Editor’s note: The following are the remarks by Commander Mark Lister, senior British officer at the Naval Ocean Processing Facility in Dam Neck, Va., representing the Naval Attaché, for the British Cemetery Memorial Service here May 13. Note that we have retained the British spellings of several of the words.
The naval attaché told me it was tough being third in line to speak and it appears that he was right. So let me start by saying how privileged Susan and I are at being invited to represent the Royal Navy at this prestigious event to honour the British and Canadian men lost at sea off the coast of the outer banks during World War Two.
The commitment and dedication of the people who maintain these grounds in the neat and tidy state enables us to gather here today for this commemoration and the Royal Navy is truly grateful.
There are a number of reasons that link me to the tragedy of the loss of the HMT Bedfordshire. For my sins I am a career submariner and would have been the hunter during those dark days of 1942. In my defence I have also spent time in the fishery protection squadron and acutely understand the utmost professionalism of the crews and the significant hardships that the trawler community endure on a daily basis, not just then but to this day, it is still among the most dangerous of occupations in the world.
The final link I have is that I continue to execute the very same mission the men of the Bedfordshire carried out in the depths of World War II. In my current post at the Naval Ocean Processing Facility in Dam Neck, I am responsible for 43 British servicemen and women who spend their watch keeping efforts locating enemy submarines in the Atlantic in protection of homeland defence and the security of the sea based nuclear deterrent of both our countries.
As the senior British officer at Dam Neck, I am already familiar with the story of Her Majesty’s trawlers Bedfordshire and her sisters. Our annual remembrance parade takes place at the British war graves at the Oak Grove Baptist church in Creeds where four members of the Bedfordshire and two of her sister trawler the Kingston Ceylonite are interred.
We are joined by an annually growing contingent of the US sailors within the facility to honour the comradeship and cooperation our two countries have developed over many years of operating together. I thought the UK/US bond was strong in the nuclear deterrent world, but the integration of our two nations, in the efforts to keep our sea lanes safe, is seamless, continually maintaining the security of our people as well as our trade links.
It was this common cause that led to the loan of 24 converted trawlers to patrol the waters of the east coast of the USA against a threat not well-known by the U.S. at that time. The submarines were patrolling these waters to disrupt the movement of supplies to the UK that would allow us to maintain the war effort against Germany.
Many vessels were lost during this endeavour, some 70 off this coastline alone, later known as Torpedo Junction, during the height of the Paukenschlag Offensive, or, “Operation Drumbeat.”
The trawlers had been converted in 1939 for mine sweeping and other military tasking and operated in the dangerous waters of the North Sea before being despatched to the eastern seaboard. They were slow and ungainly and easily sunk but in many ways they would have the Royal Navy’s finest moments ever in American waters. Each day they went out to meet an enemy that was bigger, faster, more heavily armed, and able to remain hidden until it was ready to strike. Even though the HMT vessels received more casualties than they would inflict, they diligently kept patrolling and escorting, and gallantly fighting America’s battle. They were indeed the bravest little ships.
The Bedfordshire played her part well but fell victim to the U-558 on May 11, 1942. She was torpedoed, and all hands were lost on that day. Two of the 37 mixed British and Canadian crew were washed ashore at Ocracoke on the 14th of May, and an agent of naval intelligence was able to quickly identify the body of SLT Cunningham as he had recently met him when searching for British flags to drape the bodies of seamen washed ashore from the MV San Delfino honoured yesterday at the cemetery at Buxton. A week later, two more sailors were washed ashore and although unidentified were believed to be from the Bedfordshire and were buried here at Ocracoke.
The beautiful beaches that draw significant numbers of visitors today were littered with twisted metal and crude oil and unfortunately every so often with the bodies of those men lost at sea. That these men were taken care of so reverently is testament to the nature of military men during periods of high tension, that they continue to be kept so well, is a mark of the bonds that we have forged in many conflicts throughout the last century.
The friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, the United States Coast Guard at Ocracoke, the National Park Service and the local Ocracoke community deserve special mention for the perpetual efforts to thoughtfully maintain this cemetery in peak condition with an ensign flying over those men who the sea gave back up and were buried in foreign soil that will be forever England.
The endurance of the shared values we cherish, trust, honour and loyalty is clearly evident in the preservation of this cemetery, Susan and I have been fortunate to visit the National Cemetery at Arlington. That you preserve these graves with the same sense of devotion is unmistakable, that you continue to commemorate our part in the protection of this area is not universally well-known but graciously received nonetheless. The Royal Navy thanks you all for this simple, yet effective act of remembrance.
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