➥ Loading Saint Helena Island Info



World War 2

St Helena’s part in the global conflict

The only way to abolish war is to make peace heroic.{d}

St Helena and her people played an active part in World War 2

3rd September 1939 - 7th May [VE]/15th August [VJ] 1945

SEE ALSO: World War 1

Major related events of the conflict

Battle of the Atlantic

The Nazi plan for Britain envisaged that, following a successful invasion and when Britain had been subdued, King George VI and Winston Churchill would be removed from power and exiled to St Helena.

As soon as war was declared the island’s war defences were strengthened. The St Helena Rifles was reformed and the St Helena Home Guard was formed. A Garrison was stationed here (but we don’t know when it arrived).

To resupply naval ships operating in the South Atlantic the Royal Fleet Auxiliary used St Helena as a supply base. An oil tanker, the RFA Darkdale came to St Helena in August 1941 carrying Furnace Oil and Avgas. She remained in port for nearly three months refuelling various navy ships, including the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes, HMS Eagle and HMS Illustrious. She was torpedoed in James Bay in October 1941 by U-68, a German U-Boat, and sank with the loss of 41 lives. The full story is told on our page Lost Ships. There is a plaque listing the sailors who died on the Cenotaph.

In November 1941 a ‘St Helena Regiment’ was formed (with no apparent relation to The St Helena Regiment of the 19th Century). Early the following year it was increased in strength by 61 men.

On 6th November 1942 the U-68, a German U-Boat, sank the SS City of Cairo 770Km south of St Helena. Eighteen people died immediately in the attack. U-68 surfaced alongside the lifeboats and its commander spoke to the occupants, giving them a course for the nearest land (St Helena) and famously leaving them with the words Goodnight, and sorry for sinking you. He recorded in his log that they had little chance of survival. 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. 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. Of the 302 people aboard the City of Cairo 108 lost their lives. While on St Helena, many of the survivors were accommodated in the Foresters’ Hall. The full story is told on our page Lost Ships.

As the war moved to its close in 1945 the Home Guard raised in 1940 was stood down and soon afterwards the St Helena Rifles was reduced in strength by 38 men to 159. The 20th Century ‘St Helena Regiment’ was moved overseas for service elsewhere.

After VE Day, St Helena’s Day was celebrated for the first time as a Public Holiday with Victory Sports on Francis Plain. The Garrison did not leave the island until August 1946.

In Memoriam

Six Saints were killed in military service during World War 2; none of them while actually serving on St Helena. They were: Richard Charles Lawrence, Joseph Nathaniel Maggott, Michael Walker Henry, Sydney Samuel Leo, Mervyn Mainwaring and Bertram Charles Benjamin. Their names are recorded on the Cenotaph (plaque, below).

Governors in the period were Governor Henry Guy Pilling (March 1938 to July 1941) and Governor William Bain-Gray (November 1941 to August 1946).

War Stories

Local history is that the two Elswick Mark VII guns at Ladder Hill were fired once during World War 2 at a German U-Boat which was rash enough to surface within range. However we have been told that, yes the guns were fired at what was thought to be a U-Boat, but the target (which was not actually hit) did not seem to take any evasive action in response to the attack. Two men were sent in a small boat to investigate and reported that the target was not a submarine - it was actually a dead whale!{f}

Admiral Graf Spee
Admiral Graf Spee

Another local story is that, in the early months of World War 2, the Admiral Graf Spee used to pass close to St Helena whilst ravaging South Atlantic shipping, but had been directed by Hitler to leave St Helena alone because he admired Napoleon. The ship was sighted from the lookout station at High Knoll Fort and the gunners manning St Helena’s two Elswick Mark VII guns at Ladder Hill wanted to take a pot shot at the battleship in the improbable hope of damaging it and becoming heroes, but were prevented by order of the then Governor Governor Henry Guy Pilling, who feared that the heavily-armed Admiral Graf Spee would respond by moving outside the range of our guns and proceed to blow them and most of the island to pieces. And if the account of a sailor serving on St Helena in World War 2 is to be believed, it’s probably just as well the guns were not fired. Much of the ammunition for the guns was out of date, he reported.

Apparently also during the war the fort at Mundens was set up as a search-light station. The aim was to look for enemy ships approaching the island under cover of dark. This continued until it was realised that the lights could be seen from 60Km away and hence could actually assist the enemy in homing in on the island! The station was then abandoned.

Talking about Mundens, some believe the two Elswick Mark VII guns at Ladder Hill originally had two companions at Mundens; the latter were dismantled at the beginning of the war and shipped back to Britain, but the settings remained{2}. It seems one regular exercise to keep the gunners at the Ladder Hill Elswicks occupied and fit was to get them to strip down one gun; transport it through Jamestown to Mundens; reassemble it; fire one test round; dismantle it again; carry it back to Ladder Hill; re-assemble it again and fire another test shot. Well it stopped the gunners getting bored…

Military Radio

R N Wireless Station, St Helena (ZHH)

1941 photo ‘Deadwood Station’
1941 photo ‘Deadwood Station’
Direction Finding

Royal Navy Wireless Station, 1940s

We know the Royal Navy operated a military radio station on St Helena during World War 2. Sadly we know almost nothing about it (its operations were shrouded in war-secrecy), so the following is rather sketchy, but we think reasonably accurate. The badge (left), on a Christmas Greeting from 1943, is part of the little firm evidence we can find of its existence.

