THE family of a young sailor blamed for a major naval disaster are hoping to clear his name, 60 years after the event.

Midshipman Richard Clough was only 18 when, on October 17, 1948, he was one of 49 sailors returning on a tender to HMS Illustrious after a night out in Weymouth.

As they made their ill-fated voyage across Portland Harbour the vessel began to struggle in rough seas and capsized, resulting in the tragic loss of 29 lives, including Midshipman Clough.

Two subsequent inquiries – held in secret by the Royal Navy – laid the blame largely at the feet of Midshipman Clough, who was in charge of the vessel despite his youth and relative inexperience.

Jan Hildreth, whose wife Wendy is Midshipman Clough’s sister, says the young sailor has been harshly scapegoated, adding that he was simply following the orders of his superiors and shouldn’t have been told to take the tender out in the rough conditions.

He said: “People have been working on this for the last 50 years, particularly a local historian called Jack Cranny, and they have been convinced this was an unfair judgement.

“He was only 18 at the time and no one else was considered to be involved.

“We hadn’t been aware that there had been so much concern for the judgement and what happened.”

As relatives and survivors prepare to mark the 60th anniversary of the disaster, Mr and Mrs Hildreth – who live in London – have become more convinced as they have learned more about what unfolded that the memory of Midshipman Clough has been unjustly tarnished. Mr Hildreth said: “You can’t have an 18-year-old who has only been qualified for a midshipman for six months taking total responsibility for the lives of 50 men on board.

“The boat took off and the moment it went round the harbour bar and was exposed to the open sea it just couldn’t take it.

“Water came flooding in from the front and Richard Clough got everyone using their hats and things to bail the water out.

“But reports have confirmed there is no way they could have kept that boat afloat, it just shouldn’t have been there.

“The argument is whether a midshipman of 18 could have the punch to go against the captain’s indications or whether he should have been allowed to go.”

John Ellis, chairman of the HMS Illustrious Society, supported Mr Hildreth’s claims that the inquiry findings wrongly pinned the blame on Midshipman Clough.

He said: “I think he was treated unfairly, a young lad of 18 is not going to turn round to his superiors and say: ‘I’m not taking the pinnace back because it’s a bit rough.’ Somebody more senior should have stepped in.”

A memorial service is being held on Sunday at All Saints Church, Easton, at 10.30am to mark the 60th anniversary of the tragedy.

After the service there will be a wreath-laying ceremony at Portland’s Royal Navy Cemetery at around midday and, weather permitting, the Weymouth lifeboat will sail out to the spot where the pinnace sank and lay a wreath on the water.

Mr Hildreth added that it would be a fitting tribute if the 60th anniversary could trigger some sort of apology or absolution of blame from the naval authorities that found Midshipman Clough almost solely responsible.

He said: “Ideally we could get somebody to say this was an unfortunate mistake brought on by the pressure of the moment.

“There must be the acceptance by the authorities that an 18-year-old should not, in the circumstances, have been expected to command the pinnace or, at least, not to have had the experience to decide whether or not the boat could take the hellish conditions.

“Richard Clough should surely not be held solely responsible.”