By Jim Shaw 

Could the Suez Canal be Closed Again?

Fifty Years Since the "Yellow Fleet" was Trapped

 

May 1, 2017

The canal was reopened to shipping in 1975 after eight years of closure but war wreckage remained for many years. Photo courtesy of Jim Shaw.

The Suez Canal has been expanded significantly over the past half-century and can now accommodate all but the world's largest ships. However, it remains in a politically sensitive area and over the past decade it has been blocked a number of times due to either navigation error, weather or equipment failure. In February 2006 Orient Overseas Container Line's relatively new OOCL Qingdao ran aground six miles south of Ismailia while on a voyage between the Far East and Southampton. The ship was Number 2 in a convoy of 24 northbound vessels, thus it blocked passage to the 22 ships behind it. Only a few weeks later the Aframax tanker Grigoroussa 1 severely damaged her bottom during a southbound transit, again tying up shipping. A larger ship, the 139,650-dwt South Korean bulk carrier Great Polaris, then broke down while transiting northbound, blocking 32 ships behind it plus another 11 waiting to transit southbound. And the 154,972-dwt tanker Tropic Brilliance held up more than 50 vessels when it became jammed sideways in the channel near Ismailia due to steering gear failure.

The greatest stoppage to shipping, however, came in 1967 when both ends of the waterway were blocked during the Arab-Israeli "Six-Day War," leaving 14 freighters and one tanker trapped. Most of these vessels; Nordwind, Münsterland, Killara, Nippon, Sindh, Agapenor, Melampus, Scottish Star, Port Invercargill, Djakarta, Boleslaw Bierut, Vassil Levsky and Lednice, were to remain in the canal for eight years while the American freighter African Glen would be sunk there and the American tanker Observer would never leave. Because of the constant sand storms in the area, which left the trapped vessels covered, they eventually became known as the "Yellow Fleet."

Daily Diary

P. L. Gasson, a young officer on one of the trapped ships, Blue Funnel's Melampus, recorded events in a diary as they unfolded in June 1967, recollections that were later published in the company's in-house bulletin "Ocean". Gasson, a fourth officer at the time, recorded that Melampus entered the canal northbound on the morning of June 5, 1967 under the command of Captain S. R. Arnold. The 8,509-gt cargo ship passed Port Tewfik where heavy concentrations of Egyptian soldiers and military vehicles could be seen. When the Geneffe Signal Station was passed, at the entrance to Little Bitter Lake, Gasson noted that the Egyptian airfield at Kabret was under attack by Israeli jets. "The Israeli planes were clearly seen to be bombing an air field on which Egyptian fighters had been grounded," he wrote, "and they were so riddled with shells that it was difficult to identify any one piece of wreckage."

The bombing became more intense as Melampus continued her transit until about 11:30 a.m. when a full-scale attack was launched, resulting in dozens of ground-to-air rockets being launched by the Egyptians, many passing over the transiting ships as Mirage fighters came in behind them. On the canal's banks, Gasson could see Egyptians "digging slit trenches to get some shelter from the falling bombs."

Sit and Wait

By a little past noon that day, Melampus, as the last of the northbound convoy, reached the Great Bitter Lake where all vessels anchored. During that afternoon there were more attacks on neighboring airfields and in the Deversoir area where an army base was located. The crew of Melampus was kept on stand-by in the expectation that the ship would soon be ordered to move, but that order never came.

Early the next day the southbound convoy, which had been held in the Lakes, was allowed to clear the canal, as were nine northbound petroleum tankers. Although Melampus then requested permission to leave – either northbound or southbound – the ship was told that navigation of the canal "had been suspended." On the following morning the Egyptian boatmen left the ship, followed by the Suez Canal Pilot on June 9. At this time it was known that two damaged dredges were blocking the canal southbound while a tug and dredge were said to be blocking it northbound. There were also rumors that several ships had either been sunk or scuttled near Port Said.

Rescue Bid for Egyptians

Once hostilities reached their conclusion, on June 11, Gasson recorded that "a great many Egyptian soldiers were seen to arrive on the banks of the Great Bitter Lake from the East". As these men appeared to be in poor shape, and without water, some attempting to swim out into the lake, it was decided to make a rescue bid. Accordingly, Melampus sent her motorboat, towing three mooring vessels, towards the bank "with a white flag mounted on the mast and a Red Ensign flying from the stern". However, Gasson wrote "the Egyptians so overloaded the first boat reaching the bank that it capsized, forcing the motorboats to cast off their tows and head back to ship."

By noon the Egyptians had managed to row the remaining mooring boats out to Melampus where they were given food and water but not allowed to board. Fortunately, an Egyptian pilot boat then arrived on the scene to tow them on to Deversoir. A decision was quickly made to move Melampus away from the eastern bank and closer to Agapenor, the other Blue Funnel vessel held in the lake.

