blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]

Lost Ships

Our seabed is littered with wrecks

blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]

A rotten carcass of a boat, not rigged, nor tackle, sail, nor mast; the very rats instinctively have quit it.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Here we tell the story of some of the ships lost at or near St Helena.

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island Detail

RFA Darkdale [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
RFA Darkdale

The main vessels are described in descending order of date sunk, most recent first.

Below: 1991: Oman Sea One1942: SS City of Cairo1941: RFA Darkdale1920: Spangereid1911: SS Papanui1613: Witte Leeuw (White Lion)Various othersRead More

Swim this wreck! [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]

Dive this wreck! [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]

Many of these wrecks can be visited. We have included markers to indicate which can be accessed by divers and/or swimmers from St Helena (see right).

Ships that were sunk deliberately can be found on our Deliberately Sunken Ships page.

Map of the island’s main wrecks: Witte Leeuw • Bedgellett • Papanui • Spangereid • Darkdale • Frontier • Atlantic Rose • Portzic [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Map of the island’s main wrecks: Witte LeeuwBedgellettPapanuiSpangereidDarkdaleFrontierAtlantic RosePortzic

1991: Oman Sea One

The Oman Sea One was a 230-tonne deep-sea crab-fishing trawler built in Italy in 1985. Run as a joint Omani/British venture, she operated from St Helena from July 1991, with a part-Saint crew.

She set out on 25th August for the Cardno Sea Mount, 290Km west of St Helena, with six Saints in the crew{4}. On 31st August 1991, while on her return journey, she foundered in heavy seas around 160Km NW from St Helena. It is thought that the heavy seas caused her crab-fishing equipment, at that time stored on deck, to shift. A heavy wave caused the ship to roll to port and she never recovered.

Of the 17 crew, four did not survive: Skipper, Nigel Davis; Indian chief engineer, Hansel Lobo; Indian refrigeration engineer, Rajaram Shetty; and South African cook, Phillip Hendricks. Their bodies were never found. Because of the suddenness of the sinking the Oman Sea One did not send a distress signal. Fortunately, the survivors were rescued, albeit some days later, partly by passing ship the Ruth M, and the remainder by the RMS St Helena under Captain Rodney Young{5}.

1942: SS City of Cairo

The SS City of Cairo was torpedoed on 6th November 1942 by a German U-Boat, approx. 770Km south of St Helena.

SS City of Cairo [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]

Built by Earle’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd, Hull in 1915, the SS City of Cairo was owned by Ellerman Lines of London. She was 137m long, had two decks, two masts and 8,034 gross register tons (GRT). She was registered in Liverpool. At the outbreak of World War 2 she was requisitioned by the British government as a supply ship for the duration of the war.

She left Cape Town at 6am on 1st November 1942, without naval escort, carrying 101 passengers; 28 were women and 19 were children. Also aboard were gunners from the Army and Royal Navy as well as naval crew recruited in India and being transported to Britain to enter service. The cargo included pig iron, timber, wool, cotton and manganese ore as well as 2,000 boxes of silver coins - silver rupees which were in transit from India to Britain.

After sailing north from Cape Town for 1,300Km the ship turned westwards for Pernambuco, Brazil, which was its next port of call. At 9:36pm on 6th November the German submarine U-68 {6}{7} fired a torpedo and made a direct hit. The Master of the ship, making his last voyage on the SS City of Cairo, ordered an immediate evacuation. All but six of the passengers and crew transferred to the six life boats before a second German torpedo made another direct hit which sank the SS City of Cairo 770Km south of St Helena. Eighteen people died in the explosions. The Radio Officer stayed at his post and went down with the ship.

Once City of Cairo had sunk, U-68 surfaced alongside the six lifeboats that had been launched. Kapitan Merten spoke to the occupants of No. 6 boat, asked the ship’s name and cargo and whether it was carrying prisoners of war. He then gave a course for the nearest land, being either the Brazilian coast, approximately 3,200km west, Africa, around 1,600Km east, or and St Helena, some 800Km north (but much harder to locate). Merten then left them, with the words “Goodnight, and sorry for sinking you”. He recorded in his log that they had little chance of survival.

