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820 Naval Air Squadron commanding officer Cdr Ian Varley with coastguards
Family members watch the Penlee Lifeboat
Penlee Lifeboat Solomon Browne
The wreck of the coaster Union Star in December 1981
Representing 820 Naval Air Squadron was Lt Tobias Williams, Commander Ian Varley, Petty Officer Conn

Royal Navy 820 Squadron remembers Penlee Lifeboat Disaster

Published: 28 Sep 2022

Royal Navy sailors from 820 Naval Air Squadron were honoured to join the families of those lost in the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster for the dedication of a new memorial on Saturday (September 24).

Families of the 16 people who died, from the lifeboat and the ship Union Star, gathered on the clifftops near Tater Du, not far from Porthcurno in west Cornwall.

As part of the Solomon Browne and Union star Memorial Project they have fundraised to have a new granite memorial created to remember the Mousehole lifeboat crew and the crew and passengers of the ship who were all lost in a fierce storm on 19 December 1981.

In darkness, the Union Star had been washed onto rocks immediately below the memorial site. The wind was reported to be 100 mph and waves were up to 60 feet in height.

The crew of a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter, from 820 Naval Air Squadron based at RNAS Culdrose, had attempted several times to rescue those on the Union Star but the conditions were too extreme.

After attending the unveiling of the new memorial to mark 40 years of the disaster (postponed from last year) Commander Ian Varley, the current commanding officer of 820 Naval Air Squadron,  said: “It is a real honour that we have been invited to join the families to remember this sad event.

"As we remember their sacrifice, you get a real sense of the lifeboat crew’s commitment. They had a commitment to each other and to do their duty in the face of insurmountable danger.

“820 Squadron played a role in that day, so it felt only right that we should help make this project a success. Volunteers from the squadron have helped hack and clear the site and create a roadway so the memorial could be installed."

Members of the current RNLI Penlee Lifeboat laid a wreath and there was a fly-past by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s search and rescue helicopter.

Back in 1982 during the inquest into the disaster, the pilot of the Sea King helicopter Lt Cdr Russell Smith, on exchange from the US Navy, described how the crew made several attempts to land their winchman on the pitching deck.

Unable to get near due to the cliffs and wild movement of the ship’s mast, the crew could only watch as the Solomon Browne lifeboat made several attempts to reach the ship. Lt Cdr Smith said the waves were breaking over the deck as she ran aground directly at the base of the cliff.

As reported at the time in the Western Morning News, he said: “Just after the Union Star entered the breakers, the lifeboat moved around and made a run on the Union Star’s port bow. As she came alongside I saw a wave lift the lifeboat on to the ship so that the lifeboat’s port bilge and possibly the keel landed on the ship’s hatches. The ship then rolled seaward and the lifeboat rotated so that the stern was to the sea and slid off into the sea.

“A group [onboard the Union Star] moved from the bridge and made their way to where the lifeboat had slid off. I then saw the lifeboat again approach and as it got alongside I saw people, I don’t know how many, jump into the lifeboat. The lifeboat then pulled away again and I heard the lifeboat report that they had four off.”

The helicopter was then forced to return to Culdrose to refuel and it is thought the lifeboat made another attempt to get alongside. No more radio messages were received and no one made it back to shore. Debris from the lifeboat was found the following day along with the upturned wreck of the Union Star.

In a letter to the coroner, Lt Cdr Smith said: “Throughout the entire rescue evolution the Penlee crew never appeared to hesitate. After each time they were washed, blown, or bumped away from the casualty [Union Star], the Penlee immediately commenced another run in.

“Their spirit and dedication was amazing, considering the horrific hurricane seas and constant pounding they were taking. The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen - and am likely to ever see - was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60-foot breakers, and rescued four people shortly after the Penlee had been bashed on top of the casualty’s hatch covers.

“They were truly the eight bravest men I’ve ever seen who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.”

Lt Cdr Smith was able to watch a live broadcast of the dedication ceremony from his home in the USA.

Pictures: Royal Navy  (other than file pictures of lifeboat)

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