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Protector remembers wartime tanker with service in St Helena
17 October 2012

Survey ship HMS Protector produced stunning sonar imagery of the wreck of a wartime tanker to help salvage experts study the state of it.

Today’s sailors also held a service of remembrance for RFA Darkdale, which was lost with nearly all hands when torpedoed in 1941 off the tiny South Atlantic island of St Helena.

UNMISTAKEABLY broken in two, these are the remains of a Royal Navy tanker seen as never before after seven decades on the Atlantic seabed.

This is the wreck of RFA Darkdale, sunk in just five minutes off the tiny island of St Helena in October 1941.

Seventy-one years later, ice patrol ship HMS Protector returned to the spot Darkdale went down in James Bay to survey the wreck using her suite of the latest sonar technology.

In 1941, St Helena served as an important staging post in the war against the U-boat in the South Atlantic. Darkdale arrived off the island that summer, providing fuel for passing Royal Navy warships such as carrier HMS Eagle and cruiser HMS Dorsetshire.

The tanker was anchored off the island’s capital Jamestown on the night of October 21-22 when she was struck by at least three torpedoes fired by Germany’s seventh-highest-scoring U-boat ace, Korvettenkapitän Karl-Friedrich Merten, in U68.

Darkdale exploded, turned over and sank almost immediately, taking 41 men aboard down; only two men who where on deck and blown clear by the blast survived.

The wreck may still hold a significant amount of fuel oil which, if discharged, could have a significant environmental impact on the island.

The wreck is currently being examined by the salvage and marine operations arm of the MOD’s Defence Equipment and Support organisation to assess the state and potential environmental impact.

The accurate positioning of what remains of the tanker will be used for any future monitoring and salvage work that may be required.

The Union Flag flies on the wreck after Protector's dive team visited it

As is tradition in the Royal Navy, time was also taken to hold an act of remembrance over the wreck, after Protector’s divers had revisited the wreck to lay a Union Jack on it.

“It was a great privilege to be able to play a small part in remembering those that played such a big part in making Britain and the Royal Navy what it is today,” said Leading Diver Chris Hayes.

During her short visit, the ship also took the opportunity to carry out further bathymetric and shore survey work in the Jamestown area, including an entire circumnavigation of the island which will help to produce more up-to-date charts, making it safer for other ships and boats to visit.

Capt Peter Sparkes and his crew of 65 also took the opportunity to host the island’s dignitaries and give a tour of the ship to a group of local children.

There was also time for the crew to step ashore, visit the local tourist hot spots, such as Napoleon’s residence in exile, climb the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder and sample some local hospitality. The football match between the ship’s team and islanders resulted in a thumping 8-0 defeat for the ‘Ice Men’.

HMS Protector at anchor off St Helena

The island’s governor Mark Capes – who’s also responsible for the other remote South Atlantic British territories of Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha – sent a message of thanks to the Portsmouth-based survey ship for calling in.

“The loyal and proudly British community of St Helena was delighted to see HMS Protector arrive in James’ Bay. The visit reinforced all the positive messages that Her Majesty’s Government remains committed to helping to ensure the security and prosperity of St Helena.”

Protector is bound for Antarctica to spend a second Austral summer surveying the waters around the frozen continent and providing support to scientists.

Before her first stint amongst the ice she’s calling in on Simon’s Town in South Africa to carry out last-minute maintenance and work to ensure the 5,000-tonne icebreaker is ready for the rigours of Antarctica.

“It is always good to visit the home of another nation’s navy – especially one that has a rich history of association with the Royal Navy,” said Capt Sparkes. “I hope Protector’s visit can re-affirm the strong professional and operational bonds that already exist between the Royal Navy and South African Navy.”

His ship will be in Simon’s Town for around ten days before paying a courtesy visit to Tristan da Cunha, surveying the waters around the island, then moving on to Antarctica.