The six lifeboats carried 189 survivors from the sunken ship. The decision was made to attempt to get the boats to St Helena. On 19th November three of the lifeboats were sighted by the Clan Alpine which was en route to St Helena. There were 154 survivors on these three boats. An unsuccessful search made for the other three boats before the Clan Alpine sailed for St Helena. Some of the survivors had died in the lifeboats, some did not survive the voyage on the Clan Alpine and others died in hospital after landing in St Helena. Another lifeboat was found by the SS Bendoran and the survivors were taken to Cape Town.

One of the smaller lifeboats, having missed St Helena, attempted to cross the South Atlantic to Brazil instead of turning back for a second attempt at finding St Helena. On 23rd November the two remaining survivors were picked up by a Brazilian Navy vessel just 130Km from the coast of Brazil, near Recife.

Three other survivors, after 36 days at sea, were picked up by a German merchant ship on its way to France. The German ship was itself torpedoed by a British Navy ship. One of the three survivors had died on the German merchant ship, the other two made it into lifeboats for the second time. One was picked up by a German U-boat and landed in France. Another of the lifeboats eventually made it to Spain.

Of the 311 people aboard the SS City of Cairo, 207 survived{8}. Of the crew, 79 died together with 22 passengers and three of the gunners. Of those that died 90 did not survive the ordeal in the lifeboats.

The stricken vessel sank to a depth of 5.2Km and was thought to be irrecoverable. But in 2013 a salvage mission succeeded in retrieving around £34m in silver coins. The salvage operation was carried out by a British underwater salvage company, Deep Ocean Research. In successfully sending robot salvage equipment to a depth of 17,000, an operation which took two hours, Deep Ocean Research set a new world record for deep sea salvage. See also

Docked in London [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Docked in London

Grave, St. Paul’s Churchyard [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Grave, St. Paul’s Churchyard

Salvaged coins [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Salvaged coins

It could be argued that the SS City of Cairo was torpedoed, and hence was deliberately sunk (so should appear on our Deliberately Sunken Ships page… be we don’t.

1941: RFA Darkdale

The RFA Darkdale was torpedoed on 22nd October 1941 by a German U-Boat whilst she was anchored in James Bay.

RFA Darkdale [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]

Dive this wreck! [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Darkdale was a First Class Freighting Tanker, Length: 141m; Beam: 18.7m; Gross Tonnage: 8145 in 27 tanks. She was built at the outbreak of World War 2 as a fleet support ship, by Blythswood Shipbuilding Company of Scotstoun, Glasgow. She came to St Helena on 6th August 1941 carrying Furnace Oil and Avgas, and remained in port for two months, during which time various navy ships, including the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes, HMS The Eagle and HMS Illustrious, were re-fuelled from the Darkdale.

On the morning of 22nd October, at around 00:40h a large explosion occurred which lit up the sky. This was followed by two more explosions which sounded like a big gun firing. Observers saw that the ship was quickly enveloped in flame from bow to stern.

The captain of the ship and the chief engineer were on the island at the time of the explosions and arrived at the Wharf ten minutes later. Island boats were already trying to rescue the crew onboard, but the boats could not venture near enough to the inferno, so stood off in hope of picking up survivors. The fire continued to blaze until the ship broke in two and sank at 03:30h.

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Out of the total crew of 50 only two gunners were rescued, being picked up in the sea; they were taken to the General Hospital. You can hear Sidi Young, one of the rescue party, interviewed in 1962{a} (right). Other survivors from the ship, apart from the captain and chief engineer, were the chief steward, one seaman and three other crew that were already in the General Hospital for other reasons. The total number saved was 9; the remaining 41 were lost.

Initially it was thought that the explosions might have been accidental, but it was later ascertained that she had been attacked with four torpedoes, launched by German U-Boat U-68{9}{7}. U-68’s log records “4 aimed single shots with a spread of impact points. Firstly 2 electric torpedoes then 2 compressed air torpedoes depth 4m. After 32 seconds all 4 eels detonate at intervals of 1-2 seconds. 1st hit - aft superstructure; 2nd hit - mid-ships; 3rd hit - forward third; 4th hit - mid-ships.”.

The RFA Darkdale now lies in depth of about 45m, 600m from the shore at Jamestown. The War Memorial in Jamestown lists the names of those lost on the RFA Darkdale. It is significant that, for the remaining duration of the war, no more tankers were based on St Helena, and the Island only was used for re-fuelling.

