Next week marks 75 years since Blackpool’s adopted Second World War warship, HMS Penelope, was lost.
Hit by a torpedo, as she left Naples, the vessel which the resort had lovingly supported, sank in less than a minute – causing the deaths of her 417 members of crew.
In 1941, the admiralty allocated Penelope to the town of Blackpool as the objective of the town’s Warship Week.
It had been hoped to raise at least £1m, in the week commencing November 29, but in fact, it raised £1,506,746.
To commemorate the generosity of the town, the admiralty presented Blackpool with a two-foot high plaque, bearing the ship’s badge – which was hung in Blackpool Town Hall.
Many organisations in the resort and particularly school children, sent gifts and letters to the crew of the Penelope – and at Christmas 1943, the then Mayoress (Mrs J Parkinson) sent a gift parcel to every member of the crew.
Penelope took part in several Malta convoys and fleet engagements, including the Battle of Sirte, often coming under heavy air attacks.
In March 1942, as Penelope lay berthed alongside Hamilton Wharf in Malta’s dockland, she became a target for wave-upon-wave of bombing attacks. One bomb caused serious damaged and flooding, necessitating moving Penelope into dry dock. For the next week, the vessel was subjected to the most severe attacks and hundreds of bombs were aimed at her.
It was decided that, damaged as she was, she should be got out of dry dock and leave Malta.
On April 8, Penelope – with hundreds of splinter holes plugged with rough wooden blocks, earning her the nickname HMS Pepperpot – headed for Gibraltar.
She then went to American, to Brooklyn Navy Yard, for repair and arrived back in Portsmouth on October 1, 1942.
On July 9, 1942, Captain A D Nicholl – who had been captain of the Penelope during her time in Malta – visited Blackpool to thank the Mayor and Corporation and townspeople of Blackpool for ‘adopting’ the ship.
In October, after Penelope was repaired, the Mayor and Civic representatives gave a party at Southsea for all the crew, and the highlight of the evening was the appearance of Fylde coast favourite, comedian George Formby.
In January 1943, Penelope joined her old partner Aurora in the Mediterranean. She was rarely out of the action.
In January 1944, Penelope arrived at Naples and from there took part in the landings at Anzio.
For the next few weeks, she was engaged in giving fire support to the Army in that area.
On February 18, 1944, as Penelope sailed from Naples, she was struck by a U-410 torpedo. A few minutes later, an explosion ripped through her and she sank within 40 seconds.
All of her 417 crew members – including Captain DG Belben – were lost.
When news of the loss reached Blackpool, the residents were deeply saddened.
In a message of sympathy to all those who lost loved ones, the Mayor of Blackpool, Coun Jacob Parkinson, said that “her gallant captain and crew will be a lasting and revered memory in the town.”
As part of a memorial broadcast in March 1944, her captain of 1941-42, Capt A D Nicholl, had this to say: “She meant a great deal to the people of Blackpool who adopted her.
“But above all, she is dear to the hearts of the men who have served on her, to their wives and mothers and families and I am sure there is a special feeling of pride in the hearts of the little Penelopes of various ages, who were named after their father’s ship.
“The Penelope carried out her job as every ship in the Navy is expected to do and it was because her company has such pride in their ship and such confidence in what they could do together, she achieved so much.”
It was nearly 20 years later that Blackpool was able to renew the association with Penelope.
This time it was a new frigate being completed by Vickers-Armstrong at Walker-on-Tyne in October 1963.
Since that time, and during the different commission of HMS Penelope, there has continued a happy association with Blackpool, and a number of resort visits by members of the crew have taken place, with various mayors visiting the ship too.
In June 1990, HMS Penelope was presented with the Freedom of the Borough of Blackpool at a ceremony on Princess Parade.
Over the year, the ship’s company held charity functions and challenges, which benefited local charities and good causes. In 1988, for example, eight men from Penelope cycled from Plymouth to raise £1,000 for children at Highfurlong School.
In 1984, to mark the 40th anniversary of the loss of HMS Penelope, the Blackpool branch of the Royal Naval Association organised a Memorial Service at the Parish Church of St John, in Blackpool town centre. This became an annual event – being held on the nearest Sunday to February 18, attended by the Mayor and Mayoress, civic representatives, members of the ex-naval organisations and the general public.
In 1987, a number of those who had served in the wartime Penelope attended and the following year, decided to make it an annual weekend and set up a Penelope Association, which included a number of those who served on the modern frigate.