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RFA’s flag flies on its most hallowed wreck as divers honour the Darkdale
18 August 2015

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s standard has been raised on its most sacred site for the first time in nearly 74 years.

The Blue Ensign was hoisted on the wreck of the tanker Darkdale off St Helena after a successful operation to remove tonnes of oil trapped in it.

NEARLY 140 feet below the surface of the mid-Atlantic, the standard of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ‘flies’ for the first time in nearly 74 years.

This is the wreck of the tanker Darkdale and the standard of the Royal Navy’s vital support fleet was raised on it after experts successfully removed oil from its sunken hold – eliminating the risk of large-scale environmental damage to the idyllic island of St Helena.

A Royal Navy team of divers paved the way for the cutting-edge operation, safely removing shells from the tanker’s guns, before specialist frogmen working for the MOD’s Salvage and Marine Operations division moved in to extract the oil.

A Royal Navy diver scours the wreck for unexploded shells

Over several weeks they managed to draw out some 1,944 cubic metres of fuel – enough to fill the tanks of more than 35,000 family cars – from the shattered remnants of the Darkdale, which lies just off the capital of Jamestown.

The removed fuel is now in a tanker and will be taken away for reprocessing.

There remains some oil in the wreck and as the Darkdale continues to disintegrate over time, small amounts will leak.

But Andy Liddell of MOD’s Salvage and Marine Operations division said that aside, the team had extracted “all the oil that can possibly be removed.

The shattered bow of the tanker

“We are now confident that St Helena is at no risk of environmental damage from a large spill, and that was our overriding objective.”

The last act of the operation was performed by diver Gordon Vickers, who raised the Blue Ensign on the wreck in memory of the 41 men killed in 1941.

The tanker had been stationed off St Helena, providing fuel for passing Royal Navy warships waging the Battle of the Atlantic against the German Navy.

She was torpedoed on the night of October 21-22 1941 by submarine ace Karl-Friedrich Merten in U-68.

Locals inspected the upturned wreck before it sank beneath the waves in 1941

RN divers removed 38 shells used by Darkdale’s two main guns, dumping them in water one and a half miles deep where they’ll be of no danger to anyone.

“It’s been a real cutting-edge, edge of the envelope operation, all taking place off a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic,” said Lt Olly Shepherd, who led the 12-strong team of Royal Navy divers.

“It’s the most challenging thing any of us have ever done but also a brilliant experience, something really special to be involved in.

“St Helena is an incredible place and the wreck of the Darkdale is a big part of the history of the island.”

See September's edition of Navy News for more about the Darkdale mission