This day in 1954 – The Empire Windrush

The Empire Windrush shown with smoke pouring from wondows as it sinks
The Empire Windrush

This day in March 1954.

Academy Visiting Instructor, and dear friend Roy Gollop, shared his friend’s moving account of the day they woke up to find themselves on a sinking ship, The Empire Windrush.

The Empire Windrush – Steve Othen’s Story

During March 1954 I came to the end of the three-year tour of duty with 40 Commando Royal Marines.  At that time I was the Troop Sgt Major of P Troop and most of my Troop came to Port Said from our desert location to see me off.  I and the remainder of the home bound Marines embarked in the magic of a desert night at about 10pm.  The ship was still underway as we embarked from an Egyptian lighter and on completion gathered speed and stood out to sea – to another unusual and unforgettable experience for me.

The Empire Windrush was one of several ex-German liners which, after the surrender of Germany in 1945, were recommissioned for trooping purposes.  All of these liners were given the prefix Empire and then a name.  In point of fact I had already taken passage in the Empire Pride from Liverpool to Singapore and in the Empire Halladay from Singapore to Malta GC.  In 1953 the Windrush had been used as the accommodation ship in Torbay for the Commonwealth Prime Minsters Conference being held in Torquay.  She had been completely refitted and upgraded throughout and was full of oak panelling and wide magnificent staircases.  On completion of this task she was reverted to carrying troops and their families between her home port in Southampton and Hong Kong and of course vice versa.

I and some 50 other Royal Marines from 3 Commando Brigade embarked in her at about 10pm at Port Said.  She had come up the Suez Canal with the northbound convoy and we boarded her from a lighter while she was still underway.  As the senior Royal Marines I reported to Col Robert Scott, who was an Army Officer and the resident Officer Commanding all troops.  We were allocated our quarters and I supervised the junior NCOs and marines taking up residence on the mess deck.  My Sgt Roy Gollop, whose home was in Lyme Regis and I then went to the senior NCOs mess desk where bunks were stacked three high.  I took a lower one and Roy the middle one above.  There were about 20 army NCOs and thee naval petty officers already on the mess deck having embarked in Hong Kong and Singapore.  The ‘navy’ said that they were very glad to see us as the army ranks had no idea of life at sea and that life on the mess desk was not very pleasant.  There was certainly plenty of kit lying all over the place and the smell was pretty strong – mostly unwashed bodies.

By now the ship was well out into the Mediterranean Sea so we settled down for the night.  During the next two days we conformed to the routine of a troopship at sea such as life boat drills, lectures, eating, socialising and sleeping.

At about 6am on 28 March the ship seemed to give a shudder and I was aware that something was wrong as clearly we were a dead ship. By this I mean that there was no power, no humming machinery or lighting.  I looked out of the porthole and it was obvious that the ship was not underway.  There was also a cloud of dense smoke coming from the ship and drifting out to sea.

I shook Roy Gollop, dressed and together with the naval petty officers made our way onto the upper deck.  Smoke was pouring out of the midship section of the ship, followed immediately by flames reaching for the sky.  Several people are now up top and the blackened body of a dead seaman (we later discovered he was a Stoker) lay on the deck.  The fire was spreading at an amazing speed caused by all the wood panelling, etc, and in just a few minutes the middle part of the ship was a furnace thereby effectively separating fore from aft.  By this time ‘boat stations’ had been sounded and everyone was assembling at their allocated positions. The naval and Royal Marines draft were on the port side aft.

There had in fact been an explosion in the engine room followed immediately by the fire, which had taken hold so furiously. Although we did not know it then three other members of the duty watch in the engine room had also been killed.

The ship’s crew assisted by the naval and Royal Marines then supervised the issue of lifejackets, but these were nowhere near enough as the flames had by now engulfed some of the storage racks and lifeboats. Lifejackets were therefore given to the women and children, the sick and the infirm and then to the troops by age – the youngest being first.  I do not think that anyone in the Naval and Royal Marines draft had one.  We then slipped the gripes from the lifeboats and swung the davits outboard in order to lower the boats.  The order to abandon ship was given and the evacuation started.  At least 3 boats crashed down into the sea when swung out as the falls parted.  Falls are ropes holding a boat to the davit and used for lowering the boat down the sea).  These boats broke their backs and were rendered useless.  Two others would not budge, so we effective lost lifeboats space for about 250 people.

By now it was roughly 7am and despite these setbacks, the evacuation was going well. We learned after the event that only 12 lifeboats got away.  The total of souls on the ship was 1498 so clearly about 300 have to go into the sea. The sea state was a swell of about 5 feet but not breaking and as it was light with no rain, visibility was good so the chances of survival were also good.  A few hours earlier and in the dark, the death toll would have been catastrophic.  At about 7.30am all the boats had been launched and were well away from the burning hulk.

Shortly before this a petty officer named Shorty Morris, who has survived a sinking once before suggested to me that we should go below to the naval regulating office to find the Naval and Royal Marines documents, a move which later proved to be well worthwhile.

