photo courtesy of Brian Hargreaves TCA member
Named after the village of Fittleton, (Seven miles North of Stonehenge) on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, she was originally allocated the name: GOLDEN CRICKET
HMS FITTLETON was accepted into the Royal Navy, at Itchen, on the 28th January 1955, and sailed from HMS DILIGENCE, Hythe, the same day.
Between 1955 and 1959 she was part of the Reserve Fleet at Hythe, but in March 1959, the ship underwent an engine conversion from Mirrlees to Deltic engines at Portsmouth.
On November 16th 1960 she was commissioned for the Royal Navy Reserve and renamed HMS CURZON and transferred to Sussex RNR, based at Shoreham, replacing HMS BICKINGTON.
During 1962, as part of the 101st Minesweeping Squadron (MSS), she took part in numerous minesweeping exercises visiting a number of European ports.
On October 1st 1962, the 101st MSS was re-numbered the 10th MSS.
On August 10th 1963 the ship left Shoreham for the Gibraltar Exercise Area where she took part in ‘Exercise Rockhaul’ with ships of the 10thMSS and 7th MSS (from the Mediterranean) returning to Shoreham on completion. During that year she, again, took part in numerous minesweeping exercises and visits including Gibraltar, Zaandam, Guernsey, Cork, Le Treport, Dieppe and Alderney. August 1964 saw her operating in the Gibraltar area in ‘Exercise Rockhaul 2’.
January 1965 saw her back at Chatham for a further refit, which was completed in May of that year, During 1965/66 she took part in a number of exercises, with visits to Gibraltar, Scheveningen and Calais.
January 1967 saw her back at Chatham again for yet another refit which was completed in May of that year and following a period of trials she returned to her Base Port of Shoreham.
Between 1968 and 1969 she took part in a number of minesweeping exercises which included two visits to the Channel Islands, In July 1969 she took part in the Western Fleet Assembly at Torbay.
On January 1st 1976 she was renamed “FITTLETON’ and attached to the Channel Group RNR.
September 11th 1976, Fittleton, manned in the main by London Division RNR personnel, sailed from Shoreham and later joined company with other RNR sweepers on the NATO exercise ‘Teamwork’ and was to arrive at Hamburg on September 21st for a three day Official Visit before returning to her base port of Shoreham on the 26th September.
Regrettably this visit did not take place and ‘Exercise Teamwork’ was to go down in the annals of naval history as one of the most disastrous peacetime operations involving the Royal Naval Reserve.
On September 20th 1976, after completing the exercise, Fittleton proceeded towards Hamburg with six other British minesweepers, when she was ordered to take part in a heaving line transfer of mail with the 2500 ton frigate, HMS MERMAID, 80 miles north of the Texel, in the Frisian group.
At about 1500, with the weather fine, visibility of 5 to 7 miles and a light sea with waves of about 3 feet high, Fittleton commenced the operation by moving towards MERMAID’s port side.
MERMAID was an unusual design. She was built on a frigate hull as the Presidential Yacht for President Nkrumah of Ghana but, due to political changes in that country, she was never delivered. The Royal Navy took over the ship and converted her into an MCM Support Ship. She had an exceptionally short fo’c’sle deck only 68 ft, compared to other frigates of similar displacement.
This meant that FITTLETON, being one fifth of the displacement of the larger ship, was required to approach to a distance of about 50 ft. The transfer was to take place between FITTLETON’s foc’stle and the RAS (Replenishment At Sea) position of MERMAID, which was quite far forward, approximately where the gun turret of a frigate would have been. This meant that the longitudinal separation between stems of the two ships at the waterline was about 25ft.
As FITTLETON closed in on MERMAID from abeam, increasing water pressure between the hulls caused the smaller ship to drop about 40ft astern into a position which, although stable and close enough to MERMAID, did not permit the transfer to be made at the planned RAS position. It was therefore necessary for the FITTLETON to make a second attempt.
Once the RAS position had been realigned, FITTLETON commenced her second approach and, in doing so, began to experience acute forces of interaction between the ships (known as “Canal Effect”), in particular, the “Resistance Barrier” emanating from the bow of the larger ship. On this occasion, instead of dropping astern down the barrier, FITTLETON was forced ahead and, at the same time, sucked inward towards the MERMAID.
