IT was supposed to be a secret mission. It ended with two warships stuck on rocks and one of the biggest rescue operations ever seen.
The incident in October 1940 involved two Royal Navy destroyers. HMS FAME and HMS ASHANTI.
Both had been ordered to proceed to the River Tyne with other warships to help escort the newly built battleship HMS KIING GEORGE V to the River Forth in Scotland. It was a time when German U-boats roamed the seas looking for targets. A brand new battleship would be top of any German submarine commander’s hit list, so her protection, by small, fast submarine hunting warships like Fame and Ashanti was vital.
Ashanti and Fame had another dangerous task. Strategists hoped the warships creating sub-sea noise would detonate any acoustic mines laid by the Germans. Similarly, the magnetic signatures created by the hulls would cause any magnetic mines to explode, minimising the risk to the brand new battleship.
In poor weather on October 16 1940, the group of five warships began the operation. The route to the Tyne was not straightforward. Defensive minefields had been laid by the British and the flotilla, travelling at high speed, began a zig-zag steaming pattern weaving through the “friendly” mine fields as they approached their destination.
Fame was the first to hit the jagged rocks at Whitburn Steel - an outcrop on the coast between Sunderland and South Shields. She was capable of speeds of up to 35 knots - around 40 miles an hour - so when she hit the rocks she stuck fast. Ashanti, following at a more leisurely pace, hit the stricken Fame. It was only a glancing blow, but it was enough to damage fuel pipes in both vessels. Fame caught fire. The seas lifted Ashanti further on the rocks tearing and twisting her hull. Both were stuck fast, their crews stranded.
Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade was a rescue organisation based on Wearside. The group, along with brigades in nearby South Shields and Tynemouth, had perfected the practice of so-called Breeches Buoy rescues, where a rocket carrying a line is fired onto a stranded ship and the crew is hauled to land one by one.
It took 32 hours to bring 272 men to the shore. A world record rescue.
Salvage crews worked for weeks to free the warships from the rocks. Ashanti and Fame were refitted and returned to service. Both survived the war, with Ashanti being scrapped in 1949, and Fame, renamed and sold-on to the Dominican Republic. She served until 1968 before being broken-up.
The battleship King George V made the hazardous trip from the Tyne to Scotland. She also survived the war.
The incident was down to naviational error. These days modern Royal Navy warships are guided by satellite.
Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade still exists and continues to save lives. The invention of the helicopter means rocket line rescues are a thing of the past. Below is a video of the modern-day Life Brigade training with an RAF Sea King Rescue helicopter.