for taking charge of efforts to save people marooned aboard two ships that ran aground and were in the process of being broken up by the sea’s ceaseless pounding.
But remarkable though they all are I found myself being drawn inexorably to the story of Billy Fleming, the Gorleston lifeboatman whose astounding achievements were both paralleled and, in large measure, overshadowed by the headline-grabbing exploits of his contemporary from a little further up the coast, Henry Blogg.
At any other time and in any other place, Fleming’s perilous feats of rescue would have been sufficient to ensure for him the status of local if not national folk hero.
With a Gold, Silver and Bronze medal from the RNLI and an Empire Gallantry Medal, later converted to the George Cross, from the King, his array of distinctions was unsurpassed by all save the matchless collection of honours awarded to Blogg.
But whereas Cromer’s plain-speaking coxswain found himself propelled onto the national stage as something of a media celebrity and potent fund-raising symbol for the Institution, Fleming was all but forgotten outside of his home town and the wider lifeboat fraternity.
In part, his relative obscurity may have owed something to his character. As Beardsley intimated, ‘Pingo’ or ‘Jumbo’ as he was variously known among the fishing community was never a man to court publicity, preferring to let his deeds speak for themselves.
Some 40 years ago when I was working as a journalist in Great Yarmouth I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with men who had known and, in some instances, served in lifeboats alongside him and I was forcibly struck by their recollections of his natural reticence.
His nephew Percy Burrage, who in later years became Billy’s main carer, related how he had kept all his
awards hidden from public view in a drawer, wrapped up in a red and white knotted handkerchief. “He was proud of them,” he told me, “but he wasn’t the kind of man to brag about them.”
Nor was he the sort to over-egg his astonishing feats of daring. Percy, who was still living in the same fisherman’s cottage he had shared with Billy since he was a boy, recalled: “We’d be in the sitting room and someone would say ‘what about a yarn’ and that would start him off. He’d tell the story of some rescue and every detail would be recounted, the date, the name of the ship, the cargo she was carrying and the direction of the wind. He didn’t boast about what he did. He didn’t have to. He just told it as it was.”
Unsurprisingly, given his length of service, there was never any shortage of missions to recount. Barely 20 when he took his place in one of the town’s lifeboat crews, he had already amassed 37 years in the RNLI when he was appointed coxswain in 1922.
By then, the man who had first gone to sea as a 12-year-old cabin boy on a fishing boat plying its trade out of Yarmouth lived, breathed and slept lifeboats, forever on the alert for the first signs of trouble.
“As a boy,” remembered Percy, “I’d hear the maroons go up. The next thing I’d hear was Uncle Billy stamping his feet as he tried to get his heavy leather boots on. A few seconds later the gate would slam shut and I’d hear him running up the street towards the lifeboat shed.”
In an era when every man who strapped on a cork life-preserver before taking an oar in a boat utterly exposed to the worst that nature could throw at them was a hero, Billy Fleming stood out as an exceptional leader whose seamanship was second to none.
To his skills, the stout, red-faced coxswain combined a wealth of sea-going experience and a rare, steadfast strength of character that inspired confidence in all who embarked with him. As Paul Williment, a fellow lifeboatman and pallbearer at Billy’s funeral, remarked: “You never saw him panic for a single moment.”
Never were such virtues more sternly tested than during the rescue almost a century ago of the crew of the SS Hopelyn. It was a tumultuous mission fraught with hazard that would come to represent his finest hour as a lifeboatman.
In short, it was an epic of life-saving at sea which has rarely been better told than in Beardsley’s gripping narrative.
The drama began in the afternoon of October 17, 1922, when the 3,400-ton collier bound from Newcastle to London ran into trouble in the middle of a north-easterly gale. First her steering gear broke and then the temporary repair failed. Desperate attempts to anchor proved hopeless and the stricken vessel drifted out of control onto the notorious ships’ graveyard otherwise known as the Scroby Sands.
By the time the crew sent their last message at 11pm the ship was already starting to break up. As “great waves” washed over her decks fore and aft, carrying away the wireless mast and flooding the ship’s dynamo, the plight of the 24-man crew and their pet cat appeared hopeless.
The heavy seas had already prevented a trawler-class warship from approaching. Now, if anything, the conditions were even worse. So bad, in fact, that the Caister lifeboat, which was originally tasked with saving the beleaguered crew, couldn’t even launch.
It was left to the men of Gorleston to make the next attempt, though even then it was only with the aid of a tow from a tug boat that the lifeboat Kentwell was able to make it beyond the harbour entrance.
The task facing Fleming and his brave-hearted crew was a Herculean one. As they closed the silent, almost invisible wreck amid mountainous seas, they had, as Beardsley observes, “no idea what kind of condition the crew were in nor even whether any were left on board”.
In fact, they had all taken shelter in the ship’s saloon, the highest part of the vessel and virtually the only section of the ship still above water. But though they could glimpse the lights of their approaching rescuers the 30-40 foot waves crashing around and over them made it impossible to leave their refuge. Instead, as Beardsley puts it, “they could only watch and hope”.
Such was the violence of the storm that it took Fleming an hour and a half to cover the four miles to Scroby and by the time his boat was released from its tow the Hopelyn had taken on the appearance of a ghost ship.