For many years fishermen in James Bay and Ruperts reported small amounts of oil in the water, which were presumed to have come from the Darkdale. But in 2010, after a period of unusually heavy seas, the volume of leaking oil was perceived to have increased. Fishing was suspended in James Bay and contact was made with the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), owners of the wreck, who in September 2011 agreed to survey the RFA Darkdale wreck the following year and assess what further work might be required. In 2013, following the survey, it was decided that the remaining oil would need to be pumped out.

The MoD team arrived in June 2015 to begin removing the oil. Talking about the wreck, one remarked:

The ship is spilt into two parts, the stern section where the crew were and the loss of life occurred which is in very poor condition, what’s left of it, but the Bow section which is upturned is in immaculate condition. It’s been in the sea for 74 years and it’s amazing to see this and you look at it and you think it could’ve sunk 10 years ago because it’s that clean

Around 1,950 metres³ of oil were removed from the wreck. So too were a total of 38 high explosive shells, found in the wreck and its immediate vicinity, including some that were fused, i.e. ready to explode. On departure, Andy Liddell from the MOD’s Salvage & Marine Operations division, who led the operation, said:

As the wreck continues to rust away over the coming years, further small leaks of oil are inevitable but we have removed all the oil that can possibly be removed. We are now confident that St Helena is at no risk of environmental damage from a large spill, and that was our overriding objective.

In one of the final dives the team raised a Royal Fleet Auxiliary Ensign on the wreck, the flag the RFA Darkdale would have flown herself, as an act of remembrance for those who lost their lives onboard the Darkdale.

In February 2017 it was announced that the oil recovered from the wreck had been sold for a total of £128,500, which would offset some of the costs of the salvage expedition.

In 2011 the ship RFA Grey Rover visited St Helena. They brought with them a wreath, containg specially grown flowers that had been nurtured on the journey, with the intention of laying same on our war memorial to commemmorate the 60th anniversary of the sinking of the RFA Darkdale. A great plan, but they had not allowed for St Helena’s Agricultural & Natural Resources Department (now ENRD), who refused to allow the wreath ashore - on biosecurity grounds. So the ceremony had to take place using a locally-made plastic replacement instead.

Prior to attack [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Prior to attack

Wreck the day after, checking for survivors [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Wreck the day after, checking for survivors

Memorial service 25th October 1941 [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Memorial service 25th October 1941

Oil leak, 2010 [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Oil leak, 2010

Wreck location [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Wreck location

Wreck schematic [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Wreck schematic

Postage Stamp [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Postage Stamp

Bridge (inverted) [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Bridge (inverted)

Royal Fleet Auxiliary Ensign [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Royal Fleet Auxiliary Ensign

Darkdale plaque {2} [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Darkdale plaque{2}

Darkdale plaque [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Darkdale plaque{b}

It could be argued that the RFA Darkdale was torpedoed, and hence was deliberately sunk (so should appear on our Deliberately Sunken Ships page… be we don’t.

1920: Spangereid

Spangereid sinking, September 1920 [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]

1988 Postage Stamp [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
1988 Postage Stamp{10}

The Spangereid was built as a large steel-hulled three-masted sailing barque under yard No. 386 by Russel & Co in Port Glasgow for D.Corsar (The Flying Horse Line) in Liverpool. Launched March 1896 under the name Fairport. Tonnage 1.996 gross, dim. 265.9 x 40 x 23.5ft. She was renamed Spangereid in 1914 and sold in 1915 to S.O. Stray & Co at Kristiansand, Norway. She traded for many years between Europe and Chile.

On 28th September 1920 she appeared off Jamestown with a fire in her cargo of coal (en route from South Africa to Gotenborg, Sweden). Unlike the SS Papanui, the fire did not get out of control, but the ship was still lost, though the precaution taken by the captain of the vessel in having her towed onto the beach, stern first and then having her swamped by making two holes in her bow prevented the fire spreading aft and saved the after portion of the vessel entirely, enabling much valuable property to be salvaged.

