This is an article that was written by James Pottinger for the Shetland Life Magazine and is used by permission. © James Pottinger
It is amazing how a story develops from an inauspicious beginning, and all the more surprising how the outcome often turns out.
Having contributed ship and boat model plans to Model Shipwright magazine since as far back as 1977 I have been receiving mail from all over the world in respect of the many ships featured in these pages, often with queries relating to these plans, but more pleasurably with photos of the models built to my plans.
Such was the initial query from a Mr van Ven of Belgium in 1999, enclosing photos of some models he had built, and it took more than a close look to tell whether these were of models or of real ships in a realistic background, such was the perfection of his craftsmanship.
He included a request if I had the lines plan of a WW I Mersey class Admiralty trawler to assist him with his next model project, which was on the HMS John Ebbs, FY3566 built in 1917 by Cochranes at Selby . This trawler was one of a large class of vessels ordered by the Admiralty to supplement those taken over from the fishing companies.
The Mersey class was based on the builders prototype, and in total over 120 of this type was ordered.
Between the wars most of the trawlers had been sold out to commercial interests, and by 1939 only 14 Mersey class vessels were still in service
This choice of prototype was indeed a surprising coincidence, as my late grandfather, "old" Jerry Pottinger had served as skipper on this trawler during WW I.
The story gradually developed during correspondence to the extent that I have built up quite a large file on the old ship, including a number of photos of the trawler.
Much of the initial detailed information came from a thesis written, in Dutch, by Mr Jasper van Raemdonck, a student at the Catholic University of Leuven under the title Het Belgische Marinecorps (1939-1940), which I was able to obtain a copy from the author, this set out the marine history of this period at the outbreak of WW II.
Apparently after the end of WW I the trawler was sold to Belgium and converted for use a pilot boat, taking the number A4.
On 26th October 1939 the A4 was taken over by the Belgian Navy, under the control of Major Henry Decarpentrie and armed with one 47mm gun aft and two Maxim machine guns on the bridge. She was attached to 1st Squadron of the Corps based at Ostend, and destroyed 33 mines using her guns only as she had not been equipped with any minesweeping gear.
Taken to Dunkirk on 17th June 1940 she was fitted with de-gaussing cables along with two other pilot vessels, A5 and A6, during the trip to Dunkirk she escorted the two Belgian steamers Ame'thyste and Turquoise, both belonging to John Cockerill. The former ship arrived at Dieppe on 18th but was sunk during a German bombardment and taken as a prize. She was then bombed and burnt out at St Malo and later at end of the war was salved for the Belgian Admiralty, towed to Antwerp arriving on Jan. 14th 1946 and subsequently repaired.
The A4 then was commissioned to make an unique voyage when she loaded an amount of Belgian gold and banknotes to the value of 2.500.000.000 Belgian Francs for transport to safe keeping in UK, leaving Ostend on 19th June 1940 along with another pilot boat No 16, ex MLB 16 of the Marine Administration, which had 161 refugees aboard.
Leaving Ostend about 2100 hours both ships anchored in the Thames next morning to be stopped and inspected by the British Naval Control Service, who had not been appraised of the intended arrival of these vessels, and ordered to proceed to Folkestone.
There the refugees from MLB16 were landed, and the A4 was detailed to proceed to Dartmouth, at this time it is not confirmed if the nature of the cargo on A4 was known.
Arriving at the port on the 22nd she was then ordered to Plymouth where the currency was finally unloaded on the 23rd. It is a sobering thought that this old trawler was dodging about in the mine and U-boat infested Channel with the major part of the Belgian currency reserves.
After a few days in the port on the 29th she was ordered to De Panne to assist in the evacuation of BEF troops, but whilst steaming off Folkestone this was cancelled and instead was ordered by the Admiralty to tow the Belgian tugs John P. Best and Valentin Letzer to Dartmouth instead.
After successfully carrying out this task the trawler was then at Dartmouth until the 10th June when the Corps de Marine was ordered by the Belgian Embassy and Royal Naval College to sail to Lorient, leaving on the 13th along with A5 and the fishing boats Maurice-Roger reg no O317, and Theo Nathalie reg no Z8, and De Ruyter reg. no Z25, along with launch R1 and R2 and tugs Baron De Maere and Graaf Visaart and another pilot boat MLB16.
The A4 arrived at Lorient on the 14th June, where the Belgian ships were incorporated into the French 5 eme Groupe de Patrouilleurs, (5th Patrol Group) under Capt. de Vaisseau Defforges. On the 18th she was ordered to leave Lorient for the south, together with A5, Z8, Z25, O317, and MLB16, the remainder of this small flotilla being left behind at the request of the French.
On arrival at Le Verdon on the 19th they were joined by other Belgian ships, making up what was known as the West Front Squadron.
Their stay was short as they were soon ordered by the French authorities to sail to North Africa together with a French convoy, but due to shortage of coal, food and water and poor condition of some of the ships they were diverted to St. Jean de Luz instead.
Leaving Le Verdon, (except for MLB16 which went to Bayonne and later to Lisbon) on the 24th they arrived at St Jean de Luz on the 25th, but to avoid being detained or captured by the Axis forces they sailed the same day for Spain, with the exception of A6, O317, and Z25, they arrived at Portugallette, near Bilbao, on 26th , and there they were interned by the Spanish.
The A4 was possibly laid up for the duration of the war, but in 1946 she was returned to Belgium and took her former name of Pilotte 4, or Loodsboot 4 in Flemish, resuming her former pilotage duties for the Belgian Administration, until being scrapped in 1948.
The story continues with my letter to the copyright holder of a photo of the A4 sent to me by Mr van Ven, this was Captain J.F. van Puyvelde of Brussels, at 84 years of age his recollection was still sharp and sent me another photo of the A4 taken he took whilst he was a cadet on the Belgian cadet sailing ship Mercator as the A4 was escorting her out to sea through mined waters off Niewpoort.
In turn he put me in touch with a Mr Maurice Voss, a specialist in Belgian Naval history, who confirmed and assisted in the translation in much of the thesis note above.
I am convinced the dates in the links above in the text above are incorrect. My father was chief pilot in Ostend at the time and I recall his account of the events. The degaussing took place on the 17th of MAY and the pilot vessels left Ostend on 17, 18 and 19 MAY. Belgium capitulated on the 28 th of MAY and the port of Ostend was very firmly in German hands in the month of JUNE 1940.
Jan ASPESLAGH, Schoten, Belgium