Hospital Carrier

By Carol Walton

Photo:Does anybody know anything about this ship?

Does anybody know anything about this ship?

This page was added by Carol Walton on 02/04/2008.
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Built by William Denny & Brothers of Dumbarton for the Southern Railway Co for use as a Cross Channel ferry, The Isle of Thanet was launched on Thursday 23rd April 1925. It made its maiden voyage on the 24 July 1925 between Dover & Calais, which route was to be its main run until 1932, after which it was transferred to the Folkestone to Boulogne route. Early in 1939 it was transferred to the Southampton St Malo service. On the 5th September 1939, two days after the declaration of war, The Isle of Thanet was Commissioned as Hospital Carrier No 22 and was based at Newhaven. During May 26 to June 4, 1940, It was heavily involved in "Operation Dynamo" the evacuation from Dunkirk of the British Expeditionary Force. In 1942 it was refitted at Preston for use as a target ship for submarines based at Dundee. Later it became the HQ Ship for "Force J" during the preparation for the invasion of Europe. In the late summer of 1944 it was used as a cross channel trooping ship. In 1946, after the end of WW2 the Isle Of Thanet returned to its pre war civilian role of a Cross channel ferry on the Newhaven to Dieppe route. In 1947 it was transferred to Dover where it was used from 1952 as a Reserve ship on various routes. In 1955 records show it being used on day trips between Folkestone and Boulogne. The last time it was used in service was on Sunday 15th Sep 1963, after which it was laid up in Dover until on the 10th June 1964 it was towed out of Dover en route to Blyth where it arrived on the 12th June for scrapping.

Note: The above material is available and was collated from information published in several books, and in the public domain of the internet.

By Richard Beckett
On 02/04/2008

I grew up in Bedfordshire and the first ship I actually saw was the Isle of Thanet. When I was about 12 I sailed on her to a Scout camping holiday to Guernsey . Naturally I thought it was the biggest and the best. I still recall the thrill of it all, all those years ago.

By David Lee
On 27/12/2009

I remember going on holiday, when I was about 10 and travelling on the 'Isle of Thanet' from Southampton to the Channel Islands (either Guernsey or Jersey) in the early 1950's. We also went on the ships 'Isle of Guernsey' and 'Isle of Sark' amongst others.

