In Defence of Lerwick by Land, Sea & Air
The following is a companion piece to the walk of the same name we hosted early in May 2022. An 'unofficial' Scotland's Year of Stories event, we specifically concentrated on relatable tales to coincide with the history and archaeology of the defence of Lerwick and wider Shetland. The following three tales were told during the walk by Archaeologist and Historian Stephen Jennings, Teacher and Historian Jon Sandison and Author and Historian Samuel Sjoberg. They are here listed in the chronological order in which events occurred in time. We hope you enjoy them.
Commander John Grimes and the American Privateers – Global Events, Local Consequences
During the American Revolution, Commander John Grimes took control of the 320-tonne light frigate American Tartar, formerly known as the Brittania sailing from New York. Loaded with twenty-four cannons, a crew of 150 and a fresh letter of marque, the newly commissioned privateer set sail for the waters of the North Atlantic in June of 1777 (Awiatsea, 2022a).
According to this source, he quickly took his first ship, the brig Sally (which may have been a recapture) and sent it back to Boston. Subsequently, as he neared British waters on the 12th of July, Grimes fought a three-hour battle with the Pole. Stalemated, he broke off and continued his voyage east but not before the captain of the Pole had a good look at the colourful Tartar, its armament and crew.
In Shetland waters the next day, he took two unnamed brigs. The first was loaded with lumber and hides, the second with tar. Transferring the crew and cargo of both ships, he burned the first brig but kept the second with him.
On the 14th of July, the Tartar took the 300-tonne Royal Bounty. Transferring the cargo and furnishings from the captures of the previous day, a prize crew of nine was put aboard and the ship sailed with Grimes for the next three weeks.
On the 15th of July, the brig Janet was captured inbound from Norway with a cargo of furniture lumber and calf skins. Later that day, the brig Charming Jenny was captured. Burning the Jenny, Grimes transferred the crew with fifty-five additional prisoners to the stripped-down Janet and released them to make their way to a safe home port.
Sailing to the Isle of Lewis, the Tartar captured the 180-tonne brig Nautilus which was a whaler returning from Greenland. After two days spent stripping the ship of all cargo and most furniture, a prize crew was put aboard and the ship sent back to America where it arrived safely in September. In the meantime, Grimes made his way to the coast of Norway.
On the 28th of July he captured in quick succession the Peggy with a cargo of lumber and the Fanny with a cargo of furniture lumber. Later that day the Thomas and Elizabeth was captured with a cargo of furniture lumber and Iron. Being leaky, the ship was scuttled after being stripped of cargo and furnishings. The Fanny was stripped and burned with all prisoners transferred to the Peggy to make way to a safe home port.
On the 4th of August, the Royal Bounty was released to return to America but recaptured by a British frigate on the 22nd of September. Presumably steering for home, the American Tartar was overtaken by the much larger, 64-gun British battleship HMS Bienfaisant after an eleven-hour chase on the 28th of August. Despite previous efforts to paint out the name of the Tartar, the description provided by the captain of the Pole of a black and yellow ship with black and red guns helped doom the captain and crew of the American privateer frigate (Awiatsea, 2022a).
The Americans were operating in British waters as privateers during the American Revolution because, in the simplest terms, General Washington and his staff believed it was better to keep as much of the British fleet occupied in its home waters as possible. Additionally, whilst the much smaller fleet of American ships could not confront the Royal Navy directly, they could deprive their home markets of goods which would also drive up prices, insurance rates and cause displeasure with the ongoing war. By the end, some 600 boats were captured or destroyed by American privateers (USGPO, 1972; Klein, 2020; Fraylor, 2022).
Yet, even for the situation, it is curious that Commander Grimes would display such an excessively manic obsession to have taken ten ships, many in such a short span of time. The key to understanding this can be found in his discussions with Captain Walker of the Charming Jenny when Grimes was attempting to win him over to the American side. Originally from England, John Grimes had served aboard the HMS Tartar during the Seven Years War (a probable reason he named his own ship the American Tartar) emigrating to New York at the conclusion. When the British invaded New York City some thirteen years later in August of 1776, they looted and burned his property whilst ill-treating his wife and family. Although it is unclear where his sympathies may have been at that time, afterwards he was both angry and broke. With the captain and crew of a privateer ship splitting the proceeds with the owners, this was both a way to exorcise his anger and replenish his fortunes (Awiatsea, 2022a).
As interesting as that story is, what does it really have to do with Shetland? Much.
In the first instance, American privateering deprived Shetland of goods. At least one of the ships, the Janet, was sailing to Shetland presumably to offload at least a part of its cargo (Awiatsea, 2022a). Through the course of the war any number of inbound ships would have been captured or destroyed by American privateers.
