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‘Plucked from the sea’- remembering a dramatic wartime rescue by Norfolk’s coastal guardians

PUBLISHED: 11:00 23 December 2018 | UPDATED: 19:42 23 December 2018

Cromer lifeboat Louisa Heartwell battles through the surf towards the stricken SS Fernebo. A painting by Tim Thompson

Cromer lifeboat Louisa Heartwell battles through the surf towards the stricken SS Fernebo. A painting by Tim Thompson

Legendary lifesaver Henry Blogg saved almost the entire crew of a sinking Swedish ship as the First World War raged. Cromer Museum’s visitor services assistant ALAN TUTT recounts the dramatic rescue of the SS Fernebo.

Lifeboat legend: Cromer coxswain Henry Blogg received the first of his three gold medals for his gallant rescue of the crews of the Pyrin and Fernebo Picture: COURTESY RNLILifeboat legend: Cromer coxswain Henry Blogg received the first of his three gold medals for his gallant rescue of the crews of the Pyrin and Fernebo Picture: COURTESY RNLI

The wind and tides at Cromer have shifted the sands to reveal once more a one hundred year old shipwreck. The rusted metal of a ship’s hull only appears at low tide – and not always then.

This is the skeletal remains of the Swedish steamer, the SS Fernebo, which sank on its way from Gavle to London in a vicious storm on the night of January 9, 1917.

A walk along the beach, some 20 yards from the groyne that juts from the eastern beach huts, allows a view of this atmospheric wreck. The Fernebo – fernebo being an ancient Swedish parish - was a cargo ship carrying timber that got into trouble in heavy gales.

Earlier that same night, the Cromer lifeboat had launched successfully to rescue the crew of sixteen of another ship in trouble, the Greek steamer, Pyrin. The Fernebo was a more problematic and dangerous proposition.

A view of the SS Fernebo's remains on Cromer beach. Picture: SWEDISH MARITME MUSEUMA view of the SS Fernebo's remains on Cromer beach. Picture: SWEDISH MARITME MUSEUM

It was bigger – 70 metres long and near 1,500 tons – and farther out at sea.

There were several abortive attempts to re-launch the Cromer lifeboat, Louisa Heartwell, to help the stricken Fernebo.

The sea conditions were so bad that the lifeboat was unable to clear the beach. The lifeboat crew were ordinary working men, manning the boat as volunteers and using their physical strength and expertise in the face of danger.

They were mainly older men as the younger ones were away, as it was wartime.

The SS Fernebo, after it had broken into two parts, off Cromer. Picture: CROMER MUSEUMThe SS Fernebo, after it had broken into two parts, off Cromer. Picture: CROMER MUSEUM

The Sheringham and Sea Palling lifeboats from farther along the coast had signalled they couldn’t help.

It was to be the Cromer crew under coxswain, Henry Blogg that would save the day.

Picture the old wooden lifeboat-house, a tangle of men and equipment as the crew struggled into lifebelts and oilskins.

Outside, 40 ‘launchers’, including soldiers billeted in the town, were running out the ropes with which they would drag the boat across the beach.

A map showing the locations of wrecks off north-east Norfolk, including the SS Fernebo. Picture: POPPYLAND PUBLISHINGA map showing the locations of wrecks off north-east Norfolk, including the SS Fernebo. Picture: POPPYLAND PUBLISHING

Others were taking up positions against the shafts at the rear of the carriage, to push the heavy craft into the sea. No engines for the lifeboat back then, only manpower.

Towards four in the afternoon, a crowd of townsfolk gathered to witness events unfold. By now the Fernebo had broken in two due to an explosion.

This may have been caused by a German mine laid by a U-boat or by an accident in the boiler room. Amazingly, both pieces of the boat stayed afloat due to the buoyancy of its cargo.

Six Fernebo crewmen launched a small boat, the rough seas soon tipping them out. Locals rushed into the water, forming a human chain to save all six.

A view of the SS Fernebo's remains on Cromer beach. Picture: ALAN TUTTA view of the SS Fernebo's remains on Cromer beach. Picture: ALAN TUTT

The remainder of the crew, 11 in all, still aboard the stricken ship, were rescued and brought ashore by the Louisa Heartwell which had, against all the odds, finally got to sea again. Just one crewman was lost, the ship’s engineer, Johan Adolf Anderson, who’d been injured in the explosion and swept away.

His body was recovered at Gimingham and buried in Mundesley.

The remainder of the Swedish crew, including Captain Evald Palmgren, were taken to the Red Lion Hotel on the clifftop and fed and cared for.

All in all, Henry Blogg and his gallant crew had been at sea for 14 hours, risking their lives to save total strangers – Greeks and Swedes – from the raging fury of the sea.

Henry Blogg, centre, won his first gold medal for the resuce of the crew of
 the Fernebo in 1917 off Cromer, and every other member of the crew recevied a bronze
 medal. Amongst the crew were two fishermen in their 70s. 
Picture: POPPYLAND PUBLISHINGHenry Blogg, centre, won his first gold medal for the resuce of the crew of the Fernebo in 1917 off Cromer, and every other member of the crew recevied a bronze medal. Amongst the crew were two fishermen in their 70s. Picture: POPPYLAND PUBLISHING

For his leadership, and in honour of his noble lifeboat crew, Blogg was awarded the Lifeboat Institution’s gold medal – its highest honour.

There is a statue of Henry on the clifftop at Cromer and a blue plaque upon his old cottage. Acting Second Coxswain, William Davies, was awarded the silver medal and 12 of the crew were awarded the bronze medal.

The rescue is one of a number commemorated in stone outside Cromer pier. Their valour lives on and the wreck reminds us of that.

Why not follow Cromer Museum on its regularly updated Facebook pages? Or consider joining the Friends of Cromer Museum – visit www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/cromer-museum for more details.

A photo of the RNLB Louisa Heartwell taken in the 1920s. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARYA photo of the RNLB Louisa Heartwell taken in the 1920s. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY

An impression of the Fernebo disaster by artist Mick Bensley.An impression of the Fernebo disaster by artist Mick Bensley.

Part of what's left of the hull of the SS Fernebo on Cromer beach. Picture: ALAN TUTTPart of what's left of the hull of the SS Fernebo on Cromer beach. Picture: ALAN TUTT

The remains of the SS Fernebo can still be seen on Cromer beach at low tide. Picture: ALAN TUTTThe remains of the SS Fernebo can still be seen on Cromer beach at low tide. Picture: ALAN TUTT

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