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Lost Ships

Our seabed is littered with wrecks

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.{l}

The stories of some of the ships lost at or near St Helena

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

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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 page Deliberately Sunken Ships.

SEE ALSO: Ships

Witte Leeuw ⋅ MV Bedgellett ⋅ SS Papanui ⋅ SV Spangereid ⋅ RFA Darkdale ⋅ MV Frontier ⋅ MV Atlantic Rose ⋅ MV Portzic

1991: MV Oman Sea One

The MV Oman Sea One was a crab-fishing vessel that capsized and sank off St Helena on 31st August 1991

MV Oman Sea One
MV Oman Sea One

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The MV 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{5}. 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 MV 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 one by the RMS St Helena (1990-2018).

You can hear one of the survivors, Chief Cook Harold Henry, being interviewed in September 1991 on Radio St Helena (right - sorry, not a good recording).

1942: SS City of Cairo

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

Built by Earle’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd, Hull in 1915, the 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 U-68, a German U-Boat, fired a torpedo and made a direct hit. The Master of the ship, making his last voyage on the 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 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 302 people aboard the City of Cairo, 194 survived but 108 lost their lives. Of the crew, 85 died together with 23 passengers. Of those that died 94 did not survive the ordeal in the lifeboats. While on St Helena, many of the survivors were accommodated in the Foresters’ Hall.

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.

For the full story of the City of Cairo, including those lost and the lives of the survivors to the present day, see www.sscityofcairo.co.uk.

One of the survivors was Cynthia{6}, later wife of Homfray Solomon

It could be argued that the City of Cairo was torpedoed, and therefore was sunk deliberately and so should appear on our page Deliberately Sunken Ships… but we don’t agree, so it doesn’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.

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The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) 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, originally with the name Empire Oil but renamed RFA Darkdale when she entered military service in November 1940. She did three Atlantic Convoys before she came to St Helena on 6th August 1941 carrying Furnace Oil and Avgas, and remained in port for nearly three months, during which time she refuelled various navy ships, including the aircraft carriers HMS Hermes, HMS Eagle and HMS Illustrious.

On the morning of 22nd October at around 00:40h a large explosion occurred which lit up the sky{7}. 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 Hospital. You can hear Sidi Young, one of the rescue party, interviewed in 1962 (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 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 U-68, a German U-Boat. 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.

Darkdale warning

The wreck contained a large quantity of oil, only some of which burned during the sinking. It was necessary to publish the notice (right) in the local newspaper. 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 split 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.

You can read a report on the salvage operation by Simon Valentine, Emergency Response Manager, Swire Emergency Response Services{1}.

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, containing specially grown flowers that had been nurtured on the journey, with the intention of laying same on our war memorial to commemorate 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.

Inline ImageThe Darkdale can be dived{8}.

It could be argued that the Darkdale was torpedoed, and therefore was sunk deliberately and so should appear on our page Deliberately Sunken Ships… but we don’t agree, so it doesn’t.

SEE ALSO: www.historicalrfa.org/‌rfa-darkdale

1920: SV Spangereid

The SV Spangereid burned out in James Bay on 28th September 1920.

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 Goteborg, 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 ‘Papanui’.{o}

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{9}. 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 per ton and used to fuel the suction gas engines of the flax mills{10}. The wreck was mostly destroyed by heavy seas in February 1922.

The Spangereid can be dived{8} and also some parts of the ship can still be seen without diving. 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 Solomons. 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 by Ian Bruce.

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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{11} 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{8}.

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

Inline ImageThe Papanui can be dived{8}.

One person contacted us saying I’m so glad Charles Owen Harris Maslen was able to continue to Victoria, Australia and meet my grandmother…

1613: Witte Leeuw (White Lion)

The Witte Leeuw (White Lion) was a Dutch man-of-war, sunk during a naval battle just off St Helena in June 1613.

Witte Leeuw on a stamp
Witte Leeuw on a stamp{p}

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During the period of Portuguese possession of St Helena 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.

The Witte Leeuw was built in 1601 by de Kamer van n.v.t. in Amsterdam and was armed with 30 bronze cannons. Returning from Java laden with ‘Oriental Treasures’ in June 1613 under captain Roelof Simonsz de Bloem, the Witte Leeuw was in a party of four Dutch East India Company (VoC) ships. According to her manifest (sent separately in another ship) she was carrying peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves, precious Chinese Ming porcelain and 1,311 diamonds. On arriving at St Helena on 13th June 1613 to take on supplies, they came across two Portuguese carracks at anchor in the harbour{12}.

