Naval campaigners will find out at last where the bodies are buried

A body from HMS Dasher is carried to a military truck <em>Picture: John Steele</em>
A body from HMS Dasher is carried to a military truck Picture: John Steele
It has taken 68 years, but at last relatives of those who died in one of the worst British naval disasters might soon be able to discover where the bodies are buried.

Lawyers acting for North Ayrshire Council have just agreed to start the legal moves which campaigners believe will solve one of the longest lasting and painful mysteries of the second world war.

A formal request will be made to the courts asking for the excavation a patch of ground at Ardrossan cemetery in Ayrshire.

This should allow archaeologists to peel away the topsoil from an area which is thought to contain the bodies of more than 60 British seamen – sailors who were dumped in the unmarked pit apparently because the Royal Navy was desperate to keep the true story of their deaths a secret.

The sailors had been part of the complement of 555 serving on HMS Dasher. The Royal Navy vessel had started life as a freighter, but was hastily converted into an aircraft carrier during the early part of the war.

HMS Dasher sank suddenly in the Firth of Clyde in March 1943, ripped apart by an explosion which may well have been caused by a fuel leak and a dropped cigarette.

The loss of 379 of the 555 crew still represents the second-worst naval disaster in home waters. It is only surpassed in scale by the loss of the 833 men in the sinking of the Royal Oak at Scapa Flow in 1939.

Thirteen of the bodies which were brought ashore were buried with military honours at Ardrossan cemetery and another seven were buried at Greenock. However, dozens more which were washed up along the Ayrshire coast were apparently taken away by the Navy and never seen again.

Campaigners believe up to 60 corpses were dumped hastily in an unmarked grave at Ardrossan cemetery as the Royal Navy did its best to keep the extent of the disaster secret.

The campaigners have tried for two decades to find out exactly where the bodies were buried so they can erect a memorial and a plaque commemorating the site. But they have had their appeals for help rejected by a succession of official and military organisations.

Even wartime papers relating to HMS Dasher were kept from them, retained in secret by the UK government which reclassified them for a further 75 years when they came due for release in 2008.

But an all-important breakthrough was secured last Friday when North Ayrshire Council agreed to co-operate in plans to excavate the part of Ardrossan cemetery where campaigners believe the bodies were buried.

John Steele, an author who has been investigating HMS Dasher tragedy for four decades, said last weekend that he was delighted with the outcome.

“Should the professional archaeological sensitive search prove positive it will bring closure to many of the bereaved families and myself,” Mr Steele said.

“With the ongoing support of those who have helped and encouraged me in my lengthy search, a suitably worded memorial will be erected in memory of the 355 men who are listed as missing.”

Research by archaeologists from Glasgow University last year appeared to suggest that there could indeed be bodies buried in an unmarked plot. The team, led by Dr Tony Pollard, director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology and a former presenter of the BBC2 archaeology series Two Men in a Trench, scanned an area of Ardrossan cemetery identified by Mr Steele and found evidence of a possible mass grave.

But the archaeologists said they could not be definitive until they had excavated at least a layer of topsoil to find out whether there were bones underneath.

Now that they have almost received the certificate they need from the sheriff court, they will be able to start planning their definitive dig.

Mr Steele, in his book The American Connection to the Sinking of HMS Dasher, details how bodies were washing up on the shore at Ardrossan for three weeks after the disaster.

They were stored at the harbour, then controlled by the Royal Navy, before being driven away in the back of a lorry covered with a tarpaulin.

“They held a small funeral for those who were buried in Ardrossan Cemetery,” Mr Steele said, “but they couldn’t have 60 coffins going through the town without everyone knowing what had happened.

“I’ve talked to people who said they saw trucks going in the direction of the cemetery at night loaded with bodies and covered with tarpaulins and coming back empty next day.”

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