Transcribed (on 4th June 2016) by Site Editor from an original typed document forwarded by (former L/Cpl) Clifford Derrick of Hull, Korean War Veteran. (Document Author to be identified in due course.)
On Sunday 28th March 1954, an explosion occurred in the Engine Room on board the British Troopship “Empire Windrush” (that) could have caused a bigger disaster than the sinking of The Titanic. This is the story of how a miracle happened and 1,481 men women and children survived.
Formerly the German Passenger Liner “Monte Rosa” she was handed over to the British Government after WW11, by the Triparte Merchant Marine Commission. She was taken over by the Ministry of Transport. Their intention was to convert her to a Troopship and work was done on her at the Jarrow & Clyde Shipyards. In February 1947 she underwent trials and encountered engine trouble. She was now re-named “Empire Windrush” and was managed by The New Zealand Shipping Co. for the Ministry of Transport. A vessel of 14,651 tons with a length of 523 feet. Early in April 1947 started her troopship voyages, first to the Middle East then to the Far East. She was used to bring home troops from India after The Independence, then took troops to Singapore when The Malayan Emergency began, also to Pusan when The Korean War started. In 1948 she was used to bring Immigrants from The West Indies to The United Kingdom. What turned out to be her final voyage began early in 1954 when she sailed for Kure Japan, calling at Port Said, Aden, Singapore and Hong Kong, returning to all these ports to bring back Servicemen who were returning to the UK. When she left Port Said on her return journey she had on board 1,485 passengers and crew which included Servicemen’s wives and children. She was due to arrive at Southampton on Friday 2nd April, 1954.
All was quiet on Sunday morning 28th March 1954, her speed was 13 knots on a Westerly course, light wind, calm sea. Her position was about 30 miles NW of Algiers. Just after 0615, her Master Captain W. Wilson and The Chief Officer were present on the bridge (when) suddenly they heard the dull thud of an explosion, the noise coming from the after funnel. They both hurried across to the wing of the bridge to see clouds of thick oily smoke pouring out of the funnel. Within seconds flame erupted from the funnel. Immediately The Chief Officer tried the Engine Room telephone but the line was dead. At the same time the Steering failed with the Gyro compass. The Engine Room Telegraph was rung to a Stop; no acknowledgement was ever received. One of the Ship’s Officers attempted to call out the ship’s Fire Fighting Unit by the loudspeaker system. It was fairly obvious that the explosion had knocked out the communication system of the whole ship. Another Officer went to the Crew’s Quarters to collect the Fire Fighting Unit and they made their way to “E” Deck. They tried to get to the Engine Room doors but they were red hot; through gaps in sides of the doors they could see that the fire had a strong hold. The hosepipes were put into operation but within a very short time the water supply failed. The water could not be pumped due to power failure. Numerous attempts were made to get into the Engine room, but the thick black smoke beat them back. One of the Engineers did manage to get a few feet inside with the help of a smoke helmet. He could see the glow of the fire. There was no sign of the three Engineers and the Electrician who were on duty at the time. It was almost certain that they must have been killed by the explosion or trapped by the flames and died quickly overcome by the fumes and smoke. On the bridge The Master Captain. Wilson asked one of The Ship’s Officers to work out the ships position and this was radioed to Royal Naval Command Gibralter. Immediately HMS Saintes and HMS St. Kitts were ordered to go to the assistance of the “Empire Windrush”. HMS Saintes proceeded at 32 knots nearly burning down her smokestack to get to the “Windrush”.
