Alexandria, November 1943
- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Stanley Ogilvie
- Location of story:
- Near East, Middle East, Far East, Europe
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 10 June 2004
24. On the 6th of October, we were ordered aboard the SS ‘Empire Farmer’ an American built
Liberty Ship. She had discharged her cargo at Salerno, and not having taken on any ballast she rode very high in the water. She was to take us through the Straits of Messina to Malta, where we were to be drafted to the Shore Establishment, HMS ‘Phoenica’ at Floriana, and which is now one of Malta’s grandest and most prodigious hotels, ‘Le Meridian Phoenica’. There being no suitable fittings in the mess deck of our transport from which we could sling our hammocks, we were allocated bunks in which to sleep, and with real food to eat, this was sheer bliss.
During the night as we passed through the Straits, a violent storm blew up, the result being
that we were tossed out of our bunks, across the mess deck to the sound of breaking crockery and glassware, together with the creaking of all doors as they swung to and fro. In the midst of all this, the ship’s siren began to sound, giving an unending series of long and short blasts. Being able to read the Morse Code we were able to decipher some words, the remainder being just gibberish. We all formed the opinion that the poor wireless operator must be out of
practice, and at the least, should be sent on a refresher course. With such a storm raging no one volunteered to venture up on deck so we all decided to stay put. If we had to abandon
ship, then we would wait for such an order. No such order came, and when dawn broke and with the sea almost mirror calm again, we went up on deck. Here we found the cause of the ‘Morse’. It was that the galley stack, which had been broken by the force of the gale, had
fallen on to the wire connected to the ship’s siren, where it’s rocking to and fro had caused us so much alarm.
In Malta, we suffered along with the Maltese people, the non stop bombing by German dive bombers by day and the high level bombing at night.
25. It was with a feeling of great relief, when on the 5th of November, we boarded HMS ‘Thruster’ a Parent Landing Craft Vessel, and a sister ship to HMS ‘Boxer’ and
HMS ‘Bruiser’ and sailed for the Far East, via the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea to the port of Bombay, being based at the Shore Establishment HMIS ‘Braganza ‘.
Bombay in wartime was not usually a seaman’s first choice in ports and it was from here, at the end of January, 1944 we joined the SS ‘Jalapadma’ a converted cargo vessel of 3,935 tons
owned by the Scindia Steam Navigation Company. All names of the vessels of this Line were
prefixed with ‘Jala’. The ‘Jalapadma’ along with the port of Bombay, was destined to be part of WWll’s most horrifying disasters. After calls for victuals at Colombo in Ceylon, now [Sri Lanka] we sailed up the Bay of Bengal to Calcutta where we joined a unit fighting the Japanese in the North Western area of the Arakan region of Burma.
In March 1944, British operations in the Arakan, which were almost entirely dependent on air support, were aimed at capturing the port of Akayab, thus strengthening the Allies logistical position for an offensive against the Japanese XV Army. This Army was commanded by
General Mutaguchi, an experienced and ruthless warrior, who had expressed his intention of
clearing every British and Indian soldier out of the Arakan to open up the way for the conquest of India. The area where the fighting for the port took place was extremely rugged and posed a variety of hazards -cobras, kraits, hamadryads, tigers, leopards, leeches and innumerable
insects, some carrying potentially fatal diseases. Moreover, the Japanese thought that death in battle to be the highest honour. Having carried out countless raids and patrols against the
Japanese this was the predicament in which the remnants of the detachment found ourselves lacking sleep, short of ammunition, rations and water and very depleted in numbers due to disease and casualties, but not lacking in courage.
26. Orders were received to make our way overland on foot for about 150 miles back to Chittagong on the Karna-Juli river and to re-board the ‘Jalapadma’ prior to our sailing on the 25th of March, in convoy from Calcutta, bound for Bombay. Conditions on the mess deck allocated to us were not at all inviting, with the ship’s propeller shaft running directly through our quarters.
The ships steering was of the chain and rod type, where the chains ran along the upper deck on the port and starboard sides and were then connected by rod to the rudder. This meant with every turn of the wheel by the helmsman, the chains rattled along the deck, the noise making rest almost impossible. With the noise and obnoxious smells coming from the interior of the ship, we sized up the situation, and as we were fully qualified naval gunners in addition to being infantry soldiers, we volunteered to man the ship’s armament, whereby we would spend the whole of the passage to Bombay in the open air.
When dawn broke on the second day out from Calcutta there was no sign of any other ships of the convoy. The ‘Jalapadma’ was alone, having failed to keep up with the other ships during the night, and we now faced the passage around the coast of India without any protective escort. Sailing independently in these areas considerably increased the possibility of being mined, or torpedoed, or to suffer aerial attack, or of being shelled by surface raiders both German and Japanese.
