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).

This page lists ships lost by accident, sabotage or due to acts of war. Ships that were sunk deliberately by their owner 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 of 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: British 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.

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 {5}{6} 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{7}. 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 www.sscityofcairo.co.uk.

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.

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{8}{6}. 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.”. In some accounts a sailor aboard the Darkdale spotted the U-68 and called out “Submarine! Submarine!”, but the torpedoes had already been launched and the warning came too late.

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. The wreck was declared a war grave in June 1983.

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{9}
Ship’s Wheel Saint Helena Island Info Lost Ships
Ship’s Wheel{c}

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’.{d}

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{10}. 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{11} per ton and used to fuel the suction gas engines of the flax mills{12}. 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. She actually passed within sight of St Helena on 8th September. 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{13} 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 and another below.

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{e}

Unknown Saint Helena Island Info Lost Ships
Unknown{f}

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{g}

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{14}. 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{15}. 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{h}

Salvaged crockery Saint Helena Island Info Lost Ships
Salvaged crockery{i}

Salvaged crockery Saint Helena Island Info Lost Ships
Salvaged crockery

1998… Saint Helena Island Info Lost Ships
1998…{i}

…recovering the cannon Saint Helena Island Info Lost Ships
…recovering the cannon

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

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.

Polar Star, 1854

On 1st October 1854 the ship Polar Star, carrying emigrants on their way to New Zealand, caught fire in the south Atlantic, a long way short of Cape Town at Latitude 31S, Longitude 25W. All on board fought the fire and after three days a sail was sighted on the horizon, shortly before dark. The ship, the Anna Mooko, took on board the passengers and crew, leaving the Polar Star to burn out and sink. The survivors were carried to St Helena, arriving on 14th October.

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 Polar 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{16} 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.

Others

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, mutineers aboard the Frank N Thayer set fire to the ship, which burned out and sank some 1,100Km SW of St Helena. Some survivors managed to reach St Helena in an open boat. The same month the Aurora I (mentioned in St Helena Guardian article) caught fire at her moorings in Rupert’s Valley. It is thought the fire was started by a crewman dropping an oil lamp. Attempts were made to extinguish the fire, watched by a large crowd gathered at Munden’s, but eventually it was necessary to beach her and allow the fire to burn itself out. Her cargo of sugar, valued at £35000{17}, was lost but all the crew, their belongings, a few fowls, 2 monkeys and 2 cats were safely brought ashore.

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.

Local fishing vessel the 19.75 tonne Helena Skye sank mysteriously at her moorings in James Bay during the night of 13th/14th May 1983. She was resurrected on 5th July.

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

Below: Article: “I always felt different having no father”Letter from a Papanui Passenger

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

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.’

Letter from a Papanui Passenger

A letter written to his family by Papanui passenger Arthur Stordy, kindly supplied by his Great Niece, Kaye.

September 1911

Dear Mother and Father and all

I am writing this on the Island of St Helena the fateful Isle, not only of Bonaparte, but of your most dutiful son and a few hundred souls, but unlike Napoleon, a little more hope for the future. I suppose before you get this you will have got a full account in the English papers through the Cable. Very few ships call here, about one a month, cut off from the world for that time, seeing a paper once a month, so we know nothing since the day we left England and know nothing of the English paper account of our mishap, unless we get some news from England before we leave here.

The last letter I wrote you was from Las Palmas in the Canary Isles. The boat took in coal and water and left the next day, it was from the coal that the fire originated, the coal being small poor stuff and fine dust forming a lot of gas and the heat caused it to ignite. When we first heard of it we were about a week’s run from St Helena and a few days past Las Palmas, but though some of the passengers were rather startled most of us were not much concerned at first as there was no alteration of the ship’s course and she kept on for the Cape and we expected the fire would be soon got under control. The officers and crew said the coal at times on ships often fired but generally was soon put out, however, we were not to be so lucky for as time passed we found it was still burning and the crew hard at work each day trying to get the coal from the bunker in which it was burning (there are a certain number of coal bunkers in every ship). The coal, however, got too hot and the fumes too strong for the men to work in and they dare not put water on as that would cause gas and explode, but still the ship kept on her course for Cape Town.

