The 1939 sinking of the boat Dolphin was a New Zealand wartime tragedy that had nothing to do with the fighting overseas.
Entrances to harbours and all along our coast were guarded by gun emplacements. Many can still be visited.
The 40 foot fishing boat was entering Lyttelton harbour coming back from fishing near Godley Head about 2.20pm on October 12, 1939 and when it stopped to await a signal to proceed, it was fired up by the shore port battery.
Under wartime conditions, there was a great deal of concern about the harbours of the country being a way for the enemy to get it.
The Dolphin’s approach was noticed by the naval signal station who warned the gun battery.
Fishing boats were supposed to stop in an examination zone and then be passed into the harbour.
But as the Dolphin was approaching a little earlier than expected, the examination boat was in port to restock. It rushed to intercept the boat.
Efforts were made to contact the Dolphin by semaphore and morse code to no avail.
So a shot was fired.
The commander in charge of the battery claimed the Dolphin refused to stop so the fateful warning shot was made.
It was supposed to pass in front of the boat but it hit the Dolphin’s engine room.
The fishing boat's sole survivor, William Henry Willman, later said they never received a signal to stop.
The examination boat arrived just in time to see the Dolphin hit. They rescued Willman from where he was clinging to a lifebuoy.
On board the ship was Frederick James Brasell, who went down with his boat.
When the ship was recovered, his body was found in the wheelhouse.
Willman credited Brasell with saving his life by telling him to take off his gumboots and swim for it.
The sinking caused a furor, with fishermen around the country calling for a full inquiry.
An inquest into Brasell’s death said a signal was made but it was not understood by those on the boat.
Brasell was born in Timaru on May 6, 1888 to Robert and Eliza Brasell. He married Sarah (Sadie) Maria Beswarick and they had four children.
His funeral at Bromley Cemetery was attended by hundreds of fishermen.
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