posted on Sep, 6 2005 @ 11:55 AM
They Were Never Told. The Tragedy of HMS Dasher
John Steele & Noreen Steele
HMS DasherThe afternoon of Saturday 27 March 1943 saw one of the biggest Royal Navy catastrophes in home waters. The tragedy was compounded by
secrecy, including the failure to advise any of the relatives where their sons, husbands and brothers lay. The casualty list ranks along with HMS
Royal Oak and HMS Hampshire in the three greatest tragedies in British home waters.
On the Clyde Estuary, between Ardrossan and the Isle of Arran, the American converted aircraft carrier HMS Dasher was on voyage. Half a mile away were
two small cargo ships, the Lithium and the Cragsman.
The aircraft attached to HMS Dasher had successfully completed a full days “Take off and landing exercises.”
At 4 40 pm, Captain L.A.K. Boswell announced over the ship’s tannoy that shore leave was being granted on arrival at Greenock. The estimated time
of arrival was 6pm.The off-duty crew were below deck. Some were having a wash and a shave in preparation for a night ashore.
Suddenly there was a horrendous explosion, the officer of the watch was heard to say “Crikey, look at that” Captain Boswell looked in astonishment
as he saw the aircraft lift, weighing two tons, soaring high in the sky, perfectly horizontal. It reached a height of about 18 metres (60 feet) then
plunged down into the sea. Thick black smoke and searing flames were billowing out from the lift shaft.
To find out what was happening Lieutenant Commander E.W.E. Lane made his way quickly to the second deck along the port ally way. The ship was in
darkness with debris everywhere. He heard water pouring in and looked down a hatch to the third deck where he saw three feet of water.
The aircraft carrier keeled over then righted itself. Below deck all lights went out and all machinery including the main engine stopped. Dasher
immediately started to sink by the stern. The 528 men onboard knew the ship was mortally wounded. They had minutes to get themselves to the hanger
deck or the flight deck; from where they could jump off the ship into the water.
Follow this link for information about the Secrets of HMS Dasher
HMS Dasher was sinking rapidly at the stern with the bow rising out of the water. Petty Officer Jack Verlaque had joined the ship in America and
therefore knew his way around. Quickly he raced to the aircraft hanger. A small group of his shipmates were following him. On reaching the hanger,
they heard the sound of ammunition exploding. This was the ammunition for the aircraft guns. The intense heat from the many fires now spreading
throughout the hanger were igniting thousands of rounds of ammunition. Jack and the group frantically made their way to the flight deck and jumped
into the cold waters of the Clyde.
Tom Dawson was on duty as the wheelman in the wheelhouse with the Bosun’s mate, Danny McCartney. They heard a dull thud and all the lights on the
fire control panel flashed, indicating various fires throughout the ship. 30 seconds later all the lights on the panel went out. There was complete
Danny went out to investigate. Tom remained at his post with his hands firmly gripped on the wheel. As he looked ahead he glanced at a paper cut-out
pinned to the bulkhead from a piece of a string. Danny returned and said, “I think the ship is going down by the stern” At that point Tom noticed
the paper cut-out was coming away from the bulkhead. “I think we ought to go,” said Tom
Together Tom and Danny jumped into the water. When they surfaced Tom got tangled in a rope and it took some time to free himself. Meantime, Danny was
swimming towards a float-a-net completely unaware of Tom’s predicament. (Danny perished)
Sub Lieutenant John Ferrier reached the flight deck at the same time as Sub Lieutenant John McFarlane. Both men were from Greenock. They were joined
by two other Sub Lieutenants, Trevor Buxton and Frank Tetlow
“What will we do?” said John McFarlane. “I will show you,” John Ferrier replied. John had jumped off two previous Royal Navy ships. One had
been mined, the other torpedoed. The four men jumped together into the cold water. When John Ferrier surfaced he saw a biscuit tin, which had come
off a lifeboat. He swam towards it and clung on. (His three shipmates perished)
Hundreds of men were now swimming in the water. The few who could not swim were being heroically helped. They were all frantically swimming as far
away from Dasher to avoid being pulled under. Men were still jumping overboard as the bow of the ship rose higher and higher, pointing towards the
sky. A pilotless Sea Hurricane slid down the flight deck and toppled overboard.
