By Connie Leinbach
The Royal Navy Patrol, of which the ill-fated HMT Bedfordshire was a part, put itself in harm’s way before any of the other allied ships off the coast here in WWII.
“They were the Navy within the Navy,” said Richard Eagles of Margate, Fla., and formerly of England, who for the last several years has represented the Patrol at the annual British Cemetery Memorial service that honors the four sailors from that ship buried on Ocracoke.
Called “Harry Tate’s Navy,” these trawlers aggressively hunted submarines.
“They weren’t given military uniforms,” he said.
The ceremony, at this little piece of England beside Teeter’s Campground, this year on Friday (May 11) was on the same day 76 years ago in 1942 that the Bedfordshire and its crew of 37 was destroyed by a German U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic, a campaign from 1939 to 1945 over tens of thousands of miles, said Commodore Martin Connell, the British attaché based in Washington, D.C.
The Bedfordshire was one of 24 trawlers pressed into the Patrol as advance-guard mine sweepers and escorts for British supply ships.
“The Royal Navy didn’t care if they lost a trawler,” Eagles said in an interview after the ceremony. “Where the (Navy) fleet went, the mine sweepers had already been there.”
Eagles’ connection to the Patrol is that his uncle, Jeffery Palmer of England, was a member, though he was not on the Bedfordshire.
“These men were seamen before they were sailors,” Eagles said. “They fished for fish and fished for mines and they were very good at it.”
Staged in Canada, the trawlers sailed along the eastern Atlantic in the first six months of 1942 during the height of the Paukenschlag Offensive, or, “Operation Drumbeat.”
German U-boats stalked offshore from New York to Florida and sank nearly 400 largely unarmed merchant vessels, hampering the delivery of food and war supplies from England.
On May 11, 1942, the German U-boat, U-558, fired three torpedoes at the Bedfordshire. The third torpedo struck the vessel amidships killing everyone on board.
Of the four British sailors interred here, Ordinary Telegraphist Second Class Stanley R. Craig is the other known sailor. Two other bodies were discovered a week later at the north end of the island. Though never identified, it was assumed they were from the Bedfordshire.
All four sailors were interred on land donated by Alice Wahab Williams. Ocracoke has commemorated these sailors every year since 1942.
“They were the bravest little ships,” Commander Mark Lister, senior British officer at the Naval Ocean Processing Facility in Dam Neck, Va., told a group of eight women from Athens, Ohio, about the trawler patrol.
The women were staying in Hatteras, and, while visiting Ocracoke for the day, happened upon the ceremony, said Kay Perkins about the group.
“They were the slowest,” Lister said about the trawlers. “They were outgunned and out-maneuvered, yet they still went out into the deep water and became targets.”
The Battle of the Atlantic was a seminal event, Capt. Dermott Mulholland, the Canadian Forces Naval attaché, said during the ceremony. “These ships were the workhorses. They defeated the U-boat menace. These young men gave their lives in the defense of freedom.”
Susan Jarvis of New Bern, formerly of England, and her visiting friend Margaret Williamson of London, also happened upon the ceremony during their visit to the island.
They hadn’t known about this part of WWII, though Williamson said she remembered the Germans dropping bombs near her home in Darbyshire when she was 1 year old.
“It was very moving,” Williamson said of the ceremony, echoing others about this little-known aspect of WWII.
New to the ceremony last year, the American Legion Riders, a group of veterans who ride their Harley Davidson motorcycles around the country to honor military veterans, again brought water from England for a “Blending of International waters” during the ceremony.
Andrew W. Johnson, a Marine Corps veteran Fredericksburg, Va., and group leader, said a relative of one of the British riders obtained two ounces of sea water off the coast of England where the Bedfordshire was launched.
“It was hand carried by four guys before I got it,” Johnson said.
On their way to Ocracoke, the group gathered water from Cape Hatteras, off which the Bedfordshire sank, and blended the two together before sprinkling the water on a commemorative wreath laid at the headstone listing all the lost personnel of the Bedfordshire.
Ocracoke School seniors Liam Caswell read the story of the sinking of the Bedfordshire and Lupita Martinez read the roll call of personnel.
Following the ceremony, members of the Royal Naval Tot Club of Antigua Barbuda, drank a finger, or “tot,” of Royal Navy Pusser’s Rum.
Each day, the Bedfordshire sailors had a specific toast, Capt. Joe Karpinski told the crowd of close to 200 attendees.
“On Friday, their toast was ‘To a willing foe and sea room and the Queen, God bless her,’” he said.
A daily ration of rum was part of the Bedforshire crew’s pay, Eagles noted.
The U.S. War Graves Commission oversees the cemeteries and the Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, represented by Danny Couch of Hatteras, president, coordinates the Ocracoke event and the one in Buxton the day before that honors two unknown sailors buried there from the San Delfino, another trawler sunk in May 1942.
In addition to the representatives from England and Canada, members of the U.S. Coast Guard included CWO Joshua Figueredo, master of ceremonies, Lt. Matthew Shepard, chaplain, and Commander Javier Delgado.
Ocracoke Islander Crystal Canterbury, who coordinates the Ocracoke event, enlisted about 20 volunteers to help with everything from tidying up the cemetery to helping with the reception.