(The content of this page is the result of several year’s work by Lloyd’s relative Barry Barnett who is also an Old Boy of Blandford Grammar School)
Lloyd Fletcher (P/JX 22047) was working as a communications signalman on HM Tug Barwick (W174) engaged in a salvage operation about five miles from Alexandria Harbour in Egypt. He had just heard that British forces had recaptured the North African city of Tunis the previous week.
Suddenly, there was a major explosion. Barwick and Taurus, a locally crewed Egyptian harbour tug, were trying to refloat SS Delphinula, an oil tanker which had run aground on a sand bank nine days earlier. Ironically, he should not have been onboard on that fateful day of Tuesday 18th May 1943 as he had agreed to Scottish friend John Hoy’s request to swop shifts.
News of the explosion was sent from the Commander in Chief Levant to the Admiralty, London in the following cipher dated 19th May 1943:
‘Regret to report that at 06.35 18th May a serious explosion occurred in tanker when salvage tugs were proceeding alongside due to petrol vapour becoming ignited. DELPHINULA. HM Tug BARWICK and Harbour Tug immediately caught fire and had to be abandoned. Fires in tugs extinguished, damage to both extensive. DELPHINULA now burning fore and aft and will probably become a total loss. Tanker beached? In position 231 degrees. 3.7 cables from Great Pass Beacon at Alexandria. Casualties are being reported separate.’
On 20th May 1943 a further cipher was sent from the Royal Navy’s Alexandria shore base, HMS Nile reporting that signalman Henry Fletcher was ‘missing presumed killed.’ The Fletcher family were then told of the loss of Lloyd and this was followed by a letter of condolence from Buckingham Palace to his father, Harry Fletcher.
The Queen and I offer you our heartfelt sympathy in your sorrow.
We pray that your country’s gratitude for a life so nobly given in its service may bring you some measure of consolation.
Lloyd’s watch and signet ring were then returned to the Fletcher family which must have been recovered from a locker at the shore base as neither showed any signs of damage.
The burning cargo had travelled a long way.
Atlantic convoy records show the Delphinula had crossed the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York (Convoy ON143) arriving in November 1942.
Known as benzene, the 11,000 ton fuel had been loaded at an oil refinery in Houston, USA. From there the vessel had travelled through the Panama Canal, spent Christmas going round Cape Horn, and crossed the South Atlantic to Durban in South Africa. She sailed onto Aden, journeyed to and from Bandar Abbas in Iran, sailed onto Port Said passing through the Suez Canal and on 29 April 1943 was docked at Haifa in Palestine. Delphinula then departed for Alexandria which turned out to be her final destination.
The purpose of the Aden-Bandar Abbas detour was to provide supplies to Russia. Landing at the port of Bandar Abbas, the unloaded fuel was transported by rail and road, known as the ‘Persian Corridor’, to Soviet Azerbaijan.
This long journey was necessary because at the time it would have been far too dangerous, because of likely submarine and air attacks, to have travelled to Alexandria by crossing the Mediterranean.
Ideally, the fuel would have been pumped from the stranded vessel to another tanker but all that was available in Alexandria was a small oil barge, the Scotland. This could only take a few hundred tons. Furthermore, the sea was rough.
In stormy weather, the first attempt to release the vessel by the tugs had failed. However, military requirements to deliver the fuel to the British forces in North Africa necessitated a second more risky attempt. It was decided, therefore, to try and refloat the oil tanker by lightening the load. Compressed air would be pumped into the tanks to force petrol out with fuel pouring over the deck from the various leaks.
The process began on 17th May. This charged the air surrounding the vessel with highly flammable petroleum vapour. In the high Egyptian temperatures the petrol vaporised quickly. For some 400 yards around the Delphinula it was plain there was petrol in the water. Also, there was the strong smell of petrol. While the process did seem to refloat the oil tanker she still remained pivoted on an obstruction. The place where she was grounded was dangerous as the sea was shallow and the bottom consisted of rocky ranges. There was a perpetual swell so the Delphinula was tending to pound on the rocks to do further occasional damage.
