On an October night almost sixty nine years ago, the small island of St Helena, in the South Atlantic, was shaken by a series of explosions.  Some residents in the lower part of Jamestown, the island’s only town and port, were literally lifted from their beds by a series of explosions to find, with others living in surrounding areas that had also been rudely awakened, the night sky filled with an orange glow.

On an October night almost sixty nine years ago, the small island of St Helena, in the South Atlantic, was shaken by a series of explosions.  Some residents in the lower part of Jamestown, the island’s only town and port, were literally lifted from their beds by a series of explosions to find, with others living in surrounding areas that had also been rudely awakened, the night sky filled with an orange glow.


Lacking the service of mains electricity supply in those days, this sudden illumination allowed the anxious people to dress quickly without having to light oil lamps.  Moving out of doors to investigate the cause of the shattering and frightening disturbance their attention was directed towards the harbour and it was there that many of them hastened.


Along the sea front and from vantage points overlooking the harbour the Islanders gazed in fascination and horror at an expanding sheet of flame covering the sea surrounding the oil tanker RFA Darkdale, lying at anchor in the port.


The time was approaching one o’clock in the morning of Wednesday, 22nd October 1942.  Prior to this, everything on the Island was peaceful and quiet.  Most of the inhabitants had settled for the night; as were members of the Darkdale’s crew who, other than watch keepers, were most probably asleep on board, surrounded by the blackness of the night, lulled by waves gently breaking against the nearby shore.


The serenity and solitude was shared by another vessel: the German U-Boat U 68, as it moved slowly and almost noiselessly, with torpedo tubes open, toward the Darkdale.  The U Boat had sighted the oil tanker by periscope earlier in the day and had laid off the port waiting for the appropriate time to attack and destroy such a strategic target.


As well as the need to avoid detection and the probability of being without a chart of the small harbour made the U-Boat’s approach doubly hazardous.  However, three torpedoes were launched in quick succession.  The result was catastrophic and fatal.


The harbour night watchman, who was checking boats in the harbour moorings, reported that when the first shattering explosion occurred his attention was drawn to the Darkdale.  After two further explosions, he saw the ship turn over on one side and become enveloped in flames.  Other witnesses included the duty sentry from a military detachment of (local) The St Helena Rifles guarding the wharf and one of the Darkdale crew who had earlier missed the boat back to the ship and was waiting for the harbour watchman to get a ‘lift’.


Fire, fuelled by oil and other inflammable products pouring from the vessel’s ruptured cargo tanks, spread rapidly across the water.  By this time the U Boat had retreated from the scene and was soon clear of the area on a course set South east towards the Cape of Good Hope.  Meanwhile Darkdale, which had become a familiar part of the harbour scene and whose crew had become part of the local community, now engulfed in flames left those who watched from the shore shocked and bewildered.  Seeing flames sweeping outward from the stricken vessel and balls of fire shooting high and wide into the night sky, as drums of oil carried as deck cargo ignited and exploded, seemed a ghastly and frightening nightmare. The hopeless situation and inevitable doom of men trapped on board the stricken ship brought grief and distress to those who watched but unable to help.


St Helena, in those days of the Great British Empire, was one of Britain’s oldest colonies with the loyalty of its people to Britain and the Crown second to none.  The Islanders, known affectionately as ‘Saints’ by their friends and associates abroad, are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality.  Many had taken members of the Darkdale crew to their hearts and into their homes.  Only an hour or so before the tragedy some of the seamen had returned to their ship after spending a pleasant and relaxing evening on shore with friends and other members among the local community.


With fire spreading wide over the sea surface and the engendered heat becoming more and more intense, those watching from the shore were soon gripped with further fear; that for the safety of wooden hull boats and cargo lighters moored in the harbour.  There being no docks in the port, local boats when not fishing, were used for ferrying personnel and the lighters for transporting the cargo between ships anchored in the harbour and shore.  Their destruction would therefore have dealt a crippling blow to the Island as a whole.  Mercifully, on that fateful occasion, the night was calm and what breeze there was came from off shore.


Among those who were first to reach the harbour when the disaster struck was schoolboy Tom Young.  Through association with his uncle, who was harbour boatman and boat repairer, Tom had developed some of the skills of a boatman himself.  It is said that this young lad who swam to a boat moored nearby and rowed it, single handed, to the landing steps where a large crowd had gathered.  Selected volunteers were soon hastily clambering in to be ferried out to man other boats in the moorings in an endeavour to rescue any of the stricken ship’s crew who, miraculously, might have escaped from the inferno.