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, despite being outnumbered and caught at anchor (limiting their manoeuvrability), seem to have put up the better fight. In the engagement the Portuguese severely damaged one of the Dutch ships and the Witte Leeuw was sunk with all hands - but not by the Portuguese! An account by one John Tratton, master of the English ship Pearle that joined with the Dutch fleet on its way north, said the Witte Leeuw was actually sunk after a malfunction of one of its own guns ignited all the powder stored beneath. It literally blew up. With one ship damaged and the other destroyed 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 page Diving.

The 1,311 diamonds, however, have not been recovered. For safe-keeping they would have been stored in the stern section - somewhere near the powder room. The explosion would have scattered them widely, and being carbon not metallic, scattered diamonds under 400 years of silt are almost impossible to recover. But if you go diving on or around the Witte Leeuw and you spot something sparkly…

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 the enslaved to the New World.

Inline ImageThe Witte Leeuw can be dived{8}.

Various others

Below: 17th Century18th Century19th Century20th Century21st Century

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 Acquilla, Cornelia, Descobrador, Esperanza, Euphrasia, Flying Fish, Julia, Quattro de Marco, Rocket, St. Domingos.

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 31°S, Longitude 25°W. 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{13} the crew of the Austrian barque Aurora I, which arrived on fire and was backed on to the shears in Ruperts 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 Ruperts 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 Mundens, but eventually it was necessary to beach her and allow the fire to burn itself out. Her cargo of sugar, valued at £35,000, 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 the SS Indian Monarch reached St Helena in an open rowing boat. The ship had burned out 675Km SSE of the island.

On 31st May 1969 the St Helena News Review reported the loss due to fire of South Korean fishing vessel ‘Jinam’ off St Helena. Here is the full report:

The South Korean fishing vessel No. 32 Jinam arrived here in distress just before 4 o’clock last Thursday afternoon. As a result of a fire which started at half past two on the morning of the 24th May and lasted until 5 o’clock that afternoon, the aft section of the vessel was completely burnt out. The bridge accommodation and its equipment plus the crew’s accommodation were also totally destroyed. The crew lost everything they had, including food and clothes. After the fire started the ship drifted until early on the morning of the 29th (Thursday) when the crew managed to get an engine working sufficiently to get the ship to St Helena. Its arrival was achieved without radio, chart, compass or any other direction finding equipment (all lost in the fire); it depended solely on the Captain’s reckoning of his position. Of a crew of 25, one man was found to be missing after the fire. The crew is now being housed ashore at the Workmen’s accommodation on the Terrace and they are being looked after by the Social Welfare Officer. The Jinam was on her way to Cape Town.

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.

ABT Summer, 1991

The ABT Summer, a Saudi Arabian oil tanker carrying around 260,000 tonnes of heavy crude oil, exploded about 760Km off St Helena at around 10am on 28th May 1991. 27 of the 32 crew members were rescued after swimming away from burning oil on the sea, and 19 were brought to St Helena by the ship Amer Himalaya, arriving here on 29th May. This from the St Helena News, May 1991:

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 MV Frontier in 1994.

21st Century

As at the time of writing all the major sinkings of the 21st Century have been deliberate scuttlings, rather than accidental losses.

A couple of inshore fishing boats have sunk at their moorings but were recovered. In August 2018 a new inshore fishing boat was being towed to the island from Ascension Island and sank in mid-Ocean. Recovery was not attempted.

Good Hope Castle Fire, 1973

This isn’t a Lost Ship story because the Good Hope Castle did not sink, but it’s an important tale from our history and it had to go somewhere…{q}

Fire onboard a ship at sea is widely considered to be one of the most serious incidents that can occur. It is serious because, unless it can be controlled, it is necessary to abandon ship in the lifeboats, which in mid-ocean has many dangers.

On 1st July 1973 the Union Castle Line offices in London received contact from St Helena reporting that the Good Hope Castle, due in on 30th June from Ascension Island, was overdue. Reports from both Ascension and St Helena were that the ship could not be reached by radio. It was later reported from Ascension that the ship had been reported ablaze thirty-five miles south-east from Ascension.

The stricken Good Hope Castle
The stricken Good Hope Castle{4}

It transpired that fire had broken out on 29th June some hours after leaving Ascension. A broken lubricating oil pipe to the starboard main engine turbo-blower sprayed oil onto an exhaust manifold, and before the resulting fire could be extinguished it spread through the engine-room casing into the accommodation. The eighty-two passengers and crew took to the boats, and were rescued 36 hours later by the steam tanker, ‘George F. Getty’ and returned to Ascension. There were no serious injuries and it seems the only life lost was that of a small dog that could not be coaxed from under its master’s bed and had to be abandoned.

On the night of 1st-2nd July the Good Hope Castle was sighted by her sister-ship the Southampton Castle some twenty-four miles off Portland Point, Ascension, with a thirty degree starboard list, but no sign of fire or smoke, and with the port propeller visible in the swell. The photograph (right) was taken by one of the passengers on board the Southampton Castle.

