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HMS Dasher

Volume 730: debated on Monday 27 March 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Fay Jones.)

It is a real honour and a fitting tribute to have secured a debate on HMS Dasher, 80 years to the day when it was lost. HMS Dasher was a Royal Navy aircraft carrier that went down off the coast of Ardrossan in my constituency, resulting in the deaths of 379 people—the single biggest loss of life of service personnel in world war two not to have been caused by enemy action—under the command of her new captain, Lennox Albert Knox Boswell.

HMS Dasher had been involved in flying exercises on that fateful Saturday. She was both fully fuelled with 75,000 gallons of ship oil and 20,000 gallons of aircraft fuel, and carrying more than 100 depth charges and at least six torpedoes. At 4.40 pm, Boswell announced that the exercises were complete and the ship was to return to Greenock, where the crew were to be granted shore leave. However, that was not to be, and no one could have predicted the tragic events that were about to unfold.

The Royal Navy Research Archive records that there was a tremendous explosion. The officers on the bridge looked in astonishment as the ship’s 2 tonne aircraft lift flew about 60 feet in the air before falling into the sea behind the ship. The fleet air arm deck was completely destroyed, with the lift between the hangar and the aircraft blown sky high, then into the sea on the port side of the Dasher. The ship was plunged into deathly darkness as lights and machinery failed, and a strange silence descended on the fatally wounded ship. Within eight short minutes, it sank almost vertically beneath the waves.

Those who could abandoned the ship, jumping overboard from any point of exit they could reach as the fires in the hangar deck grew more intense. With oil burning on the water, many crewmen who had managed to jump overboard were caught up in flames when the aviation fuel floating on the water’s surface was ignited by the flames of the ship. While help was quickly scrambled to undertake rescue efforts, the ship had gone down so quickly—witnesses estimate it took no more than seven or eight minutes—that there was little chance of saving those on board. Of a crew of 528, only 149 survived, with 379 losing their lives on that fateful day.

To this day, the remains of the ship lie in the firth of the Clyde, south of Millport and between Brodick on the Isle of Arran and Ardrossan on the mainland, and the exact cause of that terrible incident remains unknown. The ship was not under enemy fire, and there are no records of German U-boats or aircraft in the area at the time.

I commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate; I spoke to her beforehand about this issue. Many families of those who sadly passed away on HMS Dasher still have no clarity to this day. They worry that they themselves will be gone, knowing nothing about their loved ones’ ending. Some have formed the view that bodies are buried in a mass grave somewhere; others are convinced that someone has to know something about what happened. Many will never give up hope that they will have some closure on what happened, and like the hon. Lady, I also have that hope. Does she agree that if documentation exists in relation to this issue that is hidden from the public, we in this House should do all we can through the Minister to encourage that it be fully disclosed, for the sake of those who need clarity in order to move on and to grieve in peace?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. There have been some explorations about mass graves, but no evidence has been uncovered to back up that theory. However, there is an issue of men unaccounted for from that day, which is a cause of grief for families.

At the time, the Westminster Government ordered a complete news blackout for fear of damaging morale, and fearing questions as to whether or not faulty US construction could have been a factor in the tragedy. Local media were ordered to make no reference to the event, and survivors were also ordered not to discuss the events of that day. As a result, the many lives lost and the bravery of the crew and rescue teams have not always been acknowledged as they ought to have been. There has been speculation that the authorities ordered the dead to be buried in unmarked mass graves, but none has ever been found. The Royal Navy insists that a mass unmarked grave would have been against Admiralty policy, and that all sources relating to the sinking of HMS Dasher are now in the public domain.

This is a story that I became aware of only a few days ago, and it is a horrific story by any standards. In January 1941, five men—the youngest of them only 15—from the village of West Wemyss in Fife were killed saving the village from a rogue sea mine that had gone adrift. As happened with the Dasher, people were not allowed to talk about it, even within the village, because of security concerns. Does my hon. Friend agree that after this length of time, the rights of surviving family members and friends to know exactly how and why their loved ones died have to take precedence over anything else? There is no longer any justification for withholding information about why the Dasher exploded in the case she is speaking to, or, indeed, whether it was a German or a British mine that killed five men in West Wemyss in 1941.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Yes, it is important that we understand that security considerations are at play during wartime, but ultimately families need to have the answers they seek when any casualties are sustained in any circumstances where people are serving their country and putting themselves in danger to protect the freedoms that we all enjoy.

