Darkdale remembered

Ten years after writing about the sinking of the British oil tanker Darkdale and tragic deaths of the majority of its crew in Jamestown harbour, St Helena during World War II, my hope that some mark of remembrance of their sacrifice would be established reached a heartfelt satisfactory conclusion.


On the afternoon of Saturday 14th April 2001 I was privileged and greatly honoured to stand, with some members of my family, at the St Helena War Memorial on the Jamestown seafront to take part in a ceremony to honour the forty-one seamen who were killed through an act of war when their ship, the RFA Darkdale was torpedoed in the harbour on 22nd October 1941.

A Service of Remembrance was conducted by the Bishop of St Helena, the Right Reverend John Salt, attended by members of his clergy and their religious groups on the Island.  During the service a memorial plaque bearing the names of those who died, was unveiled by His Excellency the Governor, Mr David Hollamby.


The Darkdale memorial

A large number of Islanders were also present including members of the Police, local youth organisations (Scouts, Guides and Boys Brigade) the Captain with several officers and crew from RMS St Helena (in port at the time) and some overseas visitors to the Island.

Wreaths were laid by the Governor representing the People of St Helena, Mr Bob Doland on behalf of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service, Captain Rodney Young, on behalf of the Merchant Navy Officers Association, Mr Leslie Mercury, representing the Ministry of Defence, Mr Owen George, M.B.E, President of the St Helena Association (UK), my granddaughter, Miss Alice Thompson (aged 4) for the families of the men, and myself on behalf of the Charity Friends of War Memorials.

My interest in the Darkdale tragedy began some forty six years earlier while visiting my family on the Island.  It was then that I learnt of the wartime sinking of the vessel in Jamestown harbour and the tragic deaths of so many of its crew.  They were mostly young men (between the ages of 18 and 56), all of whom died thousands of miles from their homes and loved ones.  I felt great sadness for them but it was with their families that my feelings of sympathy dwelt most.  I, too, had been serving at se during World War II and was, coincidentally, serving on an oil tanker when Darkdale was sunk.

Fixed on the outside wall of the Jamestown Library was a memorial plaque dedicated to one of its victims.  It had been taken to St Helena after the war’s end by a family member.  Why, I then wondered, had no thought been given by anyone else to remembering all forty-one victims who had died through an act of war?

Shortly after making this discovery I was fortunate to meet the incumbent Colonial Governor at a social function.  It gave me the opportunity to inquire why the Darkdale dead, who had been killed through an act of war, virtually on the Island’s doorstep, had not been publicly remembered for the sacrifice they made, and was gratified to receive the Governor’s assurance that ‘the matter would be looked at’.  Sadly, nothing further was heard.  But failure to acknowledge the sacrifice made by those men who died in the disaster remained on my mind over the years that followed.

However, some time in 1991 – around thirty six years after being told by the highest authority on St Helena that the matter regarding a memorial to the Darkdale dead ‘would be looked at’ – I learnt that, although the Darkdale tragedy was still remembered (to some extent) by people on St Helena, the men who died in it had seemingly, been forgotten.  An example of this, as I was told, was that the tragedy and the victims were no longer mentioned in prayers said at the local cenotaph during the annual Armistice Sunday service as had previously been regularly practiced – even though the underwater wreck of the vessel, now a war grave, was lying less than five hundred yards away, directly across the harbour from where the cenotaph stands.

Now retired from seafaring, I felt determined to do something about the sadly over-looked matter of recognition of personal sacrifice made in war.

I wrote to the Right Rev’d John Ruston, OGS, Bishop of St Helena at the time who happened to be on holiday in England and inquired about the omission at the annual Remembrance Service of the Darkdale victims.  At the same time I took the opportunity to inform him about my endeavours to have a memorial plaque placed at some conspicuous point in Jamestown.  In the meantime I would prepare a Roll of Honour which, hopefully, with his consent and c-operation, would be displayed in St James’ church, located near to the harbour front.  Bishop Ruston, in his reply, explained that at the Armistice ceremony he had been following an Order of Service set by a precedent prior to his taking office and promised to rectify the matter for the future.  Furthermore he assured me of his co-operation with regard to the Roll of Honour being displayed and his support for a memorial plaque.

To obtain names for the Roll of Honour, I travelled to London to inspect the huge Merchant Navy Memorial complex at Tower Hill.  Locating the Darkdale tablet, I was astounded to find that instead of forty-one names only thirty-seven were inscribed.  I immediately wrote to the Registrar of British Seamen and Shipping in Cardiff and obtained from their Records Section a photocopy of the Ship’s Articles, which the crew had signed before sailing from the Clyde at the beginning of (what was to be) Darkdale’s last voyage.  In this, a further discrepancy about the Darkdale tablet in London was revealed.  The name Archibald Borthwick inscribed on the London memorial tablet was not among those on the Darkdale articles but that of Harry Dean, who was on the articles and therefore included on my production of a Roll of Honour, was not included on the London Tablet.  Seemingly the name Archibald Borthwick was substituted by St Helena Government advisors in London.

