CONTINUING our series on Scottish mysteries, I will today be chronicling one of the biggest mysteries of the Second World War in Scotland: the explosion of HMS Dasher in the Firth of Clyde on March 27, 1943.

The converted aircraft carrier blew up and sank in just eight minutes with the loss of 379 men out of a complement of 528. In terms of fatalities, it was the Royal Navy’s second-biggest loss in home waters during the war, although considerably fewer died than when the battleship HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed in Scapa Flow with the loss of 835 of her crew.

I have written before about HMS Dasher elsewhere but I have carried out further research so today I am going to concentrate on the mysterious aspects of its loss and the very mysterious goings-on that happened afterwards.

The disaster remains a conundrum for two main reasons. One is the cause of the explosion, which has never been fully determined, and another is what happened to the bodies of the crew who died, an issue which is still causing controversy 80 years on.

There’s a further mystery connected to the sinking: was the body of one of its crewmen used in the famous Operation Mincemeat that fooled German intelligence officers into the wrong conclusion about the Allies’ strategy in the Mediterranean?

As I have written earlier in the series, my task is simply to reveal the facts that are known about a mystery. Please draw you own conclusions – but be assured that much of what is known about HMS Dasher’s loss and its aftermath remains mysterious and probably always will be.

The facts about the sinking have never been fully established. What is known is that HMS Dasher was an American-built merchant ship – an important point to remember – converted to an escort carrier which entered service in 1942 and took part in the Operation Torch landings in North Africa before being deployed on escort duty in the North Atlantic.

Badly damaged in a fierce storm near Iceland, Dasher limped to Dundee for repairs to a massive gash in its hull – witnesses said the American welding came apart mid-storm – before heading for the Firth of Clyde via Scapa Flow. Her new captain, Lennox Albert Knox Boswell, had been in command for just three weeks when he led the carrier on flying exercises between Ardrossan and Brodick on Arran on a fine spring day.

Some five miles south of Little Cumbrae, at 4.40pm on March 27, 1943, HMS Dasher suffered two explosions, the second of which was massive, blowing off the flight deck and armaments and immediately causing the ship to list. The blast was heard many miles away in Greenock, and observers at Ardrossan feared the worst. Water rushed into the vessel, which also spilled thousands of gallons of blazing fuel.

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The crew rushed to abandon ship but many were trapped inside Dasher, while a large number of those who jumped overboard were burned by the oil or suffered hypothermia in the freezing sea.

From the commanders of the forces in the Clyde a Royal Navy priority signal was sent: “All vessels put to sea immediately. Major rescue operation involving Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Dasher. Ship reported sinking.”

Dasher was indeed sinking and did so quickly, the remains of her deck spearing high into the sky as she slipped vertically beneath the waves in 500ft of water. Rescue efforts continued into the night, but only 140 men were saved, including the captain. Fewer than 30 bodies were recovered.

It was a catastrophe, and one which very few people know about. The Navy did not want the Germans to know that it had lost one of its only three remaining escort carriers, so a complete press blackout ensued – the first newspaper report of its loss only came in 1945 – while survivors were given strict orders not to discuss the sinking, not even with their families.

One or two families did talk and people around the Firth knew what had transpired but draconian laws on secrecy were invoked to silence people.

To me this is the start of the mystery: why was such a total clampdown on information imposed so quickly? Surely the bereaved families had the right to know what occurred? If you want to know how devastating it was for them and their descendants, please go to the website of the HMS Dasher Association and read the heartbreaking accounts of many people still being affected by the disaster and its aftermath.

Bodies floated into shore for many days afterwards but it is presumed the vast majority of the crew went down with the ship and the wreck is now classified as a war grave.

There was also an issue with the body count – people in Ayrshire still say many more bodies were found than were admitted to and there has long been a claim that many of those bodies were buried in a mass grave. The Royal Navy has always denied this and no firm evidence of such a mass grave has ever been found but it is still part of the mystery about Dasher’s aftermath.

A board of inquiry convened two days after the Dasher went to her watery grave, the meeting taking place on Dasher’s sister ship, HMS Archer.

Here’s the second mystery. Although there were no eyewitness accounts, the board found that a naked light – a cigarette, a spark – had set fire to aviation fuel which in turn spread to the main oil tanks, there being tens of thousands of gallons in both.

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A crash involving a landing Swordfish aircraft was discounted, and there was little discussion of what were obvious design or procedure faults – though within days the Royal Navy secretly issued instructions to its carriers to carry less aviation fuel in future.

