Wearside Echoes: Sunderland sailor hailed as national hero

LAMBTON ARMS: Based in Crowtree Road and listed as the King William Inn in 1881. Known to have been trading in the 1840s and closed in the 1960s.
LAMBTON ARMS: Based in Crowtree Road and listed as the King William Inn in 1881. Known to have been trading in the 1840s and closed in the 1960s.
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TODAY we tell the story of a Wearside naval hero who won a prestigious medal for his courage and skill during World War Two.

IT was ‘all hands on deck’ when the crew of a British trawler spotted a German U-Boat emerge from the stormy seas at the height of World War Two.

But Wearside sailor Alfred Hutchinson – known as Alfie to his friends – kept his cool, pin-pointing the exact location of the sub as it disappeared beneath the waves.

Minutes later, debris littered the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. The British sailors had scored a direct hit and Alfie was hailed as a national hero.

His son, Alex, said: “Dad never talked about the war or the medal he got for what happened. I can remember playing with it as a bairn, but it is long gone now.”

Alfie, the son of a brewery drayman, was born in Cairo Street in 1918 and worked as an errand boy after leaving Garden Street School.

At 15, however, he opted for a career at sea, signing up for a 12-year stretch in the Royal Navy as a boy seaman.

Alfie’s initial training was carried out at HMS St Vincent, a shore-based naval centre near Portsmouth, where he learned the basics of seamanship.

And he was then able to put his training into practice on HMS Leander, a cruiser class ship on which he served as a boy seaman from April 1935 until January 1937.

When war broke out in 1939, Alfie – now an Able Seaman – specialised as a submarine detector, joining the crew of a destroyer at first.

The ship saw active – and highly dangerous – service off the shores of Norway and Dunkirk before he was transferred to the trawler HMT Visenda in 1941.

The crew of the Visenda were tasked with ‘Northern Patrol’ – keeping the mid-Atlantic waters safe for Merchant Navy vessels – a risky yet vital job.

And it was on March 23, 1941, that Alfie secured his place in history – after tracking down an enemy submarine near Iceland, just before it destroyed a British ship.

He was later to recall in The Echo: “We sighted a submarine about to attack one of our merchant ships. We tried to warn the merchantman, but she must have seen the danger herself, because she continued at full speed.

“The U-Boat submerged when she sighted us and then it was my job to detect her. After I had done so, we went into action and the wreckage, clothing, air bubbles and oil patches which appeared soon afterwards told their own story.”

The submarine – U-Boat number 551 – had been in service for less than a year. It was sunk by three depth-charge attacks by Visenda. None of the 45 crew survived.

The Germans had their revenge, however, just a few weeks later – when another U-Boat shot nine rounds into the trawler one Sunday afternoon before diving to safety.

The shells thudded into Visenda, with shrapnel filling the gallery and peppering the newly-baked bread. The captain was killed by flying glass from a shattered window.

Alfie was one of two HMT Visenda seamen to receive a Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for showing ‘courage and skill’ during the destruction of U551.

His lieutenant was awarded a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order for the action, while a sub-lieutenant received a Distinguished Service Cross.

The medal citation, published in The London Gazette in July 1941, read: “The King has been graciously pleased to approve the awards for courage and skill in a successful attack on an enemy submarine.”

Alfie went on to serve on HMS Pyramus, where he was involved in anti-submarine duties, before being stationed in South Africa on HMS Quadrant in 1943.

Stints on the destroyer HMS Inconstant, as well as a harbour defence motor launch in South Africa and the convoy escort ship HMS Verbena followed.

But he was eventually discharged from the Royal Navy in the summer of 1946 however, after being found unfit for further service – possibly due to a stomach ulcer.

Alfie secured work with the Gas Board in Hendon after being forced to give up the sea, marrying his sweetheart Peggy – who had served as a WAAF during the war.

He died in August 1992, just two days before his 74th birthday.

Alex said: “A friend of my dad asked, after he had died, what he had won the DSM for and none of us knew, so we decided to try and find out.

“It took a bit of work and several trips to the library, but eventually we found an old Echo with the story in. It made us all very proud of him.”

SIDEBAR: The Northern Patrol

THE Northern Patrol was a special force of ships steaming between the Faro islands and Iceland to prevent German raiders attacking British convoys in the Atlantic.

During the first months of the war, armed merchant cruisers carried out the patrols, with small trawlers acting as armed boarding vessels.

But the cruisers suffered heavy losses, so naval cruisers were drafted in. These, however, proved vulnerable to the bad weather and could not be spared for long.

Destroyers, also in short supply, were also unable to cope with the conditions, but coal-burning trawlers – sturdy although slow – were found to be ideal replacements.

Generally painted black and tan, rather hiding behind camouflage, their duty was to report enemy sightings and then try and slip away safely.

The trawlers, based at Kirkwall – the ancient capital of the Orkney Islands – steamed between the Faros and Iceland for up to ten days at a time – in wildly rough seas.

Indeed, one Northern Patrol seaman soon found that the trawlers did not ‘plough’ the seas, but rode them instead.

“Imagine the traditional Wild West bucking bronco enlarged to some 400 tons and fashioned like a ship and you have a good idea of a deep-sea trawler in a northern gale,” he later wrote.

“She seeks to stun you, maim you, hurl you overboard, and destroy you utterly. In everything you do, you battle against her relentless will to break you.”

It was against these appalling weather conditions – some of the worst in the world - that Visenda’s valiant battle with the German U-Boat took place in March 1941.

** Details taken from the website www.arcticcorsair.f9.co.uk