Attempts were made to close the watertight doors without success. It was now obvious that the fire was out of control; this was no ordinary fire; it was a “Flash Fire”. Engine Room was gone; nobody could live down there. Smoke was pouring all over the ship, flames were shooting out all over, huge pieces of paintwork peeling from the funnel. At 0630 a General SOS was sent giving her position; it asked “SHIPS IN VICINITY, PLEASE STAND BY ME. SERIOUS ENGINE ROOM FIRE”. Emergency lifeboat stations were now ordered. Some of the Servicemen at first thought it a was a joke, but when they began to smell the smoke and feel the heat, they knew this was the real thing. It all happened so quickly that they had little time to dress properly, most gathered life jackets and rushed up the stairs onto the deck. When they arrived on deck they saw that the ship was completely on fire. At 0615 the Dutch Motor Vessel “Mentor” radioed the Windrush. “Received your SOS, approaching you at full speed. Will be with you within the hour”. Three other rescue ships were now rushing at full speed towards the Windrush. The P&O Steamer “Socotra”, the Norwegian vessel “Hemsefjell” and the Italian tanker” Taigete”.
Now the Fire Drills that had been practiced daily came into their own, orderliness and discipline prevented a disaster. Twenty minutes after the order to Abandon Ship had been given, women and children began to take their places in the lifeboats. Undoubtedly there was some panic caused by Servicemen pushing in front of women and children in their eagerness to get to the lifeboats first. Most of the Servicemen and Crew remained calmly on deck. Some difficulty was encountered when one of the lifeboats was lowered; one of the wire falls was trapped and this caused one side of the lifeboat to tilt. Screams erupted from the passengers, it was a 60 feet drop, but it soon righted itself and proceeded calmly down. The lifeboats with the women and children on board now stood off the Windrush. The evacuation had taken 22 minutes. It was now the turn of the Crew and Serviceman to leave the ship, the deck was very hot and it was burning everyone’s feet. Preparations were in hand to lower the other eight lifeboats into the water. It was found that this could not be done by the usual means, fames prevented them being recovered by hand. One of the Officers and a Crew member went around pulling away the xxxxx and xxxxxxx the xxx? (indecipherable). All the Servicemen were stood at Lifeboat Stations, when suddenly an Army lieutenant came up from below, he had with him two suitcases in each hand. The Regimental Sergeant Major saw him “Excuse me Sir, where are you taking those? “The Officer mumbled that they were going into the lifeboat with him. “Just a minute Sir” said the RSM, “I will take those”. He picked them up walked to the side of the ship and dropped them over the side. Plop! Plop!
There was horror when two Servicemen already in one of the lifeboats, saw another lifeboat falling on top of them. It hit their lifeboat sending them both some 15 feet into the air. They both survived. Everything that could float was now tossed over, sliding down the ropes too fast the side of the ship, tables, boxes, casks, empty oil drums, life rafts. Those in the sea already were in vital danger of something falling on their heads. There were many near misses. A curtain of fire had now cut the ship in two. Survivors clambered down ropes, ladders, fire hoses, netting. Many injuries were caused by rope burns. One boy soldier was very frightened of going over the side down the rope. A kindly sergeant said “just follow me”. He was a few feet down when the young lad panicked and lost his grip; he swooped down onto the sergeant’s back. The sergeant could not take the extra weight and sailed down the rope into the sea. He had horrific burns, his hands cut to the bone. The ship was now listing at 10 degrees, one of the funnels had toppled over.
The motor vessel “Mentor” now arrived on the scene, closely followed by the P&O steamer “Socotra”. The sight that greeted them was the Windrush burning with clouds of black acrid smoke. A long line lifeboats, life rafts, and hundreds of survivors clinging to anything that could float. The survivors swam towards the rescue ships and ladders were let down to get then on board, most were in pyjamas or underpants, some were naked. The Norwegian vessel “Hemsefjell” and the Italian tanker “Taigete” had now arrived, they began taking the women and children aboard from the lifeboats and also other survivors that they plucked from the sea. By 0830 more than two hours after the fire had broken out, the blazing ship had virtually been evacuated. Only the Master and two Officers remained on board. The Captain carrying the Ship’s Papers was the last to leave, accompanied by the two Officers, they were taken on board the P&O steamer “Socotra”. The ship’s siren had permanently jammed and continued to sound its mournful note over the desolate ship.
