This week we remember the sinking of HMS Foylebank in Portland Harbour just after the 80th anniversary of this tragedy.

At the start of the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe were raiding convoys in the Channel and towns on the south coast from airfields in France, less than an hour's flying time away. Admiral James the Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth had written that Portland had a bad time from dive-bombers and we had lost six ships out of one convoy.

On July 4, 1940 HMS Foylebank, a converted 5,500 ton merchant ship, was providing anti-aircraft cover in Portland Harbour. Foylebank had been a high-class cargo vessel and roughly the same length as a cruiser, which is why she might have been selected for conversion. On the morning of July 4 half the crew were having breakfast and only two of the guns were manned. An officer saw the aircraft but thought they were Lysanders and didn’t sound the alarm, The aircraft were however 26 Stuka dive bombers and in an action that lasted approximately 8 minutes they attacked and dropped 22 bombs.

The bombs crashed through the lightly armoured deck causing many casualties and fatally damaging the ship. She sank stern first to the bottom of Portland Harbour the next day. Out of the 298 crew, 176 were killed and many more wounded. 40 escaped without injury. Some of the dead could not be identified and were buried in unmarked graves in the Royal Navy cemetery in Portland. They are commemorated on memorials in their home towns.The surviving sailors made their way through the ship picking up the wounded and tried to fight the fires. Two of the Stukas were shot down.

The survivors said the ship was hit by bomb after bomb. The Luftwaffe in their report claimed “three direct hits on a freighter of approximately 5,000 tons” as well as six direct hits on an old warship and one direct hit on a freighter of 10,000 tons. HMS Foylebank was salvaged in two sections after the war and broken up. One fragment recovered from the seabed was presented to Portland Museum. Another result of the raids on Portland Harbour was an increase in sickness among the dockyard workers which the Navy described as “funk”.

Amongst the dead was Leading Seaman Jack Mantle who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, only the second awarded for an action in the United Kingdom. Following a report from the ship’s commanding officer Captain Wilson, which Admiral James said “would gladden your heart” he wrote “I am recommending a Leading Seaman Mantle, who behaved too magnificently for words and died at his gun for the Victoria Cross”,

Jack Foreman Mantle was born on April 12, 1917 in Wandsworth. His parents moved to Southampton and he attended Taunton’s School. He joined the navy as a Boy Second Class on 2 May 1933. At the time of the attack Jack Mantle was manning the starboard 20mm Pom Pom Gun. He had previously been one of the first naval gunners to shoot down an enemy plane in a raid on a convoy in the Thames and was due to be mentioned in despatches on 11 July. Early in the raid his left leg was shattered by a bomb and he was wounded again many times but remained at his gun.

When Foylebank’s electrics failed he carried on operating the gun by hand until he collapsed and died. The posthumous award was gazetted on 3 September 1940 and presented to Mantle’s parents by George VI at Buckingham Palace in June 1941.

The Victoria Cross is on loan to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth. The Yeovil Sea Cadet unit carries the name TS Mantle VC.

There is a brass memorial in Southampton Maritime Museum and a stone memorial in the Royal Navy display room at the Nothe Fort. He is buried in the Royal Navy cemetery in Portland alongside his fallen shipmates.