Petty Officer Jack Verlaque heard those still on board screaming as HMS Dasher sank beneath the waves.
At the time of the explosion a Royal Navy rescue operation had swung into action.
HMS Sir Galahad, four miles north of the survivors and HMS Isle of Sark, five miles south, responded immediately to the explosion and the high poll of
smoke. Three minesweepers from HMS Fortitude (Ardrossan Harbour) hsd already departed. Royal Navy ships also departed from Lamlash and Brodick,
Isle of Arran. All the ships were sailing at full speed.
Follow this link for information about the HMS Dasher Association
As the survivors bobbed at the top of a wave they could see the rescue ships coming. Unfortunately, diesel oil and engine oil seeped to the surface
from Dasher. One of the survivors shouted to his pal, “You look as if you come from Africa” “So do you” was the reply. In an effort to
maintain moral Lieutenant Commander Lane swam from group to group, shouting, “Don’t worry lads it will be all right”
Two small groups of survivors started singing, even though they knew they were swimming among Dashers seventy five thousand gallons of diesel
“What’s that smell?” someone shouted. “It’s aviation spirit, the aviation tanks must have burst as well” came the reply.
One group comprised of a Carly Float full of men and a number of men in the water hanging on to the float. Strong swimmers like Lieutenant Philip
Culmer (later Captain Culmer DSO and Bar) were swimming beside it. The total number in the group was about eighty. Suddenly the sea caught fire, the
fierce heat swept rapidly among the survivors, it was heading for the Carly Float. Lieutenant Philip Culmer took a deep breath and swam underwater
for as long as possible. When he resurfaced there was no one left alive, they were all gone.
At the sight of the flames each Commanding Officer on the Royal Navy warships gave the command: “Stop Engine!” The rescue ships lowered their
lifeboats and the crew of each small boat rowed as hard as possible.
The two small cargo ships, Lithium and the Cragsman, kept sailing at full speed. Both disappeared from view, into the smoke and flames. For some
survivors, the cold waters of the Clyde took their toll, hypothermia had set in. For other poor souls, the rescuers had them by the hand trying to
pull them onboard, but the oil smeared on the survivor’s hands loosened the grip between them. As the grip came loose the survivor was swept away.
Out of the heat and smoke, the cragsman miracously reappeared with fourteen survivors. The Lithium, an ICI vessel, loaded with 300 ton of Sulphur
could be seen emerging from the dark poll of smoke. It was fully laden, with sixty survivors!
The lifeboats from the Royal Navy ships were soon at the scene, pulling men out of the water. As darkness fell, the rescuers operation ceased.
The casualty list was high, very high. 379 men had perished. All rescue ships, except one, were ordered to proceed to Ardrossan. The Isle of Sark
sailed to Greenock with her precious cargo of survivors. Before arriving at Greenock three of the survivors perished onboard.
Such was the secrecy imposed, even to this day families are finding out for the first time what happened to their loved ones.
“They Were Never Told. The Tragedy of HMS Dasher” is the sequel to the Tragedy of HMS Dasher, which sold out twice
This is a gripping tale of secrecy and intrigue. It is also a story of loves lost, brushes with death, near misses and tragic ends. Of loyalty,
sacrifices, heroism and survivors true accounts.
Many original statements from those caught up in the disaster; a full examination of the official Board of Enquiry's report into the possible causes
of the Dasher's loss, including new evidence which challenges the official version of events: original photographs never before seen.
Signed copies £14.99 available from the authors, Noreen and John Steele. Tel & Fax 01294 464917. 104 Eglinton Road, Ardrossan. Scotland. KA22
Hurricane landing on Dasher