Royal Navy U-boat hunter to come home

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A historic Royal Navy warship that fought Hitler's U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War is to be brought home from its berth in the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

HMS Whimbrel, a Black Swan class sloop, is one of a handful of surviving British ships that fought in the war.

A British-based preservation group has agreed a deal with the Egyptian government to buy the 62-year-old ship for less than £2m - about the price of a renovated Spitfire. They intend to berth her in Liverpool docks as a memorial to those who died in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Armed with 4in guns and a formidable array of anti-submarine weapons, HMS Whimbrel served with Escort Group 2, the flotilla of the legendary U-boat hunter Captain Johnny Walker. The preservation group, led by retired Vice-Admiral Michael Gretton RN, has signed a memorandum of agreement to buy the ship after she was deemed surplus by the Egyptian Navy.

"HMS Whimbrel is the uncut jewel in Britain's maritime heritage. Virtually unchanged from her wartime appearance, she is typical of the Royal Navy escort vessels that protected convoys of merchant ships from U-boat attack," said Mr Gretton. "HMS Whimbrel's war-time record alone makes her a worthy candidate for preservation. Her service took her from the ice floes of northern Russia to the heat of the East Indies. She was even present at the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945 that marked the end of the Second World War." Mr Gretton's father, Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Gretton, was one of Britain's top wartime U-boat hunter-killers.

The Whimbrel's post-war Royal Navy career was short, and she was sold to the Egyptian navy in 1949, where she served under the name Tariq until last year. The Egyptian government, recognising the historic significance of the ship to Britain, has gone to considerable efforts to allow her to be preserved.

Mr Gretton said: "The Battle of the Atlantic is the last major British campaign of the Second World War without a dedicated memorial. The preservation of HMS Whimbrel would provide a permanent reminder of the sacrifice of those who fought and died out of sight of land to secure our country's freedom."

The group is raising funds to buy the ship. A berth has been secured at Canning Dock in Liverpool, from where Captain Walker's Escort Group 2 operated. It is hoped to have the ship ready for visitors by 2007, the year before Liverpool becomes the European Capital of Culture. Very few Second World War Royal Navy ships survive. The cruiser HMS Belfast graces the Thames and the destroyer HMS Cavalier is being renovated at Chatham dockyard.

The cost of purchasing and bringing HMS Whimbrel back to Britain is likely to be less than £2m, according to BBC History magazine.

While this is about the same price as a fully renovated wartime Spitfire, there are now more Spitfires and Hurricanes flying in the UK - around 40 - than at any time since 1950.

In contrast, only a handful of important British ships from all periods have been preserved. They include HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, SS Great Britain, the Cutty Sark, HMS Gannet, HMS President and the remains of the Mary Rose. It is little to show for 1,000 years of maritime history, during which Britain "ruled the waves". A few others still serve in foreign navies. Egypt has also put up for sale the former HMS Zenith, another Second World War destroyer.

To support the HMS "Whimbrel" preservation project, contact conrad.waters @btopenworld.com

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