HMS Dasher was a World War II escort aircraft carrier. The remains of the carrier lie in some 140 metres (460 ft) of water in the Firth of Clyde, south of the Little Cumbrae, and between Brodick on the island of Arran, and Ardrossan on the mainland. The vessel sank on March 27, 1943, while engaged in deck landing exercises, during which an aviation gasoline explosion is believed to have taken place, resulting in the rapid sinking of the vessel, and the loss of 379 crew. No absolute cause for the explosions was determined at the time, which left only 149 survivors from a complement of 528.
The wreck is an official War Grave, designated as a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act, and several memorials have been erected in the surrounding area, commemorating the event and loss of life. In 1993, a memorial stone and plaque were located at Ardrossan South Beach, in a memorial garden flower bed with the outline of a ship, across the road from Saint Peters Roman Catholic church. On June 28, 2000, a memorial plaque was laid on the flight deck by a team from the European Technical Dive Centre, Scapa Flow, and dedicated by the Reverend J Smith, EU Church, Ardrossan. Many of those lost were buried in the cemeteries at Ardrossan and Greenock.
The loss of HMS Dasher remained undisclosed until 1945, when her loss received a brief mention in The Times, and is second only, in home waters, to that of HMS Royal Oak among British warship losses in World War II.
Laid down on March 14, 1940, she began as the merchantman Rio de Janeiro, constructed as a passenger/cargo vessel and converted for the carriage of bananas by the Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Chester, USA, launched on April 12, 1941. Acquired by the US Navy on May 20, 1941, and converted into a modified Long Island class Auxiliary Aircraft Carrier BAVG-5 by Tietjen and Lang Dry Dock Co, Hoboken, New Jersey. (This name is correct, often appearing incorrectly as Tietsen and Laird). BAVG is the US Navy classification for British Auxiliary Aircraft Carrier. Conversion included the addition of a lightweight wooden flight deck, over a small enclosed hangar with a single aircraft lift aft. Transferred to the Royal Navy under Lend Lease, she was finally commissioned into service with the RN as HMS Dasher (D37) on July 2, 1942, when she also embarked four Fairey Swordfish of 837 Squadron for training.
This was the fifth ship to carry the name HMS Dasher, and the fourth of six Fighter Carriers, commonly termed Woolworth Carriers, ordered under lend-lease on April 29, 1942, to serve as escort aircraft carriers of the 'Avenger' class. The Woolworth Carriers (a not so flattering term, as in dime stores), Baby Flattops, Jeep Carriers (nothing bigger), and by impatient shepherding destroyers and destroyer escorts, Dumbos. They were officially designated Carrier Vessel Escort, CVE, sometimes unofficially referred to as "combustible, vulnerable, expendable". Less flattering terms were applied; Woolworth Carriers referred to the well-known dime or 10 cent stores, while other terms included Jeep Carriers, and Baby Flattops. Nevertheless, these little ships earned great respect, and for transportation, anti submarine patrol and covering of the invasion forces, they proved to be invaluable.
HMS Dasher left Halifax on August 24,1942, with convoy HX205 bound for the UK, arriving in the Irish Sea on September 10, 1942, when 837 Squadron disembarked to RNAS Campbeltown, leaving her to continue on to Greenock on the Firth of Clyde, where safety modifications were completed on her fuel tanks and ammunition magazines, prior to delivery of her aircraft. She then took part in Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa beginning November 8, 1942, with her sister HMS Biter, and HMS Argus. Six Sea Hurricanes (naval variant of the Hawker Hurricane) of 891 Squadron, and six of 804 Squadron embarked on October 16 and 26 respectively, and the three carriers operated a total of 30 Sea Hurricanes and three Swordfish between them. On their return, the aircraft disembarked to RNAS Donibristle.
