Stories and Testimonials
Crews Rescued from Three Steamers
Extracted from 'The Buchan Observer - Tuesday 24th March, 1942'
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution has awarded its gold medal - the V.C. of the lifeboat service - to Coxswain John B. McLean of its lifeboat station at Peterhead, for rescuing the crews of 3 steamers in a gale with gusts of winds at 105 miles an hour, heavy seas and blinding snow. The lifeboat went out four times in 75 hours. This is the first gold medal to be awarded by the Institution in Scotland for 104 Years.
The Institution has also awarded its silver medal to the motor mechanic, David Wiseman, and bronze medals to A. Hepburn acting second coxswain; W. Strachan, acting bowman; W Summers, assistant motor mechanic, and A. Gowans, Alexander Strachan and A. Cordiner, lifeboatmen. It has awarded its thanks on vellum to A. Davidson who went out on one of the four services as acting bowman; and has made money awards to the crew and launchers of the station mounting to £81 6/-.
The first launch was made early one Friday morning to help a steamer which has been in collision eight miles away. Two hours after launching the lifeboat found the steamer and escorted her into Peterhead Bay. Two other steamers followed. In the bay the three steamers anchored, but much anxiety was felt for their safety. The wind was then blowing so fiercely that at time the wind clock registered 105 miles an hour. The seas were so heavy that over 100 feet of breakwater was washed away, and there were ten degrees of frost. It was now just after midday, and the coxswain and crew stood by in case their help should be wanted. They stood by for over twelve hours. Then shortly after midnight a siren was heard sounding S.O.S., distress signals were seen, and the lifeboat put out at once. A heavy sea was running, the night was very dark; there was blinding snow; the lifeboatmen could not see more than a boat's length.
The coxswain steered to where he assumed the steamer to be. He could see nothing, but as the lifeboat drew nearer the steamer switched on a searchlight, and with its help found her. She was lying on the rocks on the west side of the bay. The seas were breaking right over her and her crew were sheltering on the after deck. The lifeboat got under the steamers quarter, and threw a rope to her, but so heavy were the seas that it broke four times. It was not until ropes were thrown to the lifeboat from the ship, and four had been made fast forward and one on aft, that the lifeboat was able to keep alongside the steamer, her engines working all the time to relieve the terrible strain on the ropes. The steamers crew put a pilots ladder over the side. Down this they scrambled, one by one and, watching their chances, dropping from it into the lifeboat as the sea swung her closes to the steamers side. In this way the whole crew was rescued all terribly exhausted with exposure and the cold.
It was just after three o'clock on the Saturday morning when the lifeboat returned to harbour. Her crew had been on duty just over nineteen hours. They were now able to get to bed, but during the whole of Saturday the coxswain, second coxswain and motor mechanic kept watch. They remained on watch until three o'clock on the Sunday morning. The coxswain then went to bed, but, some five hours later, he was again down at the harbour. Shortly afterwards another of the three steamers, dragging her anchor, went ashore close to the one already wrecked. It was then 10 o'clock on the Sunday morning. The steamer made no signal of distress, the Coastguard Lifesaving Rocket Apparatus went around the bay to help. In the afternoon the third steamer was also driven on to the rocks, and at seven o'clock her siren was heard calling for help. The Lifesaving Rocket Apparatus went to help her also, and the lifeboatmen continued to stand by. They stood by that Sunday for eighteen hours, making a occasional rush home for food and dry clothes. Then at midnight a message came from the district officer of coastguards to say that his men were in a state of collapse - they could do nothing more. Would the lifeboat go out?
The coxswain went round the shore to get the exact position. He could just see the loom of the vessel in the darkness and the snow. A naval signalman was keeping in touch with her, and the master signalled that his ship was breaking up and that unless help came at once they would all be dead. The answer was sent to them that the lifeboat was under way. At 2a.m. on the Monday morning she left harbour, the defence searchlight being turned on to guide her. The wind had eased a little, but it was still blowing a gale, with heavy snow. The steamer was almost submerged, with the heavy seas breaking right over her, and her crew were huddled together on her midship boat deck. She was lying head on to seas, so that there was no lee where the lifeboat might get some shelter as she came alongside. She had to approach exposed to the full run of the seas, with the risk that she drew near, they would carry her right on to the steamer, but her coxswain got her alongside the boat deck and threw a line aboard. There the rise and fall of the seas, said the coxswain was "terrific," and as each sea swung her towards the wreck it was "a nightmare" to try and keep the boat from being flung against it. He succeeded in doing it for fifty minutes while the steamers crew watched their opportunity as the lifeboat swung into them, and then, in ones and twos or threes jumped aboard her. It was 3.15 on the Monday morning when the lifeboat entered harbour. The crew went home at once to put on dry clothes, but as soon as they changed they returned. There was still the steamer which had driven ashore on Sunday morning. The Lifesaving Rocket Apparatus had not been able to get any of her men ashore, but her master has been advised to stay on board with his crew until the weather had moderated, for they did not seem to be in any immediate danger. After the lifeboatmen had been standing by for four hours a message came asking them to go out and take off this crew to save them from further exposure. All the fires had been out since Sunday.
At 8.30 in the morning the lifeboat put out a fourth time. She found the steamer lying broadside on the seas, which were dashing right over her. The only way to approach her was to get round to her leeside, between her and the rocks. The coxswain took the lifeboat round the steamers bow and struck a ridge of rocks. At the same moment a huge sea coming in lifted her almost out of the water, dashed her on the rocks and, as she struck nearly washing several of her crew out of her. The coxswain went full speed astern, and another sea swung her around the steamers bow. Without further mishap she came alongside the steamer. There she was in deeper water and sheltered from wind and sea. She made fast and took off the steamers crew, except the master and three officers who remained on board. At ten o'clock on the Monday morning the lifeboat returned from this fourth service. Her crew had been on duty continuously for twenty seven hours. In those twenty seven hours they had been able to change their wet clothes three times, but they had had very little food and no rest. In the course of the three days and nights they had been nearly ten hours at sea; had stood by in the bitter cold for fifty-five hours, and had had less than twelve hours rest.