The burning of the Norwegian ship ‘Spangereid’ caused quite a sensation and the Wharf and Glacis were crowed with interested spectators. Although at one time it appeared as though she was going to burn out from stem to stern, the precaution taken by the captain of the vessel in having her towed into the beach, stern first and by this means preventing the fire spreading aft and then having her swamped by making two holes in her bow, saved the aft portion of the vessel entirely and will enable much valuable property to be salvaged. We congratulate the captain on his actions, which certainly prevented a total loss of cargo and ship fittings. It remains to be seen whether anything can be done with the wreck, but we rather fancy her days of work are over and she will rest peacefully beside what remains of her old friend the ‘Papunui’.{c}

Much of her cargo and fittings were indeed salvaged, including the Captain’s boat, which was almost completely rebuilt and served as the harbour launch until recent years{11}. Significant quantities of coal were deposited on the shore below the wharf and provided the island with a source of cheap fuel. For many years, soft coal from the Wharf was sold at £1{12} per ton and used to fuel the suction gas engines of the flax mills{13}. The wreck was mostly destroyed by heavy seas in February 1922.

Some parts of the ship can still be seen. The ship’s wheel, showing the name ‘Fairport’ on its brass hub, and one of the large wooden pulley blocks from the rigging are preserved in the offices of Solomon & Company. It is also said that a private home in upper Jamestown has internal doors bearing the legend ‘Spangereid’.

1911: SS Papanui

The SS Papanui caught fire and burned out in James’ Bay in the morning of 12th September 1911.

This page provides a brief summary of the incident. For more detail please see the article The Papanui (1.1Mb) by Ian Bruce.

SS Papanui on fire [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
SS Papanui on fire

Dive this wreck! [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]

Swim this wreck! [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]

The SS Papanui was a Passenger Cargo Vessel built in 1898 by William Denny & Brothers Dumbarton, Yard No 602 for the New Zealand Shipping Company in Plymouth. Launched on Tuesday 1st November 1898 and completed on the 26th December 1898, she had a gross tonnage of 6,474 tonnes, was 130m long had a beam of 16.5m. She was powered by a single screw, triple expansion steam engine.

On 25th August 1911, with 364 passengers and 108 crew onboard, the ship departed London bound for her round trip to Australia. On 5th September, while in the southern Atlantic it was found that the ship was on fire, but after five days the fire was got under control and extinguished. However, shortly afterwards fire again broke out in No. 3 Hold, which was filled with bunker coal. After many requests to set sail for land, on 11th September Captain Moore reversed his course and headed for St Helena, anchoring at 4:00pm in James Bay. No attempt was made at this time to evacuate the ship or unload any of the cargo.

Attempts continued to fight the fire but at around 11pm there was a loud explosion and flames became visible, so it was decided to evacuate the ship. The ship’s passengers were rescued and landed on St Helena. The crew continued trying to fight the fire but by midday on 12th it was considered hopeless; the ship was run aground in James Bay, abandoned and left to burn out. Her cargo and most of the passengers’ belongings could not be saved; SS Papanui burned out and sank, taking around a week to do so.

The passengers and crew remained on St Helena for nearly five weeks while a replacement vessel was chartered to collect them. During this time a story circulated amongst them that the fire was started deliberately, as an insurance fraud{14} They left St Helena on 14th October aboard the SS Opawa to continue their journey to Australia.

The Steering Gear of the SS Papanui remains visible above the waters of James Bay and the outline of her hull can be clearly seen on a calm day from the cliffs above Jamestown. She is regularly explored by divers and snorkel swimmers.

You can read an account by one of the passengers on our Memories of St Helena page.

Note that another SS Papanui was built in 1943 by Alexander Stephen and Sons, based in Linthouse, Glasgow, on the River Clyde, yard number 592.

In London before departure [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
In London before departure{d}

On fire [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
On fire

Evacuees on the Wharf [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Evacuees on the Wharf

Saving cargo [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Saving cargo

After the fire [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
After the fire

Onboard, after the fire [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Onboard, after the fire

In the harbour [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
In the harbour

Objects recovered [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Objects recovered

From the cliffs [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
From the cliffs{e}

Closeup of Steering Gear [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Closeup of Steering Gear

Steering Gear again [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Steering Gear again

The Bridge [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
The Bridge

1613: Witte Leeuw (White Lion)

The Dutch vessel Witte Leeuw (‘White Lion’) was sunk in James Bay in 1613, with all hands on board, after a “brief but spectacular” naval action with the Portuguese.