The air compressors started up again at 5.45a.m on 18th May. Then, having stood by all night, Barwick tied up alongside the stranded Delphinula at around 6.00a.m. Thirty minutes later most of the crew were on the mess deck and Lloyd was probably in the wireless room. They felt a slight jolt, then a muffled explosion, followed by a blinding, lightening flash shooting up and down the tug’s alleyway. Some crew members were enjoying a cup of tea on the mess deck.
There was a rush for the ladder and a few of the lads were shouting ‘No need to panic’. They all went up the ladder orderly and one at a time. However, when they reached the top panic really started.
Sea in Flames
The sea around the ship was on fire with the flames soon enveloping the Delphinula. Tank lids, an inch thick with wing nuts and swing bolts holding them tight, were being blown off the larger vessel falling into the sea like playing cards.
The survivors from the three vessels jumped into the sea patches where there was no burning petrol. They were picked up and taken back to Alexandria with the most serious cases going straight to the General Hospital. The force of the explosion completely wrecked both the galley and the upper part of the engine room. The tug’s wireless room, wheelhouse, accommodation for crew, masts and rigging were all also destroyed.
The slight jolt was the harbour tug Taurus coming alongside the Barwick seeking to transfer the tanker owner and dockyard officials across to the Delphinula. As a deckhand was throwing a rope between the tugs, a sheet of flames flashed between both tugs. A surviving Barwick crew member reckoned the cause of the explosion was the bump that Taurus gave the Barwick when she came alongside. From the condition of the tugs, a subsequent damage survey also reckoned the fire started outside the two vessels.
The tug masters had warned their crews of the dangers of naked lights and galley fires before approaching the Delphinula. Smoking and the striking of matches were prohibited. Mess room coal burning fires were extinguished. Both tugs were oil rather than coal fired but there was a spark risk as neither tug had a funnel with a spark arrester. It was reckoned sooty deposits from oil fuelled boilers could generate sparks.
Reports indicate the fire was eventually extinguished on 20th June 1943 with the oil tanker ‘holed, twisted and distorted.’ The Delphinula broke in two a month later and there was a further explosion in September. After the war in 1947, the wreck was recovered and scrapped at Portajes in Spain.
Barwick’s terrible final toll was two killed, five who died from their wounds, five missing presumed killed and five wounded.
HM Tug Barwick
She was a rescue and salvage tug which were the unsung workhorses of the fleet that helped to save some of the largest warships and merchant vessels.
The work was highly dangerous and included combat salvage, lifting, towing and refloating stranded vessels, assisting diving operations and accompanying convoys.
When the war started the overstretched Royal Navy with the help of Allied navies took on the job of defending British and Allied merchant ships from German attacks. The main method of defence against such attacks was the convoy system. This involved groups of merchant ships sailing in close formation under the protection of escort vessels. A tug’s role involved towing stricken boats and picking up survivors while destroyers and corvettes hunted down German submarines with depth charges.
Countless lives were saved and on more than one occasion as many as 250 survivors were crammed aboard the small vessels. By the end of the war deep sea rescue tugs had salvaged more than three million tonnes of shipping but lost 30 tugs and 600 tug men.
Typical of the work of rescue and salvage tugs was the removal and beaching of British merchant steamer SS Clan Macindoe which caught fire in Alexandria a month earlier in April 1943. The stricken vessel was removed and beached at a location where no further damage could be caused but sadly became a total loss because her cargo included ammunition.
Movement of the vessel was vital to limit the damage as Alexandria Harbour was a major base for the British Mediterranean Fleet. There were both British and French warships in the Harbour at the time.
Barwick had an eventful, hardworking 43-year life and sailed under five different names. She was a 418 ton American built vessel launched in New Jersey in August 1919. Originally named the Yuma (AT79), she was constructed by Bethlehem Steel and transferred from the US Navy to the Royal Navy in July 1941 under the Lend Lease arrangements.
This was a programme of military aid by which the USA provided goods and services to its allies in the fight against Germany, Italy and later Japan. She was among the first vessels to transfer.
