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In a Breed Renowned for Their Bravery, Can There Be Any Greater Hero Than Cox John McLean?



DAWNwasstillanhourawaywhenthecoastguard'sknockwokeJohnBuchanMcLean. But,abruptasthisawakeningwas,itwasnotunusualforthe48yearoldcoxswain,known tohiscolleaguesasJock.Theweatherovernighthadbeenasfearsomeashecould remember.IfeverthePeterheadLifeboatwasneededitwaslikelytobenow. Theinterveningyearshavenotdiminishedthedramaticeventswhichbeganthatmorning at6.40am,January23,1942.Overthenext75hours,McLeanandhiscrewofsevenwould undertakeoneofthemostheroicmissionsinthehistoryoftheRoyalNationalLifeboat Institution,rescuinganastonishing106seamenfromthreestrickenvesselsastheywere beingbuffetedaroundinhurricaneforcewindsgustingupto100mph. Sinceitslaunchin1865,theRNLIstationatPeterheadhasprovedtobeoneofthe institution'skeyoperations. TheseasofftheNorthEastcommunityteemwithvesselsofallshapesandsizesandhave longprovidedfertiletrawlinggroundsforfishermenhuntingdowntheshoalsofcodand haddock.Cargoshipstoohavetakenadvantageofthedeepwaterharbourstounloadtheir wares. Untilthetown'sfirstlifeboatThePeople'sJournalNo1washousedina newlyconstructedshedcosting[poundssterling]120,searescueoperationsinthearea werespontaneous,haphazardaffairs,oftenendingindisaster. Thearrivalofthelifeboatbroughtaglimmerofsecuritytothefamiliesofthosewho undertookdailybattleswiththeunpredictableNorthSea.
In the latter days of the 19th century a tug

DAWN was still an hour away when the coastguard's knock woke John Buchan McLean. But, abrupt as this awakening was, it was not unusual for the 48-year-old coxswain, known to his colleagues as Jock. The weather overnight had been as fearsome as he could remember. If ever the Peterhead Lifeboat was needed it was likely to be now. The intervening years have not diminished the dramatic events which began that morning at 6.40am, January 23, 1942. Over the next 75 hours, McLean and his crew of seven would undertake one of the most heroic missions in the history of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, rescuing an astonishing 106 seamen from three stricken vessels as they were being buffeted around in hurricane-force winds gusting up to 100mph. Since its launch in 1865, the RNLI station at Peterhead has proved to be one of the institution's key operations. The seas off the North East community teem with vessels of all shapes and sizes and have long provided fertile trawling grounds for fishermen hunting down the shoals of cod and haddock. Cargo ships too have taken advantage of the deep water harbours to unload their wares. Until the town's first lifeboat - The People's Journal No 1 - was housed in a newly-constructed shed costing [pounds sterling]120, sea rescue operations in the area were spontaneous, haphazard affairs, often ending in disaster. The arrival of the lifeboat brought a glimmer of security to the families of those who undertook daily battles with the unpredictable North Sea. In the latter days of the 19th century a tug operated alongside Peterhead's lifeboat. Records from 1896 how the Harbour Commissioners were paid [pounds sterling]10 per annum to provide coal to keep the tug boilers going during spells of severe weather. Even today fishermen will tell you that the harsh salted spray from gale-whipped seas cannot dim the twinkling lights of the town. For generations, they have represented the beginning of the end of a nightmare for seafarers in peril. The coastal waters of this area are treacherous and, in the worst of weather, harbours can often be inaccessible. To the north, Fraserburgh can be closed off by north-easterly gales while south-easterly winds can make Aberdeen harbour virtually unreachable. Yet even on the fiercest of days plenty of water flows through the natural basin in Peterhead bay. Seafarers call it the Harbour of Refuge and know that reaching there can provide them with the vital chance to gain control of pitching craft and safely navigate the narrow breakwaters at the harbour entrance. Even in truly awful conditions it is possible to launch the Peterhead Lifeboat. That January morning in 1942 was no exception. NAVIGATING his wide frame through the freezing darkness - a darkness intensified by wartime's regulation blackout curtains - McLean battled to hold his course against the force of the storm. As he made his way through the sleeping town to the lifeboat shed he allowed himself one brief backward glance at his home - bitter experience of growing up in the tight-knit fishing community of nearby Buchan had taught him it might well be his last. His crew gathered together and prepared to launch the craft, the Julia Park Berry of Glasgow, brought into service three years before. The information from the Coastguard was that the SS Runswick, a Whitby-registered cargo ship, had been involved in a collision. The 3,970-ton vessel was weighed down further by a full cargo of coal.