Dive this wreck! [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]

The Witte Leeuw was built in 1601 by de Kamer van n.v.t. in Amsterdam. Returning from Java in June 1613 under captain Roelof Simonsz de Bloem, the Witte Leeuw was in a party of four ships. She was carrying peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves, diamonds and precious Chinese Ming porcelain, and was armed with 30 bronze cannons. On arriving at St Helena on 13th June 1613 to take on supplies, they came across two Portuguese carracks at anchor in the harbour{15}. The Portuguese and Dutch were not the best of friends. The Witte Leeuw had already seen battle against the Portuguese in the Battle of Cape Rachado in 1606, so an engagement followed, in which the Portuguese seem to have put up the better fight, sinking the Witte Leeuw with all hands and severely damaging another of the fleet{16}. The other two Dutch ships quickly fled, bruised but in one piece.

That was the last of the Witte Leeuw until Belgian salvor Robert Stenuit found the wreck in 1976. He recovered much of its porcelain and some of the bronze cannons. Artefacts recovered by the divers in 1976 are in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum. After his successful salvage operation, which was reported in National Geographic in November 1978, the site was left alone, save for the occasional dive by islanders.

Another expedition arrived in 1998, aiming inter-alia to dive on the site of the wreck of the Witte Leeuw. One of the bronze cannons was recovered by this expedition and is now in the Museum of St Helena, situated at the bottom of Jacob’s Ladder. It carries a date of manufacture of 1604. You can read a story of the cannon’s recovery on our Diving page.

A locally produced rum carries the name ‘White Lion’.

It should be noted that another Dutch ship by the name of Witte Leeuw took part in the Battle of San Juan in 1625. Presumably the name was popular in 17th Century Dutch culture. This is presumably also the vessel that transported slaves to the New World.

On a stamp [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
On a stamp{f}

Salvaged crockery [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Salvaged crockery

Recovering the cannon, 1998 [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Recovering the cannon, 1998

Cannon recovered, 1998 {3} [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Cannon recovered, 1998{3}

Recovered cannon (right) in the Museum of St Helena [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Recovered cannon (right) in the Museum of St Helena

It could be argued that the Witte Leeuw was deliberately sunk by the Portuguese, and so should appear on our Deliberately Sunken Ships page…, but we don’t agree.

Various others

17th Century

An unknown Portuguese East Indiaman is said to have sunk off St Helena in 1604. Then there was a spate of losses in the 1620s: another unknown Portuguese East Indiaman was lost in 1623; a further Portuguese East Indiaman, this time identified as the ‘Conceicaa’ went down in 1624; an unidentified Dutch East Indiaman was wrecked in 1625; and the Portuguese East Indiaman ‘Middleburgh’ sank in 1626.

18th Century

Nothing is recorded.

19th Century

The ‘Rollers’ of 1846

The ‘Rollers’ of 1846” sank 13 ships that were waiting off Jamestown, including the ‘4 de Marco’, ‘Acquilla’, ‘Cornelia’, ‘Descobrador’ (a slaving vessel apprehended by the Royal Navy), ‘Esperanza’, ‘Euphrasia’, ‘Julia’ and ‘Rocket’.

Remains of some of these can still be found off Jamestown.

From the St Helena Guardian, 1911

From the St Helena Guardian, 21st September 1911, shortly following the loss of the SS Papanui:

That St Helena has proved a Haven of Refuge is borne out by remembering the landing of a Battery of Artillery and others rescued from the burning ship ‘Pole Star’ some miles to the south-east of our little Isle in the 1850s, leaving the ship in such a hurried fashion and so scantily clad that it is within the memory of some of our oldest inhabitants that the late Mr. Robert Galbraith and other men of like sympathy sent clothes to the wharf so that they might march through the streets decently clad.

Then again in 1874 the survivors of the ‘Cospatrick’ (burnt at sea) landed in a similarly destitute state.

Once more in the 1880s{17} the crew of the Austrian barque ‘Aurora I’, which arrived on fire and was backed on to the shears in Rupert’s Valley and burnt to the water’s edge, had to accept of Island hospitality.


Survivors from a ship named ‘Kate Darton’ arrived at St Helena on 10th October 1868. It is known only that the ship was “destroyed by fire” some 2,300Km from St Helena.

In January 1886, the ‘Frank N Thayer’ caught fire and sank some 1,100Km SW of St Helena. Some survivors managed to reach St Helena in an open boat.

Some others are mentioned in the St Helena Guardian article of 21st September 1911.

