A further Exmouth link to the 1967 Torrey Canyon disaster
PUBLISHED: 15:31 12 April 2017 | UPDATED: 15:59 12 April 2017
Picture: From the book 'Buccaneer Boys' by Grub Street Publishing Ltd.
Following our recent 'Framed In Time' feature on the Torrey Canyon disaster, another local man has come forward to shed more light on the events of 50 years ago.
When the supertanker struck Pollard’s Rock on Seven Stones reef on March 18, 1967, it created one of the world’s most serious oil spills.
As the ship started to break up, an estimated 30,000 tons of crude oil poured into the sea, causing extensive environmental damage around the Cornish coast, the Isles of Scilly and beyond. Thousands of seabirds were killed and marine life was wrecked as the oil swept on to the beaches.
The disaster entered a critical stage ten days later when the UK’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his cabinet decided to send in air strikes to set fire to the vessel and the surrounding oil slick, in the hope of limiting the extent of the damage.
The Fleet Air Arm’s Buccaneer planes from RNAS Lossiemouth in Scotland were at the forefront of the operation on March 28, 1967, dropping 42 1,000lb bombs on the ship.
David Laskey, now 72, retired and living in Exmouth, was on board one of the Buccaneers.
An RAF navigator, he was on loan to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm as an observer with No 800 Naval Squadron. Aged just 21, he believes he was probably the youngest person to bomb the Torrey Canyon.
“I’d just finished training on 736 training squadron and had been appointed to 800 Naval Air Squadron,” he says.
“You never in your wildest dreams expect to be dropping live ordinance, six weeks into your first front-line squadron tour, particularly as there wasn’t a war on. So it came as quite a surprise really, and I thought it was a chance of a lifetime.
“There you are, sat around, kicking your heels one minute, the next minute you’re about to go off with live ordinance, to hit a tanker that’s gone aground on rocks.”
David and his pilot Flt/Lt Tim Cockerell flew the length of the country and did three sorties during the Torrey Canyon operation, dropping 16 bombs on the wrecked tanker.
Then they hit a problem.
“I selected the weapons, we went round and dropped the bombs. I looked at the release panel, and we had a ‘hang-up’ on an outboard station on the wing,” says David.
He told Tim that one of the bombs had got stuck and was still onboard. Tim came round again and gave it another go, but still the bomb refused to drop. They decided to jettison the bomb, but nothing happened.
By now the plane’s fuel gauges were getting lower and lower, and David and Tim tried to land at a nearby Royal Naval Air Base in South Wales. Unfortunately that airfield was closed, so they had to fly back to Lossiemouth.
“We flew the length of the country with a live 1,000lb bomb on the outboard wing,” says David. “It was a case of cross your fingers and stay as far away from built-up areas as you possibly could.
“We called up Lossie, told them what had happened and they cleared us in. We did a long, low approach. Normally the Buccaneer lands on the deck with a thump, but this time, Tim did the gentlest landing I can ever remember for the Buccaneer. As we came over the fence, you could see the fire engines and everything ready to chase us, and they did so, but at a safe distance. So we went down the runway, slowing down very gently and when we stopped, we opened the canopy and exited the aircraft at a fair old rate of knots!”
Unfortunately, the first day’s operation was not a great success. The Torrey Canyon remained afloat, exceptionally high tides put the fire out, and the oil hadn’t been burnt off.
And in David’s view, a lot of the oil had ‘coagulated with the salt water and it wasn’t happy to burn. You were going to need a lot of heat to burn it’.
Further attacks – with more planes from other bases – took place the following day.
David was also back in action.
“By then the ship was in two pieces,” he says. “I did one of the last attacks with my pilot, and as we pulled up, I looked in the rear view mirror to see the effect of the bomb. There was a circle – maybe about 600ft in diameter – of the oil on the water burning. But almost immediately it had caught fire, by the time we had turned downwind, it had gone, so the fire was out very rapidly. I said to my pilot, ‘I don’t think there’s anything left to burn. Time to go home.”
With extensive bombardment the Torrey Canyon finally sank later that day, but the environmental damage caused by the disaster went on for many years.