Some of the Dasher remains recovered are buried in Ardrossan cemetery, recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, while others are unaccounted for. I pay tribute to the work of the late John Steele of Ardrossan, who sadly died in December 2021, and his widow Noreen, who have extensively researched this tragedy and published their findings in a publication called “The Secrets of HMS Dasher”. They found that the official number of recovered bodies listed by the inquiry into the tragedy was far greater than officially indicated and sought tirelessly to find out the location of any unaccounted for men.

Sadly, despite the huge loss of life on HMS Dasher, or more likely because of the huge loss of life, this incident was undisclosed until 1945, when it was given a brief mention in The London Times. Bereaved families at the time of the loss of HMS Dasher were told only that their loved ones were missing, presumed lost. It was not until 1972, when official documents were released, that details of HMS Dasher and those who went down with her were revealed, yet the bereaved received no further official communication, other than the telegram they had received in 1943, indicating that their loved one was missing, presumed lost.

After this tragedy, an official board of inquiry was hastily convened, and within just two days, it was concluded that the Dasher had sunk due to an internal petrol explosion. However, some argue that several key witnesses were not called to give evidence. The official cause of her sinking is still doubtful, but it seems the explosion most likely occurred in the main petrol compartment and was ignited either by someone smoking in the shaft tunnel or a dropped cigarette.

The late John Steele and his widow Noreen spent long years interviewing numerous survivors of the disaster and browsed previously classified documents to better understand the ship’s fate. This painstaking work led them to conclude that the ship was never suitable for combat operations and that it was a disaster waiting to happen. Shortly before its sinking, it was found to contravene more than 20 Royal Navy regulations. Significantly, there was fuel splashing around the vessel. It is worth noting that the other converted Rio class ships had alterations soon after the loss of HMS Dasher and the amount of fuel permitted on board these ships was significantly reduced.

Mr Steele observed:

“What eventually spelled the end for HMS Dasher ship was its leaking petrol tanks. Sometimes the sailors could not return to their cabins due to the fumes. Just one small spark could have triggered the explosion, after which the ship took only eight minutes to sink.”

Steele and his wife Noreen were determined to discover what happened to those dead who remain unaccounted for, and he continued to investigate the rumoured mass grave in which many of the dead were said to be buried. Sadly, Mr Steele ended his days without finding out where those unaccounted for were, despite his tireless efforts to do so over many years, but I know that many of the bereaved families are grateful for his efforts to find their lost loved ones and raise awareness of this terrible event.

The site of HMS Dasher in the Clyde is an official protected war grave, designated as a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. Several memorials have been erected in the surrounding area, commemorating the event and the loss of life. On 28 June 2000, a memorial plaque was laid on the flight deck by a team from the European Technical Dive Centre. Every year, the staff of CalMac ferries stop over the very spot between Ardrossan and Arran where the Dasher went down, allowing bereaved relatives and local veterans to lay flowers and pay tribute to those who were lost. I want to pay tribute to those staff for the efforts they make to facilitate this.

Shortly after I was first elected in 2015, I wrote to the then Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, requesting a copy of the survey that was carried out on the site of the wreck of the Dasher. In his response, he explained that it was believed that significant, though unquantified, amounts of oil and ammunition may remain in the wreck, which lies in close proximity to a number of environmentally sensitive areas. No report was available as the purpose of the survey was to establish the location of the wreck site. In 2014, another non-intrusive survey was undertaken involving a remotely operated vehicle to obtain video and sonar footage of the wreckage.

The wreck of HMS Dasher lies about 500 feet down in the firth of Clyde between Ardrossan and Arran. It is recognised as an official war grave because the crew were unable to leave the vessel as it sank. However, the mystery of HMS Dasher continues with the story of John—“Jack”—Melville, aged 37, who drowned, and it is now believed that he may have been the real “man who never was”. Mr Melville’s body, many argue, was used in Operation Mincemeat, which was an elaborate hoax to fool the Germans into believing allied forces would invade southern Europe through Greece and Sardinia rather than through Sicily.

In 2004, 61 years after Melville died, his daughter, Mrs Mackay from Galashiels, was able to give her father the memorial service he deserved, with the help of the Royal Navy in Cyprus. The memorial service took place on board the current HMS Dasher, a patrol boat, in waters around a British sovereign RAF base in Cyprus. This was undoubtedly the first tribute by the Royal Navy to John Melville, the alleged “man who never was”, and it is thought to be the first time Britain’s armed services recognised Melville’s role.