By Graham
On 02/07/2010

DUNKIRK MEMORIES The story, in his words of Brian Murray, an engineer aboard The Isle of Thanet hospital ship that played a major role in the rescue of thousands of troops at the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940 How sudden it was the transition from the “phoney” war to the reality and brutality of real war. For seven months the hospital ship of which I was the second engineer saw infrequent, unscheduled trips between Newhaven and Dieppe carrying a few wounded and sick men on each run. It was so all very uneventful, so easy and commonplace that by May 1940 we were lulled into the deepest of deep complacency. May 22 1940 dawned bright and clear that morning, the morning, which was to mark the start of what was probably the most eventful week of my life. I stood on the deck of our fast moving ship wondering why we were heading east into the rising sun and not as usual south towards Dieppe. We arrived into Dunkirk about lunchtime. All was quiet, extremely quiet. The quayside was deserted, so unlike what we would expect to see. A British destroyer followed us in and moored up alongside. I remember the lettering on her bows. It was L.20. Within half an hour the war really began – the banging and shooting war that was to go on for five long years. Several German planes arrived and as they proceeded to drop bombs, our friends in the destroyer opened up and engaged them with her 4in. guns to the detriment of the chief steward’s crockery and my nerves. As you can imagine, that complacency of ours that had taken seven long months to develop was dispelled in almost one bang – I know that mine was. During that small battle between our navy and the Luftwaffe a hospital train ran on to the dockside and immediately the ship came to life. All the ship’s company not on duty turned to and assisted the hospital staff, which consisted of some 40 men and officers with 6 Queen Alexandra’s Army Nursing Service sisters, to load on the wounded. Later that evening, having experienced almost continuous hostile air attack during our stay, we got underway and steamed for Newhaven. By now conjecture and rumour were flying through the ship - what was happening, where did these severely wounded men come from? Even the wounded could tell us little, except that they had fought in heavy and bloody battles – their knowledge of how the Allies were faring was scant and uninformative. Safely back at Newhaven, the wounded were carefully off-loaded and entrained, while we took on fuel and stores. Within two hours we were steaming at full speed up channel on our way back to Dunkirk. This time our passage was slightly impeded. As we steamed along the North French coast past Gravelines, German artillery took exception to our presence and opened up at about five-mile range. Shells dropped in our wake for about 15 minutes, and butterflies inhabited not a few stomachs during that lively period. Now the approaches to Dunkirk presented an entirely different scene. Masses of small boats were chugging along the fair way – the Famous Little Ships. Here and there were armed ships of the Royal Navy, gunboats and destroyers doing their best to fend off the low flying German aircraft which were now so numerous and persistent. Machine guns rat-tatted and bombs burst with monotonous regularity. Still we pressed on and without further incident to our vessel; we docked again in the burning town. A large oil depot to the west was well on fire and a huge black pall of smoke drifted over the town, helped by a gentle breeze. The smoke appeared like some great black cloth outlining the terrible scene of war and destruction in the act. It gave a degree of protection and cover against the marauding aircraft and afforded some assistance to the rescue operations. Once again alongside, it was obvious that all law and order had disappeared. Confusion reigned. The noise of aircraft, bombs and gunfire was nerve shattering but even more upsetting were the urgent heartrending pleas of refugees to be allowed passage to England. Their only thought was to escape the on-coming Germans who were now only a few miles away. These homeless people, fleeing, I think from the unknown, carried small, terrified children. Some were partially clothed; all were hungry and tired after many sleepless nights of travel. So the week of rescue went on and by the evening of May 29 we left Newhaven for what was to be our last run to the doomed town. By this time I had been without sleep for four days and nights, as had most of the ship’s company. We were indeed a weary band, but as I look back and remember, none was daunted but rather seemed to have become imbued with a kind of stubborn “won’t give up” spirit. It seemed that the more we came to realise the magnitude of the disaster which had befallen our army, the more we felt it was up to us to pull something out of the bag, as it were, and make a show. So, as I have said, we set out on the last run steaming our full 23 knots. As I watched the rushing foam, coloured red by the setting sun falling away astern, I wondered at the marvellous trick of the elements which had allowed the channel to remain in a flat state of calm for a whole week without change. This extreme persistent calm afterwards was to become known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. Certainly I have never known the Channel behave in such a way. Many are the men who owe their lives and freedom to this fortunate freak of nature. As we now approached the stricken town a terrifying but magnificent sight, so vast that it appeared to envelop us, came into view. The scene was beyond description and when talking of that night, I have likened it to a film set. A blood-red glow extended over the whole of Dunkirk and rolling black smoke clouds billowed slowly and heavily from the still burning oil depot, forming a huge, ghastly roof over the flames which were shooting up between the buildings. In the sinister frightening glow from the huge fires ashore, ships and boats could be seen still doggedly carrying on with their errands of mercy. Aircraft were bombing the totally disorganised soldiers and civilians who were still trying to shelter in the few remaining habitable buildings. I do not think that any guns ashore were answering these onslaughts, but some ships were answering back with but meagre resistance. Alongside once more we found the wounded awaiting us. Nearly 1,000 cases were brought aboard a ship fitted out to carry 200. Many were walking and I could not but wonder at and admire the patience and bravery of these battered men. Often, during the fighting years that followed, I remembered their stoical behaviour even after two weeks of harrowing and fruitless fighting. Top of my list for bravery and displaying the utmost contempt for the dangers that surrounded them were the six nursing sisters. The way those women worked and I will never forget the conditions of noise, bloodshed, fear and chaos, almost continuously for a week. There, right down below decks, the girls, for that was all they were toiled like angels of mercy among those poor soldiers, all of whom were half starved and some of whom were nearly demented by their sufferings. I saw these nurses dishevelled, with their normally spotless uniforms soaked with blood. They still upheld the tradition of British nursing by displaying that cool, calm exterior which leaves patients or as it was then, the wounded soldiers in no doubt that all was well and everything was completely under control. We pushed off and after running aground twice cleared the harbour and headed for Newhaven. As soon as we were clear up went our lights, which are always displayed, by a hospital ship at sea during dark hours. It is with regret that I have to recount how some bomb-happy German aviators came shooting in for an easy killing. After one or two very near misses by bombs which shook the ship, the captain wisely decided to contravene the rulings of the Hague Convention and extinguish all our lights. At full speed we approached Dover in the early morning and just as the ship’s company was beginning to feel that the immediate danger was behind us, disaster struck. I was looking at the engine room clock – it said 2.56 am – when there was an immense and shuddering crash, followed by a pounding under the ship. My first thought was that we had run aground. How much better if we had. We had hit the Dover Guard Ship amid-ships and run right over her. She sank like a stone taking with her 13 men of the Royal Navy. This was a tragic ending to our contribution to the epic of the Dunkirk evacuation, but how soon we all forgot it. We arrived in Newhaven many hours overdue owing to the crawling speed we travelled at after the collision. The wounded ashore and the ship secure, I turned in and slept for 28 hours without a break. I lived a lifetime during that terrible but famous period and I shall always feel that then I saw men and women giving of their best under stress which it is impossible to imagine or adequately describe. I do not suppose I shall ever again see such human suffering, unselfish effort and bravery during my lifetime. After Dunkirk Brian Murray RNVR served on troop carrying craft throughout the rest of the war. Was present at many famous landings including the D-day Normandy landings. He was demobbed in 1946 in the rank of Lieutenant Commander (E) R.N.R

