TWO sisters whose father died on a merchant ship in the Second World War won a court battle yesterday to have the wreck designated a war grave. The ruling could lead to similar sites being afforded the same protection.
Petty Officer James Varndell, 44, the father of Rosemary Fogg and Valerie Ledgard, died when the steamship Storaa was torpedoed by E-boats in 1943.
Nigel Teare, QC, representing the Defence Secretary, had told an earlier hearing that because the ship was travelling in convoy and was a Merchant Navy vessel, and because Petty Officer Varndell was not "on military service", his grave could not be protected.
Petty Officer Varndell was among 21 men who died when the armed convoy was attacked and three vessels were sunk. His daughters had argued that the wreck should be preserved as a war grave because the ship was armed, under the protection of HMS Whitehead, and their father was a gunner with the Royal Navy.
They won their case in the High Court last year but Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, challenged the ruling in the Court of Appeal. Mr Teare argued that if the High Court decision were upheld most merchant vessels sunk while travelling in convoy during the Second World War would have to be similarly protected.
It is thought that the graves of 30,000 Second World War Merchant Navy sailors may be at risk from divers and salvagers. Petty Officer Varndell's daughters, both from Worthing, West Sussex, feared the worst when, in 1985, the Ministry of Defence sold the Storaa salvage rights to members of a Hastings diving club for £150.
At a hearing in June, three appeal judges, headed by the Master of the Rolls, Sir Anthony Clarke, were told by Mr Teare that, although the Storaa was armed and there were troops on board, like all convoy vessels it was not in service with the Armed Forces but was carrying cargo from Southend to Cardiff.
Sir Anthony dismissed Mr Browne's apppeal. Sitting with Lord Justice Rix and Lord Justice Longmore, he said that the Secretary of State had "applied too narrow a construction" of the Military Remains Act 1986.
Richard Buxton, for the sisters, said that the victory had "considerably widened" the range of vessels eligible to be designated as war graves. Mrs Fogg was 12 and Mrs Ledgard 4 when the Storaa went down. Mrs Fogg said: "We have had a lot of people working very hard on this and I am just so grateful it has turned out successfully."
The ruling could force the Government to make thousands of wrecks protected sites, including the Lusitania. It was torpedoed in 1915 by a U-boat ten miles off Ireland and 1,198 people died.
DEATH AT SEA
- 2,479 merchant ships were lost in the First World War
- 4,287 merchant seamen lost their lives between 1914 and 1918
- Between 1939 and 1945, 2,627 merchant shipping vessels under the British flag were sunk by enemy action
- During the Second World War, 30,248 merchant seamen were killed. By 1946, 4,654 were listed as missing
SOURCES: NATIONAL STATISTICS AND THE HISTORY OF THE GREAT WAR