The events of the era also gives Fort Charlotte the general look it has today. After being abandoned before the third Anglo-Dutch War, the threat of American privateers resulted in a rebuild and garrisoning of troops in the event of an attempted attack on Shetland or ships in the harbour. Its completion in 1781 came too late, hostilities and the war nearing an end by that time even though war with France and Spain continued (Canmore, 2022; HES, 2022).
Finally, it resulted in a revival of impressment of Shetlanders into the Royal Navy for the first time since the Seven Years War. It is estimated somewhere around two thousand men were pressed into service during this time. When one considers the population was roughly equivalent to that of today, the loss of men from 18 to 55 (and frequently outside of those restrictions) was an enormous burden on the families left behind who often suffered destitution (Robertson, 2011: 7-26).
As to the fate of Commander John Grimes, by late December 1777 he was exchanged along with his crew for British prisoners of war. In 1779 he goes on to command another privateer ship, the Minerva, but was recaptured making his way back to the North Atlantic (Awiatsea, 2022b) and disappears from researchable history, at least from this side of the Atlantic.
His light frigate, the American Tartar, has its own interesting biography. Recommissioned as the HM Sloop Hinchinbrook, it served until 1783 when it was sold as a merchant ship plying the Atlantic trade route under the name Blenheim. In 1786 it became a Greenland whaler where in July of 1797 it engaged in an infamous altercation as it reached Hull following a voyage. Approached by boats from three British warships and in fear of impressment, the crew of the Blenheim pelted occupants with everything at hand killing two before they absconded en masse. The 2nd of August 1806 marked its last day as it was captured and burnt by the French along with several other Hull whalers (Wikipedia, 2022).
Awiatsea (2022a). American Tartar. Available at: https://awiatsea.com/Privateers/A/American%20Tartar%20Massachusetts%20Ship%20%5BGrimes%5D.html (Accessed: 19 May 2022).
Awiatsea (2022b). Minerva. Available at: https://www.awiatsea.com/Privateers/M/Minerva%20New%20Hampshire%20Ship%20[Grimes%7D.pdf (Accessed: 19 May 2022).
Canmore (2022). Fort Charlotte. Available at: https://canmore.org.uk/site/1062/lerwick-charlotte-street-fort-charlotte (Accessed: 19 May 2022).
Fraylor, J. (2022). ‘Privateers in the American Revolution’. National Parks Service. Available at: https://www.nps.gov/articles/privateers-in-the-american-revolution.htm#:~:text=American%20privateering%20activity%20during%20the,and%20resources%20for%20financial%20gain. (Accessed: 19 May 2022).
Historic Environment Scotland (2022). Fort Charlotte. Available at: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/fort-charlotte/history/ (Accessed: 19 May 2022).
Klein, C. (2020). ‘How a Rogue Navy of Private Ships Helped Win the American Revolution’. History.com. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/american-privateers-revolutionary-war-private-navy (Accessed: 19 May 2022).
Robertson, J. D. M. (2011). The Press Gang in Orkney and Shetland. Kirkwall: The Orcadian (Kirkwall Press), 7-26.
United States Government Printing Office (1972). Naval Records of the American Revolution, Volume 6. Bolton Landing: American Naval Records Society. Available at: http://ibiblio.org/anrs/docs/E/E3/ndar_v06p03.pdf (Accessed: 19 May 2022).
Wikipedia (2022). Blenheim (1783 Ship). Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blenheim_(1783_ship) (Accessed: 19 May 2022).
THE WAR WEAPONS WEEK TRAGEDIES
The final week of October 1941 saw a 7-day event called War Weapons Week held across Shetland. This was a government-led savings campaign aimed at hoovering up the dormant cash stashed away in people’s biscuit tins and sideboards. By investing this money in government war bonds and national savings certificates, the ordinary man or woman would be guaranteed a healthy return on their investment once the war was over, whilst also contributing money towards buying much-needed armaments. It was a win-win situation for everyone. At least, that was how it seemed on paper.
As part of Shetland’s War Weapons Week, various morale boosting parades, exhibitions, concerts and dances had been organised to encourage people to save their money. The opening ceremony, which was to consist of a march through the middle of Lerwick by the various branches of the armed and civil services, followed by a spectacular air combat display by the RAF, was scheduled for 2:30 pm on Saturday 25th October. To allow as much people as possible to attend, all businesses were ordered to be closed for the afternoon, whilst posters, flags and bunting were hung throughout the town to add to the sense of celebration. However, just an hour before the festivities were due to begin, a tragedy occurred.