20th Century

The major losses of the 20th Century are listed above.

On 15th November 1915 18 members of the crew of SS Indian Monarch reached St Helena in an open rowing boat. The ship had burned out 675Km SSE of the island.

The ABT Summer, a Saudi Arabian oil tanker, exploded about 760Km off St Helena on 28th May 1991. This from the St Helena News, May 1991:

ABT Summer, 1991 [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]

St Helena has once again assumed its role as the South Atlantic’s haven for distressed sailors. Two ambulances, a medical team, several police and a crowd of at least 300 curious onlookers gathered at the wharf on Wednesday evening to welcome 19 survivors of an oil tanker accident. One man died and four are still missing after the ABT Summer, a Saudi Arabian crude oil tanker exploded and caught fire about 760Km east of St Helena around 10am on Tuesday. The mixed nationality crew of 32 were forced to abandon their vessel, but a rescue bid by some five ships and the South African Air Force managed to recover 27 survivors. One of the rescue vessels, M.V Amer Himalaya, delayed its northbound voyage to the UK to deliver 19 sailors to St Helena.

There was also the deliberate scuttling of the Frontier in 1994.

21st Century

As at the time of writing{18} all the sinkings since 1st January 2000 have been deliberate scuttlings, rather than accidental losses.

Read More

Article: “I always felt different having no father

By Garron Yon, published in the St Helena News 15th December 2000{1}

Sabra and her husband, Wiliam Campbell [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Sabra and her husband, Wiliam Campbell

Several Islanders will remember the sinking of the RFA Darkdale. The World War 2 tanker sank in James Bay after being torpedoed by a German U Boat. 41 men were killed. For Sabra Campbell, it was an event she has been linked to her entire life. She did not witness the explosion; she was only 5 months old when her 23-year-old father died on that ship. Sabra never knew him.

The Darkdale arrived at St Helena on 6th August 1941. On board were 48 men, one of them Douglas Burns, a young man with a baby girl. Douglas had received photographs of his daughter Sabra and described her as “Beautiful”. “Apparently he boasted around the ship about his new daughter.

Douglas Burns, aged 23 years [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Douglas Burns, aged 23 years

All of the crewmembers were able to step ashore on St Helena, and after staying in the harbour for nearly two and a half months, they had made many friends on the Island. Douglas enjoyed walking so it is likely that he walked extensively over the Island. He was also a very sociable person. But, all of this came to an end on the morning of October 22nd.

Douglas and 40 other men were on board the Darkdale, when at around 12:40am the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine, causing a tremendous explosion. It woke all of the residents in Jamestown and a large crowd gathered at the wharf. At first, no one knew what had caused the explosion. It was later discovered that the ship had been attacked by submarine U68 under the command of Karl Friedrich Merten.

The glare from the flames filled the sky and could be seen from Longwood. Mr Charles Henry remembers that day. He was living with his uncle in Napoleon Street{19}, and was asleep at the time. His uncle woke him saying that “The Darkdale is on fire.” Mr Henry remembers seeing the glare from the fire through the window. Upon approaching the wharf, he said the ship could not be seen because it was engulfed in flames, which had spread right across James Bay. He could also feel the heat from the fire such was the intensity of the conflagration. Mr Henry was involved in supplying the crew with fish, and he recalls that they were a very friendly bunch. He went aboard the Darkdale every day, and had lunch with them. By daylight, the bow of the sinking ship could still be seen sticking up out of the water and drums of oil could be seen floating on the surface.

Boatmen approaching the half-sunken Darkdale [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Boatmen approaching the half-sunken Darkdale

There was no sign of the crewmembers attempting to abandon the ship, and therefore, it was assumed that they were either too stunned to react, or that the force of the explosion killed them immediately. Boats were sent to the rescue at once. Whilst they could not get near the ship, a few of the Island’s boatmen stayed near by in the hope of picking up survivors but only two lives were saved. It has been said, that the two who survived were knocked off the ship when the torpedo hit. Mr J. Seale and Mr Isaac Williams’ boats were involved and also boats no. 6, no. 22, msilitary gig and the motor boat Ann.

A report from the Harbour Master stated that the Captain, Chief Engineer, Chief Stewart and one seaman were on the Island at the time of the disaster. 3 men were also in hospital. Therefore, only nine crewmembers were left. In total, there were 3 explosions, which caused the ship to sink at about 3.30pm. The night watchman, Mr Frank Flagg said that the ship was lying across the harbour with her bow to the east.

