Named after Charles Swasey, an army officer killed in the American Civil War, the USS Swasey (G58) was laid down on 27th August 1918 and launched on 7th May 1919. She was sponsored by Ms. Mary L. Swasey and was commissioned on 8th August 1919. The Clemson class destroyer was built by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, Squantum Victory Yard in the USA and was 313.5’x31.0’ and 1190 dead weight tons.
The Swasey was assigned to the Pacific Fleet and, after completing fitting out and sailing to the west coast, arrived at Pearl Harbour in the fall of 1919. She served there until the summer of 1922 when she returned to San Diego. Swasey was decommissioned at San Diego on 10th June 1922 and assigned to the reserve fleet for the next 17 years. She was reactivated on 18th December 1939 and, after an overhaul and sea trials, transferred to Britain on 26th November 1940 under the Destroyers for Bases Agreement. She was removed from the US Naval Register on 8th January 1941.
The ship was modified for trade convoy escort service by removal of three of the original 4 inch guns and three of the triple torpedo mounts to reduce topside weight for additional depth charge stowage and installation of a hedgehog. The Hedgehog (also known as an Anti-submarine Projector) was an anti-submarine weapon that was deployed on convoy escort ships to supplement the depth charge. The weapon worked by firing a number of small mortar bombs from spiked fittings. She was commissioned as HMS Rockingham on 26th November, 1940. Rockingham was then assigned to Escort Group B-1 of the Mid-Ocean Escort Force for convoys ON-96, SC-105, SC-119, ON-171, HX-230 and HX-236 during the winter of 1942-43.
At 04.45am on the morning of 27th September, 1944 Lieutenant John Ritchie RN, commanding Officer of HMS Lancaster, escorting convoy EN-40 off the east coast of Scotland, received a message from Rockingham. She had been damaged by an explosion either by a torpedo or mine (at the time they were not sure which) in position 56 47 N, 01 31 30 W and needed assistance. So began the long story that was to lead to the loss of HMS Rockingham.
Lancaster, a 9800 ton armoured cruiser, was within twenty miles of the reported position and immediately got up speed to her fastest 26 knots and sped to the scene. The Lancaster was brought to action stations and prepared to pick up survivors from Rockingham and to tow the damaged ship to safety. As Lancaster reached the scene they plotted the position of the ship – they were in an area designated as QZX.604 – a British minefield! It seemed that Rockingham had strayed into the middle of the field and struck one of the floating mines. Rockingham had her anchors down and was unable to steam or steer. However, despite the force 6 west wind and a heavy swell, she was in no immediate danger but clearly rescue was going to be very dangerous.
As Lancaster eased closer to Rockingham they could see that she was drifting at a rate of about two knots despite her anchors. This made the situation even more dangerous. Lancaster signalled that she would hold her station on the edge of the minefield until Rockingham drifted clear of the danger. It was an agonising wait as the crippled destroyer could easily drift onto another mine. Aboard Rockingham the injured sailors, ten in all, were loaded onto the whaler to be transported to Lancaster as soon as they cleared the minefield. These preparations helped to divert the crews attention from their terrible predicament.
Thankfully, at about 09:17, the ship finally drifted clear of the mines and without further incident the whaler quickly brought the injured across. It was decided that the rest of the crew should stay aboard as they were in no real danger. However, the weather was deteriorating with winds now in excess of force 7 and the swell pitching and rolling the two drifting ships. This made the job of securing a tow incredibly difficult. The light lines that were passed as the first stage continually snapped and even when they succeeded in attaching a heavier line and started to pull the wire tow across this too snapped and the length of metal tow line fell into the sea dangerously close to the churning propellers of Lancaster – it took two hours to recover the tow line. It took another two hours, until 14:17pm, before the line was finally securely attached.
By now a number of other ships had arrived at the scene – HMS Vanity and HMTs Strephon, Robert Stroud and Harry Melling – they took up station close behind Rockingham in case a rapid evacuation of the crew was required. This seemed like a wise precaution when, at 15.15pm, a message was sent from Rockingham to Lancaster indicating that the engine room bulkhead was beginning to give way. However the captain of Rockingham believed he would make it through the night. An hour later a squall swept over the little convoy and the force 9 winds whipped the sea into huge swells snapping the tow line like thread.
This time HMS Vanity tried to re-establish the tow while Harry Melling went alongside Rockingham to pick up some of the crew. The only possible method in the heaving sea was for the men to jump into the water and be picked up. A number of men made it safely across and thankfully none were lost in the attempt. By now the situation aboard Rockingham was getting desperate. The remaining crew members were exhausted making further attempts to establish a tow impossible. It was also getting dark which would make a pick up from the sea very difficult indeed. Amazingly, HMS Vanity did eventually succeed in getting alongside and the crewmen quickly jumped across and collapsed on her decks. They were safe. The Rockingham finally succumbed at 20:38pm, sinking stern first in approximate position 56 26 N, 00 21 W. The next morning all the crew of the Rockingham were transferred from the other ships to Lancaster which then proceeded to Rosyth bringing the men home after a heroic and dangerous rescue.
As far as we know the wreck of the Rockingham remains undiscovered.