27. It was in these waters that 10 Japanese submarines had sunk a total of eighteen vessels during January, 1942. The most successful had been 1-164, commanded by Lieutenant Tsunayasi Ogawa, who sank four vessels totalling 16,244 tons. Two were operated by the Scindia Company. On the 30th of January, the ‘Jalartarang’ of 2,498 gross registered tons was lost when bound from Cochin for Rangoon, thirty eight of her crew of 49 losing their lives. The
following day the 4,215 ton ‘Jalaplaka’ was torpedoed taking thirteen of her crew down with her. Both vessels were shelled after the initial attack and sank some 100 miles east of Madras. To us, having served in the Teknaf and Arakan areas in Burma, we were prepared to take any
further risks and we were now ordered to act as additional lookouts, especially at night, and to inform the Bridge if we heard the sound of surf breaking on the seashore, an indication that the ‘Jalapadma‘ was too near to the coastline and thereby enabling the helmsman to alter course a few degrees to port and steer clear of any danger. And so the ‘Jalapadma’ sailed southwards through the Bay of Bengal arriving at Colombo on the 6th of April, 1944. After taking on
stores, cargo and victuals she continued her voyage northwards through the Arabian Sea to
Bombay, arriving at No.1 berth, Victoria Dock on Friday the 14th of April, a pleasant Spring day, and tied up closely astern of the ‘Fort Stikine’ which had berthed there two days previously.
From research it is found the ‘Fort Stikine’ a general cargo, coal burning vessel of 7,142 tons having been built in Canada under the Lease-Lend Agreement, had sailed in convoy from
Victoria Basin in Liverpool on the 24th of February, bound first for Karachi and then Bombay.
28. The vessel was managed by the Port Line on behalf of the Ministry of War Transport. In wartime the general operation of cargo vessels was the owner’s responsibility; what they
carried and where they went was up to the Ministry, but how they got there was the Captain’s answerability. Most masters and senior deck officers who sailed on British merchant ships
during WWII would no doubt agree that there was a very fine line between making a right or wrong decision. All the deck and engine room officers of the ‘Fort Stikine’ were the
Company’s men, whilst her Master, Captain A.J. Naismith had been with her since her maiden voyage. The morning of sailing was cold and murky with persistent drizzle with the vessel
moving into the Mersey joining some 20 other ships which formed the Liverpool section of a convoy. During the course of the day the convoy was joined by others from Belfast and the
Clyde, making a total of 50 plus vessels. The cargo of the ‘Fort Stikine‘ consisted of materials being despatched out East for the eventual assault on the Japanese forces in Burma and
Malaya. RAF Spitfires and gliders, dismantled and crated, were in the holds and on deck,
along with other service stores all for discharge at Karachi. The Bombay cargo, around and below the Karachi consignments, included just under 1,400 tons of high explosives -shells, torpedoes, mines, small arms ammunition, flares and incendiary bombs. Sitting in the ‘tween deck of No. 2 hold, immediately in front of the Bridge structure, was a welded steel tank
containing, in small wooden boxes, 124 bars of gold each weighing 281bs, destined for a bank in Bombay to help stabilise the rupee. The value of this gold in 1944 was almost one million
pounds. There would have been much criticism of both Mate and Master agreeing to load the vessel in such a manner, and also for sailing under those conditions.
29. Captain Naismith and his First mate were in no different a situation than many other deck
officers of cargo ships between 1939 and 1945. It’s not possible to record the number of times that such disinclination would have been countered by the admonishment, ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ For most of the eleven days to Gibraltar the weather was foggy with
occasional heavy swells, but the sea was not persistently rough. Shortly before arriving in the
Straits of Gibraltar, many of the vessels left the convoy, to form their own smaller one heading for West Africa, whilst a few hours later the original convoy was joined by another convoy
from the United States. After passing through the Straits the re-formed convoy, on its second day in the Mediterranean was attacked by four Focke-Wolfe bombers flying low overhead
machine gunning the vessels, but fortunately without damage, the ‘Fort Stikine ‘ and a handful of other vessels continuing on their way to the Suez Canal, taking on coal at Port Taufiq. She then sailed independently down the Red Sea, arriving at Aden of the 23rd of March where the Captain received further instructions to take a zig-zag course north eastwards across the
Arabian Sea to avoid submarine attack, arriving in Karachi, without incident, on the afternoon of Thursday the 30th of March. The work of unloading the Karachi portion of the cargo
commenced immediately day and night for 4 days. The aircraft in her cargo, most of the stores and some of the ammunition and explosives were unloaded, the void cargo spaces being filled with cargo for Bombay. Virtually all the high explosives loaded in Birkenhead remained on
board and into the lower and ‘tween deck holds, particularly Nos. 2 and 4, above and below all the high explosives went some 8,700 bales of raw cotton, hundreds of drums of lubricating oil, timber, rice, resin, scrap iron, sulphur and fish manure. Neither the Captain nor the Chief
Officer were happy about this truly treacherous combustible mixture and made their feelings known but to no avail, they definitely refusing to accept an additional consignment of drums containing turpentine.
