THE oldest surviving steam trawler in the world, which helped defend Scotland’s seas against the German U-boat menace during the First World War, is set to make a return to the UK.
After 50 years of lying in neglect, the Viola, which still has her engines intact, is preparing to make her final voyage from Grytviken harbour, South Georgia, after experts described analysis of her hull structure as “very promising”.
Starting life in 1906 for the Hellyer North Sea trawling fleet, the Viola was requisitioned by the Admiralty following the outbreak of the 1914-18 war, 100 years ago.
Between the autumn of 1914 and September 1916 she patrolled the seas around Shetland and Aberdeen.
Her main role was the deadly struggle against German U-boats, but she also carried out mine-sweeping, operating mostly out of Lerwick and Scalloway in the Northern Isles.
After leaving Scotland, she proceeded to North-east England and, fitted out with depth charges – played a major part in sinking two U-boats in the North Sea while on patrol from the River Tyne.
Following the war she was sold and started a new life, working in whaling, sealing and exploration in the South Atlantic, and was renamed Dias. Once the industry declined, she was abandoned at a whaling station in Grytviken in the 1960s.
She narrowly escaped the attention of Argentine scrapdealers during the escalation of the Falklands War in 1982.
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Dr Robb Robinson, a lecturer at the University of Hull Maritime Historical Studies Centre and co-writer of a book charting her history, said: “It is exciting to think this vessel with such a magnificent story could finally be making the voyage home and be celebrated for what she has done for the country.”
He described the Viola as “an icon” and, despite now being beached and in a sorry state, surveyors believe she could be returned to the UK and preserved.
Robinson said The Viola was reunited with her bell for the first time since the 1920s in 2008 after he found it on a farm in Norway during his research. The idea of bringing her back to Britain was resurrected in Scotland last year, aided by Sir Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife, who is on the committee for First World War commemorations.
Robinson said: “I was giving a lecture at the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther about the role of fishermen at war. There is a lot of talk about the early Dreadnought battleships and the naval battle of Jutland, but very little mention of the heroics of the steam trawlers and our fishermen.
“There was something like 3,000 of these vessels requisitioned. The front line was just off the coast, in the North Sea and off Shetland.
“During the lecture I mentioned the Viola and the work she did off Shetland and Aberdeen before moving to the North-east coast of England and being involved in the sinking of two U-boats. Sir Menzies was in the audience and, being part of the Great War committee, said we had to do something about this.”
He added: “We have now, in the past two weeks, just done a survey of the ship, funded by the Maritime Service in Hull, and early indications are good.
“We are still waiting for the full computer analysis, but it is very promising.”
He said that, once full results are known, efforts to raise money to bring the Viola back to Hull would begin, hoping for a return before its year as UK City of Culture in 2017.
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