EXCAVATION work has started at what is believed to be a mass grave of the victims of a notorious Second World War disaster.

HMS Dasher blew up off Arran in March 1943, killing 379 people, but only 23 bodies are in marked graves. The others have never been accounted for.

Now a team of archaeologists has started the delicate process of removing top soil at a site in Ardrossan Cemetery which, as The Herald revealed earlier this month, local writer John Steele believes could contain the bodies of some of the victims.

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Mr Steele has led a campaign to find the remains and believes the British authorities covered up the disaster to avoid upsetting their American allies which had built the aircraft carrier.

He joined the head of the archaeology team, John Atkinson, at the site as the first layers of earth were taken off by hand. Over the next few days, the team will dig to establish if there is a grave. He said: "We know there's something there. In 2009, we did low-level radar work and on the basis we could see there was some kind of anomaly. It's not a natural layer of earth we were looking at. We're not certain, but it could be bodies."

Mr Atkinson, managing director of archaeology firm Guard, said he was surprised the story of the Dasher had remained uncovered for so long. Mr Steele claims HMS Dasher's captain warned there was a fault with the fuel system but nothing was done. When the ship exploded, the families were not told the details of what happened.

Mr Atkinson said he felt a real connection to the victims who could be found in the cemetery over the next few days. "I feel that if we can resolve this, we will be doing something for the relatives. A memorial here to the dead would be wonderful."

Mr Steele also said it had been an emotional day for him. "The fact that the families were told nothing about the disaster other than the date caused prolonged, unnecessary suffering," he said. "This work will determine the truth one way or another."

In his book on the disaster, Mr Steele says around 60 bodies were taken ashore at Ardrossan and believes 44 of them could be in the cemetery.

If there is a grave at the site, North Ayrshire Council will then need to decide what to do next. The grave could be left as it is or further excavation might be authorised to establish how many bodies are there. Representatives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will visit the cemetery today.

Mr Steele said he was just pleased to see progress after decades of campaigning. "The truth is going to come out after all these years," he said.