Renamed Barwick, under the white ensign, she had an active war spending sometime in the North Atlantic being a member of Convoy SC42, a convoy of 72 merchant and 29 escort vessels travelling from Canada to Liverpool. This convoy was attacked by a pack of 14 German submarines south of Greenland over three nights in September 1941. Sixteen merchant vessels were sunk and four damaged. Barwick was also involved with convoys off the American east coast and in the Caribbean. In October 1942, Barwick is recorded as being off West Africa probably making her way to Egypt by way of the Cape of Good Hope.
Repaired and Renamed
Despite the extensive damage to Barwick she was still afloat. Consequently it was possible to tow her into Alexandria’s dry dock for repair.
Recommissioned in January 1944, a month later she joined a convoy from Alexandria to Malta. Renamed HMS Behest, she sailed onto Gibraltar.
In February 1945 off this base she helped save damaged American merchant vessel, the Michael J Stone which had been struck by a German submarine torpedo. She towed the cargo ship into port where she was dry docked and repaired. In 1948 Behest was sold, renamed Sansone and again later Opus, before being scrapped in Italy in 1962.
SS Delphinula was a tanker launched in September 1939 on the Clyde and built by Lithgows in Port Glasgow. She was owned by Anglo-Saxon Petroleum – Shell’s shipping company – and was one of the company’s finest vessels. It was said some of her accommodation was better than a passenger liner.
She was named after a rare shell which was the company’s practice and manned by British officers with a Chinese crew. The Chinese made up almost 15% of the manpower of the British merchant navy at the time.
Records show that Delphinula took part in 53 convoys during World War 2. This included 13 Atlantic crossings safely delivering her fuel cargo to British ports.
After an Atlantic crossing in December 1941 she was berthed in Liverpool. In a night aerial attack a bomb crashed through Delphinula’s deck into the engine room but luckily it did not explode. However, the next day she was less fortunate when a bomb fell onto the dock alongside causing some damage but this was repaired. Records show between 1939 and 1945 the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company lost an incredible 42 vessels from its fleet.
A Court of Inquiry was convened at Ras El Tin Point, Alexandria at 9.30a.m. on Friday 21st May 1943 and presided over by Captain C H Rolleston. Alexandria was the headquarters of the British Mediterranean Fleet. The Court’s considered decision was to censure Captain Richard Sadler MBE, Master of the Delphinula for the stranding of the vessel. However, it found that the fire during salvage was not directly attributable to the stranding but there was criticism that two tugs were alongside while petrol was still being discharged. There was concern also with the range of fire fighting equipment available at Alexandria. Subsequently, there was a legal case where Anglo-Saxon Petroleum sought and won compensation from the Admiralty.
Henry Lloyd Fletcher, known as Lloyd, was born in Pimperne on 21st February 1920 and lived close to St. Peter’s Church.
His parents were Henry, known as ‘Harry’, and Louisa Fletcher. Harry (1887-1963) was born in Albrighton, near Wolverhampton but left as a young boy when his family moved to St. Albans and then onto Dorset.
Harry Fletcher enlisted in the army in June 1916 at Dorchester and was first sent to Woolwich. He was then sent across to France on the SS Duchess of Argyle landing at Le Havre. Harry joined the 2/7th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, was wounded twice, and in August 1917 suffered bad gas poisoning near the French-Belgian border. Despite this, he was sent back to the trenches after a recuperation period of a mere three weeks. As a consequence of gas poisoning, Harry suffered from bronchial problems for the rest of his life.
In spite of his experiences, he much respected the bravery of the average German infantryman.
Lloyd Fletcher went to Pimperne Church of England School which had around 60 pupils. The school had been built in 1908 but still had outside toilets for both teachers and pupils. The Head Teacher was Cornishman William Fry assisted by his Cornish wife Frances.
Music played an important part in the school’s life and curriculum and Lloyd was a member of a choir which was successful in several competitions. The Church School Inspector, Reverend Hankey commented that the children’s ‘singing was regularly good.’
