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In the early hours of 28th March 1954, during the 4-8 watch, an event took place on board the troopship M.V. Empire Windrush that was to have far-reaching consequences - the loss of lives and ship. The ship was on a passage from Kure in Japan to the United Kingdom, and at the time of the following tragic events was in a position in the Mediterranean, proceeding on a Westerly course off the North African coast.
Owned by the British Government’s Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, the twin-screw Empire Windrush was managed by the New Zealand Shipping Company, as she had been since 1947, the year she had been registered as a ‘passenger steamer’ in the UK and entered into service as a troop transport ship.
(Although referred to above as M.V. Empire Windrush, it might be more accurate to refer to her as HMT Empire Windrush as she was a serving troopship legally owned by Her Majesty the Queen, represented by the Minister of Transport & Aviation)
Originally the German passenger vessel ‘Monte Rosa’, she was built by the famous Hamburg shipyard of Blohm & Voss in 1931, having been launched on 4th December 1930 and delivered to Owners Hamburg-Sudamerikanische Dampfs. in March of 1931 – when she sailed on her maiden voyage from Hamburg to Buenos Aires
Her principal particulars were as follows :
Official Number 181561
Gross Tonnage : 14,651 tons (13,882 when built)
Net Tonnage : 7,788 tons
Deadweight Tonnage : 8,530 tons
Length : 500.3 feet
Breadth : 65.7 feet
Depth : 37.8 feet
Five decks up to and including the uppermost continuous deck (‘C’ Deck) and above that a promenade deck (‘B’ Deck) a boat deck (‘A’ Deck) then the Navigating Bridge deck
Her propulsion was four sets of M.A.N. 6-Cylinder oil engines coupled in pairs to two propeller shafts, each engine having a rating of about 2,000 IHP after conversion (1950) to solid injection from original blast injection. Her machinery was set about midships. Two cylindrical Scotch Boilers provided steam for auxiliary machinery and could be fired by both fuel oil or exhaust gas from the main engines.
The Monte Rosa’s War Career :
In 1940 :
German Navy Barracks Ship and Troopship
In 1941 :
German Navy Barracks Ship and Troopship
In 1942 :
In German trooping service to Norway and Denmark
In 1943 :
In German trooping service to Norway and Denmark
In 1943 :
In German service as a Workship and Accommodation Ship at Alterfjord
In 1944 :
Returned to German trooping service - mined in the Baltic on a passage to Norway
In 1945 :
Following repairs in early January, served as German Hospital Ship. In February, struck another mine off Hela, East Prussia, and was towed to Gydnia for temporary repairs, and then to Copenhagen with refugees. In June of that year, she arrived at Kiel in tow from Copenhagen and was laid up. In August, she was surrendered to the British Government and allocated to the Ministry of War Transport (MOWT) for use as a troopship.
In April of 1946 the Owners became the Ministry of Transport. The vessel was sent to the Linthouse shipyard of Alexander Stephen & Sons for refitting as a troopship where this work was carried out between 1946-1947, during which she suffered a fire in December 1946.
On 21st of January 1947 the vessel was renamed “Empire Windrush”.
In the summer of 1948, on 21st of June, the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury Docks, Londen, with just under 500 migrants from the Caribbean on board. This is now regarded a historic event in the history of migration to Great Britain and these first settlers from the Caribbean became known as the ‘Windrush Settlers’. They came at the invitation of the British Government of the day to augment the chronic shortage of labour in some British industries. With an unprecedented problem in accommodating so many incomers so suddenly, the authorities used a deep air-raid shelter on Clapham Common for the short-term, for convenience to the labour exchange at Brixton, and as a result many of the settlers set up home there in that area, making it one of Britain’s first Caribbean communities, where the majority became employed in hospitals, the GPO, London Transport and the Railways. This was the first wave of serious immigration that continued to expand at a pace until around 1962. By 1955, around 18,000 Jamaicans had already moved in to Great Britain. As well as changing the social landscape of this country, it also had an impact on the history of the West Indies. Indeed it would be interesting to have some idea how many of Caribbean descent in this country today could trace their origins back to one of those 492 who walked down the gangway of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury 58 years ago.
