An Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton link to 1967’s Torrey Canyon disaster

PUBLISHED: 15:53 27 March 2017 | UPDATED: 13:16 30 March 2017

John Eggleton's RAF Victor over the SS Torrey Canyon on March 22, 1967. John's radar spotted the first signs of an oil slick from the stricken vessel.

John Eggleton's RAF Victor over the SS Torrey Canyon on March 22, 1967. John's radar spotted the first signs of an oil slick from the stricken vessel.

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When the supertanker SS Torrey Canyon struck Pollard’s Rock on Seven Stones reef on March 18, 1967, it created one of the world’s most serious oil spills.

Torrey Canyon from 9.000ft on March 28, 1967, minutes before the ship was bombed.Torrey Canyon from 9.000ft on March 28, 1967, minutes before the ship was bombed.

When the supertanker SS Torrey Canyon struck Pollard’s Rock on Seven Stones reef on March 18, 1967, it created one of the world’s most serious oil spills.

The disaster gripped the nation, as 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.

Two local men have first-hand knowledge of the story. One was above the oil tanker in an RAF reconnaissance aircraft, monitoring the oil slick as it flowed from the stricken vessel. The other was at ground level, trying to clean up the oil as it swept on to Cornwall’s beaches, killing thousands of seabirds in its wake.

It was only recently that former RAF navigator John Eggleton, 72, from Exmouth, and former wholesale fish merchant Nick Loman, 72, from Budleigh Salterton, realised that they’d both been involved in the infamous Torrey Canyon operation.

RAF 543 squadron with John Eggleton (second from right).RAF 543 squadron with John Eggleton (second from right).

The two first met at Budleigh Salterton Cricket Club – John as treasurer, and Nick as a member – and were having a beer together, chatting. “I said, what did you do in an earlier life, and it came up!” said Nick. “I was down below on the beaches while John was in the air, doing his reconnaissance.”

“I got involved by accident,” said John, remembering the events of March 22, 1967, a few days after the Torrey Canyon had run aground. “I was on reconnaissance squadron 543. I was a navigator, flying reconnaissance Victors and we got airborne. We completed our task but still had time left over, so my pilot said ‘Let’s go and have a look at that ship that’s hit the rocks down at the Scillies’. So we did.”

It was while flying over the wreck that John believed he had picked up signs on his radar screen that an oil slick was seeping out of the vessel. Although it was considered impossible for radar to pick up oil, visual photographs taken by his colleagues proved that John was right.

Soon John’s squadron of Victors – from St Ives, Cambridgeshire – was airborne, plotting the slick’s movements with radar, while another squadron, using Canberras, took visual photos.

Fire services getting to work at Perranporth.Fire services getting to work at Perranporth.

“In the course of doing our six-hour stints, we took a visual photograph of the Torrey Canyon on March 28,” said John. “You can see the difference, because the ship had broken up.”

By now, the UK’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his cabinet had decided to set fire to the vessel and oil slick, to limit the disaster’s impact. Navy Buccaneer planes were sent to drop 42 1,000lb bombs on the ship, but no one had bothered to tell John’s squadron… “The Navy Buccaneers were on their bombing run, and we were right overhead! So we did a steep climb away to get out of the situation, and that was minutes before the Torrey Canyon was bombed.”

Meanwhile, Nick Loman was involved in the clean-up operation on the Cornish beaches. A member of the Auxilary Fire Service, he was the driver of a Green Goddess fire engine that was mobilised, along with hundreds of others from many brigades and military units, to tackle the oil pollution.

From Budleigh, Nick’s crew met up with other crews in Exeter, and then went on to Perranporth in Cornwall in convoy. It took a day to reach the blackened beach.

Nick Loman and his colleagues hosing down the beach at Perranporth.Nick Loman and his colleagues hosing down the beach at Perranporth.

“The smell of the oil was absolutely terrible,” said Nick. “It was a cold, wet and horrible job. The oil was like grey sludge. The seabirds couldn’t move. They were clogged up. Hundreds of them died.”

To try to clean up the spill, the emergency teams waited for the tide to recede, so that oil was left on the beaches and rocks. The military units then sprayed the oil with detergent, and then the fire services hosed the beach down with water jets.

But sadly, as Nick discovered, it proved to be an ineffective method of cleaning. Not only that but the detergents – first-generation solvent emulsifiers – turned out to be as deadly as the crude oil, causing harm to wildlife and the environment.

The ineffective clean-up methods were frustrating for the teams.

“You could only do it right after high tide,” said Nick. “Leave it for a couple of hours for the tide to start dropping, then you could spray the detergent on, and then spray it quick.

“It was only a two-hour window that we could do it, because the tide whizzes out so fast.

“All we did was wash the oil back down into the sand again. That’s the way I saw it, but that’s what they said.”

Bombing of the Torrey Canyon continued, before the vessel finally sank on March 29, 1967.

Nick stayed down in Cornwall for a few days before returning to Budleigh, although the clean-up operation continued for some weeks until the middle of May.

“It was the biggest ecological disaster there had ever been and they didn’t know how to handle it, so they learnt an awful lot,” said Nick.


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