Monday, March 18, 2019

Sinking of HMS Duchess

World War 2 had its fair share of major incidents that cost hundreds - if not thousands - of lives and the war at sea was the worst of them all. When war was declared in September 1939 the destroyer HMS Duchess was in the Far East as part of the China Station and was told to head back home with her task group via the Mediterranean.

Going through the Suez Canal and into the Med, Duchess found herself operating out of Malta and Alexandria providing escort to a convoy and exercising with other ships of the Royal Navy. Her final mission was to escort the battleship Barham back to the UK along with several other destroyers, some of which would change over halfway through the trip.

Finally sailing from Gibraltar on 6th December 1939, the Barham, accompanied by the Duchess and Duncan, headed into the Atlantic up the western coast of Ireland where on the night of the 11th she had been joined by three further escort ships out of the Clyde - Echo, Eclipse and Exmouth.

But in the early hours of 13th December the six ships approached the final leg of the journey towards the River Clyde in sight of the Mull of Kintyre. In the darkness the ships were forced to adopt a zig-zag plan to avoid enemy submarines thought to be lurking in the Irish Sea and which had already sunk several ships.

Suddenly the Duchess was seen to cut across the bow of the Barham with disastrous results as the huge battleships bow cut deep into the smaller ships side. Rolling over and starting to sink, the upside down hull of Duchess was immediately illuminated by the escorting ships and with the SONAR dome now sticking up into the air the ships thought that this was a dreaded U-boat and were preparing to attack.

Soon it became apparent that this was the upside down Duchess and a rescue operation was mounted, with the destroyer sinking less than half hour after the collision, huge explosions being seen as the depth charges set off after falling from the ships upper deck. Survivors in the water were picked up but these were few - only 23 were found alive, with 136 dead.

The fleet then turned back towards the River Clyde once it was apparent that there was little that could be done.

With the war being only 3 months old this disaster was barely reported in the press. At the same time on the other side of the world the Battle of the River Plate made the positive headlines that were needed for Britain and a boost to morale - especially when images of an enemy warship burning were thrust onto the front pages just days later. Buried in the newspapers were scant reports on the loss of the Duchess just a few miles from land.

The wreck of the Duchess was located in 1966 and has been passed over by SONAR during surveys by the Royal Navy on several occasions. To date she has never been dived, most likely owing to the depth of water at 119m being too far down for regular sport divers.

In Boulge, Suffolk, at the Church of Saint Michael there is a memorial window to the Duchess, the words reading:

Sacred to the memory of Lieut Comdr Robert Charles Meadows White, Royal Navy. Eldest son of Sir Robert White Lt and Lady White of Boulge Hall and of the officers and ships’ Company of HMS Duchess which was sunk in active service December 12 1939.

When I first heard of the Duchess it was from a veteran of the Second World War who lived in Bempton near Bridlington. Bill Doubleday had served on the Barham and had gone on to have a naval career that had seen him travel the world. But it was his mentioning of the sinking of Duchess which made me want to learn more. Why was this ship so forgotten? Although I don't think he was on board for the disaster he certainly knew about it, probably from his shipmates who had been there at the time.

I decided I would write about this ship and although it took 15 years of digging through archives and hunting people down I finally published Collision in the Night in September of 2018. With photos of some of the people who never returned and a story of a ship which only lasted around 5 years, this is final testament to a crew of sailors who saw the world yet would never see home again.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Pacific Glory - Collision and Fire

Very few shipwrecks make headlines like that of a stricken tanker and history has shown us that despite lessons being learned these giants of the sea continue to be lost around the world. There are some that have become famous due to the amount of damage caused by the pollution - entire cargoes of crude oil washing up on beaches and the inevitable photos of birds and seals caught in the black slimy tide of death making front pages until once again they are forgotten until it happens again. 

The biggest of these oil tanker spills such as the Torrey Canyon in 1967 off the Scilly Isles and 11 years later the Amoco Cadiz breaking up on the beaches of Brittany made depressing reading for the public who called upon the shipping owners to do more to prevent these huge vessels breaking up when they run aground. 

But nothing could have prevented the disaster that befell the Pacific Glory on 23rd October 1970 when, while transiting south of the Isle of Wight, she was in collision with the tanker Allegro. At first the damage was seen to be serious but nothing like what was about to happen - explosions rocked the ship and plumes of black smoke filled the night air. A huge rescue operation swung into action with a pre-planned emergency response all ready to go.

