James gave lifebelt and ultimately his life when ship was torpedoed

MANY people are familiar with the story of Tommy Brown GM, of North Shields, who was instrumental in the recovery of German code books in Second World War, which was said to have saved hundreds of lives through the cracking of the Enigma Codes.

Sadly, Tommy died in a house fire before the end of the conflict and his wartime exploits were so sensitive they could not be published for many years.

The story of James Forsyth Fell, pictured, who lost his life in the sinking of the ss Vedamore in February 1917, is equally poignant and tells of another kind of heroism and self-sacrifice.

James was only 18 and an apprentice (acting as fourth officer) when disaster struck his ship 20 miles west of the Fastnet Rock near the south coast of Ireland.

Early on a cold day the passengers and crew of the Furness Withy ship heading for Liverpool from Baltimore were hoping to complete a safe passage of the treacherous western approaches – the last leg of the perilous Atlantic crossing – which was subject to frequent action by German U-boats.

The Vedamore sank in five minutes, struck by a single torpedo fired by Kapitanleutnant Willy Petz, from U85, who was to meet his own death a month later and was allegedly the captain who sank HMS Crecy in September 1914 (News Guardian, September, 22).

U85 was sunk in a gun battle with a ‘Q’ ship (HMS Privet) on March 12, 1917.

‘Q’ ships were heavily armed but disguised as merchant vessels. Both the adversaries in that encounter went to the bottom in Plymouth Sound.

James Fell, a former pupil of Tynemouth High School, came up to the deck of the Vedamore carrying a spare lifebelt which he gave to the 4th engineer.

Urged by the captain to get into a lifeboat he refused and stayed aboard, instead going to assist the third officer to lower another lifeboat.

He is then said to have given his own lifebelt to another man who was unable to swim.

He was last seen seeking out others to help into the boats.

Along with 22 other crewmen he was lost in the sinking.

All the passengers were saved but had to endure hours in open the in the freezing conditions.

Two crew members died from exposure after immersion in the sea despite gaining the safety of a lifeboat.

James’ mother had lost her husband, master of the ss Cheviot Range, in a shipping accident in 1915, and now she had lost her son.

She is one of many local women who suffered the loss of both a husband and sons in the course of the war.

James is recorded in the Tynemouth High School ‘Record of Service’ compiled at the end of the war.

The project is keen to get sight of an original copy as we currently only have photocopies which are of poor quality.

Anyone who has or knows of the existence of an original copy of this document is kindly requested to contact us.

This week in 1917 also saw another loss of a trawler pressed into naval service.

HMT Recepto was sunk in the Tees estuary with the loss of eight of her crew. Six were from North Shields.

Where bodies were recovered they were buried in Preston Cemetery the others are recorded on the Royal Navy memorials at Portsmouth and Chatham.

Anyone who has any information about men included on this week’s casualty list or who wishes to learn more about the project is welcome to visit the workroom at the Linskill Community Centre – Mondays to Fridays from 10am to 4pm – or visit our website.

If you wish to be involved or have material you think should be included in the project work, please get in touch.

The next open forum for project volunteers and any member of the public who wishes to attend will be held at 7pm on Tuesday, March 27, at the Linskill Community Centre in Linskill Terrace.

THIS week’s casualty list gives details of men from the borough who were killed or died in February 1917.

The following were lost in the mining of HM trawler Recepto, off Teesmouth, on February 16. Six of the eight crew killed were from North Shields.

Baxter, Gilbert, age 49, trimmer, RNR, 44 Charlotte Street, husband of Elizabeth Anderson Baxter.

Cappleman, Wilkinson, age 32, Skipper, RNR, 8 Princes Street, husband of Robina, later resident at 143 Church Street.

Morris, Robert, age 37, second hand, 10 Prospect Terrace, husband of Matilda Morris, born Devon.

Parker, George, age 33, engineman, RNR, 26 Front Street, Milburn Place, son of Joseph and Sarah.

Taylor, William Darling, deck hand, RNR, details needed.

Watson, Charles Percy, age 22, deck hand, RNR, 26 North Street, Milburn Place, son of John William, of 43 Elsdon Street.

Other casualties:

Brady, J AB, MN, ss Vestra (Grangemouth), LAS. Details needed.

Cockburn, George Thomas, age 31, second engineer, ss Baku Standard (Swansea), killed on active service, 11th, 1 Belle Vue Terrace, Coach Lane, husband of Margaret Josephine (nee Howey), later living at 178 Woodhorn Road, Ashington.

Clues, William, age 37, engineman, RNR, HM trawler Holdene, 2nd, 119 Stephenson Street, husband of Sarah Jane.

Fell, James Forsyth, age 18, apprentice (acting fourth officer), ss Vedamore, torpedoed, 7th, son of Margaret and late James, of ‘Glenroy’, Queen Alexandra Road. (See story).

Kolm, John Richard, age 29, steward, MN, ss Eavestone, KIA, 3rd, 67, Princes Street, son of John Richard and Margaret, husband of Florence (nee Nichol).

Rose, Arthur Ernest, Benjamin, age 24, second hand, HM trawler Evadne, LAS, 27th, 36 Dockwray Square, husband of Ellen McGregor Rose, later resident at 6 Prospect Terrace.

Udall, Robert, age 43, 1st engineering, MN, ss Hurstwood (London), killed in enemy action, husband of Sarah Elizabeth, (nee Scott), son of late John and Elizabeth, buried Preston Cemetery.


KIA – killed in action

DOW – died of wounds

LAS – lost at sea

NF – Northumberland Fusiliers

DLI – Durham Light Infantry

RND – Royal Naval Division

RNR – Royal Naval Reserve

RFA – Royal Field Artillery

n Anyone with information on this week’s list or who wants to find out more about the project, should visit www.tynemouthworldwarone.org, e-mail contact@tynemouthworldwarone.org or write to Tynemouth World War 1 Commemoration Project, c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.