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The Epic of the Empire Patrol

Following the Italian surrender to the Allies in September 1943, the island of Castellorizo in the Mediterranean fell under Allied control. Consequently, the Luftwaffe bombed the island in October and days later, fearing further air raids or even a German invasion, approximately 1,000 civilians were evacuated from the island.




Following VE Day, arrangements were made for the Castellorizians to return to their island.

However, many of their homes on Castellorizo had been destroyed in the Luftwaffe raids as well as by a large fire in 1944. It was decided that they would return in three groups with the first two to undertake repair work and make the island fit for habitation again.

The third group, consisting of women, children and families embarked from Port Said, Egypt on 29 September 1945 upon the British cargo vessel, SS Empire Patrol. Later that day, 38 nautical miles from Port Said, the ship caught fire and distress signals were sent.

Meanwhile, the escort carrier HMS Trouncer was within sight of Port Said having left Malta three days previously. Ordinary Seaman Stanley Scott records that the crew were in quite happy spirits as there was to be shore leave before the ship continued through the Suez Canal.

HMS Trouncer (D85)

As HMS Trouncer neared the port, it quickly changed course and Ordinary Seaman Scott noticed that

'the flight deck handling party started bringing up Hellcat fighters on the forward lift. We had never been in action during the war and I don't think I had ever seen that particular party work so fast....It was then that I realised that something was afoot'.

Scott was informed by a Petty Officer that a Greek ship full of refugees was on fire about 50 miles away and as the only available fast ship nearby, Trouncer was on its way to pick up any survivors.

Ordinary Seaman

Stanley Mercer Scott

Stanley Scott was born in Belfast in 1926 and after being educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh he joined the Royal Navy in September 1944.

He was posted to the Belfast built aircraft carrier, HMS Glory which arrived in Sydney on 15 August 1945, VJ Day.

Although he signed up too late to see action during the Second World War, Stanley did witness the surrender of the Japanese Imperial Southeastern Army led by General Hitoshi Imamura, on board HMS Glory off the coast of Rabaul on 6 September 1945.

He was then posted to HMS Trouncer where he witnessed the rescue of over 400 Castellorizians and crew members from the SS Empire Patrol.

Scott continued to serve in the Royal Navy until March 1948.


As HMS Trouncer steamed towards the stricken Empire Patrol, efforts were made to limit the spread of the fire.

Arthur Athans was only in his early teens when he left his home on Castellorizo and was on board the Empire Patrol when it caught fire. He recalls;

'We must have been in deep sleep because we didn't hear the siren. It was my sister Katina who ran three decks down to wake us up. The fire meant we couldn't use the main stairway and we had to find an alternative way to the front of the boat. We managed to quickly get on the top deck and realized that the ship was in flames. The fire must have been going on for a while and the wind was forcing the fire towards the bow of the ship. Men, women and children, screaming and crying, were forcing themselves towards the back of the ship. My mother and my sisters managed to pass through. Suddenly a burning part of a mast blocked my way and I was trapped at the front together with a few other passengers. It was impossible to go any further. I was the youngest of the group and I was crying continuously not knowing what happened to the rest of my family. I was given a life jacket and the officer was keeping an eye on me all the time. Vision was not possible from one section to the other because of the heavy smoke.'

'The wind kept forcing the fire towards us and we kept going forward up one step at the time. Later I saw the water where we were standing boiling. With the fire and huge smoke, it was impossible to see what was happening at the back of the ship. The fire kept coming towards us and we all kept going forward until we reached the last step where ironically the little British flag was waving. Some passengers encouraged me to jump from the ship...It was so high...I was afraid and declined by crying continuously. I noticed at the time, the officer and others threw on the side of the ship heavy ropes with the hope that their weight might turn the ship a little to the other side slowing the fire which was coming towards the bow. This procedure was successful because it gave us more time. That also gave time to the officer and others to prepare a rope ladder and try to lower me down on the sea. Halfway down, the wind was blowing the ladder and me away from the ship and hitting me back on the hot metal of the ship. Quickly the officer and others pulled up the rope ladder with me holding on, back on board. At this stage we still did not know the situation at the stern where most of the passengers were. Two airplanes circled our ship and later disappeared.'

The smoke was spotted by HMS Trouncer's crew from 15 miles away and one of the planes overhead, a Wellington from Coastal Command, raced back and forward between the two ships. As the Royal Navy vessel drew nearer, Scott made his way as far forward as he could, where he was able to see that

'the Empire Patrol was a blazing mass amidships, the paint was peeling off her outer hull as her holds became red hot. The bridge and midship superstructure was just a buckled shambles. Crammed as far astern as they could get were hundreds of refugees and as we passed them we heard women and children screaming, some were waving their arms frantically in the air.'

He also noticed that the Wellington overhead had dropped its rubber dinghy into the water and three small children were already safely inside. It had also dropped its emergency radio onto the Empire Patrol before performing a search of the sea, dropping smoke canisters to mark the position of those in the water.

