Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

15 Nov 2011 - "The Sinking of HMS Dasher – the American Connection”

A good turnout of members and visitors heard an excellent talk given by John Steele on “The Sinking of HMS Dasher – the American Connection”.  The whole intriguing story and contemporary photographs engaged us all.

He began by explaining how his interest in the subject was stimulated by a chance remark from a friend, enquiring if he knew anything about the boat that sank off Arran, in the Clyde, during World War II. Following this, John was keen to find out the details and contacted the various libraries, checked newspaper reports and asked the Ministry of Defence without any success.  After 20 years of research he has been able to discover many details which had previously been kept secret.  This has enabled many families to finally find out what happened to their loved ones who died in the incident.

HMS Dasher was a World War II escort aircraft carrier. She was commissioned into Royal Navy service on 2 July 1942, having been converted from an American merchant vessel Rio de Janeiro in Pennsylvania, USA. She had a history of continuous engine problems, while her stability, safety and electrical system fell below Royal Navy standards.  Although safety modifications relating to ballast were carried out in September 1942, it was felt that some safety regulations on board were ignored, which gave much cause for concern.  Modifications which should have been carried out were postponed because the ship was needed for operational convoy duty.

During March 1943, while engaged in deck landing exercises in The Firth of Clyde, off Arran, there was an explosion – according to the War Diary “not due to enemy action”. This resulted in the rapid sinking of the vessel and the loss of 379 lives.  The leaking of fuel caused the sea to catch fire and naval vessels in the area were not able to approach closely.  No absolute cause for the explosion was determined at the time, which left only 149 survivors of a crew of 528.   A veil of secrecy was lowered at that time which has never been completely lifted.  Great courage was shown by many rescuers and a fleet of ambulances was in Ardrossan to take off casualties.  There were military funerals in Ardrossan and in Greenock for a small number of those whose bodies were recovered.  However, it was never known what had happened to the bodies of the majority of those who perished.  There is a possibility that many are buried in a common, unmarked grave that has now been found in Ardrossan cemetery. 

An interesting addition to this story is that one of those who perished, John Melville, was responsible for saving around 30,000 Allied lives.  It has recently been confirmed that his was the body named “Major Martin” used in “Operation Mincemeat” which deceived the Germans into thinking that the allied invasion was to be in Greece rather than in Sicily.  This resulted in the diversion of German troops to Greece and a corresponding saving of allied lives in Sicily. The subsequent release of the film “The Man Who Never Was” makes this very familiar to most of us.

The loss of HMS Dasher remained undisclosed until 1945, when the loss received a brief mention in The Times.  John and Noreen Steel have published a book about the incident “The American Connection to the Sinking of HMS Dasher” details of which are on John’s site: www.hmsdasher.com

Barbara Finlay and John Weston

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