Would you eat a shipwrecked rabbit to help the war effort?

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9 June 2016 7:21PM

PEOPLE got meat where they could as German U-boats sank British cargo boats and rationing was introduced during the First World War – but would you eat shipwrecked rabbits?

That was what was on offer in shops at Millom, Dalton and Barrow in 1918 after the steamship Westmorland ran ashore near Seascale following a submarine attack.

Frozen Australian rabbits were picked off the shore, deemed fit for human consumption and sent by train to official food controllers at towns from Maryport through to Preston.

The meat had been intended to feed troops serving in the the wartime trenches in France.

The Westmorland was a refrigerated steam turbine cargo ship built by D & W Henderson in 1917 on the Clyde at Glasgow.

It came under torpedo attack north of the Isle of Man on February 6 in 1918 by the German UB-57 during a journey from Wellington, New Zealand to Liverpool for the London shipper the Federal Steam Navigation Company.

The U-boat was under the command of Johannes Lohs.

He was born in 1889 and died on August 14 in 1918 when his boat hit a mine off the Belgian coast.

UB-57 was launched on June 20 in 1917 and sank 47 ships with a total tonnage of 129,173.

It also damaged 10 other ships, including the Westmorland.

It seems torpedoes caused considerable damage to Westmorland but not enough to sink it.

The ship drifted to the Cumberland coast with the cargo floating out of holes in the hull.

Not just rabbits drafted ashore. It was said there was cases of butter, cigarettes and tobacco and hundreds of parcels of socks and sweaters.

The Whitehaven News on Thursday, February 7 in 1918 noted: “Yesterday the signal for the assembly of the Whitehaven lifeboat crew was heard in the afternoon.

“It appears that about 3.15pm a telephone message had been received from the coast watch as Seascale stating that a four-masted steamer was ashore off Seascale and that the sea was breaking over her.

“Mr J. G. Oldfield, secretary of the lifeboat, an the harbourmaster, Capt Irving, had the lifeboat crew summoned and tug boat got in readiness to take it down to Seascale.

“The crew assembled and the boat was launched smartly in 10 minutes; but in the meantime a further message was received from the Llandudno coast watch that they had news that there was no crew aboard the steamer.

“Consequently, the lifeboat was recalled.”

The Whitehaven News pm Thursday, February 14, recorded: “A quantity of wreckage has been washed ashore between Drigg and St Bees, the bulk seemingly on the seashore.

“Mr W. M. Dalzell, one of the coastguard men, intimated to the receiver of wrecks at Whitehaven the large quantity of Australian rabbits what were on the shore, and were fit for use for food if used at once.

“Mr Dalzell, in receiving consent to deal with them, at once communicated on the telephone with a number of food controllers.

“Several farmers and carters at once got to work. “The rabbits were all gathered up and carted to the railway station, where the stationmaster and his staff despatched them by rail to the following towns – Whitehaven, Maryport, Millom, Barrow, Dalton, Lancaster and Preston.

“On Friday, the beach was covered in rabbits.

“On Monday very few could be seen on the shore. “Thanks to the efforts of Mr Dalzell and his co-workers, a large number were sent to the places mentioned.

“Great credit is due to the workers for preventing a waste of good food, especially at these critical times when meat is so scarce.”

Westmorland had its damage repaired and came under attack from another U-boat in the Second World War.

In 1942 the 9,512 ton ship was sailing from Wellington, New Zealand with 400 bags of mail and 9,000 tons of butter, cheese, meat, wool and general cargo.

On June 1 the unescorted ship was spotted by Dietrich Burchert in command of U566, 240 miles off Bermuda. Westmorland, commaded by Ernst Arthur Burton, was torpedoed and came under fire from the U-boat’s deck gun and the burning vessel sank at 1.08pm.

Two crew members and a gunner were killed but the ship’s captain, 59 crew and five gunners were saved. Westmorland had been armed with a four-inch gun, a 12-pounder gun, several machine guns, an Oerlikon cannon and a pair of depth charges.

It had successfully completed almost 50 convoys in the Second World War.

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