On 4th July the MV Clan Malcolm located the Good Hope Castle and reported her again burning. By the next day much of the superstructure had been destroyed but the hull was still apparently sound. The West German ocean salvage tug ‘Albatross’ was called to provide assistance, and on 7th July Good Hope Castle was boarded by a Union Castle Line Superintendent who reported that there were no flames or smoke, but that the deck was severely buckled and hot, with the Bridge and accommodation completely gutted. Two days later the tug was alongside and able to put pumps aboard and prepare a towing connection.

Good Hope Castle was towed to Antwerp, arriving on 18th August where she was inspected and then sent to Bilbao for repairs. There were completed and she left Bilbao on 19th May 1974, arriving at Southampton to resume her position in the mail service to South Africa, starting on 31st May 1974.

Read More

Below: Article: I always felt different having no fatherLetters from Papanui PassengersArticle: Not the Prince of Wales!

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, William Campbell
Sabra and her husband, William 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
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, 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
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 nearby 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, military 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
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’ 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.’

Letters from Papanui Passengers

Two letters written by Papanui passengers appear on our page Memories of St Helena:

Article: Not the Prince of Wales!

By Douglas Qauntrill, published in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{14} Number 1, 1990{1}

November 20th 1942 was the most memorable day of my life. It was the day I climbed ashore on to the Island of St Helena. I had just survived a thirteen-day journey in an overcrowded lifeboat. The ship, the S.S. City of Cairo, in which I had served as ship’s surgeon, had been attacked by a Nazi U-boat, and sunk some four hundred miles south of the Island. At last I was safe and free from the constant fear of death from either thirst, starvation or drowning.

Three of the ship’s lifeboats had reached St Helena on that unforgettable day. These boats carried one hundred and fifty two survivors, men, women and children. As we came ashore we must have looked a pitiful sight - unwashed, unshaven and very emaciated. Our garments, tattered and faded, were covered with patches of white where the sea spray had dried and left salt-marks. Not only did we look unwholesome, we smelt unwholesome - the unpleasant smell of very stale sweat. The skin was peeling from our sun-scorched faces. Few could walk unaided. Some were carried on stretchers. As we had been spotted out at sea by Island look-outs at dawn, everybody knew of our arrival and it seemed the whole Island population lined the main street that afternoon as we were taken up to the hospital.

When it came to my turn to climb the landing steps, holding very carefully on to the rope, I was helped by the Superintendent of Police, Mr. Brett, who told me that I should be taken to hospital in the Governor’s car. I was helped into the rear seat, where I was welcomed by a very charming lady, Mrs. Bain-Grey, the Governor’s wife. We waited a few minutes for His Excellency to join us, but he was delayed in the Castle, so it was decided that we should proceed without him.

I shall always remember that journey up the main street. Everyone seemed very excited, and they all craned forward to get a look at me. Many years later I learned the reason for this. In the excitement H.E.’s driver had forgotten to take the flag off the car, and as H.E. was not inside the car it was assumed that I was a member of the Royal Family. The betting was that the Prince of Wales, who had visited a few years previously, had come back.

There was quite a crowd round the hospital, and the thoughtful Islanders were already bringing us very welcome gifts such as eggs, fruit, vegetables, milk and fish. I was given a bed on the balcony, together with some of the other ship’s officers, and the S.M.O., John Gray, named it the quarter-deck! The first task of one of the nurses was to bathe me. I have a vivid memory of myself lying full-length in that bath and looking at my skeleton-like body. I think it was the only time I felt sorry for myself. We were provided with odd items of clothing while our own things were being washed, and I remember having only a very short nightshirt in which I wandered around regardless! It was very short indeed, but we had long since ceased to bother about any form of modesty, having performed our bodily functions on many occasions in full view of all the others in the boat.

Having advised everyone not to eat too much for the first few days, my first meal was a boiled egg and bread and butter, with many cups of tea. It was the best meal I have ever enjoyed in my life, according to the first letter I wrote to my mother, which I still have.

We were, of course, the biggest influx of patients that the little hospital had ever experienced, but the nurses rose to the occasion. They were wonderful, and although they must have been very tired, nothing was too much trouble for them. Sadly, the condition of two or three of the survivors deteriorated, and they died, but most of us soon recovered from the ordeal and were discharged. We were then billeted in various parts of the Island. Most went to private houses, and the rest were accommodated in groups. One group went to the Briars and another to the Consulate, and I was lucky to be in a group that went to Plantation House, where, in those days, the Governor and his wife dressed for dinner every night. I always remember having Cape gooseberries every morning as a starter for breakfast, and now whenever I have that fruit, I think of St Helena. In fact, I grow it in my garden on the Isle of Wight to remind me of my luck in having been shipwrecked on such a wonderful island inhabited by such wonderful people.

