12 Scarborough Wrens sunk by U-boat
In August, 1941 12 Scarborough based Wrens were killed while at sea on route to Gibraltar. The girls were.
- Phyllis Bacon
- Madge Barnes (who volunteered on her 18th birthday)
- Cecilly Benjamin
- Dorothy Bonsor
- Madeleine Cooper
- Mary Grant
- Mildred Norman
- Elizabeth Sheperd
- Catherine Slaven
- Beatrix Smith
- Rosalie Wells
- Ellen waters
The attack by twelve German U-Boats used the 'Wolfpack method' or the first time. This turned out to be a highly successful and widely used tactic. Fourteen of the twenty one ships were attacked over a eight days. The convoy was gradually whittled away during night attacks.
The fateful convoy had been joined by some neutral Irish vessels. This annoyed Captain Frith because they displayed company colours and did not have blackout facilities. They were clearly visible to the enemy. Captain Frith threatened to sink them himself if they did not move to the centre of the convoy. After this attack all neutral ships from Eire would be painted grey and would have blackouts fitted before they sailed.
The Wrens actually died instantaneously. The torpedo was a direct hit and would have killed them without any suffering.
The Women's Royal Wren Service were not used to losses on this scale. It profoundly shocked Wrens everywhere. The service was still small in those days. These women were urgently needed in Gibraltar and when an appeal was made for replacements they were swamped with volunteers.
One of the girls met the Captain Frith on the night they embarked. He invited her for a drink and on finishing her glass she stood up and held out her hand to him. The girl, Madge Barnes, said "I would like to say goodbye and to thank you and your crew for all the help you have given us". The surprised Captain said "What do you mean? I'll say goodbye to all of you when we reach Gib". She said "But this is goodbye for me. I wish you all the luck in the world. But you won't need my wishes - you'll survive".
After dinner there was a concert and everyone was in high spirits. The Wrens all lined up in their Gibraltar whites and sang "The world is waiting for the sunshine".
The wireless station was manned by male Officers. The girls who worked there were often invited to tea with the Officers wives.
Some of the Wrens lived at the Hotel Glentop in Rynleside. The Wrens stayed here before they left on their last journey. Mary Messam, lived their at the time with her parents. She said "The whole of the top floor was commandeered by the Wrens right up to the time that they went abroad. I had lots of fun with them getting ready to go with their different outfits, because they were the only service that were allowed to wear civilian outfits off duty."
Margaret Whatmore 'madge' Barnes was typical of the women who joined the Wrens. She volunteered at the first opportunity on her 18th birthday.
Mr Edward Benjamin commissioned a memorial to his wife Cecilly Benjamin. The twelve foot high angel hovering over the sea. Part of the inscription mentioned the girls 'Joyous youth' and loyal devotion to duty. It ends with the words 'And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them walking on the sea'.
A bench was later put up on the Lighthouse Pier to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of their loss in 1972. It was presented by the Scarborough branch of the Association of Wrens and relatives. A service was conducted by Supt David Saltiel of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen. A guard of honour was provided by the Scarborough Sea Cadets.
The finest memorial of all was the naming of a new naval sloop HMS Wren in tribute to the womens service. A plaque in the sick bay mentions the 22 members of the WRNS who gave their lives in the SS Aguila sunk by enemy action on 19th August, 1941. The sloop was launched in 1942 and HMS Wren became known as the Wrens ship. When it arrived in port the local HMS Wren was involved in the sinking of several U-Boats such as U-462 July 30th 1943, U-504 on the same date, U-473 ON May 6th 1940 and U-606 on August 10th 1940. Their Captain Commander Walker pursued the U-boats relentlessly passing by shipwrecked seamen in the process (which preyed on his mind till his death). Wrens used to visit the ship when it came into port. It was considered as their ship.
In 1951 the new Aberystwyth Lifeboat was named the "Aguila Wren". Between 1951 and 1964 she was launched 21 times and saved the lives of 14 people. The Lifeboat then moved to Redcar.
- On the Fourth Watch, by June Markwell
- Scarborough Evening News, 5th May 2005