Being in wooden hull boats, skirting a large area of water covered with flaming oil and in an intensely hot atmosphere, the search for survivors was, needless to say, an extremely hazardous mission to embark upon.


Nevertheless, during those early morning hours there were many acts of courage performed or attempted by would-be-rescuers.  That two survivors from the stricken vessel were plucked from the sea in such horrendous conditions was an achievement against virtually impossible odds.


The men rescued were two military gunners from the Darkdale’s defence team.  They were watch keeping on deck when the torpedoes struck and were literally blown off the vessel by the explosive force.  Seven other members of the crew escaped the calamity and possible death through their good fortune in being ashore when the disaster occurred.  Apart from the young seaman who had been stranded on the wharf and had the ghastly experience of seeing his ship blown up and sunk, three other crew members were patients in the local hospital while a further three were ashore attending social functions.  In fact, the ship’s Master and Chief Engineer were at the point of taking leave of their host when the explosions were heard.  From where they were located, the bright glow that lit up the night sky could be seen.  They were hastily transported to the quayside and were soon amongst those who rowed out to attempt rescue of their shipmates.  Sadly, 41 of the crew died with their ship.


It was daylight before the fire became extinguished.  The greater part of the vessel’s oil cargo had sunk with the ship laving part of Darkdale’s scorched bow section protruding above the sea surface.  A few oil drums, a drifting ship’s lifeboat and other shipboard debris floating in the vicinity were all that remained to be gazed at by those who still waited and watched from the shore to remind them of the horror they had witnessed earlier.


At the first opportunity, a boat carrying members of the British army garrison stationed on the island and government officials went out to examine the wreck.  The vessel had turned on one side and had sunk with its stern resting on the sea bottom.  Peering down into the water, the observers could see no sign of any structural damage to parts of the hull that were clearly visible deep below the surface.  But traces of oil rising, snake-like, to the surface indicated that the vessel must have been severely damaged by the explosions that caused the sinking.


Shortly after the disaster, a memorial service for those who died was held on the harbour front.  People from all over the island attended.  The loss of the tanker with most of her crew was deeply felt by the entire community.  How could this dreadful thing have happened?  This was the question being asked over and over.  It was felt that the only source of an attack on the port would come from an enemy surface raider.  And this clearly had not happened.  The disaster, therefore, must have been caused by a shipboard accident.  Such was the opinion held by the general ‘man in the street’.  Whatever feelings the military personnel might have held were (apparently) not revealed.  It is possible that, initially they too could have been none the wiser.  A more comprehensive investigation was carried out a week or so later when a British warship arrived from South Africa with a team of deep-sea divers.


Going down into the clear waters in James’s Bay the divers, examining the stern section of the vessel, saw the twisted metal and torn openings in Darkdale’s hull.  It showed that the damaged structure could only have been the result of a torpedo attack.  They were confronted by another sight; one so macabre and horrifying, their return to the surface must have been made with haste and personal relief.  What the divers saw were heads and arms protruding through small portholes in parts of the tanker’s accommodation deep under water, from which some of the crew had obviously tried, but tragically failed, to escape.  Animated by the shifting water of a ground swell across the sea bottom the victims appeared to be still alive and drawing attention to their plight.  It showed just how hopeless their situation had been; for they had managed to free themselves from the sunken vessel and escaped drowning they could would surely have floated to the surface to die in a sea of burning oil.  Word of this eerie and gruesome underwater scene was soon being whispered around on shore, only to further chill the stretched nerves of those already distressed by the disaster.


The diver’s mission was completed when explosive charges were attached to the fore part of the tanker and detonated to allow the hulk to lie completely submerged on the sea bottom.  This was done not only to clear the obstruction presented to shipping using the harbour but lay to rest the forty one men who died as a result of an act of war.  Their average age was just 29 years.




For a long time afterwards, as a form of respect, and no doubt tinged with superstition, boatmen and others using the harbour avoided the spot where Darkdale and most of her crew lay in their watery grave.  Except that is the harbour master Mr Robert Bizaare, who, on each anniversary of the disaster, was rowed out to place a wreath on the surface above the wreck in memory of those who died.

Copyright © 2008 – 2018 Christopher J White

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