A Short History of HMS St Christopher

The ML133 Disaster

Built by Lady Bee Ltd. Of Shoreham, Sussex, ML 133 was 75ft in length (cf. above) and was launched on November 18th 1940, commissioned on December 4 1940 and completed eight days later. The following account was written by Mr Christopher Wardle who was on board at the time:

The Death of the 133.  (A very vivid Memory}

As it happened.....No bullshit...The real and true facts.

I was a crew member for the entire life of the boat, I joined it in England, sailed it to Scotland and we were the original ML Training Flotilla, the Flotilla consisted of several B class ML’s

The crew of all the B class ML’s at that time was 11 personnel. The 133 was the flotilla leader and carried a fully fledged CPO as coxswain, a Leading Telegrapher, a two-and-a-half ring (Lt Cdr) skipper, who incidentally at the time of the incident was in Inverness at a conference on fire-fighting.... would you believe. So the crew of all the flotilla of ML’s at the time consisted of The Captain, the 1st Lt...usually a very very young kid with one ring (Sub. Lt). Almost every Officer was ‘Wavy Navy’ (RNVR), the only regular navy on board was myself and the coxswain all the rest were Hos (Hostility Only).

We also had two ‘Mickey Mouses’ (Motor Mechanics), usually ex-garage mechanics and extremely competent guys, a telegraphist, who, since there was little on-air radio work served as the Officers flunky and above deck signalman, a Coxswain and 5 seamen, either ordinary or able seaman a total of 11.  

It was a clear cold morning in May. The 133 was doing what was called guard duties. What we were guarding, I have no idea. But we asked no questions. We just did what we was told to do.

So the morning of the 11th May 1943 we were swinging around a buoy (near Camusnagaul) with a watchman on the upper deck protecting all the good folk at Fort William. Usually the coxswain poked his head into the mess deck and ‘Called the hands’, but for some reason he didn’t so I, as next in seniority did the honours.

One of the Motor Mechanics....Geordie... I think he was the oldest guy on board, maybe in his 40s ...very old to a young 23! Anyway he went into the engine room to start up a small motor we used for washing down the upper deck; always the first duty of the day. In the meantime the rest of the crew were either dressing, in the toilet, or trying to use the bathroom....all bleary eyed, ....Still no sign of the  coxswain....very unusual.  He was an extremely efficient CPO... no nonsense...ran the ship extremely well.

I was just in the middle of dressing when there was this explosion. I ran up the hatch to the upper deck. The 2 sides of boat had blown outboard from the wardroom to the forecastle and Geordie was laying on the starboard side groaning with one of his eyes hanging loose. Fire had engulfed the entire engine room. When Geordie had started the small motor there had been petrol fumes in the bilges and a spark must have caused the explosion and the fire.

He was in no condition to do anything; he was shocked and injured. The first thing was to call the coxswain CPO Frank (Polly) Hopkins... we battered on his door ...but no response. His door opened inward, refused to budge, think the explosion had lifted the bilge boards and jammed his door...   But why wasn’t he answering?  I just don’t know, we had nothing with which to smash his door, but we tried. In the end we all took to the upper deck....there was no panic...just a bunch of guys watching the fire getting bigger and bigger’

Being built of timber the boat stayed afloat tied up to the mooring buoy, even though both her sides had been blown almost flat against the water. Christopher continues….

The skipper was away. The young Jimmy (1st Lieutenant) was already in the water so I was the senior guy left and I told everyone to get into the water. We had no means at all to fight the fire, we couldn’t sink her , the sea cocks and all the extinguishers were in the engine room and there was no way we could help Geordie so we abandoned ship.

I swam towards the pier a mile away; it was bloody cold too! Some of the flotilla from around the corner obviously saw the smoke and dropped anchor and came a running. I was picked up by the 154. The sparker aboard was a friend, who took great delight hurling a lifebuoy at me before helping me aboard.

The big explosion came as we were swimming towards the pier; all the ammunition and the 100 octane petrol, 4000 gallons of it, I believe. The depth charges too probably went up. That was quite a bang. I heard later quite a few windows were lost in the town and whether this was true or not, I heard it said they found parts of the 3 pounder gun near the Ben!

From that point didn’t know what was transpiring. We were all taken to the base and fitted out (with dry clothing etc.) ‘cos we were all fairly naked having only just got out of our bunks, and in a couple of days we were all sent on leave. I was sent for by Commander  Welman, the CO of the base who grilled me on what happened. He seemed more concerned with pages from the confidential books that had been washed ashore as they were supposed to be kept in a locked safe. He wanted to know how they were loose and floating around.  I told him the 1st Lt had them out to make the new admiralty adjustments to them and hadn’t had time to replace them, I guess.

I served the rest of my time as an instructor at the base. I heard the divers had found the coxswain at the bottom of the Hatch, he had obviously made it out of his cabin but only as far as the hatch just outside his door. I was sent on leave and didn’t even get chance to go to the coxswains funeral.

Chris Wardle

May 2010

One of the boats which raced to the scene was the local ferry boat driven by local man Archie McLean. Having picked up a number of men from the water, Archie quickly realised that CPO Hopkins was still aboard. Manoeuvring his boat through the smoke and flames, Archie managed to get it alongside the stricken vessel. Despite being aware that it was full of high octane petrol, live ammunition and probably some depth charges too, he attempted to recue the missing man. As he was about to climb aboard, the second explosion occurred and the attempt had to be abandoned. Archie was awarded honorary membership of the Coastal Forces Veterans Association and was proud to attend the annual reunions of the Coastal veterans who visited the town thereafter.

Geordie, fortunately survived the accident and C.P.O. Frank Hopkins is buried in Glen Nevis. Unfortunately his wife watched the whole incident while not realising that her husband had been killed. Meanwhile, the wreck of ML 133 can still be seen on the Camasnagaul shore at low water.

Admiralty War Diary signal for the loss of ML133

History of HMS St Christopher