The Outer Banks are a string of islands and shoals lying off the coast of North Carolina that, with their soft, sandy beaches and warm climate, are a very popular tourist attraction.
I’m sure at least some of you will have been there for vacations in the past and, if you have, and you happen to have visited Ocracoke Island, you may have wondered why there is a British Royal Navy ensign perpetually flying in one tiny corner of the island.
The reason is simple: There is a small patch of land there that is permanently leased by the United States to Great Britain because, buried there, are the remains of four Britons who lost their lives more than 75 years ago.
To discover how these four men ended up interred on an island so far from home, we have to go back to the dark days of World War II. Britain and Germany went to war in September of 1939 and almost immediately Britain began getting a lot of their much-needed supplies from America. In response, Germany launched submarine warfare to try to stop the merchant ships getting through.
Because the United States was a neutral country at that time, the U-boats couldn’t operate too close to the American coast, but all that changed on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Immediately following that, Germany declared war on the US and the German Admiralty launched “Operation Drumbeat,” which meant that, instead of patrolling in the Atlantic as they had done up until then, the submarines could move inshore and catch heavily laden ships as they left East Coast ports.
The carnage began almost immediately and in January 1942 alone, 35 ships were sunk by submarines off the Atlantic coast. That meant enough supplies were lost to have fed the whole of Britain for a month. Something had to be done to protect the ships but, excellent as they were, the US Navy had too few patrol vessels and lacked experience at that time in conducting modern anti-submarine warfare. Britain desperately needed the supplies to get through and so the British Government offered to lend the United States 24 ships and crews who had spent the previous two years in the fight against the U boats.
The vessels they sent weren’t big ships; sending battleships to look for submarines was like trying to crack a nut with a sledgehammer, and was far more dangerous to the hammer than the nut. Instead the vessels that came were smaller ships and among them was HMT Bedfordshire.
Built and launched in 1935, Bedfordshire began life as a deep-sea arctic trawler. It was the role she was designed for, but it became obvious that war was coming by the middle of 1939 and, desperate for ships, the Royal Navy purchased her in August of that year and set about converting her to an anti-submarine role. They fitted her with a 4-inch gun and a Lewis machine gun as well as facilities for dropping up to 100 depth charges. By the end of 1940, she was ready for action and most of her pre-war crew remained with her, although they were supplemented by trained naval gunners and officers.
For the next 14 months or so, she patrolled off the southeast corner of England and then, in March of 1942 she, and 23 similar vessels, were sent to aid the US Navy in patrolling the east coast of the USA.
Bedfordshire was assigned a station operating out of Morehead City, North Carolina, and it was from there that she patrolled the Outer Banks, which had already proved to be a particularly prolific area for the U boats. The shoals and islands meant that ships heading east toward Europe were forced to take known routes and it was here that the submarines lay in wait.
The people on Ocracoke Island had already reported hearing explosions and seeing flashes on the horizon at night. It was known that ships were being lost in the area and so, on May 10, 1942, Bedfordshire and another converted trawler, HMT St. Loman, were ordered to patrol off the island to look for the U boat that it was suspected was lurking there.
The suspicions were right. U-558, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Gunther Krech, was lying offshore, waiting for passing ships. The two trawlers’ patrol route took them close by the submarine’s hiding place and the German, fearing he’d been detected, fired torpedoes at St. Loman.
The trawler’s crew saw the tracks and avoided the weapons, but the sighting confirmed a U boat was there and the hunt began. It went on throughout the night until, at just before 6 a.m. next day, Krech saw Bedfordshire through his periscope. He fired two torpedoes; the first missed, but the second hit the trawler amidships. The ship exploded and went down immediately.
There were 37 crew members on board and there were no survivors. Three days later, two bodies, identified as a British officer and a seaman, washed up on Ocracoke Island. They were buried with due honors next to the island’s small cemetery. Ironically, the British flag used at the funeral was one that the officer had himself given to the islanders just three weeks earlier. A few days later, two more of the Bedfordshire’s crew were also found lying dead on the beach and they were buried with their comrades, while a fifth body washed up on nearby Hatteras Island and was interred there.
The small burial plot on Ocracoke Island and that on Hatteras were leased by the British government on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1976. As usual, the commission provided white, granite headstones to mark the graves and the plot is maintained by the United States Coastguard and local residents. Each year, on May 11, the anniversary of the sinking, Royal Navy and US Coastguard representatives hold a ceremony to honor the memory of the young men of the Bedfordshire who gave their lives to protect American shipping.