After a week or two a ship came to take some of us home, but there was room only for the ship’s officers and crew. It was decided that I should stay behind to look after the other survivors, all of whom were passengers. I did not expect to have this task for more than a few days, as another ship was due to arrive, but it was sunk on the way, so we were then all stranded on the Island for another three months. It was quite a big job for me at the age of twenty five years to ensure that everyone had adequate food, clothing and accommodation. I also helped the S.M.O. with the medical care.

Nevertheless, I still managed to enjoy myself. I explored every mile of the Island. I swam. I climbed on to the Barn to shoot wild goats and I went fishing. I played many rubbers of bridge and games of poker on the Consulate balcony. Above all I made many good friends. One of the survivors, a professional yachtsman, told me one day that he had discovered that nobody ever sailed right round the Island. He then suggested that he and I should be the first to do just that. Being young and stupid, I thought, Why not? After all, we had sailed four hundred miles in the Atlantic, so a journey round a small island seemed a minor task in comparison. We set out full of confidence and in perfect weather, but we got no further than somewhere like West Point where the sea became very rough and I was very sick - more due to fear than to the rolling boat. We turned back and my yachtsman friend never ever suggested a second attempt.

Eventually our homeward bound ship arrived. We had a hair-raising journey. We joined a convoy at Freetown, which was constantly attacked, and several ships sunk, one right in the Bay of Biscay. The whole convoy did a U-turn, and thereby managed to avoid a pack of Nazi submarines lying in wait for us.

We arrived in Liverpool at the end of March 1943. It was a very cold day, and I must have looked very odd, dressed in my uniform tunic and a pair of white flannels given me by an Island cricketer. All my possessions I carried in a dilapidated ladies’ hat-box. Nobody bothered with us at all. How unlike St Helena.

For years afterwards I thought about St Helena, and still do. I follow with interest any relevant item in the media, and I am always on the lookout for any book about St Helena.

In 1982 I was delighted to read in my medical journal that the Island needed a spare doctor for a few weeks, so I applied and was accepted. I was very pleased at first, and then I had second thoughts. Surely, I thought, after forty years it would all be so different and I should be disappointed. Going back, I thought, is always a mistake. One’s place of birth, one’s school, one’s old holiday haunt, have always changed out of all recognition. However, when I reached St Helena for the second time, Surprise, Surprise, all was the same. The landing steps, the little prison, the old hospital (now an office), the cinema, Solomons, Benjamins, and, of course, the Ladder. There was the same old tortoise whom I remembered so well, although I don’t think he remembered me, and above all there was the same friendly greeting from the Islanders.

A rotten carcass of a boat, not rigged, nor tackle, sail, nor mast; the very rats instinctively have quit it.{r}

LOL

Credits:
{a} Retrieved from www.sscityofcairo.co.uk, Courtesy and Copyright Deep Ocean Search{b} www.eggsa.org{1}{c} Copyright © South Atlantic Media Services Ltd. (SAMS), used with permission.{d} Joanna Roberts-George{e} Into The Blue{1}{f} NZ Shipping Co{g} ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{15}{h} Paul McCartney, Hobart, Australia{16}{i} Bruce Salt, ZD7VC{j} National Geographic Magazine{k} Bob Wilson{l} John Augustus Shedd{m} Radio St Helena/Museum of St Helena, digitised by Burgh House Media Productions{n} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{o} St Helena Guardian, Saturday, 9th October 1920{1}{p} St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Philatelic Society (‘SHATPS’){q} Text amended from a Social Media posting by Paul Blake on Facebook;, based on the account of the ship’s Captain, Peter Ascroft. Photograph by Ann Blake on Facebook;™, used with permission.{r} William Shakespeare, The Tempest

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Footnotes:
{1} @@RepDis@@{2} Remembrance Day, 2011, photo from the St Helena Herald{1}.{3} Shaking hands with Governor Smallman (1995-1999).{4} Photographed from sister-ship Southampton Castle on 2nd July 1973, 24 miles off Ascension Island.{5} Terrance Crowie, Faron Furniss, Derek Henry, Harold Henry, David Peters and Errol Thomas.{6} Maiden name unknown.{7} Robert Peters tells his tour customers about the explosion, which he remembers, being aged around six at the time.{8} It is a Protected Wreck under the Protection of Wrecks Ordinance.{9} 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.{10} These engines had been designed for anthracite but were modified for soft coal because of this providential supply of cheap fuel.{11} 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.{12} No nation had formally claimed St Helena in 1613. The Portuguese had discovered it 111 years earlier but had not settled it. It is known to have been visited by the Portuguese, Dutch and English.{13} 2nd January 1886, to be more precise.{14} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{15} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{16} Paul’s father was the island’s doctor in the 1960s and Paul accompanied him here. Paul visited St Helena in June 2018 and kindly gave us permission to use these family photographs.

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