During the second world war, Lochaber inadvertently became involved in a national maritime disaster that would be kept secret for years.

It was at the end of 1942 that sailors’ bodies started being washed up on the beaches of west Lochaber and our neighbouring areas. Clearly, something unthinkable had happened at sea.  But no-one knew or were saying anything. Not even the BBC. While some of the bodies were identifiable, others were not. But the local communities carried out the humanitarian duties of recovering and burying the sailors, some of whom were as young as 18 or 19 years old, with great dignity.

It wasn’t until the war had ended that the Admiralty announced that on 2nd October 1942, the Cunard liner Queen Mary had collided with one of her escort ships about 50 miles off the north west of Ireland, cutting it in two and sinking it in a matter of minutes. Surprisingly, the men who had been washed up on our shores had been on that warship.

The 81,237 ton Queen Mary was carrying 10,237 troops and some 900 crew. While Hitler had offered a reward for the sinking of the ship, her high speed made her almost impossible to catch in the open sea of the mid Atlantic. However, when she entered the confined waters off the west coast she became much more vulnerable to attack from both aircraft and U-boats. Consequently, the great liner had rendezvoused with a group of warships who were to escort her to the Clyde while avoiding becoming casualties themselves. This was achieved by performing a complicated ballet of co-ordinated zig-zag courses which made it difficult for U-boats to aim their torpedoes accurately.

It was at 2:04pm that this set of manoeuvres went disastrously wrong off the coast of Bloody Foreland and the Queen Mary, steaming at 28 knots, rammed the 4290 ton light cruiser HMS CURACOA (the old spelling of the island of Curacao), cutting her in half and sending 338 men to their deaths. Protocols dictated that the liner could not stop to pick up survivors for fear of being attacked herself and so some of the other escort ships stopped and rescued 101 survivors. The Queen Mary slowly continued to Gourock and safely arrived with a badly damaged bow.

Margaret Fay Shaw of Canna wrote in her 1993 book ‘ From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides’, ‘The worst thing I can remember was seeing a rock cove on Sanday filled with the little blue caps of Navy ratings. As we later learned, the Queen Mary - which was, of course, a troop ship - had cut right through a destroyer."

The accident was of such magnitude that it was kept secret under the specific orders of Prime Minister Winston Churchill until the end of the war and a subsequent court case placed two thirds of the blame on the Curacoa and one third on the Queen Mary. Perhaps consequently, there is no memorial in Lochaber to the incident.

Today graves can be seen in the cemeteries at Arisaig (6), Morar (1), Knoydart (1), Eigg (2), Oban (4), Portree (3), Ashaig (15) and Glenelg (1). One body was buried on Rum, but was later repatriated to Stornoway and another man was buried in Banff. There may be other graves in the area and we would be keen to know about them. It may also be that someone remembers what happened at the time? It would also be interesting to hear where the bodies were found and who recovered them? One inevitably wonders what the local people were told had happened or if they even knew the wider story? From talking to local people in each of the areas, it seems that it was ‘just something that had to be done, so you did it. It was war and these things happen.’ Other people have said however, ‘They must have suspected something? This number of bodies washing ashore together, must have seemed odd – even during the war?’

I would like to express my thanks to Malcolm Poole of the Mallaig Heritage Centre and the various people I have spoken to in the communities of Oban, Eigg, Arisaig and Mallaig for their help and thoughts during the preparation of this short piece.

Derrick Warner

November 2016