The Runswick's position was given as eight miles north-east of Peterhead. Within the hour, McLean took the decision to launch the lifeboat. As they ploughed through heavy seas and rain-laden south-easterly gales, McLean managed to make contact with the skipper of the Runswick who reported that his ship and her sister ship, the SS Saltwick, which was nearby, had both been damaged. After escorting both stricken vessels into the relatively calm waters of Peterhead Bay, McLean and his sodden crew returned to harbour. Though damaged, at least the ship and her crew would be safe and secure there until the winds and seas abated. Or so McLean thought. However, as the darkness fell the winds freshened, the storm intensified and the coxswain became fretful. For hours he paced along the harbour-side anxiously watching the stricken ships in the distance. It was difficult to see them through the constantly lashing, freezing rain, but he struggled to gauge how badly they were listing or how much water they were taking in. Taking the calculated risk that the situation would hold until morning light, he reluctantly retired for the night - only to be woken at 12.30am by the sound of the Runswick's distress signal and a night sky lit by flares. Things had not gone as McLean had planned. Buffeted by one great wave too many, the Runswick was going down in heavy seas. Twenty minutes later McLean and the lifeboat crew were back in action, battling through the waves. Within minutes of leaving the harbour, the entire crew was drenched by the heavy seas which crashed on the lifeboat's deck. By the time they arrived, shivering, the Runswick was already languishing almost broadside onto the rocks of Peterhead Bay. Every time McLean approached the ship's quarter and attempted to manoeuvre the lifeboat alongside another gargantuan wave broke over the decks. Each time the ropes seemed to have been secured they were severed by the sheer force of wind and water, driving the ship and lifeboat apart. Every time the vessels were thrown close enough together, crewmen from the Runswick slithered onto the constantly pitching lifeboat deck, clinging precariously to a ladder thrown over the side of the sinking ship. The operation took more than an hour and a half. Several times the lifeboat pitched away from the Runs-wick but each time McLean manoeuvred her back into position. Every one of the 44-man crew was saved. At 3.50am the lifeboat returned to harbour, taking the sodden sailors to the warmth and safety of the quayside Deep Sea Mission. Their ordeal was over. But for McLean and his companions there were still further tribulations and hardships to endure. Storms ravaged the coast unabated. At 10am on Sunday morning in rough seas and easterly snowstorms the Saltwick slipped her anchor and beached up in the bay. As there appeared to be no immediate danger the harbour authorities advised the 46-man crew to sit tight. By late Sunday afternoon the seas off Peterhead were fiercer than any in living memory. At 4pm another cargo ship, the Glasgow-based Fidra, beached in the bay. The 2,800-ton ship was laden with concrete but, because the position she'd settled in appeared to be a good one, there was no immediate concern for the safety of the crew. Just three hours later, the townspeople of Peterhead heard the Fidra's siren blaring. The harbour authorities did what they could to help by switching on the powerful searchlights on the harbour's fixed defences so the ailing vessel could be seen more clearly - but by midnight both Coastguard

and helpers were in a state of near exhaustion. Yet again they turned to McLean. Alone in the darkness he trudged along the bay's shore to get a better idea of the dangerously listing cargo boat's position. At 1.30am David Wiseman, the lifeboat's mechanic, got a call from the Coastguard. Their limbs cold and heavy, the crew once more prepared for action. Thirty minutes later they were all assembled. For the third time that weekend the lifeboat launched into treacherous seas. With the help of searchlights from the shore the lifeboat navigated its way through the lashing waves to the all but submerged Fidra. The entire crew clung to each other on the now tiny precipice of boatdeck left above the waterline. McLean held his course through the pitching seas, steering close enough to the steamer on each assault to allow terrified crewmen to leap to safety one by one. One crewman with an ankle injury had to be grabbed from the boat deck, but the other 25 managed to get safely on board. It was 3.15am when a weary McLean piloted his boat and crew back through the Harbour of Refuge to Peterhead. And still it was not the end. Less than five hours later the crew was called back into action to rescue those aboard the Saltwick. AS the lifeboat rounded the bow of the steamer it grounded on a ridge of flat rock and flooded with water. If its crew had not experienced enough fear over the last days, every member did now, knowing their own lives were hanging by a thread. Calmly, McLean shouted above the crashing of the waves for the lifeboat's engines to be set full steam astern. McLean eventually freed his craft and his men began to transfer 36 members of crew from the languishing Saltwick before heading for shore. It was 10am when the lifeboat crew arrived back in harbour. But McLean and his crew barely had time to draw breath before they were asked to man the lifeboat once more to rescue the skipper and three crewmen who had remained aboard the Saltwick. In 75 hours the eight-man crew of the Peterhead Lifeboat had saved 106 lives with no thought of the danger to their own. For his valour and leadership McLean was awarded the Gold Medal - the RLNI's highest badge of honour. His mechanic, David Wiseman, was awarded the silver, and bronze medals were awarded to Alexander Hepburn, William Strachan, Alexander Strachan, William Summers, Alexander Gowan and George Cordiner. During his period of service as coxswain McLean saved 439 seafarers. In 1951 he was honoured by the Royal Humane Society for diving into the sea fully-clothed to rescue an eight-year-old girl. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which this year celebrates its 175th anniversary, has rightly become one of our greatest institutions. Much of this is due to the daily heroism of thousands of individuals who selflessly serve its flag. The courage of McLean and his crew, now all passed on, survives in the official history of the RNLI, where their missions over that three-day period in the middle of wartime are described as 'A series of most arduous and exhausting services in which great risks were run and high courage, splendid seamanship, great determination and endurance were shown.' More importantly, their legacy lives on in fishing and sailing communities where today there are still men courageous enough to take on the unpredictable majesty of the sea.