Note that it had the callsign ‘ZHH’ - as is employed today by St Helena Radio{3}.

The station was in what is now Half Tree Hollow, along what is currently named Wireless Station Drive. It was a concrete block built structure and we do not know if it was demolished or is now one of the houses along there.

It is understood from local stories circulating at the time that the St Helena station worked in conjunction with one on Ascension Island in Direction Finding - using radio to locate German ships and U-Boats operating in the South Atlantic. The principle is simple. If St Helena and Ascension both receive a signal transmitted by an enemy ship, and if both note the direction from which the signal originates, then where the lines cross on the map is the location of the vessel. The diagram (right) illustrates. For a more detailed explanation see the Wikipedia.

We also think it may have had a role in coordinating naval operations in the South Atlantic, using the sub-Atlantic cable to relay messages to and from London.

Finally we know they monitored the frequency 500KHz, which was by way of being an international distress frequency at the time. Watch was kept carefully because earlier the distress call sent by the SS City of Cairo had been missed on the island. Apparently, although Cable & Wireless also monitored the same frequency, the RN Station was in a better position and often received signals that Cable & Wireless could not. Apparently the Admiralty station in the UK (‘GZZ’) often called St Helena in the early hours of the morning, perhaps to check that the operator was awake! The station was also responsible for receiving and decoding ‘Admiralty General Messages’ send to the island’s military commanders, transmitted from Rugby in the UK every day at 3am and 3pm. This function was later replaced by the Diplomatic Wireless Station.

If you can provide any further information, please contact us.



U-68, a German U-Boat during World War 2, is significant to St Helena because it sank two ships around St Helena: RFA Darkdale and SS City of Cairo. In total it sank 32 merchant ships, representing over 203,000 tonnes of shipping from 8 nations. It was itself sunk near Madeira on 10th April 1944. Its commander, Kapitan Karl-Friedrich Merten, visited St Helena in October 1988 aboard the Russian Cruise Ship TS Maxim Gorky. He died in 1993.

Another U-Boat, U-407, sunk one of our earliest cruise-ship visitors, the Viceroy of India.

St Helena wartime events

Here are the major events in the period not directly related to the war:

Forward he cried from the rear and the front line died. Generals sigh and the lines on the map move from side to side.{h}

Events Database

Remembrance Sunday

Wreath laying at the Cenotaph for Remembrance Day
Wreath laying at the Cenotaph for Remembrance Day


Read More

Below: MemoriesWikipediaArticle: Unexploded Ordnance


Some of the reminiscences recorded on our page Memories of St Helena relate to the wartime period, including:


Here are some Wikipedia pages related to the war:

Article: Unexploded Ordnance

Published in The Sentinel, 31st May 2012{4}

Military records indicate that Prosperous Bay Plain (where the Airport is to be constructed) was a practice shooting range during World War 2. St Helena Government’s Project Management Unit and Basil Read looked into this with the help from a member of public Hilton (Bernie) Thomas from China Lane, Jamestown who remembered finding two shells in the Central Basin on Prosperous Bay Plain a number of years ago. The location of the find was discussed with Bernie and a search area was established.

Earlier this month a search was conducted by a team comprising of Paul Laban, Top Dog Security, his explosive materials detection dog Poppy, and Paul Welbourn, PMU Deputy Resident Engineer aided with a metal detector. Small excavations were also made in softer ground in the search area, where munitions could have potentially a deeper level of penetration to enable Poppy to sniff the freshly dug soil for any potential finds.

The search found evidence that munitions were targeted at Prosperous Bay Plain but no remains were found that represented significant danger. Prosperous Bay Plain has now been cleared for construction works to take place in July/August this year.

Editor’s Note:

It is understood that, during World War 2, the Elswick Mark VII guns at Ladder Hill were often fired towards Prosperous Bay Plain as target practice. They didn’t fire into the sea due to the difficulty of securing a target, and measuring how close a shell fell to its intended objective. Inevitably some would have failed to explode. Despite this, the only explosions that occurred during Airport construction were the planned ones.

{a} Museum of St Helena{b} St Helena Photos & Videos (group){c} Robert Stephen, a serviceman stationed here in World War 2, from his memoirs ‘Around the Atlantic’, reproduced in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{5} #46, 2017{4}{d} James Hinton{e} Museum of St Helena{f} We are indebted for this story to Frank Sheldon, son of the late Gunner 831156 Arthur Edward Sheldon RA, who served here from September 1939 to May 1941{g} www.sscityofcairo.co.uk{h} Pink Floyd, from the album Dark Side of The Moon


{1} Taken aboard HMS Hermione in James Bay, St Helena, May 1942. Thought to be the RFA Abbeydale which arrived at St Helena on 7th April 1942 from Freetown www.historicalrfa.org/‌rfa-abbeydale. After the Darkdale incident the Royal Fleet Auxiliary did not keep supply ships on permanent station at St Helena; they arrived only as required.{2} Others claim there were actually only the two guns now in place and that War Office records which appear to say otherwise are in error. But it doesn’t matter for this story…{3} Not to be confused with our former national radio station, Radio St Helena.{4} @@RepDis@@{5} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.