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Wrens wartime tragedy remembered 80 years on in Yeovilton

20 August 2021
One of the darkest hours in the history of women serving in the Royal Navy was remembered in Yeovilton today – 80 years on from the tragedy.

Serving personnel and veterans gathered at the Fleet Air Arm Memorial Church to remember 21 members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service – better known as Wrens – killed when their ship was sunk on its way to Gibraltar.

The loss of the SS Aguila – and other ships in the badly-mauled convoy – in August 1941 prompted a wholesale change in the way military personnel were transported overseas in World War 2.

The Aguila was a veteran steamer which carried fruit, cargo and passengers on a regular route from Liverpool to Lisbon, Madeira and the Canary Islands.
In August 1941 she left for Portugal and Gibraltar with nearly 1,300 tonnes of general cargo and almost 100 military personnel embarked.

Among the passengers: nine female officers and 12 ratings of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the latter all hand-picked chief wireless telegraphers assigned to the communications centre at the naval air station in Gibraltar.

Also aboard, a solitary Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Sister and at least 15 sailors and Fleet Air Arm personnel drafted to carrier HMS Ark Royal.

 
I believe that the Yeoward family who owned the SS Aguila would be extremely moved knowing that even after 80 years the loss of the ship and those on board are still remembered.

Association of Wrens member Caroline Snell

After four days in company with 22 other merchantmen in Convoy OG71, she was sighted by a German aircraft and the next day the vessels ran into a ‘wolfpack’ of eight U-boats.

One, U-201, torpedoed the Aguila 341 nautical miles southwest of Fastnet Rock in the small hours of August 19.

She broke in two and went down within two minutes, taking 145 souls with her.

Corvette HMS Wallflower rescued ten people, including Aguila’s Master Captain Arthur Firth, and one of the Royal Naval contingent, while tugboat Empire Oak picked up the remaining six survivors. Three days later she too was torpedoed – and those survivors were lost.

One in three merchant ships in the convoy fell victim to German submarines – as well as two escorts. The disaster led the Navy to stop using civilian vessels to transport personnel.

“I believe that the Yeoward family who owned the SS Aguila would be extremely moved knowing that even after 80 years the loss of the ship and those on board are still remembered,” said Association of Wrens member Caroline Snell. Her grandfather became a Director of the Yeoward Line and knew the SS Aguila’s Master.
“This tragic event that took so many lives left an invisible scar on Captain Frith that he bore for the rest of his life.”

The loss of the 21 Wrens prompted a fund-raising campaign which led to enough money being raised to pay for a new escort ship, HMS Wren, launched the following year… with leftovers paying for a RNLI boat post war, Aguila Wren, which served in Aberystwyth and Redcar for 20 years.

The women are also immortalised on the Aguila Memorial – a giant wren on a granite obelisk – at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

 

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