The Captain, so we understood, expected to keep the fire down until we reached Cape Town. He found out, however, that the fire was not so easy to control and so on the 9th after burning 5 or 6 days he altered his course and turned off west for St Helena a full day’s journey at top speed. All this time the crew were at it and also a number of passengers down in the coal hold shifting it out as fast as they could. On Sunday midnight, the 10th, we came within line of St Helena but instead of the ship turning for the isle she past straight on and went direct south again for the Cape. About 7 o’clock he turned round and went back again and made for St Helena. In 2 hours’ time he turned again south, at noon turning once more we made for St Helena which we reached at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. During this time the passengers kept quite easy and set about and read and slept as though nothing was the matter and indeed beyond a small amount of smoke coming through the fore hatch, one would not have thought a fire was burning down below.

SS Papanui on fire Saint Helena Island Info Lost Ships
SS Papanui on fire
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

When we arrived at St Helena all the men were brought up from below and the fire left to burn, no effort was made after that and we stood there looking at the shore and wondering what was going to be the next move. As nothing was said or done most of the passengers went down to their berths after 10 o’clock. I went down myself about 11 o’clock and was just nodding off to sleep when I heard an explosion and Bill Chappel came rushing down from the deck and told me to get up quick and go up on deck as the hatch in the fore part of the boat had blown up. I got up and dressed and went up on deck where I found most of the passengers stood watching a great cloud of smoke pouring out of the hold. At the first sound of the explosion the Captain had sounded the siren as a signal to the shore for help, and in a very short time a number of boats from the land and from a Cable ship that by good luck happened to be at St Helena came and offered their assistance.

The Captain after the explosion gave orders for all the ship boats to be lowered into the water and the passengers to be taken on shore. The noise as the crew on the top boat deck rushed about the work of lowering the boats was terrible, pulling and tugging at ropes and pulleys and officers shouting orders, it was pretty exciting while it lasted. After a short time all the boats were in the water, the women and children collected together and put in the boats first and taken on board the cable ship, Britannia, next all the married men and then the single men were sent on shore.

During all this time although it was dead at night and the passengers hurried out of their cabins, at a moment’s notice, some of them with very little clothing on, there was no panic or confusion shown. We were up on the first class deck looking down on the scene and a sight it was, the smoke rolling over the boat, and the people walking down the steps and getting in the boats as the waves lifted them up and down. The women behaved splendid and the children hardly gave a cry. As the last of boats came up the Captain came past whereabout a score of us were stood including Chappel and myself. Someone asked the captain if the boat was safe to stop on until the morning, he said “Yes, the officers and crew would be on board all night and if we cared to stay we were quite safe” so we decided to stop on board until daylight as we thought we might get some of our things off then. We would see some of the officers and crew were now beginning to pack some of their belongings together.

The passengers had not been allowed to take any bag or anything in the boats. It was now about 2 o’clock and the steward saying he would call us if there was any danger before morning we went down to our cabin and after packing as many things as I could into the bag I got from the office and Bill Chappel packed a few things up, we returned in for an hour or so. We could not sleep very much but just dozed a bit. At about 5 o’clock the Chief Steward came and told us to get up at once and clear off the ship as the fire was spreading fast so we got on deck as soon as possible. I brought my bag that I had packed and Bill Chappel brought his. We were put into a boat and rowed off to the Britannia where we found all the women and children. They had been well treated on the ship, supplied with hot coffee, refreshments, brandy or anything they had. The women and children were welcome to giving up their own beds and making up bedding and blankets on the floor of the saloons.

When we got on the Britannia they rushed us down below and made us coffee, breakfast and wanted us to drink in their kindness all manner of stuff, whisky, brandy and soda, expense was nothing if they could only make us comfortable. I had a good breakfast of coffee and bread and butter and then went upon deck to see what was going on.

