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RFA Oligarch at The Red Sea Wreck Project

The RFA Oligarch was originally built as the 6,897 GRT Steam Tanker S.S. British Lantern at Workman, Clark & Co., Ltd., Belfast, Ireland, for the British Shipping Controller (British Tanker Co., Ltd., managers), London. The ship was launched on 30 June 1918, completed on 01 August, and added the the Ministry of Shipping inventory on 10 August with a length of 430.1-feet, beam of 57-feet, and draught of 33-feet. Propulsion was provided by three 190PSI Scottish Boilers and a single triple-expansion engine (cylinder diameters: 27″, 45″, and 75″ witha 54″ stroke) provided by Workman & Clark, connected to a single shaft and propeller generating 634 NHP for a speed of 11 Knots.

The history of the ship prior to World War Two is a bit limited but it is known the ship did make a passage from Philadelphia, USA, to Bristol, England during the month following the ship’s completion (September 1918).

Then we find that at 1030 on 05 November 1919 the British Lantern collided with a dock wall at the Tilbury Docks on the Thames River. The resulting lawsuit alleged negligence on the part of the Port Authority.

The British Lantern is next heard of as having been involved in another collision in 1921 with the Italian ship Arnaldo da Brescia while sailing in fog condition (exact date and location not known).

And then in 1928 the ship is also known to have sailed from Curacao to Bristol with a number of passengers onboard.

The S.S. British Lantern was transferred to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in 1937 and renamed the RFA Oligarch(Pennant No. Y7.286 / X12). Command of the ship was taken over by Captain H.M. Sinclair (RFA) on 01 July 1938 who served as the ship’s Master until 12 August 1940 when Captain W.W. Peddle (RFA) was appointed as Master.

During her wartime service, the RFA Oligarch sailed on 20 convoys.  The ship is best remembered for her participation in Operation Gauntlet in August/September 1941 and for her sailings on the Arctic Convoys between March 1942 and March 1943, although her other voyages should be considered no less important in the ship’s contribution to the war effort.

Operation Gauntlet:
After the German invasion of Norway in June 1940 and then the invasion of Russia in June 1941, the archipelago of Svalbard located approximately halfway between Norway and the North Pole, gained strategic importance to Great Britian in getting war materials and supplies to the Russian Red Army using convoys sailing through the Barents Sea to Archangel and Murmansk. In order to prevent a possible German occupation of the Svalbard archipelago, “Operation Gauntlet” was put in motion during August and September 1941 with the intention of destroying the valuable coal mines and settlements, evacuate the local residents, and to destroy weather stations located on the island of Spitsbergen and the surrounding islands in order to deny use of these resources to the enemy.
The RFA Oligarch played a vital role during the operation by providing fuel to the fleet of Force “A”, under the command of R. Adm. Vian, which consisted of the HM Cruisers Aurora and Nigeria, Destroyers Antelope, Anthony, and Icarus, and the Liner S.S. Empress of Canada acting as troopship.

Force “A” departed Hvalfjord, Iceland on 19 August and steamed to a position 60 miles west of Isfjord, Svalbard, and rendezvoused with the Oligarch Group on 24 August which consisted of the RFA Oligarch, Polish Destroyer Garland, Norwegian steamer Dagny I, and ASW trawlers Sealyham and Wastwater. The rendevouzvous with the Oligarch was said to have occured later than planned due to the magnetic conditions of the area resulting in the ship having been approximately 40 miles away from the rendezvous point (leading one to suspect that the ship had no gyrocompass, only a magnetic compass?).

The group of ships then proceeded to Grønfjord, Svalbard, arriving at between 0700 and 0800 on 25 August, while other ships moved up the fjord to the settlement of Barentsburg and disembarked 35 Canadian troops of the Edmonton Regiment with detachments of the Saskatoon Light Infantry and 3rd Field Engineer Company, Norwegian servicemen trained in the UK, and a demolition team consisting 118 officers and crew of the Royal Engineers and British commandoes.

The ships were enthusiastically greeted with handshakes and smiles from the local Norwegian and Russian population and the evacuation of the island population and demolition of the coal mines, settlements, and weather stations proceeded smoothly without incident, with the exception of the town of Barentsburg catching fire due to an accident, most likely due to excessive amount of explosives being used during demolition operations.

