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Remembering SS Aguila

Lest we forget.

The Aguila Wrens

The Aguila was a British steam ship that carried fruit, cargo and passengers. She was built in Dundee in 1917 and was owned by the Yeoward Line, operating out of Liverpool to Lisbon, Madeira and the Canary Islands. Aguila is the Spanish word for eagle. This was their second ship named Aguila, the first built in 1909 and sunk by U-boat in 1915.

Aguila had 9 furnaces and 3 boilers feeding steam to a 3-cylinder triple expansion steam engine giving her 12kts of speed. She was 315ft long, 414ft wide and weighed 3,600t.

From October 1939 Aguila continued her voyages from Liverpool with only convoy protection on outward voyages. West of Portugal she would leave the convoy to enter neutral Portuguese waters and proceed to Lisbon unescorted. After calling at Lisbon she would continue unescorted to Las Palmas and Tenerife, and return unescorted to Liverpool. Aguila survived Liverpool’s Christmas Blitz of 20th to 22nd December 1940.

In August 1941 she was loaded with a general cargo and at least 86 x RN personnel bound for Gibraltar and 6 x civilian passengers. The RN personnel included 9 x Fleet Air Arm, 7 x Royal Naval Patrol Service, 3 x RNR, 11 x RNVR, 21 x WRNS and 35 x others. The Wrens were all volunteers for duty in Gibraltar, 12 as cypher officers and 9 as wireless operators (12 of whom were Scarboroughbased).

Aguila was 1 of 23 merchant ships that formed Convoy OG 71, which left Liverpool on 13th August. Aguila’s Master, Arthur Firth, was at the helm.

On 17 August a German aircraft spotted the convoy and the next day it was attacked by a U-boat wolfpack. U-201 torpedoed and sank the Aguila at 03.10am on the 19th of August. The corvette, HMS Wallflower, rescued 10 survivors including Captain Firth and 1 of the RN contingent. The tugboat Empire Oak rescued 6 of Aguila’s crew but on 22nd August west of Porto U-564 sank Empire Oak, with the loss of all 6 of the men from Aguila.

The wolfpack attack continued attacking until the 23rd of August, and the convoy lost 8 of the 23 merchant ships and 2 escorts. After the loss of so many RN personnel in one sinking, the Navy stopped using civilian ships to carry its personnel.

The Press focused on the loss of the 21 Wrens and other Wrens donated a day’s pay to a memorial fund, which paid toward a new ship for convoy escort duties, HMS Wren, launched in 1942. The balance of the fund was given to the RNLI, which in 1951 named a new Liverpool-class lifeboat ‘Aguila Wren’, stationed in Aberystwyth from 195–1964 and then at Redcar from 1964–1972.

The lost members of Aguila’s crew are commemorated in the WWII section of the Merchant Navy War Memorial at Tower Hill in London. The National Memorial Arboretum now has an Aguila Memorial of a giant wren on a granite obelisk dedicated to the 21 Wrens. The Scarborough Wrens are commemorated by a statue of an angel hovering over the sea, and a memorial bench on the Lighthouse Pier.

[Note: It is often stated that there were 22 Wrens, but one of these was a Queen Alexander Royal Naval Nursing Sister, Kate Ellen Gribble.]

Bacon, Phyllis, aged 21 (Chief Wren),
Barnes, Margaret Watmore, aged 18 (Chief Wren),
Benjamin, Cecilly Monica Bruce, aged 20 (Chief Wren),
Blake-Forster, Cecelia Mary, (Third Officer),
Bonsor, Dorothy, (Chief Wren),
Chappe-Hall, Margaret Eulalia, aged 26 (Third Officer),
Cooper, Madeleine Alice, aged 31 (Chief Wren),
Grant, Mary, aged 26 (Chief Wren),
Joy, Alix Bruce, aged 24 (Third Officer),
Macpherson, Florence, aged 35 (Third Officer),
McLaren, Victoria Constance, (Third Officer),
Miller, Kathleen, aged 34 (Third Officer),
Milne Home, Isabel Mary, aged 23 (Third Officer),
Norman, Mildred Georgina, aged 21 (Chief Wren),
Ogle, Christine Emma, aged 34 (Second Officer),
Reith, Josephine Caldwell, aged 28 (Third Officer),
Shepherd, Elsie Elizabeth, (Chief Wren),
Slaven, Catherine Johnston, aged 19 (Chief Wren),
Smith, Beatrice Mabel, aged 30 (Chief Wren),
Waters, Ellen Jessie, (Chief Wren),
Wells, Rosalie, aged 33 (Chief Wren).