On getting to the top I found one or two boats belonging to the Britannia making ready to go to the ‘Papanui’ again to get some of the passengers’ luggage if possible I thought I might as well have some more of mine if I could get it and we could see that the officers and crew were still working on the ship getting off as much food and stores as possible so I ran down the gangway and slipped into the boat with about a dozen other passengers and went back to the ship. I got into our cabin (I had all my luggage there including the box which I had just taken from the hold three days before) and packed all the loose things and Bill Chappel’s as well into a bed sheet, fastened it up and brought box, bag and sheet up and put them in a boat for the shore. So I practically secured all my things with the exception of a pair of slippers, dirty collars and one or two small things. Bill Chappel was not so lucky, his big box was lost, in it he had all his clothes and under clothing, sufficient to last for 2 or 3 years, all gone.

While we were on the ship the last time, and after getting our own luggage off, we gave a hand in helping to get as much of the luggage out of the cabins of the other passengers as possible and it was a hurry and scurry, mixing things up and shoving them into boxes, bags, pillow cases, sheets or anything and dropping then into the boats. About 10 o’clock the ship was abandoned and left to burn itself out, it was a wonderful sight, especially at night time, a great red glow and the blaze shooting up high in the sky, it burned for almost a week like that.

All the luggage as it had been taken shore went into the Custom House and it was a funny though a sore sight to see the passengers all during this day collected on the wharf in front of the Custom House anxiously watching as each piece of luggage was brought out to see if anything of theirs had been saved. When the pillow cases, sheets or blankets full of all sorts of things belonging different folks were spread out and laid out on the road it was a case of search for our own, one would find a pair of boots, another a coat, someone else a shirt, all in the same bundle. There was a bit of stealing of other people’s goods but considering the temptation the folks behaved well.

I had left my overcoat on the deck in my hurry and I found it on the quay amongst some sailors’ clothing. Probably it had been picked up by one of the crew and brought off with theirs. You can well imagine the landing of some 500 people would test the accommodation of an Isle like St Helena. When the men were landed they were met by the governor and arranged in order and marched for about 2 miles up a stiff hill at the dead of night to some old barracks right on the top of the hill some 700ft above the sea. These barracks are empty and have been for some years and here they were told to make themselves as comfortable as possible for the night, no bedding or blankets, just the bare boards to lay on. The next day when the women and children were taken off the Britannia they were placed in an old Military Hospital, no bedding just a blanket or two and what they could make into bedding from their own luggage, if they were fortunate enough to be one of those that had their luggage or part of it saved. Some were lucky in that respect, others had hardly a single thing. This hurt us most of all to see the women and children in such hard straits, some of whom, in fact most of them had been brought up in comfortable houses, but they bore it well, made the best of it with very little complaint.

Bill Chappel and I slept the second night up in the barracks. There was nothing else for it for if we took rooms in the town it meant spending money and that we had to be careful of as although I had about four pounds(£4{20}) we could not tell what was going to occur or how long we should be here, so we decided to go into the barracks and see how things turned out after that night. We went into one of the rooms with about 20 more and there we had to lay on the boards on one of the ship’s blankets that we had, my coat for a pillow and a sheet I got off the ship. I slept better than one would expect under the circumstances. Breakfast we got as best we could, trestles were laid out in the open, loaves of bread, butter and marmalade placed on and help ourselves. They kept us locked up there until after 10 o’clock but when we got down into the town again we found out things were being organised a bit now. It seems that in case of disaster on the boat, and passengers and crew placed in a position as we are, it falls on the English Board of Trade to provide for them until such time as preparations are made for relief for this purpose. 3/- a day per head(£0.15{21}) is allowed by the Board. The Governor of the Island sent word round that those who could secure accommodation in any of the houses could do so and that 3/- per heard or provisions would be paid to the people who accommodated them. All the spare rooms in the town were mostly taken up by the married folks. The people of the island are a kind and hospitable folk and did everything in their power to assist us, some of the houses that were empty were allowed to be used by those who owned them. One of the most influential gentlemen of the islands gave up his town residence for our use (Mr Solomon). Bill Chappel and I with half a dozen decent young fellows managed to secure one of the large rooms in his house. Here we brought our luggage and with a good number of blankets and sheets arranged on one side of the room we settled down nicely, rations were sent us by the Board of Trade. All the cooking was done for us by one of the women passengers who had one of the bedrooms with her 2 daughters. We ought to be very thankful to this lady, a Mrs Pearson, for what she is doing for us, nothing is a trouble to her or the daughters, splendid cooks, and as plenty of food, flour and such like is given us we are living well and getting plenty to eat which is the principal thing. One of the fellows is told each day to help the women in the kitchen, look after the fire, chop wood, set the table and wash up the pots etc. This Mrs Pearson is going out to join her husband who went to Australia in March and took up some land. She had all her furniture and household goods in the ship and all of it burned, none of it insured, very few seem to have insured their goods. They might get some compensation from the company but I don’t think anything like the value will be got. After we had been there a few days and found our feet a bit, a larger number of passengers began to clear out into the country, some left the place we are staying in which gave more room for us. We then got mattresses to sleep on and after the first few days we settled down quite easy to make the best of it until a ship comes and takes us off.