At 0900 news of the disaster reached Algeria. Immediately the French Authorities made preparations for the reception of the survivors. Staff at the local University were recalled and spent the morning rooms as dormitories for the women and children. French troops cleared sleeping space for the Servicemen at the Army Barracks. The Motor Vessel “Mentor” was the first rescue ship to arrive at Algiers, followed by the “Socotra”, the “Hemsefjell” and the tanker “Taigete”. Along the quayside ambulances, cars, lorries and motor coaches stretched out in a long procession. The survivors although they were in scanty clothing, were in good spirits laughing at each other’s appearance. It was like a Fancy Dress Party. You could feel the relief in their voices that they were glad to be safe and on Terra Firma once again. Husbands were taken to the University where they were reunited with their wives and children. The rest of the survivors were taken to the Army Barracks. Most were in a poor state regarding their clothing, most were in pyjamas, others just had a towel or a sheet, hardly any had shoes. Many were fitted with rope sandals. The Army clothing store was opened up and temporary clothing was issued to all those that required it . It took a few hours to check the number of survivors, it was found that everyone had been rescued except for the three Engineers and the Electrician who had been working in the Engine Room when the explosion occurred
The Aircraft Carrier HMS Triumph arrived at Algiers to take the survivors to Gibraltar. An aircraft hanger was converted into canvas portioned dormitories for the women and children. Camp beds were available for them all. The women were without their usual handbags, they had nothing but the clothes they stood in. Many had been taken off the blazing Troopship in their nightdresses, but were wearing second hand clothes distributed by the French Red Cross.
Two Destroyers HMS Saintes and HMS St. Kitts arrived off Algiers in the morning of Monday 29th March. HMS Saintes was detailed to get a tow fixed to the Empire Windrush and take her to Gibraltar. HMS St. Kitts was ordered to take on board survivors at Algiers and take them to Gibraltar. They embarked the survivors and made good speed and arrived at Gibraltar at midnight on March 29th. They soon filled the waiting lorries with the Servicemen and took them to different Units on The Rock. The main bulk of the survivors arrived at Gibraltar at noon on Tuesday 30th March on the Aircraft Carrier HMS Triumph. A Band was playing on the quayside, ironically the tune they were playing was “A Life on the Ocean Waves”. Lady Mountbatten was waiting to greet them. Free cigarettes were available to everyone. TOC H laid on a Mobile Canteen with free cups of tea and cake. Arrangements were in hand for the big airlift and that same day most arrived back in the UK at RAF Lyneham.
Despite the intense heat sailors from the Destroyer HMS Saintes succeeded in boarding the Windrush to fix a connecting cable. At 1230 pm on 29th March, she headed for Gibraltar with the smouldering hulk at a very low speed of 3.5 knots. Twelve hours later at 1230 am 30th March, the tow had to be slipped; the Windrush broke in two and sank in The Mediterranean Sea within 20 miles of Gibraltar. Three months later a Court of Enquiry sat in London. It was unable to determine the exact cause of the fire, but it was of the opinion that a failure of one of the main fuel lines had caused overheating; the explosion had released burning fuel, other oil pipes had been fractured and this had caused the flash fire. No blame was attached to The New Zealand Shipping Co. or to its Captain Wilson. He along with the rest of the Crew and passengers were praised for their conduct during the emergency.
It is a fact that anyone who had previously sailed on the Empire Windrush, including the writer, will tell you that the Troopship’s engines were always breaking down. Every voyage it made, it was always limping into port for temporary repairs, or stopped at sea overnight while work was done. It had a bad name among Servicemen. “Beware Empire Windrush”. It was a disaster waiting to happen. Luckily when it did it happened in the right place at the right time in the right weather. What if the fire had occurred in The Red Sea? A sea notorious for sharks. What if the fire had occurred on its previous voyage in November 1953 off Algiers. The Wind Force then was 6/7.
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