Heroic rescue on burning HMNZS Achilles

The light cruiser HMNZS Achilles seen in 1945.

The light cruiser HMNZS Achilles seen in 1945.

The cruiser HMNZS Achilles had gained fame in December 1939 for her part in the Battle of the River Plate. This was the first major Naval action between surface ships of the war and generated huge amounts of publicity around the world, at a time when there was very little happening in the war.

Back in Britain in June 1943 the crew of the Achilles should have been enjoying their time in port while the ship underwent a refit. Instead tragedy struck when there was an explosion in a fuel tank. One New Zealander was to make a name for himself that day. However his association with HMNZS Achilles could not be revealed at the time for reasons of wartime security:

The Achilles spent more than fourteen months in Portsmouth dockyard refitting and rearming. On 22 June 1943 a violent explosion occurred in one of her main fuel tanks, killing and injuring many dockyard hands and causing considerable structural damage to the ship. The tank had been emptied and cleaned in April and workmen were making moulds in the double-bottom fuel tank preparatory to erecting two bulkheads in the compartment.

Fourteen workmen were killed and many others injured by the explosion, twelve being sent to hospital. The fuel tank in which the explosion occurred and three other compartments were almost completely wrecked. A number of bulkheads were collapsed or badly distorted by the blast. The deck above was blown upwards six or seven feet, the platform deck was torn away from the ship’s side, and the shell plating bulged outwards over an area of about thirty feet by ten feet. A number of watertight doors were blown through their frames.

Besides those killed, a considerable number of workmen, injured or stunned, were trapped in the damaged compartments. They were rescued by members of the ship’s company assisted by other workmen. Dense smoke at first prevented access to the seat of damage. Two ratings equipped with breathing apparatus tried to get through by way of the stokers’ mess deck but were overpowered by smoke, and one had to be hauled out by means of a lifeline. The smoke was finally dispersed by water spray.

Some ten or twelve dockyard men owed their lives to the initiative and cold courage of three ratings who, regardless of their own safety, went below and worked to the limit of endurance. They were Stoker First Class William Dale, RNZNVR, who was subsequently awarded the Albert Medal, and Engine-Room Artificer William Vaughan, RN, and Stoker First Class Ernest Valentine, RNZNVR, who were mentioned in despatches.

Finding that all smoke apparatus was in use by others, Stoker Dale tied a handkerchief over his mouth and made a difficult descent through three decks into a smoke-filled space. The compartment was badly collapsed but in the darkness its condition was quite unknown to Dale. Without hesitation he got to work and passed up four injured men who were in various stages of collapse. They afterwards affirmed that they could not have got out without help.

Having ‘surfaced for a short breather’, Dale then went down into the fuel tank in which the explosion had taken place. He groped his way in the darkness through debris and thick smoke, and with great difficulty wriggled through the distorted manhole in the tank top.

The twisted, vertical steel ladder was far short of the bottom of the tank but he trusted to luck and landed safely. With equal courage a dockyard worker named Rogers descended and assisted Dale in rescuing two injured men who were hauled up by ropes.

Wearing a smoke helmet, Vaughan went down into a compartment, the condition of which was unknown, in an endeavour to rescue men believed to have been working there. He could not find them in the pitch darkness and dense smoke, and, in an almost unconscious state, had to be assisted back.

Recovering after a short spell, Vaughan went down to the switchboard room, from which he sent up several semi-conscious men before he was again almost overcome by fumes and assisted back to the upper deck. On both occasions Vaughan was saved by the energetic action of a sixteen-year-old lad named Baxter, who had been boiler-cleaning. Stoker Valentine worked his way through smoke and debris into a badly-wrecked compartment and extricated a number of dazed men. It was probably from this or an adjacent compartment that others were rescued later by Stokers Clarke and Stow and Leading Supply Assistant Brittain.

See The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945.

Stokers worked in the depths of the ship and exposed to many dangers even when not in action. A stoker cleaning inside the boiler of the cruiser HMS CURACOA at Rosyth. The inside of the boiler is 4 feet in diameter and 12 feet long.

Stokers worked in the depths of the ship and exposed to many dangers even when not in action. A stoker cleaning inside the boiler of the cruiser HMS CURACOA at Rosyth. The inside of the boiler is 4 feet in diameter and 12 feet long.

Dale was the only New Zealander in the war to be awarded the Albert Medal, which since 1971 has been deemed to be equal in rank to the George Cross. The George Cross is the highest gallantry award available to civilians and is also awarded to military personnel for acts of outstanding courage while not in action with an enemy. His official citation reads:

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following Award: —
For bravery in saving life at sea:
The Albert Medal.
Stoker First Class Donald William Dale, N/Z.4861 (Timaru, New Zealand).

When there was a bad explosion in his ship in dock, Dale, as all anti-smoke apparatus was already in use, tied a handkerchief round his mouth, and went down into a smoke-filled compartment, from which he helped to rescue four workmen.

He then came up for a spell, after which he went down in another part of the ship to the compartment in which the explosion had taken place. With help from one other man, he here rescued two dockyard workmen, getting them up through a manhole with ropes. To reach the scene of destruction Dale, who was still without apparatus, had to grope his way through smoke and debris. The last twisted vertical ladder down which he went fell short of the deck below. Hearing the cries of those trapped, he trusted to chance and jumped. Luckily the deck proved firm.

Although unaware of the full damage which had been caused to the ship Dale well knew that he was facing the gravest danger.

London Gazette 23 November 1943,

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

edwin amey June 25, 2018 at 5:18 pm

My Uncle George Amey was one of the Dockyard workers who was killed.

Rachel Freeman March 14, 2018 at 5:57 am

My grandfather was a boilermaker on the Achilles. He was killed when the explosion happened. His name was Arthur Durman. Is there any information on those that died?

peter hatherly August 8, 2015 at 10:11 pm

My father a shipwright in Portsmouth dockyard was working on or near the Achilles when the xplosion happened. he later told me of the event many yrars later. His account matches exactly the havoc and damage caused. He said the reason for the explosion was one of the welders gas cylinders had been left turned on overnight creating a build up of gas, this gas ignighting when work started in the morning, he also quietly said that he managed to rescue some colleagues up through the ships funnel. As told to me by my father Frederick Hatherly.
Peter Hatherly

Donnah Coote (Dale) April 25, 2015 at 9:35 am

I am the daughter of Don Dale. Is there any way that I can be in touch with the the men or there decendants that were saved by my Father an Mr. Vaughan and Mr.Valantine. I have always wondered often about these men and the men were with my Dad..
I would apreciate any information.

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