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About Cornwall

You are in: Cornwall > Features > About Cornwall > Torrey Canyon Disaster

Torrey Canyon

Torrey Canyon Disaster

On 18 March, 1967 the Torrey Canyon supertanker struck Pollard's Rock between the Scilly Isles and Land's End. 31,000,000 gallons of oil leaked and spread along the sea between England and France. We want your memories from the disaster.

The massive oil slick killed most of the marine life it touched along the whole of the south coast of Britain and the Normandy shores of France, it subsequently blighted the region for many years thereafter.

Unsuccessful attempts were made to float the ship off the reef, and one member of the Dutch salvage team was killed. The ship broke apart after being stranded on the reef for several days.

Clean up operation

The clean up operation

The Fleet Air Arm bombed the wreck in an effort to sink it, burn off the slick and reduce the oil spilling from it. Although the operation was declared a success, the Navy came in for some criticism for months as around a quarter of the 42 bombs dropped on the stationary target failed to hit it. The bombing was followed by Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm aircraft dropping petrol and napalm to try to burn the oil.

Around 120 miles of Cornish coast and 80 kilometres of France was contaminated and around 15,000 sea birds killed along with huge numbers of marine organisms before the 270 square mile slick dispersed.

Further damage was caused by the heavy use of detergents to break up the slick. Some 42 vessels sprayed over 10,000 tons of detergents onto the floating oil to emulsify and disperse it - but as these substances were extremely toxic to many marine organisms they caused even further damage.

Where were you when the tanker struck the rocks? Read the memories that have come in so far, and then fill in our form with your thoughts.

Your Memories

Allan Russell from Hayle writes:

Being the youngest Probationer Constable straight out of training school, I was sent as observer in the police car to direct army vehicles from Penhale Camp to beaches with detergents. At night we tended to spend a lot of time running stranded drunken soldiers back to camp.

Malcolm Allen now in New Zealand says:

I was living near Liskeard at the time and have distinct memories that we were surprised that we could smell the oil, that far away from the disaster. Also I holidayed in Guernsey that May, and there was quite a lot of oil on some of the beaches there, and there were still traces on the rocks when we returned there in 1973.

Trevor Tiller from Truro remembers:

I was working in Trafalgar garage, Truro, one evening, about 5pm, a gentleman came into the garage explaining he was a photographer for the Daily Express and it was essential he had his radio replaced as his had stopped working.

I agreed to help him and worked over to fit a new radio, when the radio was fitted I remarked about the quantity of film in his car and the cost of it.

He said that was nothing compared to the daily cost of a helicopter to photograph the Torrey Canyon, for my efforts I received a handsome tip! 

At the weekend we went to Porthleven. The first thing was the smell. When we got to the harbour our first impression was that the tide was out and all we were seeing was the muddy bottom, gradually however we realised the mud was gently moving and was in fact oil and the tide was in.

Robert Trevena writes:

I was thirteen and a half in March 1967. My friends and I watched the bombing of the Torrey Canyon from a vantage point on Carn Brea.

I also remember the thick oil on Portreath beach and then after everything was cleaned away the thick seaweed or algae that grew on the rock by the swimming pool near the harbour wall.

Tony Rowe now living in Kent says:

I was 13 years old at the time. I lived a couple of minutes walk from Porthmeor Beach in St Ives. I remember walking out to Barnoon car park to see what had happened the first morning.

The powerful oily stench hit you first, then the sight. What had been beautiful blue-green sea had become a brown, churning, frothing, fluid. What had been golden sand was now completely obscured by a thick layer of red-brown sludge.

It took quite a while to remove the worst of it and even years afterwards you could still get tar or oil on your clothes if you sat on the beach.

I remember the primitive 'boom' that was placed across the harbour mouth to try to keep the oil out of, what was then, a working harbour and the incessant spraying of detergent by an armada of small boats.

Carol Brady now living in Chelmsford says:

I got married in May 1967,and went on honeymoon to Guernsey,there were a few beaches with oil on them from the Torrey Canyon,so you had to be careful where you walked. 