In 1949, whilst on passage in the Mediterranean, she suffered a fire in her Boiler Room and had to put into Gibraltar for repairs.
In 1950 her accommodation was upgraded and her engines converted from blast injection to solid injection at Southampton.
The end of the line for a great passenger ship : 1954 Voyage from Japan to Southampton
On board the troopship was a passenger list totalling 1,276 persons, including women and children, in addition to which the ship carried a total crew of 222 officers and seamen. The vessel was certified with a Class 1 Passenger & Safety Certificate allowing her to transport up to 1,541 persons. In this regard the vessel carried 22 lifeboats with a total capacity for 1,571 persons, and lifejackets for 1,980 persons. She had sailed from Japan on 19th February 1954 for the United Kingdom, calling at Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo, Aden and Port Said on the passage West. At 06:17 hours on the morning of 28th March 1954, when the vessel was in a position some 30 miles to the North and West of Cape Caxine, disaster struck. The Master (Captain Wilson) and Chief Officer (Mr. Christian) who were on the Bridge at the time, heard a loud ‘whoosh’ and on turning round they saw black smoke starting to emit from the funnel, closely followed by tongues of flame. Attempts to telephone down to the Engine Room brought no response, even though the E.R. Telephone could be heard to be ringing. The telegraph was immediately rung to ‘Stop’ but again there was no response from down below.
The Chief Officer immediately proceeded down to the after deck where a deck squad was quickly assembled comprising of crew-members with previous experience as a fire-fighting exercise party. With this squad to hand, the C/O proceeded down to the working alleyway on ‘D’ Deck only to find that the double-door access to the E.R. was already extremely hot, whilst bright orange flames could be seen around the sides of the doors and through the division between the doors. Hoses were immediately run out and played onto the surfaces to prevent the spread of fire, but the water supply pressure quickly reduced then stopped altogether.
The Chief and Second Engineers had now arrived at the scene in the alleyway and also found that it was impossible to enter the E.R. Approaching another doorway from further up the alleyway, which led into the Boiler Room, they found that whilst there was no flame present herein, the thickness of smoke made any further attempt at entry prohibitive. They then decided to gain entry to the E.R. by way of the port-side tunnel and the Chief was able to gain entry for a few feet inside the entrance to the E.R. He could see no sign of fire, but the smoke was so thick he could not breathe and had to evacuate the area quickly. A smoke helmet was sent for and the Second Engineer donned this equipment and re-entered the E.R. However, this was largely thwarted by the inability to see anything for the density of smoke. Nevertheless, he did note a few feet inside the E.R. a floor-plate missing appeared to be missing near the lub oil pumps, and he could discern, between the two inner main engines, the glow of a fire through the thick smoke.
Attempts to communicate with the Bridge, or to close bulkhead doors, failed due to loss of power. The Second Engineer arranged for the remote valves to isolate the fuel supply from tanks to E.R., Main Engines and Generators to be closed off, and for steam smothering supply to the Boiler Room to be introduced.
At the time when the ‘whoosh’ was first heard by the Master and Chief Officer, there were the following personnel down below :
Engine Room : 3 x Engineers + 1 x Electrician + 1 x Greaser
Boiler Room : 1 x Greaser
The Engineer Officers were the vessel’s :
Senior 3rd Engineer (Mr. G. Stockwell)
8th Engineer (Mr. L. Pendleton)
The Greaser in the B.R. saw a flash coming from the inboard side of the starboard Boiler which he described as ‘a flash of fire – a reddish glow’. It would seem that this was a reflection from the side of the starboard Boiler. He passed between the Boilers towards the door leading from the B.R. to the E.R. and saw that there was a glow coming from the E.R. Stepping through the watertight door and into the E.R. he described what appeared to be a ‘wall of flame’ that just seemed to fall down in front of him. He turned back to re-enter the B.R. and heard a ‘whoof’ that was immediately followed by the lights going out. At this point he proceeded to evacuate the B.R. by way of the doorway leading to the working alleyway where the hose party had already arrived.
