TWO sisters who last saw their father in 1943 have won the latest round in their battle to have the ship on which he died designated a war grave.
Petty Officer James Varndell, a naval gunner, was one of 21 men killed when the SS Storra, a merchant ship, was torpedoed in the English Channel. His daughters, Rosemary Fogg, now aged 73, and Valerie Ledgard, 65, have been campaigning to have the wreck protected from divers.
The Ministry of Defence has insisted that the Storaa does not qualify because only vessels "on military service" are covered by the Protection of Military Remains Act, 1986. The Act prohibits interference with ships and aircraft designated as war graves.
Yesterday a High Court judge disagreed and ordered the Defence Secretary to reconsider his decision. The ruling could mean that thousands of merchant vessels sunk during two world wars receive the same protection as the wrecks of warships.
The Storaa was carrying a cargo of steel, including tank tracks, from London to Cardiff when she was intercepted by a German E-boat and sunk. Although flying the Red Ensign of the Merchant Navy, Mr Justice Newman said that when the Storaa was sunk "it was voyaging under compulsion in dangerous waters, laden with cargo, in a convoy under the protection of a naval vessel and was armed".
He added: "If merchant vessels sank with loss of life in ‘military service' then the vessels and the remains of those who died are capable of being protected by designation."
He dismissed the Ministry of Defence's claim that protecting merchant ships would require a vast bureaucratic effort. He said: "There is nothing in the Act which supports the class of vessels which qualify being interpreted narrowly so as not to cause an administrative burden to the State."
After the judgment, Mrs Ledgard, from Worthing in West Sussex, said that she was "delighted" by the ruling. She had told the judge that she and other members of her family had been "upset at the thought of individuals disturbing or removing the remains of my father and other members of the crew".
In a statement after the case, lawyers acting for the sisters said: "Although the case related to the circumstances of one seaman who died in this one ship during the Second World War, it has implications for the Government's policy towards the Merchant Navy generally."
Captain John Sail, chairman of the Merchant Navy Association, said that the judgment could ultimately lead to hundreds of wrecks being protected from divers. He said: "Wrecks of Royal Navy ships are protected against interference so why should divers be allowed to rummage around in merchant ships in which men died in the service of their country?"
More than 4,700 merchant vessels were sunk during the First World War and 5,353 during the Second. An estimated 35,000 merchant seaman were killed by enemy action. Sixteen wrecks in British waters are designated war graves, including one German U-boat.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence said: "There are different levels of protection. In some cases divers are allowed to swim up to them but not touch them, in others they aren't allowed anywhere near."
The wreck of the Storaa, which lies ten miles off Hastings on the East Sussex coast, is owned by the Hastings Sub Aqua Association which purchased the salvage rights for £150 in 1985.