Captain Rotherham of HMS Trouncer decided that those already in the water were the priority for rescue. But before manoeuvring to pull them in, he launched all available boats along with Carley floats, to begin the rescue operation from the burning ship. As the carrier drew near to those overboard, 20 men from the ship dived into the sea and helped them into a Carley float and towed them back to the Royal Navy ship.

Women survivors in a Carley float towed by members of the volunteer swimming party from the Trouncer. Photo courtesy of IWM. Ref: A 30732

As those lifted from the sea were brought alongside, the swell buffeted them against Trouncer's hull causing further injury. Scott records that the situation was also made worse by the state of shock of the Castellorizians who 'just lay in the raft and couldn't move from it'.

At about 1830 Trouncer's bow was laid alongside the port weather quarter of Empire Patrol. Anxious passengers watch as the Carrier's bow comes closer. Photo courtesy of IWM. Ref: A 30734


Captain

Geoffrey Alexander Rotherham DSO OBE

Captain 'Hank' Rotherham was in command of HMS Trouncer in 1945. He had previously been awarded an OBE for his role as a Liaison Officer to the Free French fighting in Senegal in 1941. In the same year, he was also awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his role in the sinking of the Bismarck.

Photo courtesy of CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum


With the rescue mission underway Scott noted that HMS Trouncer was 'very much the wrong kind of ship' for such a task.

The escort carrier had a turning circle of about three miles and its flight deck towered high above the Empire Patrol. The rescue work was also made more difficult and more dangerous by the swell of the sea. An attempt was made to tether the ships together but the wires snapped due to the conditions. This also raised the possibility of a collision so Captain Rotherham decided to lay about 200 yards from the Empire Patrol and ferry passengers between the ships.

The SS Empire Patrol burning as seen from the bow of HMS Trouncer. Note the rescue boats in the water NIWM.2019.2526.21.02

Scott's account continues in detail into the difficulty the Castellorizians and crew of HMS Trouncer faced as they tried to move from one ship to the other. As the Empire Patrol continued to burn, the plates on the lower hull grew red hot and flames threatened those still on board causing many burns. One woman attempted to jump into the water but the swell pushed a lifeboat into her path, causing her to strike the boat and die immediately. Others fell headlong of the ladders into the boats and although safe, they were badly hurt.

Eventually all those still alive on the Empire Patrol were brought aboard with the last to leave being the crew followed by the Captain. The survivors were immediately taken into the hangar that had been vacated by the Hellcats and the very young children were passed down a human chain made by Trouncer's crew. The hangar was filled with hundreds of camp beds and sailors were handing out dry clothing to the survivors as they sought to quieten nerves and give medical aid. The ship’s Medical Officer attended to the more serious injuries.

Survivors receive every attention in the Trouncer's hangar which was quickly transformed into a temporary hospital. Photo courtesy of IWM. Ref: A 30735

As darkness fell, HMS Trouncer hauled in its own boats and was joined by HMS Devonshire and HMS Mermaid to continue the search, not least for 12 of the volunteer swim party who were still missing.

At approx. 12.30am a Carley raft was found in the beam of a 24" searchlight that contained the 12 missing sailors who had bravely dived overboard earlier in the day. A short time later two further lifeboats were found full of people and they were brought aboard with relative ease as the swell had reduced. A young boy was also discovered clinging to a life belt in the water after he had cried out in the night. He was picked up by HMS Spark, a submarine that had defied orders to join the rescue mission having witnessed the Empire Patrol leave Port Said earlier that day. The boy was transferred to Trouncer where he was reunited with his mother, much to the delight of the submarines crew.

In the morning, many dead bodies were spotted but one woman was found alive after spending 23 hours in the water. An elderly woman who had been rescued the previous day had died overnight and was buried at sea whilst her daughters looked on and the Padre read a short service.

As HMS Trouncer returned to Port Said with the survivors, Scott reports that the Empire Patrol was only a smudge of smoke on the horizon. The final entry in the Empire Patrol's logbook reads

'On fire 29/9, 38 miles off Port Said...fire out of control...taken in tow, but broke away owing to heavy seas. Vessel capsized and sank 1.10.'

At Port Said, over 420 people were safely disembarked from HMS Trouncer and were taken away in ambulances waiting on the quay side.

The Castellorizians remained in Port Said for several weeks before returning to their native island where despite the destruction, life gradually returned to normal. Appeals were made for the compensation of the destruction of their property and possessions but due to the difficulty of determining who had responsibility for the refugees, this was unsuccessful. Some Castellorizians ultimately choose to leave the island in search of better opportunities with many going to Western Australia whilst some choose to return to Egypt or mainland Greece.

Stanley Scott's account can be downloaded in full, here: NIWM:2019.2526.21.01 - The Epic of the Empire Patrol. An eyewitness account by Stanley M. Scott

Further Reading

https://www.empirepatrol.com/index.htm

BT-389-11-597

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