Memorial service 25th October 1941 [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]
Memorial service 25th October 1941

On Saturday 25th October, a Memorial Service was held at the wharf in Jamestown and all shops and establishments were closed. It is estimated that all of the residents in Jamestown attended along with people from other districts and about 120 wreaths were sent. The vessel now lies at the bottom of James Bay.

Sabra might have only been a baby when her father was killed, but she always knew of the tragedy. As a child, she “always felt different having no father. All of my school friends had fathers.” When questioned, she told people that he had died in the war. Upon receiving the tragic news, Sabra’s mother Vera suffered a severe nervous breakdown. She had to give up her home in Northern Ireland to go and live with her father and two sisters. She never remarried, and died at the age of 70 years in Sabra’s care.

A memorial plaque has been placed in London by the War Graves Commission with Douglas’s name inscribed on it. However, for Sabra’s mother to travel from Northern Ireland to London was financially impossible. After moving to England Sabra made the trip in October of this year to see the plaque. She had promised her mother that she would lay some flowers there and did so with three red carnations, ones from her mother, one from herself and one from her three sons. Sabra found this was emotionally difficult since, up until this stage, all she had seen was photographs of her father. “To actually see his name engraved on the memorial, along with so many others with no known graves, some as young as sixteen years was shocking to me, especially as I visited the memorial with our youngest son aged 26 years knowing that my father had been three years younger when he died.

The surviving Captain, T.H. Card made special tribute to the men saying: “The Officers and Crew of the Darkdale were a fine body of men. No praise of mine can be high enough for them and it is with bitter regret and everlasting sorrow I have left them ‘asleep in the deep waters of St Helena.’

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{a} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{1}.{20}


{c} St Helena Guardian, Saturday, 9th October 1920{1}


{e} Bruce Salt, ZD7VC

{f} St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society (SHATPS)


{1} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

{2} Remembrance Day, 2011, photo from the St Helena Herald{1}.

{3} Shaking hands with Governor Smallman (1995-1999).

{4} Terrance Crowie, Faron Furniss, Derek Henry, Harold Henry, David Peters and Errol Thomas.

{5} For which, inter alia, he was subsequently awarded an MBE.

{6} U-68 also sank the RFA Darkdale.

{7} U-68 sank 32 merchant ships, representing over 203,000 tonnes of shipping from 8 nations. It was itself sunk near Madeira on 10th April 1944. Kapitan Karl-Friedrich Merten died in 1993.

{8} While on St Helena, some of the survivors were accommodated in the Foresters’ Hall.

{9} U-68 also sank the SS City of Cairo.

{10} Many more postage stamps here.

{11} Other items included canned goods, butter, lard, meat, oysters, cake powder, hare, sausages, salmon, mixed vegetables, baking powder, curry powder, sago, spice, washing soda, soap, lime juice, Quaker oats, macaroni, peas, lamps, crockery, kitchen utensils, brooms, chairs, tables, sofas, a chest of drawers, cooking stove, motor engine, two life-boats, iron tanks and around 183m of deck planking 13x10cm.


{13} These engines had been designed for anthracite but were modified for soft coal because of this providential supply of cheap fuel.

{14} Our lawyers, if we had any, would doubtless require us to point out here that no evidence whatsoever seems to have been advanced to justify this claim.

{15} No nation had formally claimed St Helena in 1613. It is known to have been visited by the Portuguese (its discoverers), the Dutch and the English.

{16} However, according to an account by one John Tratton, master of the English ship Pearle that joined with the Dutch fleet on its way north, the Witte Leeuw was actually blown up by a malfunction of one of its own guns.

{17} 1st January 1886, to be more precise.

{18} W/c 19th June 2017.

{19} We understand that prior to Napoleon’s exile Napoleon Street was known as Cock Street. We do not know exactly when it was renamed. The • Moonbeams Shop • opens in a new window or tab [Saint Helena Island Info:Lost Ships]Moonbeams Shop is in Napoleon Street.

{20} The 1962 Film Unit consisted of Charles Frater, Bob Johnston and Esdon Frost who came to the island and made a half hour film called “Island of Saint Helena”, many sound recordings and photographic stills. The full film is available on YouTube™


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