A reduction in speed did not slow down the forward movement, and increased rudder, in a way, accelerated the rate of closing, so that FITTLETON crunched alongside MERMAID approximately bridge to bridge. In spite of further speed reductions, she continued to move ahead under the flare of MERMAID’s port bow.
Because of his ship’s forward movement down the resistance barrier, at some 3 kts faster than the shaft revolutions would normally have produced, FITTLETON’s Commanding Officer decided not to stop engines (the clutch disengaged at 7-8 kts) and run the risk of damage and possible injury to the fo’c’sle party at the guardrails, but to utilise the sweeper’s noted acceleration from its twin Napier Deltic diesels, and drive her out of further trouble.
At first, with the rudder hard to port and with both engines Full Ahead, FITTLETON’s stern came into line with the MERMAID’s bow, and it was thought that she would break away safely.
It was not to be, for, no sooner had the ships cleared one another, than the bow pressure wave from the MERMAID, acting on underwater stern and fitments of the FITTLETON, forced the stern to port and the bow to starboard so that the FITTLETON was driven across the path of the MERMAID.
In spite of prompt action by the MERMAID, in putting her controllable pitch propellers astern, the bow struck the FITTLETON’s starboard side in the region of the Minesweeping Store while pushing her sideways, so that there was a reaction on the keel, and she rolled over through 180 degrees.
The time between the initial crunch and capsizing was not more than a minute; the time to actually capsize the ship about five seconds.
As FITTLETON began to list, some of her crew managed to jump overboard, but many were still onboard when she capsized. HMS CROFTON (Solent Division), was the first on the scene, and by a remarkable feat of seamanship, succeeded in placing her stern against the upturned hull, from where she was able to rescue, not only those who were thrown clear and subsequently surfaced, but also a non-swimmer who had clambered up onto the keel by way of the now stationary propeller shaft.
Another non-swimmer, wearing a life-jacket, found himself trapped underneath, and pulled himself across deck grabbing anything that came to hand, until he bobbed to the surface.
Two others were trapped in the wheelhouse but found an airlock behind the door and swam to the surface where they were picked up. An officer, who was on the bridge as the ship rolled over, had to swim under the ship, colliding with the flag lockers and signal lamps before reaching the surface.
A Leading Cook, was on FITTLETONs upper deck, making his way to the Galley to check for damage when the ship capsized. Flooding was immediate, and he began to make his way aft. On the way he met two ratings who were, both, considerably shaken and confused. He guided them through the waist-deep water to the wardroom flat and from there they escaped to the surface. he then stopped to help a third rating who was unable to find an escape route, telling him to take his boots off. He then guided him towards the galley flat door, which was closed, blocking their escape. By now there was very little air in the compartment, and they were in danger of drowning. The Leading Cook told the rating to keep close to him and swam towards the door, which they managed to open. Both men then escaped by swimming underwater through the wardroom flat and up to the surface.
For this action, the Leading Cook was awarded the Queens Gallantry Medal for saving life. The citation stated that ‘by putting the safety of his fellows before his own, he saved the life of one rating, and contributed to the escape of two others. His determination, presence of mind and selfless consideration of others was courageous and in the best consideration of the service’.
Another remarkable escape was by a recruit, who was also sick on his first voyage !! He was in his bunk in the Lower Forward mess deck, and confronted by this strange inverted world. He made his way through the watertight door, (which he closed after him), then went downward until meeting water in the maindeck alleyway. He continued on downwards through it, until he came to a ladder leading up (sic) onto the fo’c’sle and by that route, made his way clear to the surface some 15 minutes after capsizing.
With the assistance of HM Ships CRICHTON, HODGESTON, KEDLESTON, REPTON and WISTON, 32 survivors, three of them injured, were eventually transferred to MERMAID.
Admiral Commanding Reserves (who was in charge of MERMAID) put an officer on the upturned hull, and tapping was heard from inside the vicinity of the engine room. It was known that there was someone alive in the hull, but the timbers of the hull were too thick to talk to anyone inside.
ACR decided to try to keep FITTLETON afloat until specialised salvage vessels arrived, by passing minesweeping wires under her propeller shafts and getting two minesweepers to support her, but the wires could not hold her and parted. He also considered blowing a hole in the ship’s hull, or ramming her in a bid to cut her in two, but rejected both ideas because of the danger to anyone still alive in the ship and the probability that any hole (even if successful through the complex wood and aluminium structure) would cause her to sink immediately.
