Darkdale0003The following story is a very moving account of the sinking of the tanker ‘RFA Darkdale’ off Saint Helena on the early morning 22nd October 1941, it is told by Arthur ‘Steve’ Stevens a native of Saint Helena, who served as a Merchant Seaman and then in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. He later returned for further service in the Merchant Navy before settling in England.  The story tells of the events of that tragic morning, as well as Steve’s endeavours to erect a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives.

 

The following story is a very moving account of the sinking of the tanker ‘RFA Darkdale’ off Saint Helena on the early morning 22nd October 1941, it is told by Arthur ‘Steve’ Stevens a native of Saint Helena, who served as a Merchant Seaman and then in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. He later returned for further service in the Merchant Navy before settling in England.  The story tells of the events of that tragic morning, as well as Steve’s endeavours to erect a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives.

 

In late 1941 whilst serving at sea in the Merchant Navy, a letter reached me from my home on the small South Atlantic island of Saint Helena with some of the pages resembling a sort of paper pattern cut-out.  Sections of the text had been excised and much of what remained was unintelligible.  It was obvious that the censor’s scissors had been at work.

 

Having departed only a few months earlier, I was curious and concerned as to what might have happened on that peaceful and pleasant island to incur such severity by the military censor there.  My request for repetition or clarification went unanswered.

 

During the war going on at the time, when much mail was lost or destroyed whilst in transit, my letter or the reply thereto had, presumably, not got through.  The matter was not pursued and soon forgotten.  It was not until early 1955, on my return after an absence of more than fourteen years, that I learned the possible reason for my mutilated letter.  It was then that I heard of the British oil tanker ‘Darkdale’ and the catastrophic circumstances surrounding its sinking with the tragic loss of forty-one of her crew.

 

Darkdale0003

 

The incident occurred while the vessel was anchored in the harbour at Jamestown, St Helena’s capital and only port.  A series of explosions followed by a massive outbreak of fire caused the vessel to sink, surrounded by a ring of flame covered water which trapped all but two of the crew that were on board at the time.

 

Soon after I heard about the disaster, I walked along a road overlooking the harbour and gazed down at part of the sea, beneath which, I was told, the vessel laid.  Although I could see nothing of the wreck, I was fascinated by the sight of an oil slick – obviously caused by oil (still) leaking from the tanker’s ruptured cargo and fuel tanks. Being in the Merchant Navy myself, and, coincidentally, had been serving on an oil tanker at the time when ‘Darkdale’ was sunk, it was a sobering reminder that I was indeed one of the fortunate in World War II.  I instantly felt an affinity with the victims and sympathy for their loved ones who lived so far away.

 

Cause of the disaster was, at first, attributed to a shipboard accident.  No serious consideration was apparently given to anything else.  The only recognised danger to Allied shipping in the area during that stage of the war was from attack by enemy surface raiders.  The German pocket battleship ‘Graf Spee’ – the first maritime predator and destroyer of Allied shipping in the South Atlantic in World War II – had long been eliminated.  Yet, months on, Allied merchant ships were still ‘disappearing’ whilst on passage through the area.

 

So, there was still ‘something’ operating there!  It was because of this, yet unidentified, menace that ‘Darkdale’ was at St Helena.  The British Admiralty, having mounted a search and destroy operation against suspected enemy surface raiders, were using the Island as a refuelling base for its warships and ‘Darkdale’ was one of a succession of supply vessels which had been stationed there for that purpose.

 

British warships frequently putting into Jamestown harbour (or thought of being not too far away) and a battery of six inch guns facing seaward from the military barracks on the hill must have given assurance of safety to any vessel lying at anchor there.

 

Danger from enemy submarines might not have been seriously considered.  Two years into the war German and Italian submarines were in action only in the Mediterranean and in the eastern half of the Atlantic from the far North Cape to an area just above the equator.  However, a new type of German U-Boat had come into service and four of these were moving southwards into the South Atlantic, and by October 1941 on had reached St Helena.  The unthinkable was about to happen.

 

U-Boat U 68, under the command of Karl Frederic Merton, on its first operational voyage, had arrived off Jamestown on 21st October and by periscope observation had discovered an oil tanker at anchor in the port.  Remaining well out to sea until darkness, the U-boat moved in shore and soon after midnight fired three torpedoes at the tanker which, at such short range, did not fail to hit its target.  Within seconds the stricken vessel, which was the British Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Darkdale, was in flames and sinking with 41 crew members on board.

 

What I learned all those years ago from eye witnesses of the disaster, later supplemented with relevant official details and certain other post World War II publications will, I am sure be of interest to those on St Helena who remember, or were too young to remember and perhaps other living elsewhere who may not have heard of the ‘Darkdale’ and the fateful early morning hours of the 22nd October 1941 that brought death and destruction to the  peaceful and far away harbour of Jamestown in the South Atlantic island of St Helena.

Mr Steven’s story continues in further instalments, the first of which will be the story of the attack and sinking of RFA Darkdale – entitled “A Sitting Duck” and concluding with the story of Mr Steven’s campaign to erect a permanent memorial to the 41 men who perished that morning.

 

 

Copyright © 2008 – 2017 Christopher J White

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website, by continuing to use the site you agree to cookies being used. More info.