While travelling into Lerwick from Tingwall to take part in the parade, a Bren Gun Carrier – a small armoured tracked vehicle – belonging to the 12th Battalion Royal Scots, skidded off the road on the bend of Ladies Drive and overturned, crushing Corporal Frederick Yates (26) and Private David Martin (22) under its 4-tonnes of weight. Unfortunately, by the time the trapped men were extricated from beneath the vehicle they had died from asphyxiation. Their deaths seem particularly cruel: Frederick Yates, from the seaside village of Bispham, near Blackpool, was married with three young children; David Martin, from Kirkaldy, had only just gotten married a few weeks before. A third man, the carrier’s driver, Harold Thompson, survived the crash and was taken to the military hospital suffering from shock and minor injuries. All three men had arrived in Shetland with the battalion just three days prior and it’s possible that this unfamiliarity with the island’s roads was a contributing factor in the accident. The bodies of both the deceased men were taken south for internment a few days later at the request of their respective families.
Despite this sad event the War Weapons Week opening ceremony went ahead unabated, culminating in a thrilling half-hour-long display of mock dogfights and aerial acrobatics above the rooftops of the town. As people looked up in awe, leaflets fluttered down from the sky encouraging people to invest their money. It did the trick. By Tuesday £88,775 had been raised, eclipsing the initial target of £60,000. It was hoped that this figure could be doubled by the end of the week. Given this success, a second fly-past was organised for the closing ceremony the following Saturday afternoon, 1st November. Unfortunately, things would not go so well this time around, and War Weapons Week would become book-ended by a second tragedy that would haunt all those who witnessed it for many years to come.
Three twin-engine Bristol Blenheims of 404 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, flown by Flight Sergeant Leighton, Pilot Officer Inglis and Sergeant Christison, were detailed with entertaining the crowds for a second time and appeared over Lerwick in close formation just after 3pm, heading in a southerly direction. Suddenly, and to the horror of all those watching, the two aircraft flown by P/O Inglis (T1946) and F/S Leighton (Z6339) collided. For what must have seemed like minutes, but was in actual fact seconds, the two Blenheims were locked together in mid-air before T1946’s elevators were sheared off, causing a loss of control which sent the aircraft diving head-first into the cliffs along the western face of the Knab. Robert ‘Fred’ Leighton (25) and his two passengers, Thomas Clapperton (21) and Thomas Gray (21), both ground crew who, given this wasn’t an operational flight, had been invited along for the jolly, were killed instantly. Z6339 was also badly damaged in the collision, but P/O Inglis was able to wrestle back control and made a crash-landing in a field at the south end of Bressay, injuring himself and his passenger, Corporal Holmes, in the process.
James Jamieson was a local boy getting ready to watch an inter-forces football match at the Gilbertson Park that afternoon. On hearing an explosion coming from the direction of the Knab, he and his friends rushed to the scene. In 2019, 78 years after the event, the sight that greeted them that day was still seared into his memory:
Arriving at the crash site a good crowd had already assembled. At the highest point of the cliffs the grass was blackened with hot oil and small tongues of flame danced intermittently on the grass.
An individual had secured a rope ladder and was preparing to descend to the remains of the aircraft below. The aircraft had crashed on the clifftop and with the force of the impact the dorsal turret had shot out of the aircraft and stood vertically on the flat grass nearby. There were small bits of twisted aluminium strewn around. [John Jamieson Letter, The Shetland Times, 8th November 2019]
Following the accident, the mangled remains of the three dead airmen were recovered from the rocky foreshore which runs along the foot of the Knab. Clapperton and Gray, both from Edinburgh, were taken south and buried in the Morningside and Seafield areas of their hometown. Leighton, however, was from Canada and could not be afforded such a luxury. A former resident of the city of Duncan, British Columbia, he was laid to rest in the lower half of the Knab Cemetery with full military honours, only a few hundred yards from where he had met his untimely demise. However, this isn’t quite the end of Leighton’s story. Two years later, in July 1943, it was wrongly reported in the local press that a Shetland woman living in America had, by chance, met his mother whilst shopping in a general store in Chicago. However, this was a case of mistaken identity on the newspaper’s part; the woman was actually a Mrs Patterson, the mother of Pilot Officer John Howard Patterson, an American airman serving in 404 Squadron who had been killed when his Blenheim (T1949) crashed into the sea after take-off from Sumburgh in October 1942.
In the end War Weapons Week brought in nearly £200,000 – a phenomenal effort on the part of the Shetland people – and was hailed as a resounding success, which was true, at least from a financial perspective. However, such back-slapping ignored the fact that five servicemen had been killed and two aircraft and a Bren Gun Carrier written off. It could be argued that all the money made was effectively cancelled out by these losses. Was it a price worth paying? The parents of Robert Leighton, Thomas Gray, Thomas Clapperton, Frederick Yates and David Martin would have begged to differ.
The Shetland Crash Log by David Hanson
The Shetland News 30th October 1941
The Shetland Times 3rd July 1943 & 8th November 2019
404 Squadron RCAF ORB TNA AIR 27/1786/2
Past In Depth articles can be found in the Archive.