What Lies Beneath…

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Ayrshire’s sunken warships

David Milloy

The seabed has been described as a gigantic underwater museum, and that’s certainly true of the waters off the Ayrshire coast, home to all manner of shipwrecks with stories to tell – stories of commerce and pleasure, of peace and war, of hope and despair, of better times and worse times. Let’s look at five of those wrecks, all built with war in mind, and their stories.

The largest wreck off the Ayrshire coast is that of HMS Dasher, the only aircraft carrier whose wreck lies in British waters.

Built in the USA, Dasher was originally constructed as a passenger and cargo vessel for Moore-McCormack Lines, one of 238 vessels built to a standardised design. Launched in April 1941, the USA’s subsequent entry into the Second World War resulted in her conversion into what was termed an escort carrier – a small aircraft carrier which lacked the power, strength and speed of the much larger fleet carriers. Escort carriers, often referred to in the USA as ‘Jeep carriers’ and in Britain as ‘Woolworth’s carriers’, nonetheless played an important role in winning the war at sea.

Commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1942 as HMS Dasher, hers was to be a short career. After participating in Operation Torch (the allied invasion of North Africa) and acting as an aircraft ferry in the Mediterranean, Dasher returned to Britain for engine repairs and to have some minor modifications carried out. That work done, she was assigned to join the covering force for convoy JW53, the destination of which was Murmansk.

Whilst en route to Iceland to rendezvous with other members of the covering force, a long gash appeared on Dasher’s hull, just above the waterline, the result of welds having failed in heavy seas. Dasher was therefore ordered to Dundee for repairs. On completion of this work, she proceeded to Scapa Flow thence to Greenock. Following her arrival at Greenock, she commenced a programme of flight training and exercises in the Firth of Clyde. On 27th March 1943, she was heading back to Greenock after conducting exercises off Arran when she was racked by a massive internal explosion. So violent was this explosion that Dasher’s aircraft lift, which weighed two tons, was hurled about sixty feet into the air before landing in the sea and plummeting to the sea floor.

Dasher followed within a matter of minutes. Many of her 528 crewmen were unable to escape her but those who did found themselves confronted by the twin perils of cold water and blazing fuel. Rescue vessels rushed to the scene from both Arran and the mainland, but in spite of their efforts 379 of Dasher’s crew perished.

Dasher was not lost due to enemy action but to an internal explosion, possibly resulting from the ignition of fuel vapour. The British blamed the Americans, citing design faults as the cause of the explosion, whilst the Americans laid the blame at the door of the Royal Navy’s fuel-handling procedures. Anxious to avoid any lowering of morale and wishing to avoid publicising the fall-out over Dasher’s demise, the authorities did their best to cover up Dasher’s loss, although with less success than they had covered up the sinking of HMS Barham in 1941.

Dasher lies between Ardrossan and Brodick (indeed the ferry between the two passes close to Dasher’s resting place) at a depth of around five hundred feet. At 492 feet long, she is the largest ship to have been lost off the coast of Ayrshire.

Further south in the Firth of Clyde lie two World War 2 submarines: one British, the other German. The British submarine is HMS Sealion, an S-class submarine launched in 1934. She served mainly in the North Atlantic, where she sank several vessels and was involved in the pursuit of the German battleship Bismarck in 1941. She was assigned to training duties in 1942 but was declared surplus to requirements in 1944 and eventually scuttled as an ASDIC (sonar) target off the southern part of Arran in March 1946.

She lies around two nautical miles from the wreck of U-33, a German type VIIA U-boat launched in 1936. U-33 was used both to attack shipping and to lay mines, and it was in this latter role that she arrived in the Firth of Clyde in February 1940. She had not yet fully discharged her mines when she was detected by the minesweeper HMS Gleaner and attacked with depth charges over a period of several hours. Damaged, she surfaced and her crew of 42 abandoned the boat, although only 17 of them survived immersion in the frigid waters off Pladda.

The sinking of U-33 didn’t just remove one deadly opponent from the enemy’s arsenal, it also resulted in the recovery by the Royal Navy of valuable pieces of her Enigma encryption and decryption machine and thus played a small but important role in the cracking of the code used by the Kriegsmarine to communicate with U-boats.

Another World War 2 submarine, HMS Vandal, lies off the northern coast of Arran. Launched in 1942 as HMS Unbridled, her name was changed to HMS Vandal before she was formally commissioned into the Royal Navy – an unwise move according to the more superstitious members of the seafaring community.

Having been assigned to the Third Submarine Flotilla, based at the Holy Loch, Vandal was undergoing working-up trials in the Firth of Clyde when she went missing in February 1943. Having anchored off Lochranza on the night of 23rd February, Vandal upped anchor the following morning. She would not be seen again for over half a century.

Vandal should have returned to her berth at the Holy Loch on the evening of 24th February but her failure to do so was not reported until the following day. No distress message had been received from Vandal and, as was usual for the type of trial she was undertaking, she had not reported her position or movements after leaving Lochranza. An aircraft spotted an oil slick in the Kilbrannan Sound, about two miles from Lochranza but this was disregarded by the search commander in favour of other reports which suggested that Vandal had foundered off Inchmarnock. Neither wreckage nor the remains of any of the 37 members of Vandal’s crew were recovered as a result of the search.

Five decades later, Sandy Young, a former private investigator supported by the Submarine Old Comrades Association, conducted his own inquiry into Vandal’s likely whereabouts. Noting that there had been multiple reports by fisherman of snagged nets in an area of water less than two miles off Lochranza, close to the route of the Claonaig to Lochranza ferry, Mr Young postulated that the underwater obstruction responsible for snagging the nets was the wreck of HMS Vandal. His argument was convincing enough for the Ministry of Defence to commission a search of the area. Its result was unequivocal: the underwater obstruction was indeed HMS Vandal. Evidence from an underwater survey of the wreck suggests that Vandal was on the surface when calamity befell her but the cause of her demise will most likely never be known.

The same cannot be said of the wreck of the Varyag, a warship which was sunk twice during a career that can only be described as colourful. Varyag was built in the USA for the Imperial Russian Navy, entering service in 1901. Three years later, with Russia now at war with Japan, she and an ageing gunboat found themselves confronted by a superior Japanese force at the Korean port of Chemulpo (now Incheon).

Facing impossible odds, the Russians nonetheless declined to surrender. Instead, they sailed out into Chemulpo Bay and took on the Japanese warships. The conflict was brief and one-sided, and it ended with the scuttling of both Russian ships by their own crews.

That wasn’t the end for Varyag, as she was raised the following year, repaired and pressed into service by the Japanese as a cruiser. As fate would have it, though, Japan and Russia subsequently became allies. One result of this was that Varyag ended up back in Russian hands. She was sent to Britain for an overhaul in 1917 but the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia resulted in her seizure by the British government. Handed over to the Royal Navy, she ran aground off Ireland whilst under tow in 1918 and was thereafter used as a hulk. Sold in 1920 for scrap to a German company, she once more ran aground, this time on rocks off Lendalfoot in Ayrshire, whilst under tow to Germany. She was scrapped in situ between 1923 and 1925 but at least part of her hull still lies where she foundered.

There are many, many other wrecks of both ships and aircraft scattered on the sea floor off the Ayrshire coast. You may not be able to see them (unless you’re a diver) but their stories are all worth seeking out.

[Note: The wreck of HMS Vandal and the site around the wreck of HMS Dasher are each covered by The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 and relative subordinate legislation.]

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