The story of the drifter Silverline is a long and well established one in Filey, for it concerns Filey men, in a Filey based boat doing what they did best; fish. It all began on the morning of Wednesday April 3rd 1940…
The Silverline was a drifter registered in Scarborough to ‘Billy Butter’ (real name Bill Watkinson) whose seven man crew consisted of his two brothers Tom and Bob, Charlie Hunter, Ted Robinson (another family member), and three non-Filey men, A.J. Barley (engineer-born in Lowestoft), Walter Cole (second engineer- from Scarborough) and Douglas Holmes (cook-also from Scarborough). On this particular morning the ship was out doing its normal fishing run when a Spitfire was spotted in the distance in the middle of a dogfight with a Heinkel III, which it was later established had come from an airbase at Lubeck-Blankenese on an armed shipping reconaissence mission. The spitfire eventually broke off and flew off in the opposite direction to the boat but the German bomber was headed in the direction of the Silverline and it was initially thought by the crew that they were to be bombed as the plane was so low. Tom Watkinson was closest to the Lewis gun that had been installed on the ships deck and manned it just in time to rake the hapless plane with bullets as it flew overhead and it was seen to crash relatively close in the sea. "Damn, we’ve brought him down!" was Billy Butters earliest response but he quickly regained his calm and ordered that the fishing lines were to be slipped before they set off at full speed to the airmen’s aid. As they reached the plane the skippers enthusiasm proved to be a minor setback as when they drew alongside the Heinkel they dislodged one of its wings and caused it to start sinking even faster but luckily, the crew of the Silverline acted fast and managed to get ropes over the side of their boat for the Nazi airmen to get hold of and eventually they were hauled up onto the deck off the Heinkel’s tail where they were awaiting rescue.
Later, it was revealed that during the fight with the Spitfire one of the aircrafts two engines had been made unuseable and the other had been damaged, and that the bullets fired by Tom proved to be the ‘final straw’ so they had to ditch in the sea. One of the crewman spoke english and informed Billy that Tom’s bullets had also punctured their life-raft, so had the Silverline not arrived, they would have drowned.
After the aircrew had been pulled aboard they were given dry clothes and a tot of the skipper’s whisky and warned that if any of them had weapons ‘they would not live a minute’. For the journey back to land they were kept under guard with a shotun but several exchanges occurred between the crews. Billy Butter recalled for the local press "The Germans were docile when we got them on board. The commander, who spoke good english told us that he was to be married when he got home, somewhere about five o’clock. They said they were nervous about what their treatment would be like when they got to Britain." They were all re-assured and the commander eventually said "Make for England-We never wanted to fight you anyway." As well as this Billy told the German that the Silverline had been bombed about three weeks earlier without being hit and was given the reply "I do not shoot at fishing vessels-only at big boats".
The crew of the Silverline;left- Charlie Hunter, Bob and Bill Watkinson and right Billy Butter, aboard his previous boat the Lord Kitchener.
Other exchanges had also taken place between the two crews, in particular Bob Watkinson, who was given a gold signet ring by one of the Germans and Tom Watkinson (who actaully fired the gun!) was given a wristwatch by a further crewmember.
On the arrival back at port, the airmen were handed over to to the authorities who were waiting for them on the docks (the skipper had radioed ahead and explained their situation) and interrogated by a senior R.A.F. intelligence officer before being placed in the officers mess of a nearby artillery unit until transport the next morning. One of the Germans recalled in later life "Later, a young officer asked me if I would like some music and brought some records. I chose the song "I am an Opitimist" and everybody laughed. It was quite a relaxed atmosphere." The crew, with the exception of the navigator who had to go to hospital because of injuries, were transported to a prisoner of war camp the next day and spent the rest of the war in captivity in either England or Canada. For them the war was over.
Left; Tom and three of the Silverline crew at their Lewis gun and right; one of the captured German airmen
The story does not end there though, as several pieces of ‘unfinished business’ were left undone. The Silverline crew were presented with an award from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution later in the year and the speaker giving the award concluded with this remark- "The whole town is proud of the men. They endangered their lives to save the Germans". In the press article accompanying the award Tom Watkinson had this to say about his efforts on the day "They say I’m the gunner but it’s the one who gets there first. I saw him coming and I opened fire, and he got it."
As time passed after the Second World War the crew got older and eventually started to pass away, Bob Watkinson dying in 1965 and his brother, the skipper, Billy Butter dying in 1972 at the ripe old age of 80. The story was still going strong within the Watkinson family and by the 1980’s Bob Watkinson Jr. had decided to track down the owner of the ring given to his father. "My father always expected the German to return after the war" he is quoted as saying in one paper and eventually the ring was returned to its rightful owner, Rudolf Behnisch, in 1988. Herr Behnisch had been given the ring by his father and had never expected to see it again until Bob got in contact, and when it was returned told Bob that still remembered the 3rd April every year as his second birthday, the day when eight ordinary Filey men saved he and his crews life somewhere off the Yorkshire coast.
Left; The three Watkinson brothers with their Lewis gun and right; the crew collecting their RNLI award.