Fire teams from nearby Portsmouth and Southampton as well as local lifeboats, several warships and tugs sped to the scene to assist. 29 of her crew were rescued but it soon became apparent that 13 others had died and the fire was not going to be extinguished soon. The brave fire teams boarded the ship and the intense heat was sprayed until it was safe to advance on the blaze.

Spraying the ship for the next 24 hours, fire crews battled to contain the inferno and ran the ship aground in Sandown Bay in order to stabilise the sinking hulk. By the time the fire was extinguished she was down by the stern and losing a little oil, thankfully not enough to cause an environmental catastrophe on the scale of the previous disasters.  

Two weeks of pumping the oil onto a smaller tanker and salvage operations led the ship to be stable enough to be towed into Lyme Bay where work could begin to prepare the ship to be towed to Holland. Much to the concerned residents of Devon she sat in the Bay for another week as water was pumped out of the ship and she slowly gained her height and was put under town three weeks after the collision and fire that had hit the headlines around the world. 

Tragically this was not the last time Pacific Glory would be hit with disaster. Upon her return to China a further explosion cost the lives of two workers before she was renamed Oriental Confidence and scrapped soon after. 

Two years ago I decided this story needed telling and have gathered enough evidence and interviews to be able to write a book on this huge shipwreck. If all goes to plan the book will be written by the end of 2019 but there is still time to gather further information. If you can help with any part of this story - whether it is newspaper articles or eyewitness accounts - then please get in touch

Sunday, March 3, 2019

John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard

The American War of Independence had been going on for years when Scottish sailor John Paul Jones reached the edge of the Yorkshire Coast on 23rd September 1779. The Declaration of Independence had been signed three years before but America would not get rid of the British until 1783 and until then the war was going to rage on with the help of the French who had taken the sides of the colonials against the Brits.

 Jones had been going to sea since he had first made a voyage at the age of 13 sailing out of Whitehaven in Cumbria. Over the years he rose to the rank of captain and had several disputes with his crew which left several injured and in some cases dead. He made the journey over to the American colonies and joined forces with them against the British, being given command of several vessels including the Ranger.

It was in 1778 that his name was on the lips of his own countrymen when he raided the town of Whitehaven, the very port that saw his own career begin at such a young age, and from that moment on his name was one that was to be looked out for, with the Royal Navy putting Jones at the top of their hit list.

As he was given a new warship, a converted merchant vessel, named Bonhomme Richard, he began to devise a plot to continue his attacks on the British. Now as he patrolled the waters off Flamborough Head he found the perfect target - a convoy.

The British warships Serapis and Countess of Scarborough were escorting a fleet of ships and were soon getting their guns ready when the American fleet was sighted. The convoy hastily retreated while the Serapis and Countess took on the Bonhomme Richard, Pallas, Alliance and Vengeance. Incredibly the two ships managed to fend them off for a long time until the Serapis and Bonhomme Richard became locked together.

There they drifted over the night blasting each other constantly until it became obvious that drastic action had to be taken. Jones boarded the Serapis and took over the ship, moving all available items over from his own ship before setting it adrift where she sank up to two days later.

Serapis was taken to Holland as a prize where she would later sink after catching fire off the island of Madagascar, the wreck being discovered in 1999.
The Battle of Flamborough Head went down in history. It has always gone down as an American victory but in actual fact was it really? The British mission was to protect the convoy - which escaped without harm. The American mission was to attack the convoy which they failed to do. The battle was ended after the British surrendered not realising that the Bonhomme Richard was in a worse state than they expected.

There are monuments to both Jones and the battle that you can visit, on the top of Flamborough Head itself is the Toposcope (above) commemorating this historic battle, a statue in Washington DC (Below) and his birthplace in Kirkbean has a museum full of interesting artifacts from his life. Near the town of Filey in East Yorkshire is the John Paul Jones public house (top photograph).

There have been many expeditions to search for the wreck of Jones's ship including four by famous author Clive Cussler. More recently the Ocean Technology Foundation have scoured the seabed using some of the most high-tech equipment available with assistance from the United States Navy. Although several interesting points have been discovered there is to date nothing concrete to link any discovery with that of the missing Bonhomme Richard. This includes the countless claims of a discovery that have produced no evidence to date of anything even remotely linked to this wreck.

John Paul Jones died in 1792 in Paris, his grave remaining a mystery until 1905 when a US-led search team finally announced that a six year search had located the "Father of the American Navy." His body was exhumed and brought to his final resting place as the US Naval Academy in Maryland where he lies in his magnificent tomb to this day.

A trip to Paris in 2018 gave me the opportunity to see the house where John Paul Jones died where a plaque now hangs (above).