Saturday, December 17, 2005

 

Hopes rise that wreck will be designated a war grave

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Times Online
December 13, 2005

The daughters of a naval gunner who want to have a wartime wreck containing their father's remains protected as a war grave today spoke of their "delight" after a High Court judge backed their cause.

Mr Justice Newman, sitting in London, quashed an October 2004 decision by the Secretary of State for Defence not to protect the wreck of the merchant ship SS Storaa, and ordered him to reconsider the matter in the light of his ruling.

Petty Officer James Varndell, 44, a Royal Navy gunner assigned to the ship, died with 20 others when the vessel was torpedoed in November 1943 by German E-boats while travelling in convoy.

The Ministry of Defence argued that the vessel and the grave of PO Varndell cannot be protected under the 1986 Protection of Military Remains Act because he died on board a merchant navy ship not "on military service".

His daughters Rosemary Fogg and Valerie Ledgard, both from Worthing, West Sussex, accused the Government of unlawfully failing to honour the memory of their father and the shipmates who died with him.

Rosemary was 12 and Valerie just four when the Storaa went down in the English Channel 10 miles south of Hastings.

After the judgment, Mrs Ledgard, accompanied in court by her sister, said: "We are delighted." She said they were now "very optimistic" protection would be granted.

Other merchant navy veterans hope a victory by the sisters will lead to the protection of the graves of thousands of other sailors who died during the Second World War.

The sisters fear divers are at liberty to disturb their father’s remains - in 1985 the MoD sold the salvage rights to divers from Hastings Sub Aqua Association for £150.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Newman said that the merchant navy, including many individuals who saw active service in convoys, "feel strongly that the role played by the service in the midst of armed conflict in the Second World War has never been properly recognised".

He added: "The facts of this case demonstrate that uncertainty exists as to whether the remains of those who died going down with their vessel when participating in armed conflict with the enemy in time of war will qualify for protection".

The judge said: "The court has little difficulty in understanding these viewpoints and recognises the depths of feeling to which these events give rise, but its task is to ascertain the meaning of the Act and to decide whether the meaning given by the Secretary of State is in accordance with the law."

He said that when it sank, the Storaa was not simply carrying cargo: "It was voyaging under compulsion in dangerous waters, laden with cargo, in a convoy under the protection of a naval vessel and was armed so as to be able to engage in conflict with the enemy."

It was argued on behalf of the Secretary of State that voyages in convoy were common to many merchant vessels, and arming them was a general feature of coastal convoys.

It was further submitted that if the Act "is interpreted so as to include merchant vessels, sunk whilst travelling in convoy, there will be an administrative burden upon the Secretary of State which Parliament intended to avoid".

Mr Justice Newman said: "I am unimpressed by these points. If merchant vessels sank with loss of life in 'military service' then the vessels and the remains of those who died are capable of being protected by designation.

"There is nothing in the Act which supports the class of vessels which qualify being interpreted narrowly so as not to cause an administrative burden to the State.

"Indeed, having regard to the aim and object of the Act and the importance of its purpose, namely according respect to the dead and protecting the sanctity of human remains, being considerations at the forefront of the values of a civilised society, such a qualification, unless clearly expressed, can have no place."

The judge granted the Secretary of State permission to appeal.


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