1,400 ton River Class Frigate HMS AIRE,
Tony Elliott remembers well the
incident that left him and 84 other crew men stranded and off course
in severe weather conditions and little hope of rescue. This is the
story of the loss of the River Class Frigate HMS AIRE, K262, in
The job sounded simple, sail from Hong
Kong to Singapore; HMS AIRE was being paid off after her last tour
of duty as the Nominal Depot Ship to HMS TAMAR, the naval base in
Hong Kong. She had arrived in the colony for the purpose in March
1946 and was renamed 'TAMAR' on March 14th and moored alongside in
the dockyard, acting as an accommodation ship for the base which was
still being constructed.
When the new shore accommodations were
opened in November 1946 her role as a depot ship was over, on
November 20th she reverted to 'AIRE' and was earmarked for disposal,
being ordered to proceed to Singapore to pay off. A steaming crew
was assembled and she departed on her final voyage the following
"I was part of a
scratch crew who joined the ship to sail it to Singapore, many of us
were from the 110th ML flotilla which had been paid off and turned
over to the Hong Kong police.
the 19th Dec 1946 we sailed from Hong Kong for Singapore, there were
Typhoon warnings and the seas were extremely rough. I was on the
middle watch in the radio room on the 20th, during this watch
received messages about two ships foundering one I believe was an
ocean going tug. I went off watch at 4 am and turned in to my
hammock in the foc'Ęsle mess. "
While still in the South China Sea the
1,400-ton ship was caught up in a typhoon; the heavy seas and wind
driven tides took her some 30 miles off her planned course and into
"At approx 05:30
there was a loud bang and a scraping noise; we all jumped out of our
hammocks heading for the upper deck. I arrived up the ladder outside
the radio room, and remember the PO Tel ordering me into the radio
room to send out an SOS with position report. It turns out our
transmitters were not working so no one in RN HQS Hon Kong was aware
of our situation. The Captain cleared lower deck and informed us of
our situation, we then said a prayer and sang Eternal Father. "
In the early hours of December 20th the ship had been driven
aground on Bombay Reef, a treacherous atoll at the
south-easterly end of the Paracel Islands in the South China
Sea, and stuck fast. The impact caused the generators to go
off line plunging the ship into darkness and the ship began
to take on water in several compartments, including the
engine room. Damage control parties did what they could but
without power this was not much. Having lain alongside at
Hong Kong for several months much of her equipment,
including her radios, had not been properly maintained, it
was soon discovered that all of the ship's life belts were
in a perished condition.
"At this time a
fire started in the engine room and as we had no power we had to
fight it manually, I believe the engine room staff were trying to
find a way to release the oil from the ship. Also the loss of power
meant food had to be prepare in some other way than in the galley.
There was a large copper placed on the after deck, how it was heated
I am not sure but everything went in including the turkeys which
were on board. "
Manning the bucket chain - C/Jx 581464
Telegraphist Tony Elliott marked with an X and
others on the stricken AIRE.
HMS AIRE had struck
the reef on a high tide, by day light this had receded leaving
her high and dry on the coral. She was found to be holed in
seven compartments and her port propeller shaft brackets had
embedded themselves in the reef. The engine room fire was the
result of fuel and oil which had escaped into the bilges
igniting. To fight the fire a chain of buckets, mess tins and
pans was organised and it was to be two days before the blaze
By the 23rd it it was clear
that there was little hope of rescue, they were 30 miles off
the nearest shipping lane, with no radio and very little
food or water on board; even the rum ration exhausted.
Lookouts had been watching the horizon for days and several
false sightings had raised hopes of rescue only to have them
dashed when no ship appeared. But on the afternoon of the
23rd they were found. At about 1620 the heavy transport ship
HMS BONAVENTURE spotted them; the BONAVENTURE herself had
been blown off course by the tail end of the typhoon so this
encounter was by pure chance.
When the BONAVENTURE attempted
to contact the vessel her lookouts had reported using radio
and signal lamp she received no response - AIRE's radio
was out of action and she was not carrying signal gear, and
no signal rating was in the steaming party. When they failed
to reply the BONAVENTURE decided to close the contact to
investigate. Once it was realised they had stumbled across
the stricken HMS AIRE she stood off the reef and plans to
affect a rescue were begun.
evening of the 23rd the Bonaventure was sighted; when they
took stock of our situation it was realised that it was not
possible to launch any boats or attempt to evacuate the ship
from the starboard side due to heavy swells hitting the
ship. Arrangements were made the next day for them to find a
gap in the reef and enter with a heavy cutter, they were
unable to get close to the ship on the seaward side be cause
of heavy surf. They were also unable to get close on the
reef side because of lots of coral. A grass line was floated
in from the cutter and we left the ship one by one with
whatever you could carry on your back, this was Christmas
Eve. Probably the strangest one I ever spent during my time
in the RN"
The weather was still rough
when the BONAVENTURE arrived and it was decided to wait
until the following morning to attempt the rescue, the
stranded crew having to face another night of crashing waves
and the AIRE rolling and rocking on the coral. On the
morning of Christmas Eve after surveying the entire reef a
small channel through the reef was found, just passable by a
motor cutter and a first attempt to reach the AIRE was made.
One of BONAVENTURE's 32 ft cutters was launched but after
clearing the passage into the lagoon could not get near the
ship. One at a time the AIRE's crew had to make their way
over the ship's side onto the coral and wade out to the
cutter at the edge of the reef where the calmer waters
allowed her helmsman to keep station while the survivors
were embarked. The first trip loaded 51 men and the ship's
dog. The remainder of the crew left the ship in the second
run. After marking the channel and placing a buoy
BONAVENTURE set course for Singapore. There were no serious
casualties and all 85 crew were put ashore in Singapore.
"I was serving on HMS ALERT in October 1951 on our way
from Singapore to Hong Kong we sailed close to the Bombay
reef and the hulk of the AIRE was still there I only wish I
had got a photograph. "
This was not the only time that
HMS ALERT had visited the reef; she was tasked with boarding
the AIRE in April 1947 in order to salvage documents etc.
They were too late however, as local fishermen or Chinese
pirates had already stripped the ship, their Junks with less
draught, could operate in the Reef.
Bombay Reef in a larger map
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The memories of C/Jx 581464 Telegraphist Tony Elliott
Royal Navy Research Archive materials on HMS BONAVENTURE
Maclean, M. (2008) 'Naval Accidents Since 1945' Maritime
Also by Tony Elliott
experiences as a boy-entrant at HMS ST. George in 1943 -
recollections of a a Boy Telegraphist