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 December 1946.
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 month.
"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’sle 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 dangerous waters.
"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
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
"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 was out.
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
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
Bombay Reef in a larger map
Use mouse wheel to zoom in and out, right mouse click and
drag to move map within window.
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