Wendy Peek from Helston remembers:

I was living in Helston, and the disaster was just before my 14th birthday. 

Following a meal at the Admiral Benbow in Penzance, I remember we drove around the coast looking for the fire and smoke.

It was a strange summer, being the year of flower power - the county was filled with a mix of troops clearing beaches and hippies - I still remember what an odd combination this seemed to be.  But it was the BEST summer for music!!

Martin Biddlecombe from Menheniot writes:

I was in the Fleet Air Arm at Culdrose, but living at Mullion at the time. My abiding memory apart from assisting in the effort to clear the beaches and save the wildlife was the awful sweet, heavy smell of oil. In fact if I think about it now I can smell it.

Les Hosking from Marazion says:

My late father and I went to Mayon Farm at Sennen to watch the Buccaneers carry out their bombing runs on the first day the operation was carried out.

The first few aircraft dropped explosives, we now know to open the oil tanks up, followed by the napalm to fire up the spilt oil. After a while the flames were leaping two to three hundred feet in the air but the thick black plume of smoke went as far as the eye could see.

Being a Marazion man I remember a few days later the 'floating thick chocolate' coming in to the beaches all around our area. My father-in-law, a council worker, was involved in the clean up operation - not a pleasant job I remember.

Frank Kneebone from Newquay writes:

Newquay was particularly hit with oil which could be smelt from far inland. Many people from the community helped in the cleanup including nearby farmers who provided their tractors to help.

Also special mention must be made of the Cornwall Radio Amateurs who provided communications from the council offices to the beaches.

This was one of the longest operations by RAYNET (Radio amateur emergency network) formed after the East Coast floods in 1953.

Katharina Brett now living in Cambridge says:

I was eight years old and living in Mullion. My father worked for the council and I remember the phone going one Sunday morning and him saying there was a serious emergency.

The sand at Poldhu Cove looked like a sponge cake with a thick layer of gooey brown icing on top - except of course it was disgusting.

For us children it was exciting to see the helicopters carrying drums of detergent in nets to parts of the coast that were inaccessible by road, and the soldiers abseiling down the cliffs to spray the rocks. My little brother was terrified when a helicopter landed quite near us one day. They did make a very loud noise!

I remember there was a particularly big fuss about keeping the pollution out of the Helford River with a boom.

My father took quite a lot of cine footage. Things weren't usually that eventful on the Lizard Peninsula!

John Farrar from Hayle remembers:

On a lighter note. Drums of detergent had been stored just outside the boundary of Rosudgeon Cricket Club ground.

I was playing for St Hilary against Rosudgeon as helicopters hovered to pick up the drums to take them to Prussia Cove. 

The noise from the helicopters was deafening and made it very difficult to concentrate on the game!

Malcolm E Osman writes:

I was 16 at the time and lived in St Ives, about five minutes walk from Porthmeor beach. I remember vividly the incredible stench of the oil on the first morning the oil came in.

I walked to Porthmeor beach and was shocked by the thickness of it and wondered how on earth they were ever going to restore our beloved beach to it's original state.

Photography was my main hobby at the time (and later my profession!), and I made a photographic record of the beach and the cleanup process.

I still have the black and white photographs mounted in an album and came across them recently while clearing the attic...

Chris Harvey writes:

I remember as a 17-year-old baker's delivery boy, standing near the Coastguard houses at Sennen and watching them bomb the ship. 

I also remember seeing the American servicemen in their lorries heading down to the beaches to help in the clean up operation. At Porth Nanven (our beach at St Just) we were very shocked at the state of the beach, it was lagged in thick stinking tar (it looked like to me). 

I remember thinking then, that this was the end of our beach, it would never be the same again.  Thank goodness I was proved wrong, the 'beach' was back to what it use to be, I think in a relatively short time.

Tell us about your memories of the Torrey Canyon Disaster.

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last updated: 09/07/2008 at 14:38
created: 19/03/2007

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