A former pupil reckoned regular attendance was not considered as important as it is today. Some pupils were used to supplement farm labour particularly at haymaking and harvest time and for picking up stones from the fields. Many pupils attended not even for half the school year.
As an ex-pupil later remarked: ‘Course we only had half our schooling; if my father said “I want you today” we just stayed at home – there weren’t the restrictions there are today.’ Although after 1880 schooling until ten was compulsory in practice non – attendance was still widespread in many Dorset villages.
In January 1927, William Fry was succeeded by Gertrude Fuge, a strict disciplinarian.
Pimperne School was not highly regarded at the time by the Education Inspector:
‘It is unfortunately impossible to report that a satisfactory level of attainment has yet been reached. In the first class, arithmetic and composition are very unsatisfactory. The children are extremely slow in simple shopping arithmetic and their English exercises are often full of careless mistakes. This will continue to be the case until the exercises are corrected with proper care and discrimination.’ (January 1922 Inspection Report)
It was not until 1935 that the Inspector was reporting a marked improvement.
Criticism by Inspectors of village school standards was not uncommon and not always the fault of the teachers. Normally pupil teachers had only just left school themselves. Apart from children regularly being kept home for work they also would leave school early to help with milking.
Church Inspector, Reverend Hankey was far less critical:
‘Inspection showed this school to be well up to its usual standards with the possible exception of the Infants Department. This was accounted for by much absence by sickness. The singing was excellent.’
Blandford Grammar School
Despite the foregoing, Lloyd was a bright pupil and he gained entry to Blandford Grammar School.
Like many others from the outlying villages he would cycle the two miles to school daily. The annual school fee was twelve pounds and six shillings which was a lot for Harry and Louisa Fletcher to find from a single agricultural wage.
Mr Greenhalgh was Headmaster and he was followed by James Stott after May 1933. Lloyd’s teachers included T L Hughes, D T Watkins and Miss M W Phillips. Tom Hughes would later become Headmaster, while David Watkins, who taught English Literature, would remain at the school until the 1960s.
The Grammar School was established in 1930 when its name was changed from the Blandford Secondary School. It was a small mixed sex school of about 160 pupils.
The School had spent £180 in 1924 to construct a Memorial Gate that included the names of those former pupils who had lost their lives in World War 1. It had been unveiled on 3rd June 1925 by Sir Percy Hambro. More than 20 years later the name of Henry Lloyd Fletcher would be added to this Memorial.
Inspection Reports of Blandford Grammar School were generally complimentary although there was criticism of too many early leavers.
For more than 25 years, there was sympathy expressed by Inspectors for the poor standard of accommodation, largely consisting of temporary huts, and for the inefficient heating provided by coke stoves. It was recognised that ‘unsatisfactory premises impose severe restrictions and handicaps on the work of the school.’
Despite discussion about a new school during Lloyd’s times, there was never any likelihood of new buildings because of funding limitations.
Harry’s wife, Louisa Stickley (1889-1979) came from Winterborne Zelston and before her marriage in April 1914 at Spetisbury worked for the Tory family as a cook in Blandford.
Lloyd had two sisters Myrtle, who for many years was the church organist in Pimperne and later Langton Long, and a younger sister, Audrey. She also attended Blandford Grammar School, became a primary school head teacher and retired to Normandy.
In 1935, the family moved to Burton Bradstock, near Bridport, where Harry worked for both Reverend Arthur Dittmer, previously the Pimperne rector, and as a jobbing gardener.
Lloyd was employed in the offices of Edwards, a rope and net making business. Bridport had been a rope, twine and net making centre since the Middle Ages. The impending war created an increasing demand for Bridport products which included pull-throughs for rifles, camouflage nets, anti-submarine booms, and all types of container from those carrying supplies to those for lifting vehicles onto ships. There was also the more peaceful demand for football, tennis and cricket nets.
Lloyd was a keen badminton player and played regularly in a hall near the church in Burton Bradstock. He also had a fine tenor voice. At the time of his death, Lloyd had become engaged to Nora, a Bridport girl.
