A History of HMS DASHER
The newly commissioned HMS DASHER with Swordfish of 837
squadron embarked on in late July 1942 for deck
landing training and training the ship's air
department in flying operations
DASHER was originally laid down at the yard of the Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company, Chester Pennsylvania, on March 14th 1940 as a 9,100 ton C3 type passenger-cargo vessel the RIO DE JANEIRO. She was Maritime Commission hull number 62, Sun number 189; One of four sister ships of the “Rio” class, RIO HUDSON, RIO
PARANA, RIO DE LA PLATA, RIO DE JANEIRO ordered from the Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company for the US operator Moore-McCormack Lines to operate on the lines South American routes. The “Rio” ships had 17,500 tons loaded displacement, and loaded draft of 27 feet 4 inches. Each ship was designed to accommodate 196 passengers and have 440,000 bales cubic feet cargo space, including 40,000 cubic feet for refrigerated cargo.
The RIO DE JANEIRO was launched on April 12th 1941 and christened by her sponsor Senhora Alzira do Amaral Peixoto, daughter of the President of Brazil. All four “Rio” ships were to be purchased by the US Navy for conversion into a modified 'Long Island' class Auxiliary Aircraft Carrier; RIO DE JANEIRO was requisitioned on May 20th 1941 while still fitting out, and was delivered 80% complete to the US Navy on November 22nd 1941 at the Tietjen and Lang Dry Dock Co., shipyard, Hoboken, New Jersey for conversion.
Conversion to a warship
Her conversion consisted of installing a lightweight
wooden flight deck on a truss work superstructure which covered 70% of
the ships' length, fitting a small enclosed hangar beneath the aft of
the flight deck to be serviced by a single lift. Biter, Like her sister
ship BITER, DASHER was completed with a small island
superstructure. Upon the completion of her conversion into a carrier she
was transferred to the Admiralty and commissioned into the Royal Navy as
HMS DASHER (D37) on 2 July 1942, Captain Richard Bell Davies RN
Captain Bell-Davies was to work up HMS DASHER in preparation for her assuming operational duties, part of this was working up the flight deck parties and other departments involved in flying operations, for this task the four Swordfish of 837 squadron were embarked on July 25th for DLTs and flying training. This complete, command passed to Captain C.N. Lentaignes RN on August 6th 1942: HMS DASHER sailed for the UK on August 24th 1942 with 837 squadron providing anti-submarine sweeps for the Atlantic crossing. DASHER arrived in the Irish Sea on September 10th and 837 disembarked to
On November 8th 1942 DASHER, in company with sister ships AVENGER and BITER participated in Operation 'TORCH', in support of landings in North Africa. DASHER, BITER and the carrier ARGUS operated off the coast of Oran, between them they operated 30 Sea Hurricanes and 3 Swordfish. DASHER had embarked two squadrons for the operation, 804 on October 26th and 891 on October 16th, with six Sea Hurricanes each; upon the ships return to the Clyde both squadrons disembarked to
RNAS Donibristle on November 18th.
The ship next went to Liverpool, arriving there on November 20th where she entered a shipyard for modifications to be carried out. This was primarily the fitting of an air defence operations room to improve her fighter capabilities. she remained there until mid-January when she returned to active duty, being allocated to the Home Fleet; DASHER embarked the 3 Swordfish of 837 NAS 'D' flight 0n January 22nd before steaming for Scapa Flow, arriving there on February 1st, to begin working up in preparation for convoy escort duty. Subsequently DASHER was assigned to the escort group covering Russian bound convoy JW53 which sailed from Loch Ewe on the 15th.
HMS DASHER at Hvalfjord, Iceland in February 1943 with
convoy JW53. Photo is taken from the deck of the cruiser
HMS Belfast. Photo: From the collection of
Sub-Lieutenant (A) John Vallely RNVR
On February 16th she embarked five Sea Hurricanes of 804 NAS to provide fighter cover and the six Swordfish of 815 NAS and proceeded to Iceland. DASHER was forced to return to Hvalfjord, Iceland two days after the convoy set out on the long North Atlantic leg to Russia to effect repairs to her flight deck which was damaged in severe weather conditions north of Iceland. Fortunately the convoy suffered no loses. Once initial repairs were completed DASHER returned to Scapa Flow disembarking her aircraft to RNAS Hatston, Orkney on February 26th.
She next proceeded to Dundee for further repairs to be carried out. Captain C.N. Lentaignes RN left DASHER at the end of February, being relieved in command by Captain L.A.K. Boswell RN.
On completion of repairs DASHER began working up in the Clyde on March 24th in preparation for her next operation, embarking 5 Sea Hurricanes from 894 squadron, and six Swordfish from 816 squadron.
HMS DASHER at anchor, there are two Swordfish parked on
her flight deck, The aft lift is down for ventillation.
On Saturday March 27th 1943 DASHER spent the day carrying out flying exercises with the aircraft of her two squadrons, 816 and 891 in preparation for a night torpedo strike against the German battle ship Tirpitz in Norway. At 4:40 pm, the ship's recently appointed commanding officer, Captain Boswell, made an announcement over the ship's tannoy system that flying for the day was completed and that shore leave would be granted on arrival back at Greenock. Shortly after this there was a tremendous explosion; the officers on the bridge looked in astonishment as the ship's two ton aircraft lift, flew about 60 feet, into the air before it fell into the sea behind the ship. DASHER lurched drunkenly before settling by the stern as she began to take on water. The ship quickly lost head way as the engines had stopped, and all electrical power was lost, below decks bring plunged into darkness. The now exposed lift shaft was belching thick black smoke and flames.
Those men not part of the duty watch had already begun preparing for their return to port and the imminent run ashore, they were plunged into disorienting darkness were they stood. Those that could make tier way out of the ship began abandoning ship, jumping overboard from any point of exit they could reach as the fires in the hanger deck grew more intense and the ready use ammunition began to 'cook off'.
The closest vessels to the scene of the disaster were HMS SIR GALAHAD, four miles to the north and HMS ISLE OF SARK, five miles to the south; both ships responded immediately in the knowledge that hundreds of men were swimming in the cold waters of the Clyde, many possibly injured. Other vessels were despatched from ports and harbours long the Clyde to assist. Two merchant vessels in the area at the time of the explosion deserve mention for their heroic rescue efforts, the SS CRAGSMAN and the SS LITHIUM; both ships steamed into the heat and smoke, of the burning oil, the CRAGSMAN emerged with fourteen survivors while the LITHIUM emerged from the dark poll of smoke with a total of sixty survivors! Others were hauled to safety by lifeboats from the Royal Navy ships which were soon at the scene, pulling men out of the water.
Burning fuel oil and aviation fuel had claimed the lives of many those in the water, hypothermia yet others; in all 379 men of the 528 men on board DASHER perished that Saturday evening in March.
The loss of HMS Dasher was
kept a secret from the British nation until 1945 when her loss received
a brief mention in the Times. Theories about her loss and why it was
kept a secret have been explored by many, one suggests that reports of
her loss were suppressed to cover an even bigger secret - that of 'the
man who never was'. Is it possible that a member of Dasher's crew
was posthumously the central character in the famous deception ploy
which employed a dead body carrying fake secret documents set adrift of
the Spanish coast in May 1943?
Click here to learn more.
11 June 2020
Sources used in compiling this account:
Click here for a list of
Steele, J. (1995) 'The Tragedy of HMS Dasher'
Argyll. Argyll Publishing
Fold3.com various documents including;
Admiralty War Diaries
Norfolk Navy Yard War Diaries
Mew York Navy Yard War Diaries
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