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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Bombing Canyon

On 28th of March 1967 a flight of Blackburn Buccaneers lifted into the sky from RNAS Lossiemouth, their internal bays were loaded with 1,000lbs bombs, and they were the opening strike package on a ship. This was possibly the only time the RAF and Fleet Air Arm had conducted live anti-shipping strikes since the end of the Second World War. Their target lay between the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall. It was the super tanker Torrey Canyon.
Bomb being prepared for the Buccaneers
The Torrey Canyon had been on route from Kuwait to Milford Haven in Wales. Lacking detailed charts of the route, on the 18th of March the Torrey Canyon had found herself on a collision course with a fishing fleet. There was a disagreement between the ships master and the crew about the exact location of the ship. When this argument had been settled, there was even more confusion about if the tanker was on auto-pilot or not. Eventually, and fatefully, the Torrey Canyon began her turn. With a juddering grinding crash the tanker ran aground on the Seven Stones. The sharp rocks had ripped open fourteen of the eighteen oil tanks and ripped open the bottom plating of the pump rooms. The Torrey Canyon immediately transmitted a request for help, which was soon answered.
The Torrey Canyon spitted on the rocks.
A Dutch salvage tug had been dispatched from Mounts Bay, a further two were sent along with specialists and equipment that were flown from Holland to the UK. From there these specialists were winched using helicopters onto the deck of the aground tanker. Most of the tankers 36 crew had been evacuated apart from four people, including the ships master. The aim of the salvage operation was to re-seal the holes so that the tanker could be pumped free of water and floated off the stones.

On the 21st a large explosion ripped through the engine room. Although no one was killed by the blast it flung two people overboard. Immediately two sailors dived into the oil covered Atlantic and they rescued the two men. One was gravely wounded and as the tug he was recovered to began to race for the nearest port a doctor was requested. The doctor was winched onboard the tug and started work to save Captain H.B Stal. However, despite his best efforts Cpt Stal died as the tug entered Newlyn Harbour.
Work to save the ship was progressing, and soon she was afloat, with no list. However, she was still spitted on the rocks. The weather forecast however indicated that over the weekend the situation would deteriorate with force 7-8 gales. In the worsening weather several attempts to pull the Torrey Canyon off the rocks were tried over the weekend. It was found that the ships nose could be swung about, but the rocks were still running her through pinning her in place. With the waves battering her flank and breaking over her deck cracks were seen to be appearing in her fabric. Late on the Sunday she split in two, on the Monday the forepart broke again. It was at this point that the government, meeting in an emergency session at RNAS Culdrose decided to attack the ship. Their idea was to break the ship up and then set fire to the oil slick.
The Salvage tugs trying to pull the Torrey Canyon off the rocks.
After the initial Buccaneer attack Sea Vixens and RAF Hunters launched repeated attempts to set the ship on fire. Using high explosives and even on one occasion a salvo of rockets. Over the next two days some fires were set and a huge plume of smoke and flames rose up to 20,000ft. After the fire started on the Torrey Canyon the pilots had to dive into this pillar of smoke to drop their ordnance.
The Canyon on fire.
A new weapon to use against the oil slick was tried, ground crew took 45 gallon drums in which they mixed jet fuel with a thickening agent using a wand with holes drilled in it and connected to a compressed air bottle. This sludge was then loaded into drop tanks which the Hunters carried and dropped. This was called "liquefied petroleum jelly". Under no circumstances was it allowed to be called "Napalm" in an attempt to manage public relations. 

Disposing of the surplus petroleum jelly was done by using the simple expedient of dumping it in a pit and putting a small gunpowder charge with a long fuse in there too. On one airbase the fuse was lit, and the officer carrying out the task dropped the lit match into the jelly by mistake. Luckily for the officer the jelly took some time to become fully evolved.
On the 29th the ship finally sunk, however it left behind it a huge oil slick. The UK tried spraying the slick with chemicals to cause it to break up which made the ecological impact worse. At Guernsey the oil was sucked off the beaches into sewage tankers and dumped in a quarry.
The Guernsey quarry used as a dumping ground pictured in 2010.
As well as the environmental impact there was a financial one. At the time ships were considered separate entities in law. This meant that the ship could only be sued for the value of the ship. All that remained of the Torrey Canyon was one lifeboat worth $50.
However, there was a sister ship, the Lake Palourde owned by the same company. At first the French tried to chase her and board her to serve a writ, however the ship managed to escape. The Lake Palourde later arrived in Singapore. A young British lawyer managed to serve the writ by gaining access to the ship and nailing the writ to the main mast, and thus arrest the ship. The reason he was let onboard was because the crew thought he was a whiskey salesman.

Note: for a more in-depth read on the salvage operation see this webpage.

Image sources:
IWM.org, www.zeesleepvaart.com, BBC.co.uk and www.southampton.ac.uk