The success of Operation Mincemeat was dependent on the provision of a believable genuine corpse. It is believed that, after Mr Melville’s body was recovered from the firth of Clyde following the loss of HMS Dasher, it was packed in ice and placed on board the submarine HMS Seraph for transport to the Mediterranean. There, his body was carefully dressed in the uniform of a Royal Marines courier, the fictitious Major William Martin, ensuring details such as labels were all correct. He was provided with false documentation to support the legend, including personal letters and photographs provided by female staff involved in the operation. Finally, the courier’s all-important leather briefcase containing the false plans was prepared, ready for transport.

On 29 April 1943, HMS Seraph made ready and departed for a location on the coast of Spain, chosen in the knowledge that an active German agent was stationed there. The prepared body was preserved in dry ice, packed in a special canister and identified only as secret meteorological equipment to all but those directly involved. At 4.30 on the morning of 30 April 1943, the canister was brought up on deck under the pretence of deploying the equipment it contained. The Seraph’s crew were ordered below deck, and the submarine’s officers were finally briefed on the real operation and sworn to secrecy. The canister was opened, Major Martin’s body was fitted with a Mae West lifejacket and the briefcase was attached. The 39th Psalm was read, and then the body was gently pushed into the sea, leaving the tide to carry it ashore, together with a rubber dinghy to complete the illusion of an aircraft accident.

And the hoax worked. Days after the body appeared on the Spanish coast, Winston Churchill received a telegram saying, “Mincemeat swallowed whole.” In addition to saving thousands of allied soldiers’ lives, Operation Mincemeat helped to further Italian leader Benito Mussolini’s downfall and to turn the tide of the war towards an allied victory in Europe. Although many still speculate and disagree as to the real identity of the man who never was, many absolutely believe that it was indeed Mr John Melville.

Tonight, I hope that commemorating the tragedy of the loss of HMS Dasher on the Floor of the House offers some tribute to the strength of North Ayrshire and Arran’s people, bringing the horror and devastation of the sinking of HMS Dasher to life while also remembering and honouring those who died and those who survived, sometimes with physical or psychological injuries. The crew were part of a war against tyranny, and they made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedoms and democracy. We must retell their story and pay tribute to them to ensure their memory lives on. Conflict continues in many parts of the world. This anniversary must remind us of those men and women who devote their lives to upholding democratic principles—principles that Ukraine is battling to defend as we speak.

In North Ayrshire and Arran, we have a proud history of supporting our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. I thank all servicemen and women, their families and Royal British Legion volunteers who support our veterans and have ensured that HMS Dasher’s sinking is properly commemorated, woven as it is into the fabric of Ardrossan’s history. I wish I had time tonight to give a roll call of all those lost on HMS Dasher, but instead I will simply ask the Minister to join me in paying tribute to all those who were so tragically lost that night, so suddenly. The impact on the survivors is beyond anything we can imagine, and the grief of the bereaved families would have been profound and life-changing.

As I prepared for the debate, and in response to my early-day motion 969 on the 80th anniversary of HMS Dasher’s sinking, I was contacted by David Mackintosh, who was involved with the HMS Dasher Association for many years, and whose great uncle Cecil John Davis, Ordinary Telegraphist, was lost at the age of 21 when the vessel went down. He is now buried in Ardrossan cemetery. This tragedy is truly part of Ardrossan, and the memorial to the lives lost has a prominent place in the town. I pass it regularly, as it is sited metres from my constituency office. The graves of those young men are well tended in Ardrossan cemetery, and they are treated with the reverence and respect they are due. This is a special day of commemoration for the people of Ardrossan, many of whom I know will have reflected quietly on this anniversary, with a great sense of loss and grief across the town. I hope the Minister will join me in paying tribute to all those who were on board HMS Dasher that night, those who survived, and those who did not. We will always remember their great bravery and their ultimate sacrifice.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for securing this debate to mark such an important anniversary, and for paying a moving tribute to those whose lives ended so tragically 80 years ago today. As she has set out, the explosion and subsequent sinking of HMS Dasher in the Firth of Clyde in 1943 was the second highest loss of life on a British warship in UK waters in the second world war. I cannot begin to imagine the depth of sorrow experienced by the families of the 379 men who lost their lives that day, unaware, as they were, of exactly how and where their loved ones had died. Back then, the situation was complicated by operational considerations and, as the hon. Lady has said, the Admiralty did not want the enemy to know the detail of the sinking of HMS Dasher. I therefore join her in remembering the crew of HMS Dasher. In doing so, we will preserve the memories of that terrible day, and their loss.