Soon after the outbreak of war Lloyd joined the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), the forerunner of the Home Guard. The LDV was formed following a radio appeal by Sir Anthony Eden calling for all men between 17 and 65, who were not in military service but wished to defend their country against invasion, to enrol in the new LDV organisation.
Lloyd would have spent his evenings and weekends on activities such as sentry duty in case of an invasion. With the fall of France, Dorset found itself in the front line of the war against Germany. In the invasion plans for Britain, called Operation Sea Lion, the Germans intended to put three army divisions ashore at and around Bridport with some landing on Burton Bradstock Hive Beach. This was heavily mined with tank traps and barbed wire everywhere.
One day in 1940 Lloyd’s father, when looking out to sea, believed he saw a German submarine carrying out reconnaissance duties off the village.
Bridport LDVs were poorly equipped with just one old World War 1 gun and with armbands instead of uniforms. Their sole weapon was supplemented by pitch-forks and ‘Molotov cocktails’- beer bottles filled with petrol. In time, Lloyd was issued with his own gun.
Late one night in the summer of 1940 the Burton Bradstock church bells were rung – the alarm for an invasion beginning. The German army had arrived in the village! Fortunately not, it was a false alarm as the ‘invaders’ turned out to be the local fire brigade practising.
He was then called up to join the Royal Navy and in the autumn of 1940 was sent to HMS Royal Arthur, Skegness a ‘stone frigate’ (shore establishment). Here new recruits were assessed, kitted out and then posted throughout the Senior Service. Before World War Two the base had an entirely different role as a Butlin’s holiday camp.
Upon entering the camp, Lloyd would have seen the large holiday camp sign ‘Our True Intent is All for Your Delight’. Despite this welcoming sign, the camp was surrounded by a high fence and by barbed wire.
At Royal Arthur Lloyd was paid two shillings to two shillings and sixpence a day. An additional three pence a day was paid in lieu of grog (rum). He was also issued with the Royal Arthur Handbook which claimed to explain all he needed to know about the stone frigate. Ironically, Germany claimed twice that they had sunk the shore establishment. Later during bad floods, one newspaper published a Butlin’s holiday camp picture with the headline ‘Sunk at Last!’
Lloyd became a Portsmouth, nicknamed ‘Pompey’, rating rather than being attached to either Chatham or Plymouth, the two other massive naval bases.
A sailor’s manning port remained the same throughout his service, irrespective of which ship or shore establishment posted throughout the world.
Lloyd trained as a signalman informally known as ‘sigs’ or ‘bunting tossers’ in the Royal Navy. The latter dated from days when ships signalled from vessel to vessel using flags and this survived as a general term for signalmen.
Little further is known of his naval service which he was reluctant to discuss with his family. However, he did tell Audrey that he had met Phillipe, the son of Charles de Gaulle the leader of Free France.
In Alexandria there was a Combined Operations unit, later to become a Special Service Brigade. Lloyd may have had some involvement there as the former did work with the salvage unit on occasions. As a signalman he would have been expected also to deal with secret messages.
Pimperne Family Return
Soon after Lloyd’s death the Fletchers moved back to Pimperne to Brown House, opposite the church, when Harry resumed employment as gardener for the Taylor family. Although a gardener, he was always willing to turn his hand to anything on the Taylor farm. Harry looked after four or five horses, the car and a walled garden of one and a half acres. Apart from his time in West Dorset, Harry worked for the family for 50 years.
After the war, Louisa was visiting her doctor in Blandford and mentioned Lloyd. Her doctor went ‘white with shock!’ He then explained he had been stationed in Alexandria in May 1943 and remembered the incident but would say no more.
Remembrance: Henry Lloyd Fletcher
Lloyd Fletcher’s name can be found on the Memorial Gate, Pimperne Church and on the north wall of St. Mary’s Parish Church, Burton Bradstock.
His name is also recorded on Portsmouth’s Naval Memorial on Southsea Common which commemorates 9,667 sailors of World War One and 14,918 of World War Two. The Memorial records that:
‘All were buried at sea or were otherwise denied by the fortunes of war, a known and honoured grave.’ (3954 words)