Rescue teams from the RN and the Dutch and German Navies were rushed to the scene by helicopter to rescue some of the missing men who were still alive in an air pocket in the hull.
FITTLETON sank, stern first, between 21.00 and 22.00 in 150 ft of water.
he following day, MERMAID landed the bodies of two men, and 32 survivors at Harwich. After medical examination at the Royal Military Hospital, Colchester, only six of the crew were detained suffering from the effects of oil and sea-water in their lungs.
Back in the North Sea, Royal Navy and Dutch Clearance Divers started diving in relays from first light, but with knocks on the hull going unanswered, there was no trace of any further survivors.
They found that sand had been moved by the flow of the tide, partially obliterating the bridge of the minesweeper, and the doors and hatches were jammed. The divers attached cables with orange marker buoys at the bow and stern, to guide the salvage experts with their heavy lifting chains.
For the salvage operation, a team of 11 RN divers, working from the 1581 ton German salvage tug TAURUS, attached heavy steel hawsers to FITTLETONs hull. The lifting operation was carried out under the command of HMS ACHILLES.
At 1630 on September 21, 1976, the 1060 ton crane MAGNUS started her powerful motors and began the lengthy task of raising FITTLETON to the surface.
The first attempt at lifting had to be aborted due to technical reasons, but, during that night, using searchlights and flares, the ghostly FITTLETON finally re-appeared from the gloomy depths of the North Sea.
Supported by the MAGNUS, FITTLETON arrived at Den Helder on October 4, where 1 officer, 4 senior rates and 6 junior rates were put onboard to look after the personal effects of the Ships Company. On arriving onboard , the scene was chaotic, with money scattered everywhere, piles of debris with sodden Pound Notes enmeshed in it, all having to be swept aside. The ships company had been paid only an hour before the tragedy, with senior rates receiving £87 each, and junior rates getting £50 each, and the majority of the crew had also taken money and personal possessions such as cameras, for their annual working holiday.
When the ship finally returned to Chatham on October 11, Naval Investigators were called to the scene, as only £174 had been recovered, and of 10 wallets found, six were empty, and it is understood that two of them bore marks of being torn open.
The wreck of FITTLETON was subsequently sold to LIGURIA MARITIME LTD, Sittingbourne for breaking up.
Survivors from the FITTLETON claimed compensation for lost cash and personal possessions, much of which was suspected to have been plundered from lockers and wallets during the salvage operation.
The stripping of the ship was so thorough that, at one point, even the ship’s bell and wheel were taken, but these were later returned by the authorities at Den Helder.
Recognising the special circumstances of the tragedy the MOD ultimately made good all losses of private property and money.
A memorial service for the twelve sailors who gave their lives was held in the church of All Saints in the village of Fittleton, Wiltshire and this continued for several years until survivors decided to commemorate just the decennial anniversaries on the 20th, 30th and 40th (in 2016).
Survivors and members of the Ton Class Association participate in these commemorations.
On display in the church is a small wooden plaque with the ship’s badge and brass plate bearing those twelve names and the ships Name Plate.
A memorial plaque can also be seen at St Martins-in-the-Field, London, in memory of those who lost their lives.
A memorial window has been installed in HMS PRESIDENT, the RNR depot from which many of the crew that sailed in FITTLETON on that fateful day came.
M1136 HMS FITTLETON 20th September 1976
Ships Company R.I.P.
Sub Lt. Christopher GRENFELL London Division RNR
Chief Radio Supervisor Philip BARBER London Division RNR
Cook Kevin DONOGHUE RN HMS SUPERB
Marine Engineering Mechanic Ian HEWSON London Division RNR
Marine Engineering Mechanic Gerard HOEY RN HMS SULTAN
Ordanance Electrical Mechanic Charles NEWELL Sussex Division RNR
Radio Operator Richard MASSEY Forth Division RNR
Cook Michael PILCH London Division RNR
Chief Petty Officer Cook Frederick PILGRIM London Division RNR
Radio Operator Patrick QUANTRILL Southend Comms Training Centre RNR
Comms Yeoman David SKINNER London Division RNR
Mechanician First Class Stanley TURNER BEM London Division RNR