Furthermore two of the four names omitted from the London memorial were those of the DEMS (Army) gunners and were probably not included for that reason.  However, the Darkdale tablet, as it stood when I viewed it at the Merchant Navy Memorial in London, forgets four men who were killed on the vessel whilst serving their country in World War II.

The Roll of Honour, placed in a glass-fronted frame, it was taken to St Helena (by kind favour of the Pursers Department) on the Royal Mail Ship St Helena where, thanks to the co-operation of the vicar and Church Council, it is now displayed in the parish church of St James, situated close to the harbour in which the Darkdale wreck lies on the sea bottom.

That settled, my attention was devoted to the procurement of a memorial plaque.  Having already been assured of support from Bishop John Ruston, I wrote to the Chief Secretary of the St Helena Government seeking their co-operation in erecting a Darkdale memorial at an appropriate site in the harbour area of Jamestown.  The Bishop, now back on the island, did likewise.

At that particular time, correspondence between St Helena and myself was possible only through mail carried by sea.  With such an infrequent service prevailing there was much delay in exchange of letters.  Later the facility of e-mail communication vastly improved matters.  And a reply from the Chief Secretary, Mr Michael Clancy, indicated that he was prepared to be supportive; but the matter had first to be put before the St Helena Heritage Society.  Aware of the assurance I was given more than forty-five years ago that came to naught, I was greatly heartened by Mr Clancy’s letter.

I continued my campaign by contacting Friends of War Memorials which, as its name implies, is a worthy and caring organisation based in London and was assured of their support.  I then contacted the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service, NUMAST (the British Merchant Navy Officer’s Association). The Seamen section of the RMT Union and the asking for their moral and financial support.  I received immediate positive responses from NUMAST and the RFA including most generous pledges of financial help.  Members of my family were also morally and financially supportive.  A member of the RMT was less co-operative and no further response was received.

At this time, Mr Clancy had completed his term of office on St Helena and returned to the UK, leaving everything in relation to the Darkdale plaque in the hands of Mrs Gillian Francis, his assistant who had, apparently, been involved from the outset.  She has been most helpful and efficient.

Quotations for a brass (or stainless steel) plate, with names of the Darkdale dead engraved, were obtained from two local firms in Reading, The cost of which meant that an amount greater than that already pledged would be required.  However, before any action was needed, Mrs Francis informed me of a quote, for a memorial plaque, which the St Helena Government had obtained (on my behalf) from a firm in Cape Town.  The description sounded much grander than any of those which had been quoted for locally; and at much lower cost.  Therefore, The Darkdale Memorial Fund, as it stood, had potentially enough in hand to meet the cost of obtaining the plaque from Cape Town.

Correspondence between the St Helena Government (in the person of Mrs Francis) and me, as well as interested parties in the UK was now conducted via e-mail, thereby allowing matters to move along as a rapid pace. It was at this time I learned from the SHG that Mr Chris Armstrong, of Cape Sourcing and Supply in Cape Town, the company that was supplying the memorial plaque, who had read my article about the Darkdale tragedy, had decided to donate it to St Helena – free of all costs.  This most magnanimous gesture was greatly appreciated.  But it detracted from the wishes of those who, by then, had already contributed and wished to share in the project costs as a way of expressing their feelings towards those men who had lost their lives.


It was therefore decided that the cost of the plaque supplied by Mr Armstrong should be taken, at its face value, as his personal contribution to the Fund which as a consequence, reached an overall total of £1,240.00 (including £505.00 at which the plaque was valued).  After deducting expenses charged by SHG (£38.37) and the cost of the plaque a net amount of £735.00 was deposited by SHG in a Savings Account.  It was originally suggested that the surplus should be used to obtain a high speed inflated rubber dinghy, in memory of the Darkdale victims, for the purpose of harbour and in-shore rescue.  But the idea was abandoned when it was discovered that further fund raising would be needed to achieve an adequate sum for the purpose.SHG asked if, in disposing of the Fund’s surplus, consideration could be given to The St James Seamen’s Trust Fund as a beneficiary.  This charity was established in St Helena in 1992 for the purpose of providing financial assistance to widows and deprived families of the Island’s seamen and fishermen.  All contributors agreed to the request.  Mr Armstrong, however expressed the wish that part of his portion of the surplus should go towards another charitable cause which he hopes will be organised on the Island.





Copyright © 2008 – 2018 Christopher J White

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