St Helena in World War 2

Part of the global conflict

The only way to abolish war is to make peace heroic.
James Hinton


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

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

Below: Major events of the conflictWar StoriesMilitary RadioU-68Wartime eventsEvents DatabaseRead More

SEE ALSO: St Helena in World War 1

Major events of the conflict

The Nazi plan for Britain following a successful invasion envisaged that, once 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

Admiral Graf Spee
Admiral Graf Spee

Local history 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 weapons wanted to take a pot shot at the battleship, but were banned by 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 blowing them and most of the island to pieces. 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.

Another local story is that the two Elswick Mark VII guns at Ladder Hill were fired once 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!{d}

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

Royal Navy Wireless Station, 1940s

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

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.

The station was in what is now Half Tree Hollow, along what is currently 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! They were 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.

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



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:

Events Database

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

Pink Floyd, from the album Dark Side of The Moon

Read More

Below: WikipediaMemoriesArticle: Memories of the St Helena Coastal Battery R.A., 1941/1943Article: Unexploded Ordnance


Here are some Wikipedia pages related to the war:



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

Article: Memories of the St Helena Coastal Battery R.A., 1941/1943

By William Akam, published in the ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{4} #17, Spring 1998{5}

I arrived on St Helena about June 1941, as a young Gunner on the S.S. Lycaon. This ship was an old coal burner and would have been scrapped years earlier if there hadn’t been a war. We had left Birkenhead and joined a convoy in the Clyde, from where we sailed across the Atlantic to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we recoaled. We then sailed south, down the eastern coast of the U.S.A. to Castries, in the island of St. Lucia, where we again recoaled.

Then we headed South East across the South Atlantic for St. Helena. The decrepit steamer broke down at least once on this part of the journey and the ship’s butcher used a strong rope with a large hook and lump of meat to catch a shark, about five feet long. The ship had a Chinese crew who took the fins, which they hung up and dried, and the backbone, which they made into a walking stick by inserting a steel rod through the vertebrae and fixing a handle. The journey had taken us six weeks.

We were mainly conscripts, with a few regulars, who replaced the Army Reservists. These had been called up on the outbreak of the war to replace the small detachment of Royal Marines who maintained the two 6 inch guns in peacetime.

One of the first meals we had on reaching the Island was tunny, ‘chicken of the sea’ which after the austere diet we had been used to, seemed delicious. However, after we had eaten it almost daily for months on end, we could hardly look at it.

I was made the Battery Clerk for the St Helena Coast Battery R.A:, which involved being occasionally on night duty. This meant sleeping on the floor of the Battery Office, which was infested with cockroaches. We used to kill them with a broom and in the morning we would sweep them into a pile, out of the office. In front of the Master Gunner’s Office in the Barrack Square on Ladder Hill was a small raised bed of earth. I obtained permission to use it, and grew tomatoes, from plants I obtained from the Islanders.

When we were not on duty during the afternoon, we would swim from the quay steps in Jamestown. During the rainy season, the overflow from the water tanks on the hill behind the Barracks would be piped into the small concrete swimming pool which the Royal Engineers had made in the past. We could then use it for swimming for a few weeks until the water became too dirty and was released over the cliff into the sea. On one occasion a small party of us had gone to Ruperts Bay to swim. One of our party, Gunner Percy Dungey, collapsed. We took him to the R.A.M.C. Hospital in Jamestown, but he was dead on arrival.

Some of us would also play tennis on the concrete court made by the Royal Engineers on the top of the cliff. The local boys used to collect the tennis balls which had fallen on the shore below and sell them back to us. A few of us who like walking would explore the Island in our .free time and I remember walking to Diana’s Peak, Sandy Bay and many other places. On one occasion a friend and I obtained all night passes and went fishing from the rocks. We were guided by two local fishermen, who provided us with bamboo rods and lines, and we caught several fish, including a six foot conger eel.

Our diet was very boring, usually either tunny or army preserved rations. Occasionally we would have other fish, such as conger eel, which was delicious, barracuda or a small red fish called ‘soldiers’. I remember on one occasion, seeing four Islanders walking up the road from Jamestown to Ladder Hill carrying a turtle on their shoulders, tied to stakes, which I believe was sold to the Sergeants’ Mess.

