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Loaded Secrets

So here’s the reason why my friend’s dad spent the last two years of the 2nd World War in a Scottish internment camp. And why he earned a Russian medal.

During the war he was seconded from the merchant navy to serve on a US built ship re-named HMS Dasher. Adapted as an aircraft carrier she was given to the Royal Navy under the Lend-Lease scheme and had quickly earned a reputation for being difficult to handle. So much so the RN needed experienced mariners to maintain her engines.

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The Russian Gold Star was awarded to all personnel who served with Arctic Convoys sent to break the German embargo on Murmansk. Dasher was one of 26 Royal Navy ships that left Loch Ewe on 15th February 1943 but that month the North Atlantic suffered some of the worst storms ever recorded, bringing huge waves and gale force winds. Six ships turned back and Dasher reported a 60 foot hole in her side. She limped into shelter in Iceland where she was declared ‘unfit for duty’ and was quickly escorted back to Dundee for extensive repairs to be carried out.

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HMS Dasher on Convoy Duty in the North Atlantic, picture from the collection of Sub-Lieutenant (A) John Vallely RNVR.

On 27th March 1943 Dasher was fit to carry out training manoeuvres following her crucial repairs. A new captain had recently taken over the ship and he was determined to improve her safety record so that day was to be spent practising aircraft take-off and landings. However, as usual, the engines kept stalling and instead of steaming out into the Atlantic she was ordered to remain in the Firth of Clyde, chugging between the islands of Little Cumbrae and Arran. The mood on board would have been cheerful because all non-duty crew were due to go on leave as soon as she returned to shore at 1800 hrs.

At 1630 hrs some of the aircraft were refuelling in the hangar while another waited on deck. Suddenly, at 1640 hrs, a huge explosion ripped through the aircraft lift, shooting the whole thing into the air. While all personnel on the flight deck were toppled into the sea a plume of smoke and flames shot out of the hole and the wooden flight deck folded ‘like the lid on a tin of sardines’. Almost immediately the ship began to list backwards and the bow lifted out of the water.

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Few of the 527 men on-board survived, despite being within sight of shore and having immediate assistance from the many boats present in the Firth. Of those who managed to abandon ship only 149 men were rescued, every attempt at pulling them out of the freezing water being hampered by the quantity of oil discharged. Dasher’s fuel tanks had contained 75,000 gallons of aviation fuel. Thick and slippery it floated on the surface of the water, covering survivors. And then it caught fire. Several ships involved in the recovery were given commendations for ploughing through flames to rescue seamen.

By 16.48 the HMS Dasher had sunk.

The sinking of HMS Dasher

All survivors, and those who took part in the rescue, were warned they must never talk about the disaster. It still bares little mention in official records. The reason given at the time was that morale was low and the RN still had other US ships in service. Many sailors were already calling these ships ‘floating bombs’ because the aviation fuel tanks were placed too near the ammunition stores. Whatever the truth my friend’s dad was held in an internment camp because he was a merchant seaman and not Royal Navy, therefore deemed a civilian.

But the story doesn’t end there. Recent research has led to a different reason for the secrecy – Operation Mincemeat. One of the sailors who drowned in the Dasher disaster was apparently used for the deception that played a key role in diverting German intelligence from the Allied landings at Normandy.

Whatever the truth the story is a strange one. If the navy was so short of able men it seems absolutely ridiculous to keep experienced sailors under lock and key. Having trawled the internet I’ve found many stories written by descendants of Dasher’s survivors but not one ‘first-hand’ report. It seems nobody broke their oath to keep the whole affair secret.

There is a memorial to HMS Dasher and all who were lost on the fore-shore at Ardrossan.

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Filed under Disaster, endurance, Family, History, Memories, Past, Scotland

Life Happens

Apologies, I haven’t written anything for a couple of weeks. Life, as John Lennon once said, has a habit of happening when you’re busy making other plans.

 

A series of incidents halted the whole family in its stride, life changing incidents that take centre stage. My mum had to be rushed into hospital after a major artery to her heart became blocked; emergency paramedics saved her life. Seven days later my husband’s mum died.

 

My mother-in-law May Alice King would have celebrated her ninety-first birthday on 12th April. Although I’ve known her most of my life it seems I’ve never really known her. During the Second World War she served in the Women’s Royal Air Force as a flight engineer. The wartime shortage of men, metals and materials meant aircraft were delivered in kit form from the USA to special hangers on the west coast of Britain where teams of ladies put them together then flew them to active stations. May always said she enjoyed the war, from a very enclosed life growing up on a small farm in Kent she travelled across the country and met people from all over the world.

 

When clearing her bedroom we found RAF manuals under her bed, marked Top Secret. We also found a box of love letters belonging to May, from the man who would become her husband. George King earned the engaging title of Grumpy Grandad from his grandchildren, because his attitude was always so awkward, it hardly seems possible the same man poured out such sentiments as those in his letters.

 

George spent nearly five years as a prisoner of war in Poland. At 20 years old he was sent to France with the East Kent Regiment (Buffs) in June 1940 as part of an allied attempt to hold back the advancing German army. With a unit of four men operating a single Bren gun even this raw recruit realised they didn’t have a chance. While the British Army was being evacuated at Dunkirk George was guarding a bridge in Arles. A Panzer Division smashed through without stopping. George and the two other soldiers still alive after seeing action ‘legged it’. They spent two weeks wandering around northern France trying to find some means of crossing the Channel until they were rounded up by a German patrol and marched off to Poland. Many men died during that march across Europe. Food was scarce and most prisoners had suffered injuries before being captured, George lost both his friends.

When they arrived at their destination (Thorn) they had to build their prison camps. Hardly any wonder that during most of our lifetime he never mentioned the war. The first we knew about his time in Poland was when our son moved there in 2007, by the strangest of coincidences David’s apartment was within site of Stalag XXB where his grandfather had been interred.

 

Finding these letters has been a revelation. George tells in detail what everyday life was like in the prison camp. And he wrote every week, not sad letters, just honest and full of hope. He is surviving when so many lives are being lost, surviving the bitter cold Baltic winters and lack of proper food. There were many comrades to share his troubles.

 

One of the few people left who remembers George’s home-coming said he couldn’t speak for months, they organised a party but George couldn’t face it. And the first words he spoke were to his cousin, ‘Have you got my football boots?’ Before the war George was signed to play professional football and hoped to take up where he left off. He never got the chance because his knees were too badly damaged.

 

We still have lots of boxes left. Who knows what we’ll find? They belonged to a generation who didn’t like to talk about the past and certainly wouldn’t air their emotions, not even to family. And that’s the real sadness. Image

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