Any forensic examination of the events has to conclude that either the Royal Navy got it wrong with its processes for handling fuel or the American shipbuilders and designers who converted the merchant vessel Rio de Janeiro to the escort carrier HMS Dasher were badly at fault. Or perhaps it was a bit of both.

The other mystery is Operation Mincemeat, the subject of the 1956 film The Man Who Never Was, and a recent version starring Colin Firth. The official version still stated by the UK Government is that the body of “Major William Martin”found by German agents off the coast of Spain was that of a Welsh indigent alcoholic, Glyndwr Michael.

But a case has been strongly made that the body was of a drowned crew member of HMS Dasher, John Melville. The more I have looked into this, the more I am convinced it was Melville’s body which was used.

To me there is another, simpler version of why the Dasher’s loss was suppressed so heavily by the government for so long.

The arguments already mentioned about whether the US designers or the Royal Navy operatives were at fault could have been a real threat to that “special relationship” between the US and the UK. The fact that the Navy took steps to change the way fuel was stored tells me they did not want to insult the American shipyards that were vital to the war effort.

THE mysteries of HMS Dasher continue to emerge in the public domain and were even discussed in the House of Commons in March on the 80th anniversary of the sinking. Patricia Gibson, the SNP MP for North Ayrshire and Arran, secured a debate on the Dasher and particularly the “missing bodies” issue. She concurs with my view that the “special relationship” was at the centre of government thinking.

Gibson told the House: “At the time, the Westminster government ordered a complete news blackout for fear of damaging morale and fearing questions as to whether or not faulty US construction could have been a factor in the tragedy.

“Local media were ordered to make no reference to the event, and survivors were also ordered not to discuss the events of that day. As a result, the many lives lost and the bravery of the crew and rescue teams have not always been acknowledged as they ought to have been.

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“There has been speculation that the authorities ordered the dead to be buried in unmarked mass graves, but none has ever been found.

The Royal Navy insists that a mass unmarked grave would have been against Admiralty policy, and that all sources relating to the sinking of HMS Dasher are now in the public domain.”

And DUP MP Jim Shannon said: “Many families of those who sadly passed away on HMS Dasher still have no clarity to this day. They worry that they themselves will be gone, knowing nothing about their loved ones’ ending.

“Some have formed the view that bodies are buried in a mass grave somewhere; others are convinced that someone somewhere has to know something about what happened.”

Gibson paid tribute to the work of a constituent who produced the best account of the Dasher sinking: “The late John Steele and his widow Noreen spent long years interviewing numerous survivors of the disaster and browsed previously classified documents to better understand the ship’s fate.

“This painstaking work led them to conclude that the ship was never suitable for combat operations and that it was a disaster waiting to happen. Shortly before its sinking, it was found to contravene more than 20 Royal Navy regulations. Significantly, there was fuel splashing around the vessel.

“It is worth noting that the other converted Rio class ships had alterations soon after the loss of HMS Dasher and the amount of fuel permitted on board these ships was significantly reduced.”

Steele added: “What eventually spelled the end for HMS Dasher was its leaking petrol tanks. Sometimes the sailors could not return to their cabins due to the fumes. Just one small spark could have triggered the explosion, after which the ship took only eight minutes to sink.”

Unusually for me I will leave the last word to a UK Government minister, James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, who concluded Gibson’s debate by saying: “As she has set out, the explosion and subsequent sinking of HMS Dasher in the Firth of Clyde in 1943 was the second-highest loss of life on a British warship in UK waters in the Second World War.

“I cannot begin to imagine the depth of sorrow experienced by the families of the 379 men who lost their lives that day, unaware, as they were, of exactly how and where their loved ones had died.

“Back then, the situation was complicated by operational considerations and, as the Hon Lady has said, the Admiralty did not want the enemy to know the detail of the sinking of HMS Dasher.

“We do not know exactly what caused the blasts that day, but the Court of Inquiry held in the aftermath concluded, as the Hon Lady said, that it was most likely the accidental ignition of a build-up of petrol vapour.

“Subsequently, inadequate safety provisions were identified which led to modifications to all the Navy’s US-built escort carriers, as well as significant changes in standard operating procedures, including reducing the volume of fuel carried on ships. As is sadly so common

in conflict, all but 23 of those who died that day went down with the ship and their bodies have never been recovered.”

So even the Westminster Government has admitted that what exactly happened to HMS Dasher and her crew is still a mystery.