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The NAV Bedenham Explosion

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Bedenham arrived in Gibraltar on the 24th April 1951 having loaded at Bull Point Naval Armaments Depot, Plymouth with approximately 790 tons of depth charges, ammunition and other ordnance destined for Gibraltar and Malta. When berthed at No. 39 berth, Ordnance Wharf (also known as Gun Wharf), the cargo was unloaded onto the wharf and onto No. 10 lighter vessel that was moored on the RFA Bedenham’ s port (outboard) side.  Loading of other ammunition into RFA Bedenham’s No. 2 hold, destined for Malta, was also simultaneously carried out.

Standard fire precautions on-board at the time for the loading and unloading of ammunition included having hoses rigged and laid out on the deck, however it took time for the on-board fire pump to create an effective pressure (estimated to be between ½ to 4 minutes) when required.  A charged hose was also laid out on the wharf at the ready however the jet from this (estimated with a 15 feet in length) was said ‘not to be powerful enough to reach the lighter’.

On the morning of the 27th April at approximately 09:54 an explosion occurred on-board lighter No. 10 while a hoist of depth charges, containing Torpex, was being transferred.  The initial explosion had alerted the whole dockyard.  The Dockyard Fire Brigade (military) and the local Gibraltar Fire Brigade (civilian) attended.  The lighter had quickly caught fire from bow to stern and after the initial explosion the master of the RFA Bedenham had ordered ‘water on deck’.  None of the hoses from the RFA Bedenham were initially able to be used due to the intensity of the fire on-board the lighter vessel. The jet from the wharf hose did not reach the fire.

At approximately 09:57 an order was given to ‘take cover’, due to the belief that a major explosion was going to take place.  However, George Campbell Henderson, a Sub Officer from the Dockyard Fire Brigade ignored the order and continued to direct a jet from RFA Bedenham that had been established, onto the fire. Approximately 6 minutes later there was a major explosion as lighter No 10 blew up. The force of the explosion essentially blew the RFA Bedenham into 2 pieces only held together by the electrical cabling. The bow of the RFA Bedenham was thrown out of the water and onto the quayside. A Dockyard Fire Brigade Sub Officer and The Chief Fire Officer along with 11 other persons were all killed by the explosion. Many others were also injured.

It was stated that debris from the explosion had been blown up to 1½ miles from the site of the main explosion.  Thirteen people were killed and more than 50 admitted to hospital when the 1,192-tons naval armament vessel Bedenham laden with 500 tons of depth charges and high explosive shells blew up.  The thirteen included were Julius Abudarham, Bartolome Delgado Marin, Laureano Escriba Rodriguez, Sub-Officer George Henderson, Dockyard Fire Brigade, Chief Fire Officer Albert Indoe, Dockyard Fire Brigade, John Lane, Francisco Martin Amador, Juan Moreno Serrano, Joseph Moss, Carlos Muiño Postigo, Leopold Perez, Florencio Ruiz and Joseph Zammit. The Firefighters that were injured on that day were; Firefighter-mechanic Alfred McGrail (City Fire Brigade) who had his left arm amputated, Firefighter-driver Benny Ryan, suffered lacerations, Firefighter Alfred Ochello, had both legs broken, Austin Wilding, lacerations and Albert Castro, lacerations and bruising. It was estimated that damage to property exceeded £300,000 (approximately £6,000,000 million) in today’s money.

The Crew Escapes

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The Naval Armament Vessel Bedenham, off Portland Harbour, courtesy Crown Copyright 1950.

The Bedenham had arrived from UK on the 24 April and was scheduled to sail to Malta on the 1 May with the rest of it’s cargo. None of the crew members were injured by the explosion.  According to eyewitness reports, ammunition was being passed from the Bedenham to a lighter (storage vessel) alongside. A small explosion in the lighter started a fire. The Dockyard Fire Brigade was quickly in attendance, but by this time the fire had spread to the Bedenham which within four minutes blew up with terrific force. The blast blew the bows of Bedenham onto the wharf, where they damaged a crane. The remains of the hull listed and sank, and a shower of red-hot plating and shell splinters fell within a radius of 3 Km. The City Fire Brigade under Chief Fire Officer Keith Hoare and firefighters from the Armed Services were quickly on the scene. They afforded fire cover and also sent the wounded to a naval sick bay a short distance from the wharf. Hundreds of people were treated at hospitals for lacerations and bruises, the telephone service was collapsed and because of the condition of buildings the firing of the sunset gun was suspended.

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RFA Bedenham at another time before the incident.  Courtesy of Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service Heritage and Education Centre.

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FA Bedenham and lighter on fire before main explosion. Courtesy of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service Heritage and Education Centre.

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The image above was taken some time after the explosion and shows the RFA Sea Salvor engaged in salvage work on the remains of the FRA Bedenham. Courtesy of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service Heritage and Education Centre.

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Part of the vessel was blown into the dockside with part remaining in the water. Courtesy of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service Heritage and Education Centre.

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Part of the vessel was blown into the dockside with part remaining in the water. Courtesy of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service Heritage and Education Centre.

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The Naval Armament Vessel Bedenham,

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A Second Fire

On Sunday 29 April there was a fire on-board the RAF vessel Prestol. The Dockyard Fire Brigade under ACFO Barnes and the City Fire Brigade speedily quelled the outbreak, which was in clothing, bedding and wood-work. The CFB afforded cover until the next day. General Sir Kenneth Anderson, Governor, Rear-Admiral Lord Ashbourne, the Spanish consular body, the Mayor and Corporation attended the funerals of the victims. The Dockyard and City Fire Brigades rendered full Service honours at the internment of CFO Indoe and Sub Officer Henderson.

The George Cross Citation

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The citation for the award of the George Cross to Sub Officer George Campbell Henderson by His Majesty King George the VI was published in the London Gazette on the 20 November 1951 and reads:

Sub-officer Henderson was in charge of the first fire appliance sent to fight an ammunition fire in a lighter alongside Bedenham. In spite of the great heat and intensity of the fire which, he must have realised, was virtually out of control and would cause a violent explosion of ammunition at any moment,Sub-officer Henderson managed, single-handed, to direct a jet of water into the lighter from a position on board Bedenham, immediately alongside and above the blazing lighter. Bedenham had by this time been abandoned but Sub-officer Henderson remained at his place of duty alone, doing what he could to prevent the explosion although he must have known his chance of survival was slight. He was killed when the ammunition blew up. Sub-officer Henderson displayed courage of the highest order in the face of almost certain death.  Other awards presented in connection with the disaster are:

The King’s Police and Fire Services Medal

Chief Fire Officer Alexander Indoe of the Dockyard Fire Brigade.

The George Medal

Mr Juan Manuel Cruz, chargehand, Mr James Keen, naval armament supply officer, and Constable Michael Orfila, Gibraltar Police.

The British Empire Medal

Mr Anthony Ballantine, assistant surgery attendant HM Dockyard, and Mr Vicente Pisarello, foreman garrison workshops.

The King’s Commendation

Mr Alfred Banda, ambulance driver, Mr David Stewart Hutcheon, first-class master of yard craft, Mr Cecil Neville Knowles, chargeman of skilled labourers, Fireman-driver Alfred McGrail, City Fire Brigade, and Mr Francis John Parody, surgery attendant.

The above extracts courtesy of Fire magazine page 8 June 1951, and page 138 January 1952 editions.

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Gibraltar marks 70 years since the Bedenham explosion, courtesy