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The Breaking-up of the oil tanker

TORREY CANYON

 

The following photographs are of the wreck of the oil tanker Torrey Canyon. These details have been written and collaborated by David Axford and another Communicator, Colin (Taff) Davies,  who were both onboard HMS Daring at the time of the incident.

Depending on what source you read it was either Saturday March 18th or Sunday March 19th 1967 that the Torrey Canyon grounded on the Seven Stones Reef between Lands End and the Scilly Isles. She was sailing for Milford Haven with 120,000 tons of crude oil from Kuwait.

The immediate response was to try and salvage her. (see salvage attempt) Thirty thousand gallons of oil had escaped from the tanker and was moving steadily towards the Cornish coast by the prevailing wind and current. Detergent was used by Royal Navy vessels to try and disperse the oil. The Torrey Canyon had started to break up and Harold Wilson and his cabinet held a mini cabinet meeting at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose and decided to order the setting fire to the remaining oil, to try and avoid the oil disaster getting worse.

In the meantime HMS Daring was in the middle of her work-up at Portland. This is when the ship and the men are put through every eventuality conceived, to test whether the men and the ship are proficient to become part of the operational fleet.

Given that the following dates of the bombing are accurate, we sailed in the early hours of Monday morning, that must have been the Easter Monday, 27th March 1967. Approximately seven sailors had just got off a coach at 04:00 from weekend leave and realising what was happening they quickly ducked behind one of the buildings on the pier, not wanting to go to sea that day. The First Lieutenant had spotted them from the Daring’s bridge wing and shouted at them to get onboard. As soon as they were onboard the gangway was raised and the ship sailed. The ship had been at 8 hours notice for steam and yet achieved the impossible by being ready for sea within just 3 hours!

There were quite a few ships’ company left behind, as leave didn't finish until 07:30 that morning. Only half the ship’s cooks were onboard. The communicators onboard worked watches of six hours on and six hours off for the three days we were required to be on station.

Daring's presence was required as a range safety ship to keep all unwanted shipping well away from the Torrey Canyon wreck. There were a large number of Russian trawlers (bristling with aerials) all jockeying for a good position to view the bombing, presumably.

On Tuesday 28th March 1967 the Fleet Air Arm sent Buccaneers from Lossiemouth to drop forty-two 1,000lb bombs on the wreck. This was followed by the Royal Air Force in sending Hunter jets to drop cans of aviation fuel to make the oil blaze. Seventy five per cent of the bombs were on target and both sections of the wreck were on fire.

However, exceptionally high tides had put the blaze out and it took further attacks by Sea Vixens from the Naval Air Station at Yeovilton and Buccaneers from the Naval Air Station at Brawdy as well as more RAF Hunters with napalm to ignite the oil until the wreck was free from oil.

Crowds of holidaymakers were watching the spectacle from the shoreline at Lands End. Though the bombing was declared a success the Press made much of the twenty five per cent of misses on a stationary target.

After Daring had completed her Guard ship duties we then sailed back to Portland to continue with our work-up.

Other warships employed with the surface operations were Barorosa, Delight, Aurora, Eskimo, Carysfort, Blackwood, Clarveston, Wotton and Nurton. Another task force for the Channel Islands operations consisted of Pellew, Laleston, Belton, Highburton and Soberton. Thousands of gallons of detergent were sprayed on the 270 square miles of sea contaminated by the oil slick. Ninety three miles of Cornish coastline was affected. This was the first major oil tanker disaster and sadly not the last....

 

 
Torrey Canyon

1) Torrey Canyon aground and spilling oil

Torrey Canyon
2) Tugs abandoning her after futile attempt to free her.
Torrey Canyon

3) Now split into two halves.

Torrey Canyon

4) Close-up of the bridge being swamped by the waves.

Torrey Canyon

5) Bridge almost submerged.

Torrey Canyon

6) Stern awash.

Torrey Canyon

7) Stern sinking.

Torrey Canyon

8) Breaking up.

Torrey Canyon

9) Clouds of smoke is all that remains after being bombed and fired upon.

 

Salvage Attempt

The following tale, as recalled by Frans van Rixel from Belgium, is of the attempt to salvage the Torrey Canyon.


"I was a young engineer (21) working for Wijsmuller, the salvage company and onboard the Torrey Canyon attempting to salvage it when the engine room exploded, blowing open the aft castle. Myself and others ended up in oil-filled sea and we had to be rescued ourselves.

Nightmarish experience. Never had any good pictures as all my gear was left onboard and is now on the bottom of the ocean. We witnessed the breaking up and RAF attempts to fire the vessel.

One of our colleagues, Captain Stal, was blown overboard by the explosion. He was taken from the water onboard the tug but in spite of immediate action by RAF or Coast guard (who dropped a doctor by helicopter) he died an hour later and he was the only victim of this disaster.

We were all taken by tug to Falmouth where an inquiry was held. Later we returned to the site but too much damage was done to the vessel and it was than decided to destroy it.

I myself was in the engine room at about 10:00 looking for bolts when the fumes hit me. I decided to get out then. As the vessel was still being rocked by the heavy swells something must have fallen and created a spark which caused the explosion. I remember the swimming pool, which was located on top of the engine room, completely being blown out at around noon.

At this time we were all on the bridge having a lunch break, but we immediately donned our lifejackets and jumped into the sea as this was the only thing we could do".

Frans van Rixel

21st September 1998


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