b. 15/01/1910 Nigg, Aberdeen, Scotland. d. 27/04/1951 Gibraltar.
DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 27/04/1951 Gibraltar.
George Campbell Henderson (1910-1951) was born on 15th January 1910 in Nigg, near Aberdeen, Scotland, the son of Peter and Mary Ann Henderson (nee Campbell). Peter Henderson was a fisherman off the Aberdeenshire coast on a steam trawler. His parents had married in 1905 in Grimsby, Lincolnshire. Sadly by the time George had turned 7 in c.1917, his parents had separated and later divorced. Peter Henderson did re-marry soon afterwards to Jessie Mary Anderson, and George and his brother Peter came to know her as their own mother. The Henderson family became large with more children (David, James, Barbara, Jessie, Margaret and Gilbert). Sadly Gilbert drowned during the Second World War.
After completing his school, George decided to join the Gordon Highlanders as No 2875039, and while with his battalion saw service in India and for a while was stationed in Gibraltar. While in Gibraltar he did some extra work as an orderly in the Gibraltar Military Hospital where he met Passionaria Brancato who too was working as an orderly. They married in 1936 and had two daughters, Passionaria (known as Patsy) and Jessie Mary. In 1938 after returning from a posting in India where only 4 of his unit returned alive, he chose to leave the Army after 11 years. He was listed as a Deserter by the Regiment on 9th December 1938.
George and his family returned to Scotland briefly, before settling in Gibraltar, where he became a fireman attached to the Police for the duration of the Second World War. The police unit he was attached to had responsibility for the dockyard and after the creation of the Admiralty Fire Service he became a member of it.
On 21st April 1951 the Naval Armaments Vessel Bedenham sailed from Bull Point Naval Armaments Depot, Plymouth loaded with approximately 790 tons of depth charges, ammunition and other ordnance for Gibraltar and Malta. The vessel had made this voyage on a number of occasions in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. The ships Master was Captain Cyril Doughty who had been in command for about 18 months.
On 24th April 1951 at about 9pm she arrived at Gibraltar securing to No: 39 berth on the Ordnance Wharf. The discharging of her cargo was commenced the next day from her No: 1 hold both into a lighter berthed along her port side and trucks on the Wharf while simultaneously loading Bofors ammunition into No: 2 hold for Malta. On Thursday 26th April lighter No: 10 was alongside the Bedenham and had been loaded with 63 depth charges and a quantity of live and practice cartridges. At 5pm, when working hours ceased this lighter was covered, locked up and secured alongside the wharf ahead of the Bedenham. The east Gate to the Wharf was also locked and the keys were returned to the Dockyard North Gate Police Station. The west Gate to the Wharf remained open but manned by the Police to permit crew members from the Bedenham to have ingress or egress to their ship.
The following day at 7.45am the lighter had been brought alongside the Bedenham’s port side and the work to complete the discharging of the depth charges had re-commenced. The men concerned were all from the NASO’s department and were considered experienced in their work. It would appear that four depth charges were slung in each hoist. The men went for their tea between 9am and 9.15am during which time the Foreman, a Mr C L Heath, was on the Bedenham counting the depth charges, numbering 33, which remained in Bedenham’s No: 1 hold.
Work recommenced at around 9.20am. The depth charges were stowed in the lighter in three rows each consisting of three tiers. The rows were touching each other. At about 9.53am a hoist of four depth charges was lowered into the lighter. At this time two men – Carlos Postigo and Leopoldo Perez were pushing the depth charges into position whilst the other two, Juan Lane and Luis Consigliero, were sitting down inside the lighter and on the side nearest the ship.
At 9.54am an explosion occurred in the lighter among the depth charges. The sound of this explosion was later reported as a thud. Consigliero said he heard a ‘whoosh – thud’ and saw whitish coloured flames coming from the depth charges. The flames rose some feet above the lighter hatch and almost immediately died down. Only for a few seconds, however, for within a minute orange flames rose up as cordite inside the lighter caught fire and in an amazingly short period of the time the fire attained tremendous intensity and the entire lighter was ablaze from stem to stern.
After the initial explosion the Master of the Bedenham ordered ‘Water on Deck’ and an Engineer Officer went below to start the pump. The fire developed so rapidly, however, that no hose from Bedenham was brought into use nor was the hose on the wharf of any effect as the jet couldn’t reach the lighter until the boost pumps had been switched on. The initial explosion was, of course, noticed throughout the Dockyard and the alarm was also passed to the Fire Station by telephone. The Medical Department immediately proceeded to Ordnance Wharf by ambulance and car with a first aid box and dressings and were on the scene within a minute. The Fire Service responded with equal alacrity and before the end came Sub-Officer George Henderson had boarded the Bedenham and was directing a powerful jet of water onto the fire. Others lent a hand actively rigging other hoses.
At about 9.57am believing a major explosion was about to take place the order was given to take cover. Sub-Officer George Henderson ignored this order and continued to direct a powerful jet of water into the lighter from the Bedenham. Six minutes after the initial explosion the lighter blew up. The result was the death of 13 men including George Henderson, and well over 200 people were wounded.
On 20th November 1951, it was announced in the London Gazette that George Henderson would be awarded a posthumous George Cross. The medal was presented to Passionaria Henderson by the Governor of Gibraltar, in the first investiture held there. Henderson was not the only person decorated for his actions in the Dockyard. Captain St John Cronyn was appointed CBE, Chief Fire Officer Albert Indoe (killed in the explosion and buried next to Henderson in North Front Cemetery) awarded the King’s Police and Fire Services Medals for Gallantry, and Constables Joseph Baglietto and Manuel Felices awarded the Colonial Police Medal for Gallantry. There were also five George Medals awarded to James Keen, Juan Manuel Cruz, Constable Michael Orfila, Surgeon Lieutenant James Sheppard RN, and Acting Leading Sick Berth Attendant Malcolm Hughes, and two British Empire Medals to Anthony Ballantine and Vicente Pisarello. Five further men received the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.
There is a memorial to the men killed in the explosion on the Gun Wharf, Gibraltar, and the 60th anniversary was marked with a service on 27th April 2011. The Civil Defence Call was also played over the graves of George Henderson and Albert Indoe in North Front Cemetery. A memorial to the Civil Defence Services members who were awarded the GC including George Henderson was placed at the National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, Staffordshire. A book on Henderson entitled “GC on the Rock” was written by Terry Hissey. George’s medals are not publicly held.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: PRIVATELY HELD.
BURIAL PLACE: NORTH FRONT CEMETERY, GIBRALTAR.
Thomas Stewart – Image of Henderson GC Grave in North Front Cemetery, Gibraltar.