I have trampled pretty well all over the isle, visiting the House and Tomb of Bonaparte and the place where Cronje, the Boer General lived. The island stands a tremendous height out of the sea, like a great big rock but in the centre of the island it just reminds one of the Lake District, all hill and dale and great stretches of fertile land and most beautiful scenery. The climate is splendid. This month is the commencement of spring but it is always spring here they say, no winter and in the summer time the North East trade winds are always blowing to temper the heat. At the present time it is just like our July weather, but not to oppressive, it suits me up to the mark.

Fruit of all descriptions, Oranges, Grapes, Figs, Bananas and some we never heard of before grow all the year round. It is funny to see a tree dropping its leaves, flowering, budding green fruit and rich ripe fruit all at the same time. Flowers of the most beautiful colour grow wild all over the place. Personally I am enjoying the changes and am not concerned much about being left here for a few weeks. The bother is I can’t let you know at home that I am safe and sound as I know you will be worrying and wondering how I am situated. Cablegrams are too costly and the mail post calls here for England on October 11th. We shall then have been on the island just a month, a week after we expect a boat (Opawa) is coming to take us off, so by the time you get this we shall be well on the way to Australia. I do not know if we call at Cape Town on the way or not.

Most of the passengers are trying to make the best of things now and those who are destitute are being assisted as far as possible. The Governor of the isle and other rich folks who happen to be here have put their hands well into their pockets and done all they could. The population of the place does not amount to 4,000 but they are a fine people, a good kind spirit seems to permeate the island, far away from the world of selfishness, they only want to live their own life, they are a very mixed race, generations of mixed blood, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French, English Indians and Negros all go together to make up a race. The language is English, no other is spoken and it is spoken perfectly{22}. I suppose that is because it is taught them and they know no dialect, though the tongue has a beautiful soft tone.

It is now October 4th and we have just had a ship in yesterday. The first we have seen since we came. It sailed from London a few days after our arrival here and we had the chance of seeing the Daily Mail account of the fire on our ship. It was the first report of the fire and I do not know if you have had any further account in the papers but the report in the Mail is not exactly true to fact, as you will find out when the Inquiry into the loss of the boat takes place before the Board of Trade in London (when you see the Inquiry in the papers, keep these papers for me). In the Mail the Captain is given the credit of saving the passengers from a perilous position as a matter of fact the captain is responsible for the loss of the ship and the passengers’ luggage. The fire was burning for nine days before he made for any port. Of course we did not know it was serious otherwise we would not have been so content but he knew it was serious and the fact of the ship being eventually burned to the water level proves the danger we were in and he should have made for some port at least 2 or 3 days after the outbreak when he found it was not under control.

Even when he did make for St Helena you would notice from the first part of my letter how he messed about before he came here and according to the Mail account we ran in at dead of night right on the beach. He anchored off St Helena at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and though the fire must have been burning fast nothing was done to get the passengers or any luggage off or even to deal with the fire until the gas exploded about 10.30 at night and that was through his carelessness in wedging down the hatch over the hold, allowing gas to accumulate. Even after the passengers were taken off at midnight all the luggage and half the cargo could have been got ashore quite easy during that night as it was a fine moonlight night, we can almost see to read by the moonlight. If it had not been for some of the passengers remaining on the boat that night and assisted by the stewards and some of the most decent ones of the crew no luggage whatever would have been saved.