The Greaser in the E.R. was located at the after end of the E.R., and on the port side, when he saw a sheet of flame coming from between the inner main engines. He then went into the port tunnel and as he did so he heard what he described as a ‘whoof’ and the lights going out, although he stated that the No. 4 Generator Room lights remained on at this stage. He waited in the port tunnel a short while then started to make his way aft along the tunnel in the darkness when he met the Chief and Second Engineers making their way towards the E.R.
It is believed that the three Engineers and the Electrician had all been in the Engineer’s Store when the incident took place and were almost certainly trapped there by the fire.
Attempts to operate the four hydraulic-pneumatic watertight doors in the machinery spaces (one separating the E.R. from the B.R., one at the steering flat entrance to the tunnels, and one at each tunnel entrance) remotely from the master control on the Bridge failed. It was also recorded that efforts to issue instructions over the Tannoy system failed as there was no power available on that system either. Additionally, efforts to sound the electric alarm bells, the air siren on the foremast and the air whistle on the funnel all failed, and even the steam whistle failed to function, water emitting instead of steam. To add to the complications, the vessel was not responding to the helm – her steering system having also failed.
At 06:20 hours, the Master gave the 4th Officer, junior officer of the watch, orders to call the wireless operator onto the Bridge, work out the ship’s position, give it to the WO and start transmitting an S.O.S.
At about the same time, orders were given for emergency stations – the orders being passed by word of mouth. With the fire continuing to spread rapidly, a further order was given at about 06:45 hours to start embarking passengers into the lifeboats. This operation, considering the lack of power and difficulty in communications, was carried out in the finest traditions of the mercantile marine, with good discipline being maintained throughout and everyone doing what had to be done, quietly and without panic.
In response to the wireless transmission from the Empire Windrush, the following vessels arrived on the scene to render assistance :
These vessels between them picked up all of the survivors of the Empire Windrush and landed them a short time later at Algiers. Once again, the behaviour of the officers and crews of these vessels was also wholly professional and exemplary.
Some hours later that morning, two Destroyers set out from Gibraltar having been ordered to go the aid of Empire Windrush. When word was received that all the passengers and crew had been safely evacuated and were on their way to Algiers, one of the Destroyers changed course for Algiers whilst the other, HMS Saintes, proceeded on a course to come on the stricken Empire Windrush, which took place at 09:45 hours on the following day, 29th March 1954. The British naval vessel managed to put a party on board the troopship and attach a tow, but they were unable to remain on board the stricken ship for any length of time. The tow commenced around 12:30 hours on a course for Gibraltar at a speed of around 3.5 knots, however Empire Windrush sank by the stern at 00:30 hours on 30th March 1954 in a position approximately Lat. 37’ North, Long. 2’ East.
The conclusion of the subsequent Formal Investigation was that whilst it was impossible to identify without qualification the cause of the fire that led to this shipping casualty, there were sufficient grounds to believe that the most probable cause was the failure of a portion of the main uptake platework which in turn released a quantity of burning material into the engine room with the consequent fracture of oil fuel piping due to intense heat from this incandescent material (soot). It was evident that within a very short time there was, at the forward end of the Engine Room, on the starboard side, a fire of great intensity. Moreover, it was believed that the very intensity of the fire and rapidity in which it spread, would reasonably lead to the conclusion that it was oil-fed. Within a matter of minutes, this fire affected the electric lighting, communications and power systems, the hydraulic-pneumatic system for operating watertight doors, as well as main and auxiliary machinery, thus reducing if not eliminating the opportunity of fighting or confining the fire.
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