Diving into History within St Helena’s South Atlantic Waters

st helena rfa darkdale wreck

The wreckage of the RFA Darkdale is home to myriad fish, many endemic to St Helena (Photo: St Helena Tourism)

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Beneath the warm, clear South Atlantic waters of St Helena, at a depth of around 47 metres, lies the RFA Darkdale – a virtually intact Dale-class tanker of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), sunk by a German U-boat not far from Jamestown Harbour during the Second World War. Today, the wreck is teeming with an abundance of marine life, much of it endemic only to the island – and ideally positioned for technical diving.

Launched on 23 July 1940, the 143m-long Darkdale arrived in St Helena in August 1941 as fleet oiler for the South Atlantic, where she sat in port for the next two months servicing a variety of Royal Navy ships that required refuelling during this time, including the HMS Dorsetshire and the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle.

st helena rfa darkdale cedardale

The RFA Darkdale was a Dale-class oiler, identical to its sister ship, the RFA Cedardale (pictured above)

Around midnight on the 22 October 1941, a massive explosion tore through the RFA Darkdale, with a succession of secondary detonations enveloping the ship in flames. The skies above James Bay were lit with orange, the loud sounds of the explosions echoing through the valley in which Jamestown is located. Witnesses still alive today recall the immense tragedy of one of the most monumental events in St Helena’s long maritime history.

The Darkdale had been struck by four torpedoes launched from the German submarine U-68, and was rapidly overcome, capsizing and breaking in two – her stern plummeting to the depths almost immediately and her bow remaining afloat for a short time afterwards.

st helena rfa darkdale hull

The hull of the Darkdale remained at the surface for several days following the attack (Photo: St Helena Museum)

Fortyone men lost their lives during the attack. Two were blown clear of the wreck and survived while seven others, including the captain, were on shore leave in Jamestown at the time. Today, they are remembered with a dedicated monument at the seafront in Jamestown, as well as at Tower Hill Memorial in London. The wreck was officially declared a war grave in June 1983. 

‘Divers treat the Darkdale shipwreck with the utmost respect, as you are diving through a memorial,’ says Helena Bennett, St Helena’s Tourism Director and diving enthusiast. ‘You realise that a piece of history actually happened here and the horrific nature of that history becomes apparent when you encounter the hull of the Darkdale – spilt by the torpedo. You begin to lose light due to the depth of the dive and are surrounded by the deep, dark blue as the wreck seems to emerge from the shadows and meet you on your descent – quite a chilling experience.’

st helena rfa darkdale hull fish

Larger pelagic hunters are frequently spotted around the wreck (Photo: St Helena Tourism)

Together with its tragic history, exploring the RFA Darkdale encompasses the beauty of shipwreck diving, as you witness the effects of nature on the creations of man. It has attracted an abundance of marine life, often larger than that found around some St Helena’s shallower wrecks. Bullseye, Atlantic jacks and crevalley jacks surround the wreck, with pelagic wahoo and tuna frequently spotted. Several species endemic to St Helena such as the cunningfish, rockfish, greenfish and the plentiful St Helena butterflyfish can be observed up close and in fine detail, having made a home out of heartbreak.    

To dive upon the Darkdale is to come face-to-face with a waterlogged moment in time – visit the St Helena Tourism Website to read more about an experience not only for adventurers but also explorers of history.

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