While we were there, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Tanker Darkdale was anchored in Jamestown Bay and was used to refuel the Royal Navy South Atlantic Squadron. We used to see the crew walking up and down the deck of the Darkdale. At night we could see the red glow of their cigarettes as they walked along the deck and we often thought the ship would blow up. One night it did catch fire and sank with the loss of all the crew, except the Captain and Chief Engineer, who were ashore at the time. We were uncertain as to the cause of the disaster, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that it was revealed that the ship had been torpedoed by a German U Boat. The Captain had been a naval cadet in the German Navy before the War, and had sailed round the world in a Sail Training Ship. It had called at St Helena on its journey, and the Captain had remembered the Jamestown anchorage.

The Garrison had its own team of fishermen from the locally enlisted Battery who provided us with tunny and other fish, and about the same time as the Darkdale sank they hurriedly returned to Jamestown one day, having declared that a submarine had surfaced not far from them. One Sunday night several of the Battery were attending the evening service in St. James’ Church in Jamestown, when the service was stopped and all troops were told to report back to Barracks. Apparently an armed German Ship had been sunk by the British Cruiser H.M.S. Dorsetshire in the South Atlantic, and the German crew had been last seen heading for the Island in their boats. Additional barbed wire defences were erected at all the possible landing points on the Island and look-outs were doubled, but nothing was ever seen of the survivors of the sinking.

We were on the Island when some of the survivors of the sinking of the liner City of Cairo landed after weeks at sea. The ship had been returning from India with the wives and children of ex-pats. Shortly after leaving Cape Town the liner had been torpedoed. Those who survived the torpedoing had taken to the boats, heading for St Helena. Many did not survive the journey, but two or three boats did reach the Island, with the remaining survivors in a terrible state. Among the survivors were a number of lascars from the crew, and the Battery was called upon to send the small square mattresses, known as Biscuits, three of which formed our beds, to Jamestown, for the use of the survivors. Meanwhile we were issued with replacements from the Battery Stores. After two or three weeks our bedding was invaded by a plague of bed-bugs. We had to go all over our metal beds with blow-lamps and wash down all the new Biscuits with a strong solution of disinfectant.

In order to provide a suitable festive lunch for our first Christmas on the Island, our C.O., Major Logan, bought a number of piglets from the Islanders. These were kept in the Barrack Square at the top of Ladder Hill and fed with the swill from the Cook House. One of the Gunners had been a Butcher in civilian life and when Christmas arrived he slaughtered the animals and prepared them for the Battery Cooks. A delicious meal was had by all.

Although the Coast Battery was there mainly to protect the Cable Station, defences of the Island were in a parlous state. There were the two 6 inch Naval Guns on Ladder Hill and a Search-light Battery at Mundens. Much of the ammunition for the guns was out of date. We were critically short of small arms. The rifle I was issued with on arriving at the Island was a single shot model made in Australia in 1872. We had no machine or Bren gun and only one Lewis Gun. We would frequently have field days when we had ‘T.E.W.Ts’ - Tactical Exercises Without Troops, and these would invariably end with the order to Roll stones down on the Enemy.

The Garrison which had arrived in 1941 was due to return to the U.K. in 1943, but there was a shortage of ships. A Manchester Liner called the Manchester Division called at the Island without its usual complement of Maritime A.A. Gunners. I was one of the lucky few to be repatriated on this boat and we sailed via Ascension Island to Freetown, where we picked up a convoy to the U.K. The ship had not been fumigated properly at its last port of call, and was infested with cockroaches. The A.A. Gunners had a cabin at the stem of the ship where they made their tea etc., and in order to ensure that our bread was out of reach of the cockroaches, it was hung up by a piece of string from a hook in the ceiling of the cabin.

Article: Unexploded Ordnance

Published in the St Helena Sentinel 31st May 2012{5}

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. Despite this, the only explosions that occurred during Airport construction were the planned ones.

{a} Museum of St Helena{b} St Helena Photos & Videos{c} Robert Stephen, a serviceman stationed here in World War 2, from his memoirs ‘Around the Atlantic’{7}{d} 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{e} www.sscityofcairo.co.uk

⋅ Click the highlighted marker (if any) to return to where you were before.

{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} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{5} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{6} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{7} Reproduced in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{6} #46, 2017{5}.

⋅ Click the highlighted marker (if any) to return to where you were before.