Let me take this opportunity to reflect on HMS Dasher’s remarkable, albeit short, history. A former cargo vessel, it was acquired from US operator Moore-McCormack Lines by the American navy on our behalf in 1941. Under the lend-lease scheme, it was converted into an aircraft carrier at a shipyard in New Jersey, before joining up with the Royal Navy to support the war effort a year later. Although her service was brief, Dasher played a central role in Operation Torch, the allied invasion of north Africa that was designed to remove the Axis presence from the continent. Alongside two other aircraft carriers, HMS Biter and HMS Furious, Dasher provided vital cover for the landing at Oran, Algeria, in November 1942. The operation marked the first time that the UK and the US had worked together on an invasion plan, and it resulted in a remarkable success, enabling the allies eventually to defeat German Field Marshal Rommel’s forces, and seize control of north Africa.

In February 1943, Dasher was assigned to escort Arctic Convoy JW53, but suffered severe weather damage and proceeded to Dundee for repairs. On 24 March 1943, she arrived on the Clyde with five Sea Hurricanes and six Swordfish aircraft to commence an operational work-up. That operational work-up took her out into the Firth of Clyde, where, three days later, as the hon. Lady set out, she was sunk in the extraordinarily sad circumstances that have been described. The closest nearby vessels were immediately diverted to assist in the rescue efforts, including the minesweeping trawler HMS Sir Galahad and the radar training ship Isle of Sark. Other ships were despatched from ports and harbours along the Clyde, including two merchant vessels, SS Cragsman and SS Lithium, which rescued 74 survivors between them. But Dasher was engulfed in flames and sinking rapidly. Within eight minutes, the entire ship was gone, leaving only 149 survivors out of a crew of 528, many of whom were covered in oil and fighting for their lives in freezing water.

We do not know exactly what caused the blasts that day, but the Court of Enquiry held in the aftermath concluded, as the hon. Lady said, that it was most likely the accidental ignition of a build-up of petrol vapour. Subsequently, inadequate safety provisions were identified which led to modifications to all the Navy’s US-built escort carriers, as well as significant changes in standard operating procedures, including reducing the volume of fuel carried on ships. As is sadly so common in conflict, all but 23 of those who died that day went down with the ship and their bodies have never been recovered. Instead, they are rightly commemorated on war memorials around the country, including the naval memorials at Chatham, Lee-on-the-Solent, Liverpool, Portsmouth and Plymouth, as well as at the RAF memorial at Runnymede and at memorials in the hon. Lady’s constituency.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and I am very loth to introduce any note of disharmony tonight, but is he aware that there are very, very strong reports from a number of witnesses at the time that teams of body recoverers along the coast were convinced that they recovered far more bodies than the official number disclosed by the admiralty? Has he looked into that, or is he simply reading the statement given at the time that said everybody who was not buried in Ardrossan went down with the ship? A lot of people who were there that day do not believe that that is what happened.

As we read through the pack for today’s debate, we see that questions have been asked in this place and the other place a number of times in the 80 years since. There are a number of theories about what may or may not have happened that night, but all the records of the incident are now fully declassified and available through the National Archives. The survey undertaken is also freely available from the UK Hydrographic Office in Taunton. I am aware of the stories that there are of that night. I do not want, 80 years on, to cause any unnecessary disagreement or debate. I think all the questions around those sorts of suggestions have been well answered. I think that we might confidently conclude, now that all the papers of the time have been declassified, that the situation is as described by the Ministry of Defence and the official record.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, this is not the debate to cause disagreement, but the hon. Lady referred to Operation Mincemeat and it is a truly extraordinary story. Given the remarkable story of HMS Dasher, it would almost be nice to think that it was indeed John Melville who was used in that case, but the National Archives records have been declassified and are available to the public and they clearly show that it was Glyndwr Michael who was used for that incredible operation. But let us not differ in opinion on a moment of memorial

I thank everyone who has supported the 80th anniversary commemorations this past weekend, including the hon. Lady who secured the debate. In particular, a contingent of naval personnel supported memorial events in Ardrossan, including a wreath-laying and a service over the wreck. The hon. Lady has brought the plight of HMS Dasher to the House this evening, 80 years to the day since she was lost. The record of her debate will act as a further memorial to the 379 men who died that day. We will all remember them.

House adjourned.