Today marks the 50th anniversary of RAF Chivenor’s involvement in the effort to prevent the oil pouring out of the stricken tanker, Torrey Canyon, drifting to land. In the days leading up to the Torrey Canyon’s grounding the local newspapers reported on several vessels being caught out in the rough seas and holes being punched in sea walls.
On the 18th March 1967 the Torrey Canyon ran aground near the Seven Stones off the Isles of Scilly after trying to take a short cut. The stranded ship then started to leak it’s 120,000 ton cargo of oil into the sea causing an environmental disaster.
The editor of the North Devon Journal-Herald called it a nightmare as the councils of North Devon made plans to deal with any oil which came their way. The coastguards based at Hartland started an around-the-clock vigil looking for any sign that the oil may be heading for the North Devon coast.
On Tuesday 28th March some 26 Hawker Hunter jets from R.A.F. Chivenor were scrambled to help in a plan to sink the Torrey Canyon and deal with the oil by setting it alight. The Royal Navy had already bombed the stricken ship itself to set it alight and sink it, the jets from Chivenor were tasked with dropping 5,200 gallons of fuel on the tanker and surrounding area in a bid to keep the flames burning and burn off any oil in the area.
By the time the first pilots reached Hartland Point, they could see the flames from the Torrey Canyon in the distance. There were dozens of light aircraft and helicopters in the area around the ship, meaning their mission was in the full glare of the public eye.
The hunters dropped their load on the already burning oil, Squadron Leader Peter Martin told the Journal-Herald “The smoke was fantastic. When we arrived it was rising to about five miles high and then leveling off. Our fuel attack seemed to be having its effect and the sea all around the tanker was on fire. But it did not spread to the oil slick further out to sea.”
On the way back from their mission they looked out for any signs the oil may be heading to the North Devon coast, but thankfully there was little or none past Newquay.
By the beginning of April the worst fears of the North Devon councils were eased as the weather station at Chivenor confirmed there had been a change in wind direction which pushed the oil away from the coast.
The Torrey Canyon disaster was the first major oil spill from one of the new breed of oil tankers and changed the way the ships were regulated and the way in which oil was cleared up after such an incident. In a bid to return the beaches back to normal as quickly as possible before the tourist season started in earnest, detergent was used to clean the beaches in Cornwall. This, however, caused more damage to the local ecology than the oil itself. The beaches which were treated with detergent took over ten years to recover, whilst those which had the oil scraped off and/or were left just as they were to allow the oil to break down naturally took only 2 to 3 years to recover.
The councils of North Devon were prepared to use a combination of detergent in the sea to disperse the oil before it hit land and booms across harbours and river estuaries to prevent the oil from causing damage to both the local environment and the tourist trade the area depended upon. It must have come as a great relief when the wind changed, driving the oil away from North Devon.
The oil affected beaches all along the Cornish peninsula, northern France, the Islands of Scilly, Guernsey and even reached as far as Spain. There is still a reminder of the disaster in Guernsey where a quarry was used as holding tank for the oil that was cleared up from around their shores. The oil was still there in the early 2000s when attempts were made to break down the oil. Whilst it was a partial success, the oil which remains still acts as a lasting reminder of the disaster which has changed the way we deal with oil spills and inspired a generation of environmentalists.
You can find out more about the role played by RAF Chivenor and the impact the disaster had on the local area by looking through our Chivenor Collection and reading the articles published in the North Devon Journal at the time. Details of both can be found on our website.