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18th June 2020

The story of Hull trawlerman Harry Johnson, who died 80 years ago when his ship, the Cape Passaro, was sunk by enemy air fire off Narvik.

Our thanks go to Simon Johnson, grandson of Harry Johnson for providing his story.

Harry Johnson, husband, father of two, hero of two world wars and Hessle Road fisherman died 21 May 1940 aged 41 when the Cape Passaro was sunk by enemy aircraft off Narvik.

Harry was born 2 February 1899, the son of Edward Stephen and Annie Elizabeth Johnson. His father was a marine fireman and his paternal grandfather a mariner so it is no surprise that he would spend most of his life at sea.

However, aged just 18, he joined the Notts and Derbyshire Regiment and saw active service in France before capture as a prisoner of war. Harry lost two brothers during the conflict: Frank Johnson of the Border Regiment who died aged 22 on 3 October 1916 and Edward Stephen Johnson, East Yorkshire Regiment, who died aged 24 on 9 April 1917. It is remarkable that Harry would go on to volunteer for naval service on the day before war broke out again.

Harry Johnson died 21 May 1940 aged 41 when the Cape Passaro was sunk by enemy aircraft off Narvik

Returning to England from France, Harry went to sea with the Hull fishing fleet and sailed for 11 years with the Kingston Steam Trawling Company as second engineer, marrying Gladys on 26 March 1921. Military records show that Harry had a fair complexion, brown hair and blue eyes. He would argue that at 5 feet 1 ½ inches he was very fractionally taller than his wife – she disagreed. Their first child, Ivy, was born 8 April 1922 with their son, my father and also called Harry, born 2 June 1930.

The Johnson family

Deep sea fishing was, and is still, a perilous occupation. Ships were lost each year and it was not uncommon for men to be washed overboard to their deaths.

As second engineer Harry would be responsible for stoking the ship’s engines which resulted in excessive scarring down his left arm, a consequence of falling against the boiler in rough seas. Hull’s fishermen would later get the nickname “3 day millionaires” as they spent their hard earned money during a 3 day shore leave, but there was very little money in fishing communities between the wars.

My father remembered extreme poverty as a child when, in the thirties, the price of fish fell dramatically, but also very happy times with his father. He and Ivy were treated to days out and trips to Hull’s Tivoli Theatre when Harry came home from sea.

A passionate Hull FC fan, my father recalled afternoons at the Boulevard stadium watching their beloved Airlie Birds. Harry had a warm and generous nature with a keen sense of humour and my father said that he would give his last penny away to someone who needed it more than him, which can’t have made life easy for Gladys who would sometimes struggle to feed and clothe her young family.

Fishermen are reputed to be the most superstitious of all mariners and Harry would never say “goodbye” before sailing

He was an animal lover and the family always had a dog. Fishermen are reputed to be the most superstitious of all mariners and Harry would never say “goodbye” before sailing, look back, wear green or carry his own bag aboard ship. I was taught to never place shoes on a table or use the words “pig” or “rat” inside a house and there is a family story of a Friday 13th sailing which Harry missed and the ship lost with all hands. Harry, Gladys, Ivy and Harry junior were part of the now legendary Hessle Road community of fishing families in the West of Hull. In his book “Hull’s Fishing Heritage” historian Alec Gill gives us a flavour of the people and times; “The Hessle Roaders had such a zest for life because they lived so close to death”.

On 31 January 1940 Harry Johnson commenced his time with the Royal Naval Patrol Service, a sort of Navy within the Navy sometimes affectionately known as “Harry Tate’s Navy” after the popular 1920s and 30s comedian. At this time its fleet consisted of hundreds of coal burning trawlers, drifters and whalers requisitioned and converted to undertake some of the most dangerous tasks of the conflict, including mine sweeping, submarine hunting and escort duties. Harry became engineman aboard the Cape Passaro, a former trawler owned by the Hudson Fishing Company of Hull which had been converted for anti-submarine duties. On 1 March the ship and crew were afforded the rare honour of being inspected by HM Queen Elizabeth whilst based at Aberdeen.

On 1 March the ship and crew were afforded the rare honour of being inspected by HM Queen Elizabeth whilst based at Aberdeen.

The Cape Passaro was initially tasked with patrol duties off the North and North-West coasts of Scotland and, in his official report dated 21 March, Lieutenant Commander Martyn Sherwood recalled a promising attack against a U-Boat off Rona, “The resultant oil track was visible a long way off, being a couple of miles long and averaging about 50 yards in width”.

However, in April the Cape Passaro was ordered to Norway as leader of the 15th Anti-Submarine Striking Force when around 30 trawlers sailed to what would be their first major concerted action of the war. With instructions to protect ships from U-Boat attack and ferry men and ammunition in Namsos Fjord the mission quickly became a frantic evacuation in the face of German invasion. During the battle that followed the trawlers sought protection from the cliffs as the Luftwaffe staged fierce and prolonged air attacks but several were lost.

At 4.30am on 1 May the Cape Passaro was ordered to fire upon and sink the St Goran, critically damaged by enemy fire, making certain the top secret anti-submarine detection equipment on board would not fall into German hands. The dead from the attack were buried the following day in the fjord from its decks.

On 21 May the Cape Passaro was assisting the destroyer Eskimo off Narvik when it came under heavy and sustained air attack. She was strafed and bombed for over an hour when the ship’s guns finally ran out of ammunition and she became another victim of the campaign.

Survivors from the sinking trawler were picked up by the cruiser Cairo and although Harry initially made it into a lifeboat he was reported to have been killed instantly by the blast from the bomb from one of the returning enemy aircraft. He lost his life that day along with three other crew members; John Henry Barrow, George Stanley Boden and George S Bowden. A fourth, Thomas Merchant, would succumb to his injuries two days later.

The telegram you never want to receive

Almost 1,200 civilians were killed in the Hull blitz that was to follow but Gladys, Ivy and Harry all survived the war, although Harry junior who was just 9 when his father died would spend some time as an evacuee.

Ivy served as a range finder in the ATS and would later marry with three children; Ian, Glenis and Alan. My father spent eighteen months in the Royal Navy during National Service and would love to have remained, but Gladys persuaded him against it using her connections to find him an office job in the fish docks. A fortunate career move before the collapse of the Hull fishing industry saw him go on to spend a lifetime working in environmental health. Gladys worked as a seamstress and in her spare time made beautiful clothes for her grandchildren.

Following a move into Icelandic Close, accommodation which was built for retired fishermen and their families, I remember a loving grandma who lived for her many grandchildren and who loved to dance. She would regularly travel on coach tours of the great Northern seaside resorts and their gilded ballrooms with like-minded pensioners.

I do, however, remember her once saying to me “Good Old Days? I can’t remember much good about them!” She died in August 1994 aged 95. A memorial to the heroes of the Royal Naval Patrol Service stands overlooking the North Sea at Lowestoft. A tall fluted column topped by a bronze ship stands above a broad circular base bearing the names of 2,385 brave men, Harry’s among them, who gave their lives during the conflict and who have “no grave but the sea”.

Memorial To The Heroes Of The Royal Naval Patrol Service Stands Overlooking The North Sea At Lowestoft