More Than Just Diving….
Sometimes, just sometimes, this wonderful activity of ours takes on a far greater significance than just exploring beneath the water, as intriguing as that may be…
Late in 2017 our club, [Newton Stewart Sub Aqua Club based in South West Scotland] was contacted by a member of the public seeking advice, information and if possible, actual help regarding the loss of his father at sea in 1946.
Roy Harris, originally from Liverpool but now living in Altrincham, had been researching his father’s life and sought help to allow him to make a final tribute to his long-deceased father at the scene of his tragic death. As a dive club and as individual human beings we were only too happy to help….
As I rounded the corner on the scenic car journey provided by the Galloway countryside I was struck by the contrary weather patterns currently playing in my mind. To my left was farmland with the backdrop of a beautiful, flat calm sea, aquamarine, almost a Mediterranean turquoise in colour. There was barely a cloud in the sky, a variety of seabirds swooped and called whilst black and white cattle lumbered across the fields and foreshore. The air temperature was rising and a comfortable 18c despite the early morning, suggesting that the meteorologists had got their forecasts right, it was to be a fine, settled June day ahead.
This was a journey I’ve made frequently, usually with sense of excitement as I contemplated the day’s diving that lay ahead. The view was never taken for granted, I invariably counted my blessings that I lived and dived in such glorious surroundings.
Today however my mind settled on the more sombre matters in hand, the duties that lay ahead and the weather conditions that brought such matters about were very different indeed…
It was January 1946 and facing a post-war clear up campaign Britain had a problem. Vast amounts of munitions lay stockpiled across the country and disposal of these often unstable munitions was a problem to be solved with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of safety to a war weary public.
The solution reached was to follow the example from the previous ‘Great War’ clear up and dispose of the many thousands of tons of unwanted munitions by dumping them at sea. To the South, off the Channel Islands, an underwater trench named ‘The Hurd Deep’ was used for disposal. In the North a similar deep trench lying between South West Scotland and Northern Ireland, ‘Beaufort Dyke’ was utilised. The military port of Cairnryan at Stranraer formed the main base for such operations.
To undertake such dangerous operations the RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) used converted landing craft. Renamed as ‘Ammunition Dumping Craft’ (ADC), their capacity and ease of adaptation made them ideal carriers, particularly of boxes of ammunition. Rollers were used to move the boxes around the cargo space and then dumped into the sea out through the bow ramp as the ADC reversed in the water, (went astern for the purists.)
An ADC would have had a compliment of approximately twelve crew and Roy Harris’s father was one the crew of ADC 527 on that fateful January day in 1946.
Richard Frederick Harris hailed from Liverpool and was an experienced sailor, having served in the Royal Navy as a Gunner and Gunnery Instructor on Minesweepers. Richard had also served for many years with The Merchant Navy where, at the time of his loss, he was a ‘Mate,’ having graduated from The Gravesend Sea School in 1927. Richard was just 33 years old when he died leaving his wife Ivy with two small children and one on the way.
ADC 527 is alargecraft measuring187 feet in lengthwith a beam of nearly 39 feet. She could carry 360 tons of ammunition (the equivalent of 9 Sherman tanks) and was built in Glasgow in 1942 by McClellans shipyard. (Diving her is fascinating but time consuming, she lies in 42 meters of water and two dives minimum are needed to do it justice and to avoid decompression time.)
On the day of the disaster Richard Harris was listed as ‘Mate’ and the craft was skippered by a Captain John Bertram Ross originally from Lossiemouth. A convoy of three ADC left Silloth, Cumbria in fair weather and laden with ammunition.
Although brushed by the Gulf Stream and consequently enjoying a mild climate, Westerly fronts from the Atlantic can frequently affect the Solway coast and later in the voyage on this fateful December day, strengthening winds developed into a gale. Two of the craft found safety in Ramsay on the Isle of Man. Meanwhile Captain Ross, for reasons that will never become clear, made the fateful decision to take ADC 527 North, perhaps in an attempt to reach their intended destination of Cairnryan.
Local news reports at the time noted gale force winds of 60 MPH sweeping along the Solway coast. Mountainous seas were seen to be washing high over the sides of the craft. As they became separated no communications were possible and nothing more was heard of the remaining craft… ADC 527.
The following day life-rafts and bodies began to show up along the coast. Eventually the bodies of all twelve of the crew were recovered.
Diving the craft today there is no apparent evidence of an explosion having occurred. Perhaps Captain Ross made an effort to turn and head for The Isle of Man in line with his convoy colleagues, the heavy cargo became unstable and this, combined with the appalling conditions, sealed the fate of ADC 527 and all her crew. We shall never know for certain.
All this was drifting through my mind as I approached our club’s dive base at The Isle of Whithorn, Dumfries & Galloway. The stark contrast between today’s placid Summer weather and that faced by Richard Harris on that fateful January day in 1946 was disturbing. However, whilst our generation can do little to repay the debt we owe our brave war time predecessors such as Richard Harris, on this occasion our dive club could perhaps help redress the balance just a little.
Our Dive Officer Chris Harrison had in typical fashion prepared for the occasion thoroughly. The RIB was ready, co-ordinates plotted. Our dive club is fortunate to have a minister as a member, Chris Wallace, and he kindly agreed to undertake a formal memorial ceremony. Chris had borrowed a ship’s bell to sound the last watch whilst a floral wreath formed a final tribute on the day.
Roy and his wife, Eve joined us on the quayside where formal introductions were made and Roy’s consent sought for the planned day and ceremony. Eve was slightly nervous having never been in a small craft before but she coped well as we eased our way out of the harbour and out to sea.
The sea was relatively calm and we made good progress to the wreck site. Minister Chris undertook the ceremony with due dignity and gravity, and the wreath was consigned to the water. The sounding of the bells for the last watch formed a particularly sombre moment, few of those present had dry eyes.
After a few moments of pensive thought and consideration we headed off to the shoreline where Richard’s body was found some ten days after the storm and the sinking of ADC527. A beautiful and lonely shingle beach formed a suitably poignant backdrop for Roy to leave his and Eve’s floral tribute to a brave man and a father that Roy could barely remember.
The journey back to port was quiet with a reflective atmosphere, not unhappy but more a case of time for personal thoughts. For me this was time to think about the bravery of naval personnel and the fear they must have had to live with facing both foe and weather, on a regular basis. How did they do it? What was going through Richard Harris’s mind when that storm blew up? I just know that he was a braver man than I could ever be.
Dolphins are not uncommon in Wigtown Bay but had been virtually absent thus far this Summer for no apparent reason. As we left the final wreath floating in the water I mentioned this fact to one of my dive club members when what should emerge from the depths only metres away from us but a single Dolphin! It was as if the Dolphin was saying, “Its OK humans, I’ll take over the watch from here…”
© K. Barlow 2018.