Having successfully escorted one convoy, her history of continuous engine problems returned, and shortly after leaving with a second convoy, was forced to turn back and put in to the naval dockyard at Gibraltar for repairs. She then joined convoy MKF1XG on November 14, 1942, bound for Liverpool, arriving on November 20, 1942, where an air defence operations room was added to improve her fighter capability. Bound for Murmansk, North Russia, she escorted convoy JW35 from Loch Ewe on February 15, 1943. Assigned to the Home Fleet, she embarked three Swordfish of 837 Squadron on January 22, 1943, and arrived at Scapa Flow on February 1, 1943. On February 15, 1943, she escorted Convoy JW53 from Loch Ewe, bound for Murmansk, North Russia, embarking 804 Squadron (five Sea Hurricanes) and 815 Squadron (six Fairey Swordfish) on February 16, 1943. Ill-equipped for the journey, which encountered one of the worst storms of time, her hangar was declared out-of-bounds as aircraft were thrown about, a torpedo burst free of its rack, and aircraft were lost as their deck lashings failed. The final blow was the discovery of a 60 foot gap in her hull, below the hanger, where the American welding had simply come apart.
Ordered to leave the convoy, she made her way to Iceland to wait out the storm and be inspected. Declared unfit for service, she was made seaworthy and escorted to Scapa Flow where her remaining aircraft disembarked to RNAS Hatson, Orkney, on February 26, 1943, and sailed on to Dundee, where repairs were carried out at the Caledon Shipyard. During this time, a fire broke out in the aircraft lift when it was overloaded. With all repairs completed, she sailed to Rosyth Naval Dockyard for inspection, which confirmed she was fit for service. On March 24, 1943, she sailed from the Clyde after embarking five Sea Hurricanes from 891 Squadron, and six Swordfish from 816 Squadron.
On March 27, 1943, HMS Dasher was heading up the Firth of Clyde. Having completed a number of deck landing exercises during the day, her aircraft being refuelled, and much of the crew were below deck, making ready for shore leave on arrival at Greenock. Her fuel tanks contained some 75,000 gallons (340,947 l) of aviation fuel, with six torpedoes and 104 depth charges on board. Shortly after 4:40 pm, two massive explosions aft threw the aircraft lift into the air (witnesses estimate up to 60 feet) and caused the immediate loss of main engine, electrical power, and lighting below deck. Attempts to fight the resultant fire proved unsuccessful and the ship was abandoned. A number of vessel diverted immediately to assist, but the effect of the initial blast was immense, described as having peeled the flight back for half its length like a sardine can. Those not killed in the explosion faced the two extremes of hypothermia and exposure in the cold water of the Clyde in March, or of being engulfed in flames as petrol and diesel spilled from wrecked carrier caught light. By 4:48 pm, the ship was gone, leaving only 149 survivors to be recovered to Ardrossan and Greenock.
Although there were initial rumours that the loss was caused by enemy mine or torpedo, the Court of Enquiry held three days later revealed no evidence for an external cause of the explosion, which was seen as being caused by the ignition of petrol vapour. The inadequate safety provisions in ships of this class were noted and numerous detailed amendments to standard operating procedures were proposed. These included the reduction by half of the quantity of aviation fuel carried, modification to the fuel distribution system, and the fitting of asbestos fire curtains within the hangar, in accordance with British practice.
Those vessels that offered assistance also deserve mention. HMS Sir Galahad, four miles to the north, and HMS Isle of Sark (35 rescued, of which 3 died on board), five miles to the south were closest, and responded immediately, followed by others from ports along the Clyde coast. Three minesweepers from HMS Fortitude, Ardrossan, also departed. Royal Navy ships also made their way from Lamlash and Brodick, Isle of Arran. Merchant vessels SS Cragsman and SS Lithium received special mention for steaming into the blazing waters, emerging with 14 survivors (of which 3 would later die), and SS Lithium, an ICI vessel fully laden with 300 ton load of sulphur, with a further 60. The French vessel La Capricieuse recovered a further 26. SS Cragsman was built in Paisley in 1924, and captained by John Templeton from Islandmagee. A number of survivors were lost even as they were rescued, as the oil and water which coated them made it impossible to hold them, and they slipped from their rescuers hands, back into the sea. After transferring those in their care, these vessel quietly left the scene. Other than HMS Isle of Sark, which was ordered to Greenock, all other vessels were directed to Ardrossan to with those they had rescued.
