The NAV Bedenham Explosion
The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Bedenham arrived in Gibraltar on the 24th April 1951 having loaded at Bull Point Naval Armaments Depot, Plymouth with approximately 790 tons of depth charges, ammunition and other ordnance destined for Gibraltar and Malta. When berthed at No. 39 berth, Ordnance Wharf (also known as Gun Wharf), the cargo was unloaded onto the wharf and onto No. 10 lighter vessel that was moored on the RFA Bedenham’ s port (outboard) side. Loading of other ammunition into RFA Bedenham’s No. 2 hold, destined for Malta, was also simultaneously carried out.
Standard fire precautions on-board at the time for the loading and unloading of ammunition included having hoses rigged and laid out on the deck, however it took time for the on-board fire pump to create an effective pressure (estimated to be between ½ to 4 minutes) when required. A charged hose was also laid out on the wharf at the ready however the jet from this (estimated with a 15 feet in length) was said ‘not to be powerful enough to reach the lighter’.
On the morning of the 27th April at approximately 09:54 an explosion occurred on-board lighter No. 10 while a hoist of depth charges, containing Torpex, was being transferred. The initial explosion had alerted the whole dockyard. The Dockyard Fire Brigade (military) and the local Gibraltar Fire Brigade (civilian) attended. The lighter had quickly caught fire from bow to stern and after the initial explosion the master of the RFA Bedenham had ordered ‘water on deck’. None of the hoses from the RFA Bedenham were initially able to be used due to the intensity of the fire on-board the lighter vessel. The jet from the wharf hose did not reach the fire.
At approximately 09:57 an order was given to ‘take cover’, due to the belief that a major explosion was going to take place. However, George Campbell Henderson, a Sub Officer from the Dockyard Fire Brigade ignored the order and continued to direct a jet from RFA Bedenham that had been established, onto the fire. Approximately 6 minutes later there was a major explosion as lighter No 10 blew up. The force of the explosion essentially blew the RFA Bedenham into 2 pieces only held together by the electrical cabling. The bow of the RFA Bedenham was thrown out of the water and onto the quayside. A Dockyard Fire Brigade Sub Officer and The Chief Fire Officer along with 11 other persons were all killed by the explosion. Many others were also injured.
It was stated that debris from the explosion had been blown up to 1½ miles from the site of the main explosion. Thirteen people were killed and more than 50 admitted to hospital when the 1,192-tons naval armament vessel Bedenham laden with 500 tons of depth charges and high explosive shells blew up. The thirteen included were Julius Abudarham, Bartolome Delgado Marin, Laureano Escriba Rodriguez, Sub-Officer George Henderson, Dockyard Fire Brigade, Chief Fire Officer Albert Indoe, Dockyard Fire Brigade, John Lane, Francisco Martin Amador, Juan Moreno Serrano, Joseph Moss, Carlos Muiño Postigo, Leopold Perez, Florencio Ruiz and Joseph Zammit. The Firefighters that were injured on that day were; Firefighter-mechanic Alfred McGrail (City Fire Brigade) who had his left arm amputated, Firefighter-driver Benny Ryan, suffered lacerations, Firefighter Alfred Ochello, had both legs broken, Austin Wilding, lacerations and Albert Castro, lacerations and bruising. It was estimated that damage to property exceeded £300,000 (approximately £6,000,000 million) in today’s money.