As he battled to draw alongside the wreck, he struggle in vain to find any sign of life. At times, it was difficult even to make out the ship’s bridge, funnel and masts such was the fury of the sea.
According to Beardsley, Fleming had never seen worse conditions. “Wave after wave poured right over both the tug and the lifeboat,” he writes, “the latter of which had rarely shipped as much water during his time with her.”
Still unsure and unwilling to give up his mission, Fleming drew back and rode out the storm till dawn when he hoped to try again. But still the seas were “too dangerous” to get close enough and so, having made one more circumnavigation of the wreck without sighting any of the crew, he decided to take his weary crew back to shore and wait for low tide.
Their first effort had lasted nine exhausting hours, but despite his failure to find any sign of life Fleming still had a gut instinct “that there were men imprisoned in the Hopelyn somewhere if we could have only found out where”.
It was a conviction confirmed shortly afterwards when a ‘flag’ which turned out to be a strip of mattress was spotted by the Caister coastguard fluttering above the wreck.
Though he and his crew were barely recovered, Fleming did not hesitate. Within 2½ hours of landing, he and his crew were heading out again under tow with drenching seas washing over them.
Two attempts to reach the wreck were thwarted by shallow water, but still Fleming refused to give in. The decision was made to pump ballast water out which gave the boat another precious foot’s clearance. Then, when the tide changed, Fleming made his move. “Now boys,” he called, “we will row at her for all we are worth.”
It was a supreme effort worthy of success, but which nearly ended in disaster. With the crew of the Hopelyn, now clustered outside the saloon, urging them on, they ran in “tantalisingly close” before grounding. They were near enough to throw a rope to the crew, but then things quickly went from bad to worse.
First the rope snapped under the strain and then successive waves swept the lifeboat onto the wreck, badly damaging its rudder and slicing through its padding to such an extent that the boat narrowly escaped being “cut… in halves”.
Fleming had no choice but to pull back. Yet despite the near exhausted state of his crew and a battered boat that was taking in water, he made one more forlorn attempt in to reach the wreck from a different direction. “They tried their best,” writes Beardsley, “but with a damaged rudder making steering difficult, a tiring crew and darkness coming on, the attempt had to be abandoned.”
Their withdrawal marked the end of Kentwell’s role in the rescue effort, but not Fleming’s. In the course of their tow back, they encountered the Lowestoft motor lifeboat under coxswain Jack Swan and the East Coast Inspector of Lifeboats Commander Carver.
Invited to transfer to the Agnes Cross, Fleming leapt aboard in the hope that he could help them succeed where he had tried to valiantly and failed. But after further discussions it was decided against risking a repeat of Kentwell’s damage and to wait till the next day for a more “favourable tide”.
The following morning as plans were laid for another attempt Carver took the unusual decision to use a combined crew made up of seven Gorleston men and 10 Lowestoft men jointly led by Coxswains Fleming and Swan.
The resumed mission got under way at 4.30am on October 21. Battling through heavy weather, the Agnes Cross approached the wreck just as day was breaking. To Swan, the ship presented “a pitiful sight” and from the saloon he heard “the cries of thankfulness” as they ran in as close as they dared.
Ropes had already been made fast to the side of the vessel, but in a near repeat of Kentwell’s brush with disaster a big wave “caught the lifeboat and came close to smashing them into the bigger vessel”.
This time, however, the lifeboat’s motor came to the rescue, holding them steady long enough for the crew to take their opportunity. “They knew it was their last chance,” Fleming recalled, “and they came at it all in a bunch. I myself had one or two in my arms at a time.”
Heroic persistence at last had its reward. After a marathon operation spanning four days and repeated efforts, the final rescue which included the cat as well as all 24 men took around three minutes!
Back on dry land, the crew of the Hopelyn marvelled at their survival and the selfless courage of their saviours. Their Scottish skipper paid tribute, in particular, to the men of the Kentwell under the inspired leadership of Billy Fleming whose bravery was almost beyond comprehension.
“No men could have done more,” he said. “Their efforts were remarkably gallant.”
It was a fitting epitaph to an outstanding mission that was recognised by a shower of honours that included two Silver medals, 23 Bronze awards and was deservedly headed by Gold medals for Fleming and Swan.
Crowning achievement though it was for the Gorleston coxswain, it was far from the end of his career. That would continue for another 12 years during which he would add to his distinctions and to his running tally of lives saved.
All told, he would eventually be credited with having helped to ensure the survival of 1,188 people, not a bad record for a modest, every-day hero who spent his final years operating a ferry service across the river and rowing summer day-trippers beyond the harbour’s mouth.
“One wonders,” observes Beardsley, “whether any of his passengers knew quite what a safe pair of hands they were in.”
Sixty-seven years after his passing and three years since a blue plaque was placed on Fleming’s former home, he hopes that his book will serve not only to commemorate his devoted service but to stimulate further recognition in his home town.
“In many ways,” he says, “men like Billy Fleming were born to the role, but none of that should distract from the incredible courage he and all the others displayed as volunteers, risking their lives in terrible, cold and dangerous conditions to save others. You can’t help but admire that kind of spirit.”
Heroes of the RNLI: The Storm Warriors, by Martyn R Beardsley, is published by Pen & Sword, priced £16.99.