By Catherine
On 13/02/2013

My father volunteered for the 1st Rifle Battalion Monmouthshire Regiment during WW 2. His unit were seconded to the Royal Artillery and were retrained as a searchlight battery in 68 Searchlight Regiment RA and posted to Crudwell Wilts as part of the Colerne sector Anti Aircraft defences and were located near to Kemble air base. There he manned the searchlights and Lewis guns but in October 1944 with the threat of the Luftwaffe diminishing and the Allies already landed in Normandy his unit were retrained again as infantry and the Regiment redesignated as 68 Garrison Regiment RA (1st Rifle Battalion The Monmouthshire Regiment). He became a bren gunner and his unit embarked from Southampton in November 1944 aboard the SS Isle of Thanet and landed in Ostend. Some years after the war I asked him for his recollections of that voyage and he said "We were petrified. The threat of sinking by submarine or air attack was high and we just hoped to make it across the Channel in one piece. When we landed there was a whole lot of enemy ordnance flying around even though the Germans had been forced back from the coast by the time we got there". Asked for his description of the Isle of Thanet he replied (perhaps rather unkindly) "It was an old tub - a rustbucket". His unit saw action in Belgium during the Battle of The Bulge and was also part of the force under Czech command that prevented a breakout of around 12000 Wehrmacht and SS troops from the encircled port of Dunkirk who were attempting to reach their own lines. As the war approached it's end he was sent to Belsen concentration camp as part of the British force helping in the clear up there. In May 1945 his unit were halted in the Herford/Bad Salzuflen area as Russian forces were in the vicinity. In August 1946 he was demobilized from the BAOR but having learned fluent German by then he was back in Berlin in November 1946 as part of the British Control Commission - but that is another story again. However the Isle of Thanet played a significant and unforgettable part in his wartime adventure.

Mark Leverson, Rhiwderin, Newport, South Wales.

By Mark Leverson
On 26/04/2013

My grandfather, Herbert George Dawkins, was one of those killed when the "Dover Guard Ship" - the S.D/T. Ocean Reward YH 730 - was sunk by the Isle of Thanet. He was not Royal Navy and therefore his widow and small son received no War Pension until a final appeal by her son to the Government in the mid-1970s. At 0245 off Dover the Ocean Reward was hit by the Isle of Thanet and although Tug Lady Brassey (362g/1913) searched the twelve crew were missing presumed killed and their bodies were never found. They were: (MPK – Py/Ty/Lieut. Hugh C. Slater, Petty Officers James H. Christie and Norman J. Thorley, Corporal Richard Shrubsole RM, Sk. Leander George, James Richard Todd, Mate, Herbert George Dawkins (Sh. Eng, Stanley Herbert Wymer, 2nd Eng, Jack Clifford Green, Alfred Thomas Hubbard, Simon Sheales, Deckhands, Walter William Durrant, Cook) There are no war memorials at Caister on Sea, his home village never bothered to erect one.

By Ness Dobson
On 30/01/2014

My Grandfather served on the Isle of Thanet between 1939 and 1941. His name was Fred Hammond and we have his diary. I may also have his discharge book but interestingly I have a good picture of him on a bicycle wearing his Southern Railway uniform whilst enjoying a brief couple of hours outside Dieppe harbour in 1940. He told of a story here that the sister ship of the Isle of Thanet was in its berth and swapped so that the sick and injured on the Isle of Thanet could be repatriated asap. The sister ship, Maid of Kent, remained so that more wounded could be picked up. Although both ships were clearly marked under the red cross, the sister ship was bombed that night and sunk in the harbour.

He also spoke of the rescues the Isle of Thanet played during the Dunkirk evacuation. He said it was a terrible time and that on entering the port as it was being attacked and bombed that he imagined it was like going into the gates of hell. I think that the I.O.T. made three trips to Dunkirk in order to rescue as many wounded as it could manage.

He was disturbed for many years after the Isle of Thanet struck the Ocean Reward. They were unable to stop. He wasn't even aware of the ships name at the time because it all happened so quickly during blackout. They were all sworn to secrecy and he didn't speak of it for many years until my mother helped him find out the full details when the secret was made available to the public at Kew records offices.

My grandfather left the Merchant Navy and joined the Royal Navy because he felt that he needed to do more. After becoming frustrated with his posting in the RN laying submarine detecting radar in the loches of Scotland he successfully rejoined the Merchant Navy and onto the convoys of the Atlantic. He miraculously survived serving almost 4 years, changing ships many times of which again we have his log book to refer to. Many times he avoided being hit, sunk and certain death as so many poor young lads did. It was sheer luck, but it affected him in a way we can never imagine.

By Che Woodger
On 24/07/2017

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