John "Jack" Melville
John Melville (John "Jack" Melville) served on HMS Dasher and was originally believed to have been buried with full military honours in Ardrossan, having lost his life in the disaster that sank the ship. It now appears that Mr Melville's body played the central role in Operation Mincemeat, an elaborate and top secret hoax intended to deceive the Germans into believing the Allies would invade southern Europe through Greece and Sardinia, rather than Sicily.
The success of Operation Mincemeat was dependent on the provision of believable, genuine corpse. After Mr Melville's body was recovered from the Firth of Clyde, 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, and 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 April 29, 1943, HMS Seraph made ready and departed for a location off Huelva 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 04:30 on April 30, 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 life jacket, and the briefcase attached. The 39th Psalm was read, then the body was gently pushed into the sea, leaving the the tide to carry it ashore, together with a rubber dinghy to complete the illusion of an aircraft accident.
2004 Cyprus Memorial Ceremony
In October, 2004, John Melville's daughter, Isobel Mackay travelled from her home in Galashiels to attend a memorial service dedicated to her father. The memorial service took place on board the current HMS Dasher, a patrol boat, in waters around a British sovereign RAF base in Cyprus.
"In his incarnation as Major Martin, John Melville’s memory lives on in the film, The Man Who Never Was. But we are gathered here today to remember John Melville as a man who most certainly was" - Lieutenant Commander Mark Hill, commanding officer Cyprus naval squadron.
Dennis Barnes, a spokesman for the British Forces in Cyprus, said: "This was undoubtedly the first tribute by the Royal Navy to John Melville, the man who never was."
This occasion is believed to be the first time Britain’s armed services have recognised his role.
Previously, the story had centred on the belief that the corpse was that of a homeless Welsh alcoholic, Glyndwr Michael, who had either committed suicide by drinking rat poison, or been poisoned accidentally while sleeping in a barn. Although the story was widely circulated, many found it difficult to accept, as the physical condition of the body of an indigent alcoholic, and of someone who had been poisoned, would have been easy for the enemy to recognise as not belonging to someone on active service, or who had lost their life by drowning, and would have significantly, of not completely, damaged the credibility of the deception.
This was later questioned in the documentary series "Heroes of World War II", in which programme 7, "The Man Who Hoodwinked Hitler", aired the findings of a retired police officer who had researched the available information and records. Although his findings differ from the above in that he identified another victim of the HMS Dasher disaster, and he identifies the body as being that of T J Martin, buried in Ardrossan, he concludes that the story of Glyndwr Michael is impractical, as his body is supposed to have been acquired about January 22, while the operation did not take place until April 30. The use of the name Martin may have been another red-herring planted by Lieutenant Commander Ewan Montagu, who was responsible for handling the operation. Even deep-freezing of the body would have resulted in easily detected signs that it had not perished by drowning in the past few days, as required by the mission, which would have destroyed its credibility, and rendered it pointless. Photographs provided by Montagu in his book "The Man Who Never Was" also indicate that the corpse was in poor condition, and unlikely to be taken as that of a fit Royal Marine, even after drowning. The programme also details the journeys of Montagu and HMS Seraph to Greenock, from London and Blythe respectively, which also lends credence to the claim that this was the source of the body, and not cold storage.
1 ⇑ Royal Navy casualties, killed and died, March 1943, HMS Dasher. Retrieved March 8, 2010.
- Memorial garden plaque
- Royal Navy archive
- Fleet Air Arm archive
- NavSource Online: Escort Carrier Photo Archive
- Marine and Coastguard Agency, List of Protected wrecks
- The Seraph monument
- The Man Who Never Was, film, 1956
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