Cause of fatal wartime explosion on aircraft carrier in Clyde finally revealed

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A massive explosion on a Royal Navy aircraft carrier on 27th March 1943, in which Lerwick man George Bruce Irvine met his death along with 378 others, was most likely caused by someone throwing away a lighted cigarette.

A new book on the tragedy of HMS Dasher, by John and Noreen Steele, reveals the findings of a Board of Enquiry report which was kept secret for almost 70 years. The families of those who died were never told the true story and worse still many of the bodies, probably including that of Mr Irvine, were buried in a mass grave.

Of the almost 3,000 Shetlanders who served at sea during World War II nearly 300 lost their lives. While it was not unusual to have no body to bury, reasonable information about how ships met their fate was usually available.

Of the 528 crew on the Dasher only 149 survived the explosion, which occurred in UK waters with no enemy involvement. The ship, a converted American cargo vessel, was sailing up and down the Firth of Clyde, allowing her aircraft to practice take-off and landing exercises. Suddenly there was a horrendous blast which rocked the ship and sent her aircraft lid soaring high into the air.

Initial theories were that the explosion could have been caused by either a U-boat torpedo, an enemy mine, an aircraft crashing while attempting to land on the deck, or the engine crank case blowing up.

The first three assumptions were quickly discounted as the Firth of Clyde was considered too dangerous for U-boats, the surrounding area was the biggest minesweeping base in Scotland, and surviving officers were completely unaware of any planes landing at the time.

An engine room problem remained the most likely reason, but although the enquiry was held the findings were not made known. Rescue ships had been told “This incident is not, repeat not, to be spoken about” while the survivors, without receiving any kind of counselling at all, were sent on 14 days leave with the strict instructions: “Don’t ever talk about the sinking of HMS Dasher!”

But now, almost 70 years on and thanks to the painstaking efforts of the Steeles, a couple from Ayrshire, some of the facts have finally been uncovered. In The American Connection to the Sinking of HMS Dasher it is revealed that the Board of Enquiry found the explosion most likely occurred in the main petrol compartment, and was ignited by either a man smoking in the shaft tunnel or someone dropping a cigarette down from the Fleet Air Arm messdeck above.

A damning report to the Admiralty from the Royal Navy deputy controller also recorded that in spite of safety on the type of ships being low, compared with normal standards, the personnel did not seem to have been particularly trained nor special precautions taken.

George “Dodie” Irvine was born on 4th August 1913 in Ivy Cottage, Charlotte Street, Lerwick, where he lived with his mother, father, brother and four sisters.

He was always interested in boats and boating and enjoyed competing in model yacht regattas. That soon developed into bigger boats and he became the proud owner of a Shetland Model with which he took part in sailing regattas.

He worked for 13 years with grocers D & G Kay in Lerwick, where he was said to be an ex­tremely popular shop assistant and a great favourite with customers. He attended the Lerwick United Free Church where he was a member of the choir.

In his spare time he enjoyed the open air which included cycling, sailing and camping. He was also a keen observer of nature, especially bird life.

He married Margaret “Manga” Thomson in 1940 and their only child Irene was born in October 1941.

When the war broke out and call-up came, it was natural that the navy was his first choice. He had been home on leave and returned to his ship just 10 days before the terrible news came that he was “Missing in Action”.

Two weeks later, when a second telegram arrived, stating that that he must be “Presumed Lost”, The Shetland News stated: “He was an exemplary young man who was highly respected and much loved by all who knew him.”

Mr Irvine’s daughter, now Irene Oliphant and living in Ayrshire, was just one and a half years old when her father was killed, so remembers nothing about him. But she said the whole family were devastated by his death, especially her mother who never re-married.

The new book opened up a fresh awareness for her of events surrounding the Dasher, and she was amazed at the emotion it stirred up in her. But sadly her mother died in 1984 without ever learning what really happened to her husband.

According to the book ever since the day the American-converted ship was handed over to the Royal Navy there had been a persistent smell of aviation petrol. The Royal Navy advised the Americans that there was a design fault in the aviation fuel system. However, the Americans denied there was a problem.

The day after the sinking funeral arrangements were made for the 60 Dasher fatalities that had been brought ashore by the rescue ships. Incredibly only 12 of the casualties were officially buried with full military honours at Ardrossan Cemetery. The others simply “disappeared”.

For the next three weeks more and more bodies continued to be washed ashore, and were collected and taken to Ardrossan Harbour, which was the local Royal Navy base. At the end of each day the bodies were taken away on the back of a local contractor’s lorry, covered with a tarpaulin.

An Admiralty document dated 6th April 1943, marked “Top Secret” and signed by Jas Eccles, Director of Operations Division, stated: “Bodies are being washed up, identified, buried etc on the coast. It is evident the Dasher missing bodies comprises of two groups. Those who were brought ashore and disappeared, the others who were washed ashore over a three-week period also disap­peared.”

When the Americans were ad­vised that the Dasher had blown up and sank due to an onboard ex­plosion, they changed the design of the aviation petrol system on all future aircraft carriers.

Mr Steele searched records and interviewed witnesses, with all the evidence pointing to unregistered burials in Ardrossan Cemetery.

In May last year he approached North Ayrshire Council and presented his research. This resulted in Dr Tony Pollard, director of Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University, organising a low-level radar survey within the cemetery. A specific small area of ground was targeted and a report read: “The survey does not rule out the possibility that there may be a large pit containing numerous bodies without coffins.”

Regarding the mass grave, if Mr Bruce had been off duty at the time of the explosion he would not have been in the hangar area where the terrible fire raged. In that case he would have lost his life when the Dasher sank, or when he was in the water. Until such time as the MoD releases the identity of those in the mass grave that will remain unknown.

Mrs Oliphant says her mother was informed that her husband was missing presumed dead. No other information was provided and that remained the case for the duration of the war and beyond.

She said: “In 1973, my husband wrote to the Admiralty seeking information. It was at this point we were informed that the ship had sunk between Ardrossan and Arran. Sadly, Manga died in 1984 not knowing any further details.

“What really got to me and all the folk I spoke to at the Dasher memorial service in 1996 was the totally unnecessary withholding of information especially as it was published in two national newspapers in 1945. Many people still never knew until the appearance of John Steele’s first book in 1995.

“I often thought when I was young that maybe some day my dad would turn up. These things were seldom talked about. I don’t remember my dad but I’m told that he had a great sense of fun, was great company and kept everyone cheery, often playing the mandolin and accordion and loved cycling and sailing. The family all missed him very much and were devastated by his death especially Manga who never re-married.

“Coming across John’s book in a bookshop was a complete accident but it opened a fresh awareness of events surrounding the Dasher. I am amazed at the amount of emotion this stirred up for me, both in reading the book and in meeting, at Ardrossan, relatives of those lost and survivors themselves. I just wish that my mother could have been there too.”

About Jim Tait

Jim Tait is news editor at The Shetland Times.

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