War Grave Beneath the Waves - Carolina Country

War Grave Beneath the Waves

The HMT Bedfordshire rests as a British memorial in NC waters

By Joan Wenner

War Grave Beneath the Waves

A NOAA diver surveys the remains of the HMT Bedfordshire. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

By tradition and maritime law, sunken warships remain the property of the government of the nation that owned them, unless deemed abandoned. Some, like the HMT Bedfordshire resting off the coast of the Outer Banks, are forever honored as “war graves.”

A fateful mission

As Allied ships were being struck by German U-boats, or submarines, while ferrying supplies to Britain for the war effort, Britain provided two dozen ships to patrol our East Coast as escorts for the vital supply missions. Among them was the Bedfordshire, a converted trawler with a British and Canadian crew of 37 based out of Morehead City.

The Bedfordshire

The Bedfordshire was outfitted as an armed trawler. Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

On May 11, 1942, U-boat No. 558 fired a torpedo at her and missed. Unfortunately, a second torpedo scored a direct hit, sinking the armed trawler immediately and killing all on board.

That same U-boat was spotted in 1943, still in the vicinity of Ocracoke Island, and struck herself. Its German captain was captured, along with his ship’s logs, which confirmed the Bedfordshire’s fate.

The remains of four of the Bedfordshire’s youthful sailors washed ashore on Ocracoke Island, where they were buried and are now annually remembered at the British Cemetery on Ocracoke Island. Two other sailors are buried at the Buxton British Cemetery on Hatteras Island.

Honoring the fallen

With modern technological advances and side-scanning sonar used in research expeditions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Bedfordshire was found in 1980 off our coast about 40 miles south-southeast of Cape Lookout. The ship’s remains were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015 and were officially declared a War Memorial by Great Britain in 2016. NOAA continues to monitor and protect the site; unauthorized disturbance of an underwater war memorial is considered a serious offense.

The federal government is in the process of expanding the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, which protects the remains of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, to include several other historically significant wreck sites — including that of the Bedfordshire. Hopefully, notes a NOAA official, these efforts and others, including the British Embassy in Washington, will result in the waters off Cape Hatteras being designated a National Marine Sanctuary of its own in time for the 75th anniversary of the conclusion of WWII in September 2020.

Royal Fan Mail

In 2018, the author mailed a copy of “Wartime on the Outer Banks: Remembering Life on the North Carolina Coast During World War II,” by Carolina Country Contributing Editor Leah-Chester Davis, to the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II who has a deep respect for World War II veterans. A lady-in-waiting of the Queen herself responded (see below), penning a letter stating: “Her Majesty was interested to learn that the people of Carolina’s coastal communities continue to be thankful for the bravery of those in the Royal Navy who patrolled their shores during World War II.”

Letter from the Queen

About the Author

Joan Wenner, J.D., is a longtime history and maritime writer residing in eastern North Carolina. Contact Joan at joan_writer@yahoo.com for more information about the ship, including a complete service record.

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