HMS Ark Royal (R09) was the first British aircraft carrier to operate off Greenland in the Davis Straits and had onboard a large team of uniformed and civilian observers and recorders. HMS Londonderry was her plane guard and RFA Tidesurge the replenishment ship. The object of all the separate trials was the same, simply to see how kit of all sorts, above and between decks, worked in very cold conditions. HMS Ark Royal flew aircraft 24 hours a day and never failed to launch and recover on time. It was the longest period of continuous Arctic operations by a carrier or any other ship except perhaps HMS Endurance, since the 2nd world war. (Captain Hill-Norton, Captain, HMS Ark Royal. - HMS Ark Royal IV - R Johnstone-Bryden).
Friday, 20th October 1961 saw us in Puerto Rico with all the conveniences of the USN base, but our stay was short lived after we received a request during the evening of Sunday 22nd October to proceed immediately to the Italian liner Bianca C which had been abandoned on fire, anchored in the deep water entrance channel to St. Georges, Grenada.
At midnight Londonderry departed San Juan arriving off St. Georges at 1815 on Monday 23rd October. It had been confirmed that all the passengers and surviving crew were safe ashore, (one crewman died immediately onboard in the explosion and subsequent fire, two others died later from their injuries) After negotiations with the master of the Bianca C it was agreed that we attempt to tow the stricken, still smouldering vessel, out of the fairway. Her anchor cables had first to be blown off before she could be towed stern first out of the channel. The tow parted and was reconnected several times during the night and following day. Unfortunately at 1123 on Tuesday 24th October, in a cloud of steam she sank to the bottom of the Caribbean, but clear of St. Georges harbour entrance.
Copies of the HMS Londonderry deck log for the 23rd and 24th October 1961 can be viewed by clicking on this link. These copies are by permission of the UK National Archives and are not for commercial use without their permission.
A poignant photograph of Captain Crevaco courtesy of the Costa family archives on the bridge wing after everyone had been evacuated refusing to abandon his ship until she was declared officially a total loss by the Captain of HMS Londonderry on behalf of Lloyds can be seen at the Simply Scuba website along with an excellent detailed account of the incident and subsequent events.
We then returned to San Juan to pick up the lads that had been left behind after our hasty departure who, incidently, had been given 50 dollars between them by a naval padre, and had spent the rest of their stay looking for more padres. We arrrived back in Bermuda on the 27th October after an extremely lively and successful cruise.
Bianca C in happier times
There is no peace for the wicked, however, and so it was on the 3rd November 1961 that we sailed for British Honduras to assist the victims of Hurricane Hattie. We stopped off at Kingston, Jamaica, to load 85 tons of hurricane relief stores, a job we completed in 3¼ hours. We also collected ten doctors and a Methodist chaplain. At 0700 we arrived at Belize in British Honduras and unloaded about half of our stores there. Seven of the ten doctors and the chaplain also went ashore. For four days we patrolled the coastline, sending food and medical stores ashore at many of the small villages and settlements and rendering medical aid where required. Many people had been killed and thousands had been rendered homeless by the disaster. In some of the bigger towns, like Belize, there was a terrible apathy among the natives who were quite prepared to let somebody come and do the work, not being prepared to help themselves at all. A system of "no work-no food" had to be instituted in some places but in others where effective and energetic leadership boosted local morale tremendously, the situation was well in hand. A lot of technical work was put in by our own technicians at Stann Creek. HMS Troubridge did sterling work in Belize itself, and the Americans provided a tremendous amount of assistance.
On the 12th November, after having organised transport, lighting, ferry services, food and medical supplies, we sailed back to Bermuda, dropping doctors and refuelling at Jamaica en route. The job had been a real tonic to us, giving us the feeling that we had been able to help somebody and that we had done it well.
Bob's ditty - a tribute to the DerryLadies and gentlemen, I give you the 'Derry'. The Skipper, the Jimmy and the crew.
The quarterdeck, top and the fo'c'sle and her seamen all loyal and true.
Her signals, her stokers and leckies, her officers, her tiffies and stores.
She kept us all safely inside her, protected behind watertight doors.
Some 70,000 thousand miles we sailed her, from Naples to the Arctic's cold snow.
Then down through the islands and atolls, to dreaded Cape Horn far below.
Through the Magellans and into the Pacific, passing Chile, the canal and the States.
To Vancouver, Esquimalt and Up-homers, where sadly we left one of our mates.
Back through the locks for the third time and around the islands once more.
To Trinidad, Kingston and Georgetown to be greeted with love as before.
Then home we ran for Bermuda, our commission was nearing its end
One last run ashore in the Club house and a fond farewell to our friends.
We left Ireland Island behind us and a tour of duty well done
Clutching the rabbits and pressies we bought there, and our skins well darkened with sun.
Many a tear was shed as we left there, at the thought we would never come back
But proud were the men of the 'Derry' as we steamed out on our usual port tack.
Across the Atlantic for the last time, to hand over at the mighty Azores,
To water and fuel for the last time, and take on our mail and stores.
Then homeward, ever homeward, like the mariners of old we took flight.
And then on the distant horizon, was England and the Lizard's bright light.
We rounded the Needles at daybreak, leaving Outer Spit buoy off to port
The customs were waiting there for us, to check on the items we bought.
Then on into Pompey and families, wives and the loved ones we knew
To berth on the Railway Jetty and as usual we were starboard side too.
So now I finish my story, of an adventure so thrilling and bold
Of hurricanes, salvage and banyans, as told by the sailors of old.
Lest we forget dear old 'Father' who looked after all of our needs
Gentle Ian, our captain and mentor, we follow wherever he leads.
Maybe for the last time we gather united, for a commission that wasn't so bad.
To thank the Lords of the Admiralty, for the officers and the lads that we had.
I was proud to have served on the 'Derry' and to have been part of her crew.
So gentlemen let's raise our glasses, to the Skipper, the Jimmy and YOU
Read by Bob Seymour at the Gala Dinner - 27th April 2012 Portsmouth