The captain did not seem to bother or care a jot about the boat or cargo or baggage all through the voyage he seemed funny and indifferent to anything. We could see him from our first class deck in his cabin practically all the time sitting there smoking cigars and drinking whisky, he hardly had a single word for any passengers and was at loggerheads with all the officers and crew.

The chief mate of the boat was a fine little chap and did his very best and if he had had his way he would have saved the vessel and everything, all the work of the boat dropped on him and for days he had no sleep. Up to the very last he stuck to the boat and was the last to leave though the captain is supposed to be the last to leave a ship. All that night the captain was going back and forth to his saloon, stopping down half an hour at a time drinking, the consequence was there was not much order amongst the crew and after the people were sent ashore the crew did as each one thought fit, some stopped and got as much luggage off as possible, others got their own luggage and left the boat during the night and went ashore.

One of the crew told me after, that he was working with about 20 others under the second mate at the aft hold where most of the solid luggage of the passengers was, they had got most of it out and it lay on the decks simply wanted toppling over the side into the boats below belonging the people of the isle who were only too willing to take it and had taken may a load already and thought that part of the ship was clear from fire and smoke and he said they could have worked at that part for some 2 or 3 hours without danger. The captain ordered all to go ashore, they still went on and dropped it anyhow - in the boats boxes bursting open but that was better than leaving it to burn. The captain came long and told them to let the damned things lay on the deck and burn.

It shows what sort of a man he was, that while some of the people are destitute and get no luggage he took off every scrap of his own. The first mate came on shore, black with soot and grime without a single thing, except what he stood up in. But I expect the Inquiry will open a lot out when it takes place. By the way do not let it be known what I say about the captain I don’t want the Board of Trade to get me for evidence. I expect that passengers will have to go and give evidence. But when all is said and done the thing is we are all very thankful we are here to tell the tale. It might have been worse, far worse.

Well I have written a lot more than I thought so I think I will close and trust all is well at home. I do not know if you would know about this boat (The Opawa) that is coming from England to take us on. I hope you do know and have written to let me know how you all are. This letter will be a week on the way home by the time the Opawa comes. We have made friends with a good number of people who are taking up land under the Victorian Irrigation Scheme. One gentleman in…(sadly the last page is missing)

Arthur Stordy

Another letter appears on our Memories of St Helena page.

Closing Humour Image Saint Helena Island Info Lost Ships

Laugh at funny lostships humour - LOL Saint Helena Island Info Lost Ships


Credits:

{a} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{1}.{23}

{b} www.eggsa.org/library/main.php?g2_itemId=2610641{1}

{c} St Helena Sentinel, 28th September 2017{1}

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

{e} www.nz.shippingcoassoc.org.nz

{f} ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{24}.

{g} Bruce Salt, ZD7VC

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

{i} National Geographic Magazine



Footnotes:

{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} U-68 also sank the RFA Darkdale.

{6} 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.

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

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

{9} Many more postage stamps here.

{10} 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.

{11} 

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

{13} 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.

{14} 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.

{15} 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.

{16} 1st January 1886, to be more precise.

{17} 

{18} .

{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 moonbeamsforall.com: Moonbeams Shop • opens in a new window or tab Saint Helena Island Info Lost ShipsMoonbeams Shop is in Napoleon Street.

{20} 

{21} 

{22} We are not clear whether this means the ‘Saint’ dialect had not yet evolved or, more likely, that Saints automatically switched into official English for the benefit of the visitors (as they do today).

{23} 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™ www.youtube.com/watch?v=YngeIbFUEVw.

{24} There are three ‘Wirebird’ publications that should not be confused: The Government Newspaper (1955-1966), the Tourist Office Blog (current) and the Magazine of Friends of St Helena (current).



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