The HMT Bedfordshire began its career as a fishing trawler. It was built by Smith's Dock Company, South Bank at Middlesborough, England, in 1935. With most of its cargo space dedicated to fish storage, it might have seemed an unlikely participant in what would become known as the longest continuous military campaign of World War II, the Battle of the Atlantic.
Although the Battle of the Atlantic is an important part of our nation's history, many Americans are unaware of the role our eastern coast played during this critical time of WWII. Most do not know that in those early years of the war, German U-boats plied the waters only a few miles off our eastern coast and that the battle waged within site of the coastal residents of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Frequently, explosions were heard, flashes of light were seen, and often the bodies of the sailors and merchant seamen washed up onshore, as Germany tried to stop ships from carrying supplies to England.
Germany believed that England, as an island nation, would be crippled without a continuous flow of goods being delivered. Germany thought that if they could destroy the merchant ships supplying the raw goods faster they could be replaced, then England would have no choice but to succumb to German authority. A great deal of these raw goods came from America and Canada. Therefore, the German government sent U-boats to patrol the waters and to sink any merchant ships that could aid England.
HMT Bedfordshire(Photo: The National Archives)
While the United States attempted to remain neutral during the war, President Franklin Roosevelt began the Lend-Lease program. This program was designed as a way to provide Allied Powers with valuable resources while remaining neutral. More importantly, the program also provided the means for the U.S. to supply vessels for use in escorting and patrols.
Ironically, so many vessels were supplied during this period that it left a vacuum of vessel support along the east coast when the U.S. entered the war in 1941. The United States was then in need of aid from England to help patrol the East Coast. Britain agreed to loan the United States 24 vessels from the Royal Navy Patrol Service to assist in escorting merchant ships and conducting anti-submarine warfare. Among those 24 vessels was the fishing trawler Bedfordshire. This little ship from England was destined to become an important fixture in the Battle of the Atlantic off the coast of North Carolina, and remains a celebrated icon of Outer Banks maritime heritage.
The Bedfordshire had an overall length of 162.3 feet with a depth of 15.3 feet, and 26.6 feet abeam. The trawler was powered by a steam engine and could go approximately 12 knots. The vessel was built specifically as a fishing trawler. It is difficult to learn much about the merchant career of the Bedforshire, as vessels of this type usually did not get placed in the historic record unless it was involved in something outside the ordinary, such as accident. Once the Bedfordshire became part of the Royal Navy, more accessible records are available.
In August of 1939, the Bedfordshire became officially an addition to the Royal Navy. The conversion from merchant fishing trawler into a useful military asset required the addition of weaponry. However, the armament they received was not the most modern and effective technology of the day, but simply what was available. By December of 1940, the vessel was transformed from Merchant Vessel (MV) to the HMT Bedforshire.
Upon being fit for service, HMT Bedfordshire took up escorting and anti-submarine patrols around the Southwest coast of England and the Bristol Channel. During that time, Bedfordshire became a well seasoned patrol vessel, surviving several attacks from aircraft, as well as launching several depth charge attacks on suspected U-boats. After two years of service, the Bedfordshire, along with 23 other vessels were notified that they would be transferring for service in United States waters.
While operating in North Carolina, Bedfordshire participated in critical convoy duty. On May 10, 1942, the HMT Bedfordshire set sail for escort duty alongside the HMS St. Zeno. Sometime that night, the Bedfordshire was separated from the St. Zeno, but sent one final routine message on the evening of May 11.
In the early morning hours of May 12, the U-558 spotted a lone vessel and got into position to fire on what they had now correctly identified as a British anti-submarine trawler. Two torpedoes were fired and evidently both missed. However, the captain and crew of the Bedfordshire did not notice the tracks of the torpedoes, and this gave the U-558 the opportunity to reposition and fire again. At approximately 5:40 a.m., the U-boat captain reported seeing a massive explosion that nearly lifted the small vessel out of the water before the remains sank immediately.
The destruction of the HMT Bedfordshire was so abrupt and complete that no distress signal was sent. Of the 37 crewmembers, there was not a single survivor. For several days, the Navy was not even aware of the Bedfordshire's loss, as there were no witnesses, radio signal, or survivors. The first indication came when crewmembers began washing up on the beaches along the coast.
On 14 May the coastguard recovered two identifiable bodies on Ocracoke Island. The bodies were of Sub-Lieutenant Thomas Cunningham and Ordinary Telegraphist Stanley Craig. These remains were respectfully buried on a small plot of land provided by local resident. Nearly a week later, two additional bodies were discovered floating at sea by the Ocracoke Coast Guard. The bodies were not identifiable, but were in British attire. These men were also buried on the same plot of land as Cunningham and Craig, with their markers reading 'unknown British sailor.'
The remains of a fifth Bedfordshire crewman washed up near Swam Quarter, North Carolina. This was Ordinary Seaman Alfred Dryden. Dryden's body was initially buried near the Hyde County Poor House in Swan Quarter; however, it was reinterred at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Creeds, Virginia. A sixth body washed ashore near Hatteras on May 21. Though this body was unidentifiable, it was determined that given its location and timing that it was likely a crewmember of Bedfordshire. This unidentified sailor was buried near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
The interment of the crew at sites along North Carolina has become an important monument to celebrating and remembering this important part of WWII history and heritage. The gravesite on Ocracoke has become an important part of the identity of the Island. In 1976, as part of the state's bicentennial celebration, the site was leased in perpetuity to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and remains British Property to this day. The site is currently cared for by the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Hatteras and Ocracocke and a formal service is held at the site on May 12 each year.