Throughout this entire operation, false weather reports were being transmitted from Spitsbergen which stated heavy fog conditions were present throughout the area. This, in order to discourage reconnasaince of the area by German aircraft. The deception proved successful in that the German forces did not realize anything suspect until 3 days after the completion of the operation.
The S.S. Empress of Canada and HMS Nigeria were loaded with evacuees from the settlements and sailed to Archangel, Russia escorted the Destroyers Anthony, Antelope and Icarus on 26 August. The RFA Oligarch, with Chief Officer W.H.G. Hine as the acting Ship’s Master, remained at Spitsbergen with the trawlers Hazeland Van Oost until the trawlers had been re-coaled, and then departed Spitsbergen and sailed to a location west of the archipelago and stood off until being recalled to Spitsbergen on 01 September where she arrived a 0600 in the morning.
The ship refueled the HMS Aurora at 0900 and then commenced loading Norwegian preserved food, Russian machine tools, and radio equipment and parts, while the S.S. Empress of Canada was also being loaded with personal property of the island’s inhabitants and additional preserved foodstuffs since her return from Archangel the previous day.

On the afternoon of 03 September, the Oligarch, escorted by the two trawlers, departed Spitsbergen and made a westward passage where the ships rendezvoused with the HM Cruisers Aurora and Nigeria later that evening upon the completion of Operation Gauntlet. The group of ships then proceeded to Seidisfjord, Norway, where the Oligarch refueled the cruisers on 05 September.

Soon thereafter, on 01 October 1941, command of the ship was transferred to Captain A.V. Barton, RFA, who would command the ship for the next 10 months.

The next we hear of the ship is when she is deployed between 16 and 23 March 1942 in order to refuel destroyers of “Force “Q” which was the close escort for Convoy PQ.13. This was the beginning of the ship’s involvement with the Arctic Convoys. She would sail on 11 Arctic Convoys in all beween March 1942 and March 1943.

On 11 August 1942 command of the RFA Oligarch was transferred to Captain T. Elder (DSC RFA).

As the war progressed, the need for suplies and fuel to support operations in the Mediterranean theatre increased dramatically. Many ships, both military and merchant, found themselves transferred to convoys tasked with delivering troops, equipment and supplies to the island of Malta, Tobruk, Alexandria, Port Said, Crete, to name just a few of the destinations. In June 1943 the RFA Oligarch found herself sailing in support of the B3 Ocean Escort Group escorting Convoy OS.49KM which would later split with the Oligarch continuing on with the newly formed Convoy KMS.16G, arriving with the convoy at Gibraltar on 15 June on her way to the Mediterranean. (The remainder of Convoy OS.49 continued on to Freetown, South Africa.)

The Loss of the RFA Oligarch:
On 21/22 June 1943, the Oligarch deployed with the 27 ship Convoy GTX.3 from Gibraltar enroute to Port Said. As the convoy neared Derna, Libya on 30 June, the German submarine U453 (Korvettenkapitän Freiherr Egon Reiner von Schlippenbach) fired a spread of 4 torpedoes at the convoy at 2257. One hit by a torpedo was observed by the submarine which was followed by three detonations. The RFA Oligarch had been hit and damaged at position 32.57N / 21.10E approximately 40 miles north-west of Derna, but did not sink. The HMS Hyacinth stood by the damaged ship while awaiting a tow to arrive (towing ship unknown). shows that the RFA Oligarch was part of the Convoy UGS.13 (Hampton Roads-Port Said) from 21 August to 23 August where the ship arrived damaged at Alexandria.

No specific documentation has been located to date indicating what happened to the Oligarch after her arrival at Alexandria. The ship may have remained at Alexandria and used as an oil hulk. However, a reference to the ship has been located which indicates that the ship was located in Bari, Italy in 1944 with her “bows wedged on the putty, with two anchors out astern, no longer seaworthy, but useful bulk oil fuel storage with pumps that worked”.

Finally, after the end of the war, the RFA Oligarch was towed into the Red Sea laden with unwanted munitions (and possibly poison gas shells as stated by one reference) and scuttled at position 27°30N / 34°45E in over 900 meters of water.


Miramar Single Ship Report for “1142604” (various ships mentioned above.) (Evacuation of Barentsberg Photo. Copyright Expired)

Spitsbergen (By Andreas Umbreit)



About Author

Lee has been in the marketing industry for the last 15 years and now specializes in teaching marketing techniques to people in the scuba diving industry. He is founder of Dive Media Solutions which, in addition to providing complete marketing, media, communications and IT solutions exclusively for the scuba diving industry, also produces The Scuba News. You can connect with Lee via Twitter by following @DiveMedia


  1. The history and photographs have been a breath of fresh air my grandfather was onboard the Oligarch as a DEMS gunner. Finding out little details and piecing his movements are made so much easier.
    Thanks to the guys who run this site in particular for the hard work and dedication for a job very well done I have been trying to put my grandads movements together for some years(on and off) his brother inlaw always said he had met him in Gibraltar which ties in with your research I can say you have made my day
    Thank you John

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