Service to mark 80th anniversary of wartime torpedo attack that killed Scarborough Wrens on board SS Aguila

Women’s Royal Naval Service veterans will gather in Scarborough on Sunday to commemorate today’s 80th anniversary of a sea tragedy which claimed the lives of 12 Scarborough-based “Wrens”.

Thursday, 19th August 2021, 12:18 pm
Updated Thursday, 19th August 2021, 12:20 pm
In July 1972, a memorial bench was erected on Vincent Pier to commemorate the Wrens from Scarborough, with the inscription, ‘In memory of the twelve Scarborough based WRNS who were lost at sea when the SS Aguila was torpedoed en route to Gibraltar on the 19th August 1941.’

The WRNS, known as Wrens, was the women’s branch of the Royal Navy and in World War Two took on roles ranging from telegraphists and cooks to mechanics, radar plotters and weapons analysts.

On August 19 1941, 21 Wrens including 12 based in Scarborough died when the ship they were on, SS Aguila, was torpedoed by a U-boat.

A memorial service is organised for Sunday, August 22 at 1pm on Vincent Pier at a memorial bench dedicated to the Wrens, where veterans and service personnel will pay their respects.

Photo, courtesy of the GCHQ museum at Irton Moor, of women at Scarborough’s Y station in World War Two. In May 1941, the station played a key role in the location and subsequent destruction of the German battleship Bismarck.

Fay Roberts, who organised the service, said: “When you look at the age of them, as young as 19, just finished their training, and then, of course, died on their way to serve the country during World War Two, it’s really quite poignant.

“The roles that they played were ground-breaking. It’s good to remember the sacrifice.”

The Welcome Inne on Sandside will provide the group with a free fish and chips lunch before they make their way to the pier for a 30-minute service.

The Rev Richard Walker, of St Mary’s Church, will give a small service, and a contingency from HMS Duncan, a Type 45 destroyer affiliated with the town on which Fay’s daughter, Zoe Roberts, is a logistics chief, will lay a wreath and pay their respects.

The Sandybed house that was the Y station in the first half of the war.

Afterwards, the veterans will be served afternoon tea on board Heath Samples’ Regal Lady, which was used during the evacuation of Dunkirk. They will later go out to sea to lay wreaths and crosses marked with the names of those who died.

The Scarborough-based Wrens served at Scarborough’s Y-station. Bletchley Park’s Y service was a network of British signals intelligence collection sites operated by a range of agencies including the Army, Navy and RAF among others.

Many of the Y service personnel were drawn from the WRNS, tasked with intercepting signals and identifying where they were coming from.

The Y station in Scarborough, established in 1914 at Sandybed and run by the Royal Navy, intercepted German naval and naval air communications and controlled a direction-finding network.

The memorial bench near Scarborough lighthouse and its plaque to the Wrens.

Fay, who served in the Navy between 1969 and 1975, has been involved in Scarborough Sea Cadets for 28 years and ran the Marine Society’s National Training Centre before retiring in 2019.

Torpedo attack by U-boat claimed lives of 21 Wrens

In August 1941, 12 of the Wrens from the Scarborough Y Station volunteered for duty in Gibraltar.

They travelled to Liverpool docks, and along with another nine Wrens, boarded the armed merchant vessel SS Aguila.

Wrens tribute at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

On August 17 a German Focke-Wulf FW200 aircraft spotted the convoy and the next day it was attacked by a U-boat wolfpack. It was the first Allied convoy of the war to be attacked by a U-boat wolfpack.

U-201 fired two torpedoes that hit the side which housed the Wrens’ cabins and sank the Aguila, at 3.10am on August 19. It was certain they would have died instantly. The sinking of the Aguila left 145 dead and 16 survivors.

Afterwards, the Royal Navy stopped using civilian ships to carry its personnel.

The 21 Wrens were:

Phyllis Bacon, aged 21; Margaret Watmore Barnes, aged 18; Cecilly Monica Bruce Benjamin, aged 20; Cecelia Mary Blake-Forster; Dorothy Bonsor; Margaret Eulalia Chappe-Hall, aged 26; Madeleine Alice Cooper, aged 31; Mary Grant, aged 26; Alix Bruce Joy, aged 24; Florence Macpherson, aged 35; Victoria Constance McLaren; Kathleen Miller, aged 34; Isabel Mary Milne Home, aged 23; Mildred Georgina Norman, aged 21; Christine Emma Ogle, aged 34; Josephine Caldwell Reith, aged 28; Elsie Elizabeth Shepherd; Catherine Johnston Slaven, aged 19; Beatrice Mabel Smith, aged 30; Ellen Jessie Waters; Rosalie Wells, aged 33.