30. By the 9th of April loading had been completed and the ‘Fort Stikine’ left Karachi in a small
convoy, mostly tankers coming from the Persian Gulf The sea journey to Bombay took two
and a half days, the convoy arriving there in the early light of Wednesday the 12th of April and shortly before mid-day she moved into Victoria Dock, coming alongside at No.1 berth.
Again, the work of discharging the cargo began almost at once, the intention being to unload
the bales of cotton and the most sensitive of the high explosives into lighters and not on to the quayside. Unfortunately, no lighters arrived until the next day, but during the course of that afternoon and during the night, the drums of oil and the fish manure were unloaded. In
addition to the explosives, the other very sensitive item of cargo was the gold, but it appears that the bank to which it was being consigned would only accept the 31 wooden boxes in
which the bars were packed and not the single welded steel tank in which the wooden boxes
were housed. There was no way that anyone was going to use a welding torch to open up this tank in No.2 hold whilst it was surrounded by explosives. So the gold remained where it was. At 1.30 p.m. the dock workers returned from lunch to the ‘Fort Stikine’. As they entered No.2 hold they saw smoke coming from the port side, nearest the quay. The stevedores
scrambled up from the hold shouting ‘Fire’. At this point, there remained 6,000 cubic feet of timber on top of the bales of cotton. Above the timber, the upper part of No.2 hold was packed with explosives. Below the cotton lay a thick layer of ammunition.
Although no completely satisfactory explanation was ever found as to why the fire occurred, sabotage was suspected but never proved. It all still remains a mystery.
31. The fire must have been smouldering deep down in the lower No.2 hold among the bales of cotton on the port side for quite some time, as wisps of smoke had been seen coming from one of the ventilators by No.2 hold as early as 12.45 p.m. but nothing had been reported. It was only on the shouts of ‘Fire’ did the crew become aware of what was developing. Men from a Bombay fire brigade pump on the quay promptly ran with their hoses to the ship. Not until their section leader was on board, however, did he remember that, for a ship carrying explosives his instructions were to send an immediate No.2 alarm, which would call out a larger force. With orders to dial 290, his sub-leader struggled back down the gangway, crowded with dock workers pushing to get ashore, and dashed to a telephone. But the telephone had no dial. Confused, he ran along the dockside, broke the glass of a fire alarm and rang the bell. Thus the fire brigade control-room received only a normal call for 2 pumps. The hands of the harbour clock tower stood at 2.16 p.m. The ‘Fort Stikine’ was a 400 feet floating bomb -a bomb with a lit fuse. Eight minutes after receiving the alarm the fire station officer arrived with 2 pumps. He sent an immediate No.2 call to the control-room. At 2.35 p.m. the chief of the Bombay fire brigade arrived, dressed in slacks and a jacket. He had had no time to change into uniform. Suggestions were made by him to scuttle the ship, but there were only four feet of water between her keel and the harbour bed. A distance so short that the water would not cover even the lower part of No.2 hold. Colonel J.R. Sadler, the general manager of the docks disagreed, he suggesting that the only safe action was to take the ship out to sea. The ship’s Master, being confused by conflicting advice, made no decision. The ‘Fort Stikine’ had at no time displayed a red flag indicating that she was carrying explosives, or was even now sounding warning blasts on her steam whistle.
32. For nearly an hour the firemen poured water into the burning vessel. At a quarter to four some of the explosives in No.2 hold caught alight, flames reaching above mast height when the Captain ordered everyone to get clear of the ship. At six minutes past four the ‘Fort Stikine’ exploded sideways, losing some of the blast in the water and quay-side sheds. All over Bombay buildings shook and windows were smashed. Debris and blazing cotton fell in a rain of fire over shed and ships. Of the firemen scrambling from the vessel sixty-six were killed outright, and eighty-three injured. The explosion played capricious tricks. White hot metal, flung haphazardly into Bombay picked out victims at random. The Captain and Chief Officer were with a marine surveyor, Mr. C.W. Stevens on the quayside close to the stem when the explosion occurred. Mr. Stevens was flung for several yards along the quayside by the blast, although injured he survived. After the blast had swept over him he stood up to find himself blackened and naked. Nobody saw the Captain and Chief Officer again. No trace was found of them or of the ship’s cook. Miraculously the remainder of the ship’s crew were all accounted for. For some inexplicable reason, following the explosion, the after portion of the ‘Fort Stikine’ remained intact and still afloat, the fire raging through the hull and burning debris falling into the open No.4 hold, which held 748 tons of explosives including many incendiary bombs. This was a much greater quantity than had already exploded in No.2 hold, and at 4.40 p.m. from the red glow inside the pall of smoke that hid the ship, there came a second roar and an explosion far greater than the first. Whereas the first explosion has burst sideways, the second bore straight up, flinging flaming metal, timber and cotton to a height of 3,000 feet. At the top of the trajectory the mass mushroomed and fell over an area of more than a mile across.
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