MOTOR-VESSEL KILO on FIRE
MUMBLES LIFEBOAT SAVES CREW
SILVER MEDAL TO COXSWAIN SCOTT
I well remember the early hours of 18 November 1963 for I was woken, at 2.48 by the maroons being fired to summon the crew of Mumbles lifeboat. We lived just across the road from the sea near Oystermouth bus station. Apparently some of the crew did not hear the maroons as they were muffled by the gale that was blowing and by a thunderstorm. Capt Clarence Mock, Honorary Secretary of the station, contacted the police and with their help a full crew assembled.
I went into my parents' room and joined father in looking out at the full view of the bay from Swansea Docks to Mumbles Pier and the lighthouse. Some cars raced down the road after a few minutes - crew members were normally woken from a deep sleep and in no time were dressed and on their way. We saw the lights come on in the boathouse and then the small masthead light of the William Gammon which launched at 3.20 a.m. We could not see the lifeboat but followed the progress of the light as it bobbed around on the rough sea. The boat took a wide sweep out into Swansea Bay before turning to starboard and rounding Mumbles Head where she was lost to our view.
I was nineteen at the time and beginning to take an interest in the lifeboat. I had entered Swansea university the month before and the university rowing club kept its boats in the old lifeboat house. As a result I got to know Jack Gammon who was the lifeboat mechanic. He suggested that I should take an interest in the boat, but I did not take his advice until I finished my studies four years later.
I stayed up and an hour or so later saw the lifeboat escort a ship into the bay. It was still dark and all I could see were the vessels lights. The ship was put ashore at Oystermouth but some time later the lights moved off towards Swansea. Unfortunately I had then to get to uni. for a days lectures in physics and maths, so it was only when I returned home that evening that I was able to read what had happened in the South Wales Evening Post.
The motor vessel Kilo, of Amsterdam, was on passage from Liverpool bound for Rotterdam. She had a general cargo which included machine tools, grease, whisky, cylinders of gas, and a deck cargo of sodium in drums. Do you recall in school chemistry lessons the teacher putting a tiny piece of sodium metal into a tank of water? The metal soon caught fire and raced around over the surface of the water? If I remember correctly the metal was kept in a jar of oil to stop it coming into contact with damp air.
As she motored down the Irish Sea the Kilo ran into a sou'west gale which gusted to storm force 10. Some of the drums were damaged and the sodium caught fire in contact with the sea water. Soon the whole deck was on fire. The crew attempted to use fire hoses to put out the flames but naturally that just made things worse. At about 7 p.m. on Sunday 17 November the ship was about 35 miles south of the Smalls light. Her master reported the fire and said he was shaping course for Swansea. The coastguard alerted the lifeboat stations on both sides of the Bristol Channel.
The Padstow lifeboat on the Cornish coast left her moorings at 10.30 but before midnight it was realised that she could not overhaul the Kilo and was recalled. The Tenby lifeboat, Henry Comber Brown, was next to launch at 12.50 a.m. Coxswain Thomas shaped course for the Helwick lightship. Once out of the shelter of Caldy island, the lifeboat met the full force of the storm and received damage to her wheelhouse and compass.
With the Kilo now somewhere off the Gower coast, Mumbles coastguard fired the maroons and, as noted above, the Mumbles lifeboat launched down the slipway at 3.20 a.m. A wind speed of 64 knots was recorded at the coastguard station.
In order to get sufficient sea room to clear the lighthouse and the Mixon shoal, over which there was a wall of tumbling seas, Coxswain Derek Scott had to take the boat well out into Swansea Bay before he could come round in a large arc to starboard and head west into the storm.
A Shackleton aircraft of Coastal Command had found the burning ship and flew low over the William Gammon dropping a path of magnesium flares to direct the coxswain onto the Kilo. It was at 4.07 that the Mumbles crew first saw the ship, a mass of flames with fire over the sea ahead of her. Coxswain Scott later descibed the scene: "It was the most awe-inspiring thing I have ever seen. You could live a thousand years and never see its like again. The Kilo was racing towards us her engines flat out. The drums of sodium were flying into the air, tracing arcs of fire through the sky and spilling flame over the sea".
The lifeboat made her first run in at 4.11 but as she approached a heavy sea threw her under the Kilo's counter and the coxswain was forced to overshoot. A second attempt was also unsuccesful. As the boat was manoeuvring for another attempt the flames began to die down and the Kilo's master decided to make for Mumbles. The Kilo, escorted by the William Gammon, reached the comparative calm of Swansea Bay and beached off Oystermouth at 4.50 with the pilot cutter Seamark also standing by. At about 5.30 the fire took hold once more, the hatch covers collapsed, and there was a danger that the contents of the holds would explode. The master decided to abandon and the lifeboat took the crew of ten from the ship's stern.
When the tide made, the Kilo was seen to refloat, but the risk of explosion was too great for the crew to reboard. Nature came to their aid when a torrential rain storm developed. By now the sodium must have burnt out and the rain doused the fire in the holds. The Seamark got a line aboard and began to tow the Kilo to Swansea. The master and chief engineer were put aboard and were able to get the ship into dock under her own power. The lifeboat landed the remainder of the crew at Swansea shortly after 8 a.m.
For this service Coxswain Derek Scott was awarded the Silver Medal of the RNLI. The Thanks of the Institution inscribed on vellum were accorded to the other eight members of his crew: William Davies 2nd coxswain, Robert John Gammon mechanic, William Tucker assistant mechanic, Joe Bailey signalman, Karl Kostromin , George Parsons, Haydn Randall and Jack Whitford.