H.M.S. Fittleton was sunk!

I remember when H.M.S. Fittleton was sunk in a collision with H.M.S. Mermaid in the North Sea off Den Helder on 20th September 1976.

I was a very Ordinary Seaman on my second deployment. We had finished our NATO exercise and were looking forward to the Fleets courtesy visit to Hamburg, and our runs ashore, some to the fleshpots of the Reeperbahn and others to see the sights of Berlin and the Brandenburg Gate.

HMS Fittleton
Click on photo to enlarge.
 Photo courtesy of Brian Hargreaves – tca2000.co.uk

The 20th started off just another fine day and we were winding down after all the hard work. At midday there was not a cloud in the sky and the sea was just a little choppy, no wind and not a bit cold. All the sweepers were in line behind Mermaid with Fittleton in front with the then MCM10 on board, we were then ordered to do heaving line practice on our starboard side with Mermaid and our ship H.M.S. Crofton was first to go in while Fittleton hove-to and watched. There must have been a change of plan because Fittleton sailed across our bows and went in instead. At 12.20 things started to go wrong, Fittleton went in for the run on Mermaid’s port side, bounced off and was drawn under the bows of Mermaid and out the other side. We saw it on its side, then it turned right-over; there were men running up the side and the props were still turning. We put everything over the side that would float, and the scrambling nets down the side. I remember seeing a sailor swimming to our ship. I chucked down a heaving line to him and with help pulled him down the side to the scrambling net. I never knew who he was until 1988 when I was on secondment to H.M.S. Raleigh and was talking to an R.N.R. Chief, he was that man – the Coxswain of Fittleton.

There was a very sombre mood on-board ship that night, the visit was cancelled as we had to stand-to, ready to help in rescue operations, our ships rescued 21 survivors that day but sadly 12 lost their lives.

To this day I have never been to Hamburg or Berlin. This account has not been exaggerated in any way and it is as it happened on that fateful day in 1976. I am now re-tired and live an ordinary life in the country near Fareham……..  a very ordinary life……..

John Steele

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20 Responses to H.M.S. Fittleton was sunk!

  1. Bob Dean says:

    A very sad day. The Coxswain is still with us and is a member of the TCA.

  2. Sharon Barker says:

    Interesting reading your memories of the sad day that the Fittleton sank. My father was Fred Pilgrim one of the 12 victims. Like all the victims never forgotten especially at this time of year as we approached the anniversary

  3. It will be 40 years on September 20th 2016 since H.M.S Fittleton collided with H.M.S. Mermaid in the North Sea in which 12 sailors lost their lives. The minesweeper in the picture between the upturned hull of Fittleton and Mermaid is H.M.S. Crofton. I remember it like it was yesterday. All the sweepers in line astern of us launched their sea boats except us as we were too busy in the rescue operations pulling people on board. I saw Mermaid’s life rafts drifting away in the wrong direction with the tide.

    Some weeks later our unit went to St Martin in the Fields in London for the memorial service and then to H.M.S. President and on Chrysanthemum, where all the bulkheads were covered in letters from members of the public, not an inch of space was left. Our unit did a fundraising bike ride to raise funds for the families led by C.P.O. Ron Wills who was last seen on TV pushing his bike into the pub, we spent the night in the army barracks, a good sum of money was raised.
    R.I.P. H.M.S. Fittleton, and the 12 who never came home.
    John Jock Steele

  4. Richard Aston says:

    HMS Crofton saved my life that day. Thank you. I had been swimming in the water for what seemed a long time and the sea was covered in fuel oil from Fittleton. I was starting to think that I might not make it when Crofton sailed across in front of me about 20 feet away. I remember to this day thinking, if he turns his propellors I am in deep trouble. Luckily, they dropped floating fenders in the water and I grabbed onto one.
    I remember Fred Pilgrim. A lovely man. As you say, never forgotten by us who knew him. A day or two before the accident we had a chat and he told me he was a cash in transit guard and I said that sounds a dangerous job, as there were a lot of armed hold ups in those days. For some strange reason he said, don’t worry about me, I bet I will live longer than you. He also told me he couldn’t swim which was a surprise.

    • Richard Aston I read your story and am so glad we could help you when you needed it most, if we had been further away things may have been so different for you. Like you, I met some really nice people from all walks of life and occupations, some I still keep in touch with today. I had over 18 years with the R.N.R. ’til closure in 1994 and some wonderful runs ashore as a junior rate.

      I tell this from a sailor’s eyewitness account for future generations.

      Later in the afternoon all the minesweepers stood to around the upturned hull of Fittleton in a circle some distance away, in what seemed along time. At about dusk we were paired up with H.M.S. Upton I think it was, and told to start passing sweep wires between us, the idea was to pass the wires under the Fittleton to keep her afloat. I was on the sweep deck with the others, when Upton came up on the port side at the stern, the bows were towering high above us and you could almost touch it, she nudged the side and left a dent.

      As darkness came the operation seemed to be called off and we heard later-on Fittleton had gently slipped beneath the waves, a very sad day for all of us. I find it hard to believe its nearly 40 years on and have often wondered how the rest have got on and what they did with their lives. I will be at the cenotaph on remembrance Sunday as usual, Lest We Forget……

      • Arnold Jeacock says:

        I was one of the crew on HMS Fittleton on that sad day, I was in the tiller flat with the stoker as special sea duty, the stoker was Ian Hewison he did not make it God rest his soul. HMS Crofton got me out of the water, If you look at the up turned hull of HMS Fittleton at the forward end on the keel you can see me sitting on the keel I could not swim,I will be at the cenotaph on remembrance Sunday as usual, with the T C A God rest all those that lost their lives.