By now the ship was well alight and had a list of between 5 and 10°.  The only people on board were some of the crew and the Naval and Royal Marines who were fire fighting. Shorty and I went down to the keyboard took the keys of the naval regulating office and after a search recovered the necessary documents. Then, and I do not know why, we returned the keys to the keyboard! On our return to the upper deck we joined the remainder of the draft. Eventually, some two hours later we also abandoned ship by going over the side, down ropes and into the sea.  None of us had lifejackets and life was clearly at risk.  The sea in the immediate vicinity was littered with debris but no oil fuel. We stayed together and eventually reached the lifeboats where most of us hung onto the side ropes.

A Mayday had gone out at the outset and at about 11am, after a Shackleton had been keeping a watch from above, several ships began to arrive, a Dutch cargo ship named Mentor, a P&O liner named Socotra, an Italian ship named Taipete and the ship that took me out of the water – a Norwegian vessel named Hemesfjell.  We had been in the water for about two hours wearing battledress!

We were landed at Algiers and were then taken to a French Foreign Legion camp out in the desert further up the coast.  This was an experience in itself!  The camp seemed to be very basic and most of the NCOs were ex-Afrika Corps – we never saw any officers at all.  We were allocated tents, which had four iron beds in each but no mattresses, and we were given a coarse very rough blanket each.  All four in my tent slept on the cold sand. Next morning we had to muster near the galley, which hardly looked used.  We were each given a tin of herrings in tomato sauce along with a stick loaf and one and a half bottles of red plonk.  That was all the food and drink we had during our stay.  Although it was extremely basic, we did not appear to be treated any differently from the Legionnaires.  Later, we were taken back to Algiers to board the aircraft carrier Triumph for transfer to Gibraltar.

Now of course more trouble started and the wisdom of the petty officer in insisting that he and I get our men’s documents came to the fore.  There had been 1498 persons in the Windrush but there were some 2000 persons trying to obtain passage in Triumph – all claiming to be survivors.  The Naval and Royal Marines draft fell-in on the jetty.  As we were the only ones who could prove who we were, we went on board at once.  The RM detachment of Triumph took charge of their fellow Marines on mess deck and in the Sergeants mess.  Whilst we wash shaved and showered, all our clothes were washed, dried and pressed by the Chinese laundry men and supervised by the detachment sergeant major, though I suspect threatened them with sudden death.  Before any other survivors other than woman and children came on board, all my Marines were fresh and shiny and immaculately dressed again.
The embarkation and documentation of the remaining survivors took up to 5 hours and apart from the women and children who went to the quarters of the disembarked aircrew, all were on camp beds in the hangar.  Meanwhile, we were all allowed to send one free telegram home to a relative – obviously I sent one to mum and Diff.

While on passage to Gibraltar a service of thanksgiving was held and attended by all the survivors. I have never heard ‘Those in peril on the sea’ sung with such feeling.  The passage was wonderful. We all ate and slept well.  Next day the carrier arrived in Gibraltar and we all disembarked to a variety of locations. As we disembarked we were met by Lady Edwina Mountbatten, who shook hands and spoke to everyone.  She was most impressed by the cleanliness and appearance of the Naval and Royal Marines personnel but we had cheated with the treatment that we had received compared with the remainder!

We were accommodation in HMS Rooke the naval shore establishment and were issued with underclothes shirts, socks and shoes and also £50 which was written off.  Next day, we were flown home, again the first survivors to do so. We flew in Dakotas and Hastings to RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire where RN buses were waiting to take us to the RN and RM barracks in Portsmouth.

My lasting memory of that journey, after two years in the desert was England’s green and pleasant land and in particular on turning a corner in an unknown village seeing a church on a slight hillock of grass surrounded by a wonderful array of golden daffodils.

On arrival in Royal Marines barracks Portsmouth, were given a slap up lunch then re-kitted and sent on leave to report to our new units on completion – mine being the RMR centre at Merseyside.

And what happened to the Windrush?

During the afternoon of that fateful Sunday, 28 March 1954, she was boarded by damage control parties from two Royal Naval destroyers which had sped to the scene from Malta GC. The hulk was taken in tow by one of these but at 2am on Monday, 29 March she rolled over and sank.

On reflection and it’s easy to be wise after any event, we were fairly lucky. The death roll would have been catastrophic had the explosion and subsequent fire happened during the very early hours and in darkness or indeed had a heavy sea been running. Had both been predominant I shudder to think of the consequences.

As it is when embarked passengers go to boat drill, even in today’s cruise ships, the boats should be swung out on the davits and occasionally lowered.  This had not been the case in the Empire Windrush as when some of the boats were turned out the falls parted, resulting in them crashing down into the sea. I’m sure that even though she held a Ministry of Transport Safety Certificate, regular exercise would have highlighted this deficiency.

As regards the lifejackets and boats, I’m quite certain that there was sufficient to cater for everyone. In the event however, the number of lifejackets was reduced considerably by the fire so that one third of those embarked were without.  Some of the lifeboats crashed, some were burned and some could not be lowered because of the list. So again the carrying capacity was seriously reduced.

Notwithstanding these deficiencies the evacuation was carried out fairly swiftly and efficiently and it must be said that the ships Merchant Navy officers and crew certainly did a good job at the after end of the ship where I was.

Historical note

The Windrush was formerly the Monte Rosa built in Hamburg by Blohm and Voss in 1930 and launched in 1931. She displaced 14,650 tons and had a top speed of 15 knots. In the Second World War, she was used by the Germans as a hospital ship and at the end of the war was handed over to the British as a prize of war and renamed ‘Empire Windrush’.