Lifting shroud of secrecy over South Tyneside sea rescue

Jackie's Beach, at Marsden, from where the rescue operation was launched.
Jackie's Beach, at Marsden, from where the rescue operation was launched.

Due to the nature of war and the need for secrecy, military operations of the past were often subject to press restrictions, with news blackouts imposed at the time of implementation, and often for quite sometime after the event itself.

So it was during the Second World War, with numerous heroic actions and some failures, being kept from the public.

And that appears to have been the case involving a major rescue operations which took place off the South Tyneside coast, sometime between October 16 and 17, in 1940.

As mentioned earlier this week, the incident involved the collision of two ships near Marsden, prompting a rescue operation that eventually saved the lives of 272 seamen.

Christine Buckham, of the Whitburn History Group, revealed how three ships, HMS Fame, HMS Ashanti and HMS Maori (sic) – escort vessels for the newly built HMS King George V – set sail from the Tyne.

Ashanti and Fame went south to try to explode mines but collided and ran aground.

Despite the success of the rescue operation, launched from Jackie’s Beach, details of the incident (of which Christine is seeking more) were not thought to have been made public at the time, something which local historian Dorothy Ramser is not surprised about.

As Dorothy says: “No idea if this is what the history group wanted, but it was not in the news at the time, probably because it was a secret operation to get the King George V to Scapa Flow safely, no doubt a deliberate news black out.

“In essence it was to clear a path through the mines to the new battleship’s destination with the fleet at Scapa Flow.”

Dorothy explained that one of the ships involved in the South Shields incident, HMS Ashanti, was ordered, in June 1936, with the keel being laid down on November 23, 1936, and launched on November 5, 1937.

“In January of 1940, Ashanti was pressed into service with the 6th Destroyer Flotilla, she was tasked with attempting the rescue of the submarine HMS Thetis – the submarine was found afloat but heavily damaged and just four men were pulled from the stricken submarine before she slipped below the waves, taking the other 99 men trapped deep inside the submarine with her. It must have been a dreadful sight to witness.

“With the introduction of the new battleship, King George V, Ashanti was tasked to form part of a five ship ‘Special Escort’ to Scapa Flow. The main threat to the new battleship was the underwater mines dropped by the Luftwaffe. It was a secret attempt to detonate any mines that may have been in the area. The crews had not been briefed on the nature of the escort.

“The five destroyers took the lead and had to sail straight into the minefield. The weather at the time was drizzly and the visibility low.”

Dorothy revealed that in the darkness, HMS Fame ran aground.

“Ashanti was right behind her and, although only doing six knots, struck her, damaging fuel lines on both ships. Fame subsequently caught fire.

“The destroyer Maori also ran aground. The tide was receding at the time and the destroyers were left beached, waiting for high-tide.

“When high-tide came, the destroyers were swung round onto rocks and damaged yet further. Ashanti was so damaged by the rocks, that Vickers-Armstrong sent out a repair crew to the site of the incident.

“Two weeks later Ashanti was successfully re-floated and taken to Newcastle for extensive repairs and hull stiffening. It was almost a year before the ship was ready for action again.

“HMS Fame, fire-damaged after the collision, received temporary repairs at Sunderland before she was towed to Chatham Royal Dockyard on February 2, 1941. “Heavily overworked, the dockyard took nearly 18 months to repair the ship.”

As for HMS King George V, the battleship was laid down in 1937 and commissioned in 1940.

“She operated during the Second World War in all three major theatres of war, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Pacific as well as part of the British Home Fleet and Pacific Fleets.

“In May 1941, along with HMS Rodney,King George V was involved in the hunt for and pursuit of the German battleship Bismark, eventually inflicting severe damage which led to the German vessel sinking.

King George V also took part in the allied landings in Sicily and bombarded the island of Levanzo and the port of Trapani She also escorted part of the surrendered Italian Fleet to Malta. In 1945 King George V took part in operations against the Japanese in the Pacific.”