        • John (Jock) Steele says:

          I think you were lucky to get out of the tiller flat as I spent most of my first deployment as special sea duty, locked in with all that noise and smelly oils, and very claustrophobic, all the way down the Keil Canal to Copenhagen, never saw the outside world for many hours, suppose someone had to do it, it was said, join the navy and see the world, I was beginning to wonder!

      • As a final sequence to events, all the minesweepers stayed around the area and I remember a huge trawler hanging around and it kept coming back, and was seen off every time. We were told it was a Russian spy ship, there was a lot about then, true, who knows. Eventually when the salvage barge turned up with a massive crane on-board we were all dispatched to our relevant home units around the UK. We spent the night in the Channel Islands before returning home to Southampton on the Sunday and back to our civilian lives.

  5. Paul Gibbinson says:

    My partner’s father, David Skinner, was lost on HMS Fittleton. I don’t think there’s a day goes by that she doesn’t think about him. May he, and all the others, Rest In Peace.

  6. John James EWART says:

    I was serving in the navy at the time of this tragic event. I was a member of 707 Naval Air Squadron based at Yeovilton in Somerset. I was called into work from home and immediately flew out to the air base in De Helder in a Wessex Mk.5 helicopter. I can’t recall how many aircraft we deployed, but the Wessex was used as a reliable means of transport to aid the rescue and recovery effort. After all these years I still remember those who lost their lives. My thoughts are with the families whose live have been touched by this tragic event.

  7. Nigel Pilgrim says:

    As this September will be 40 years since the loss of HMS Fittleton. Does anyone know if there are any plans to mark this sad event?
    I have tried leaving a note on the tca website, but had no replies.
    My father was Fred Pilgrim, if anyone can help, then myself, my sister and Dad’s sister would be grateful.

    • John (Jock) Steele says:

      I may like to attend myself and I can see how much it means to you all. I will be going to the Reunion in February and hope to find out something then, if not before, someone may know and post it on the website.

      • As a final comment, I never really spoke about the H.M.S. Fittleton tragedy until a few months ago, and before the mists of time engulf me, I decided to tell it like it was, before my memory starts playing up. I have found it interesting hearing of the survivors’ stories and the ones that were left at home and everyone who were there on the day, and I am sure a lot of others did too. It only leaves me to wish you all well for the future.

  8. Vasilios Milopoulos says:

    I was there during the efforts to save the crewmembers of Fittleton. I was Chief Officer on board of Bore VII. We remained nearby for couple of hours, in the event that our assistance may be required, but then we’re told by the Mermaid to proceed to our destination. Until the end of my watch 20.00 and beyond, I watched with my binos the efforts being made to open holes at the bottom of the capsized ship in order to access the interior, perhaps to reach persons gaged on her underside.
    The whole thing still sends severs down my spine.
    To all those lost R.I.P.

  9. I was a RO, in the division and while in the ROs shack in H M S Preident I was the first to place my name on the crew list so my shipmates, Dave Skinner and others put their names on the board so as we mates could sail to geather. A couple of weeks later I was discharged due a wrangle in transfer papers. At the time I was shocked and upset so much that I joined the TAVR instead of appealing. One morning I opened the news papers at work only to see about the diasaster, my heart sank thinking of my shipmates and still does. Later the was in various divisions fund raising in an kit auction as my then sweetheart was in the Mersey division. I have never forgotten my shipmates and what at the time off discharge caursed me hurt may have well saved my life as I too could not swim.To my shipmates rest in Gods enternal peace untill we crew togeather again.

  10. Noddy North says:

    My brother Mally North was a Mem1 aboard the Fittleton at the time and lived to tell the tale. He is now the Standard bearer of H.M.S. Eaglet Old & Bold Affiliation. We are holding our annual commemorative service at St Nicks Church Pier Head Liverpool on Saturday 9th May 2018 at 1100hr. If there is anyone about come and ask for Noddy North for a warm welcome. Refreshments in the Cornmarket pub nearby afterwards

  11. Kathleen May says:

    I can remember when HMS Fittleton sank. Although my Dad wasn’t on board some of his dear friends from HMS President were, I have never seen my Dad look so sad.Sadly Dad has passed away but he never forgot his friends who were lost, He was CPO Dick Abbott . RIP Dad and your friends.

  12. AB/R Keith Dempsey says:

    I was on watch at the comcem(hole) at HMS Warrior Northwood while the tragic events were unfolding, it marked a very black time for everybody on duty as there was a major fire on HMS Ashanti which also involved lost lives around this period

    • Andrew Coombes says:

      My mate was aboard Ashanti when it caught fire in the Bristol Channel. Three Stoker’s were killed when the engine room was steam drenched. The ship was almost lost.
      I’d known my mate a long time and he only told me about this last year. One of the Stoker’s was a good mate of his and he was cut up talking about it. We are both ex RN but we didn’t meet until we’d both left.

  13. Clive johnson says:

    I was an RO at Coventry RNR and due to join Fittleto n on her fateful voyage
    Fortunately for me the acting PSI got the paperwork screwed u (he has now passed away) and I didn’t go
    My replacement was killed in the wireless office
    Carried on serving until gaining command and retired after 22 years

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