Crew Evacuation

Over the next two weeks a number of other rescue operations took place as Egyptian soldiers continued to trickle in from the desert, with several ships helping to search the beaches. By this time the four trapped British vessels were trading food and news, with Scottish Star, which had 12 passengers on board, hosting visitors for movies and drinks. By June 17 it was known that the canal was blocked by war wreckage at both ends and that, according to Egyptian authorities, it would take "at least two months" to clear. Permission was then given for crews and passengers to be evacuated, with those disembarking going first by lifeboat to Deversoir and then by bus or taxi on to Ismailia and into Cairo.

Gasson, as part of this group, noted that "no hostility was shown to the departing sailors by local Egyptians and, once clear of Ismailia, there was very little sign of war". The Blue Funnel crews were repatriated to England via a change of planes at Nicosia, arriving in London the following morning, then by coach home to Liverpool in time for coffee and biscuits at India Building before dispersing to their homes.

The Long Lay-Up

Over part of the next eight years caretaker crews were rotated out to the trapped ships, most serving three or four month renewable tours. The duty would seem boring, and to some it was, but the men made the most of it. It was during this time that the "Great Bitter Lake Association" was formed to organize social and sporting events, including weekly sailing regattas. In 1968, the "Bitter Lake Olympic Games" were held to complement the 1968 Summer Olympic Games then being played in Mexico City. In time, a postal service was created and hand-crafted stamps produced, many becoming collectors' items.

In the evenings, get-togethers were held and a good deal of alcohol consumed, the Polish vessels being particularly well stocked. This eventually led to the creation of another Yellow Fleet "fraternity", the Grand Order of Water Babies, with membership awarded to those who fell into the lake completely inebriated. "Diving in, falling in or being pushed in did not qualify." The amount of drinking was sufficient for Time magazine to later quote one caretaker crewman as saying, "There must be five feet worth of beer bottles on the bottom around each hull by now."

Release at Last

In time the ships were moved together into several groups to allow their caretaker crews to be reduced. By 1969 most had been turned over to insurers or third-party maintenance companies. One, the French Sindh, went Norwegian in 1970 when it was sold to become Essayons. In October 1973, during the 20-day Yom Kippur War, another of the trapped ships, ironically the American-flagged African Glen, was hit by an Israeli missile and sunk in shallow water. Two years later, after a strenuous multi-national clearing and salvage effort, the remaining 13 ships were given their freedom.

The two well-maintained German vessels, Nordwind and Münsterland, managed to depart the Canal under their own power on May 7, 1975, both arriving in Hamburg later that month to a huge welcome. For Münsterland it marked the completion of a voyage out to Australia and back that had taken eight years, three months and five days to complete. Other vessels left as their tows could be arranged, Lednice and Djakarta departing on May 9, Vasil Levsky on May 16, Agapenor and Melampus on May 20, Killara and Nippon on May 22, Scottish Star and Port Invercargill on May 30 and Boleslaw Bierut in early June. A grand Naval Review, which included the American cruiser USS Little Rock (CLG-4), then sailed the length of the waterway to officially reopen it.

Disposal of the Fleet

During the eight years the Suez Canal was blocked containerization had been introduced to the world's main shipping lanes. This made the trapped conventional freighters redundant and most were sold for tramping or scrap, although several did return to liner work. The refrigerator ships Scottish Star and Port Invercargill went to Defteron Corporation at Piraeus who renamed them Kavo Yerakas and Kavo Kolones. Agapenor and Melampus went to another Greek owner, D. N. Leventkis, who had them renamed Nikos and Annoula II. Other Greek owners then took the two Polish ships, Boleslaw Bierut and Djakarta, which were renamed Fay III and Manina III. The German Münsterland also went Greek, with Nordwind following after a short period under Lebanese ownership.

The oldest ship of the fleet, Vasil Levsky, which had been completed during the war years as Empire MacKendrick, a Merchant Aircraft Carrier (MAC), was taken to Split for breaking. The largest, the 13,000-dwt Killara, was sold to Hellenic Lines of Greece, as was the other trapped Swedish vessel, Nippon. Both re-entered liner service later that year as Hellenic Seaman and Hellenic Patriot.

One of nine ships found to be blocking the canal after hostilities ended was the elderly passenger vessel Mecca, built in 1928 as Lady Rodeny. UN photo.

The smallest member of the fleet, the 1,412-gt Lednice, was returned to her original owners and sailed well into the 1980s. However, before that decade was over all of the freighters were gone, the newest, Killara, going to the breakers at Kaohsiung, Taiwan as Panama Star in 1986.

The American Ships

Of the two American ships, the 17,614-gt tanker Observer, owned by New York's Maritime Carriers and operating under a US Military Sea Transportation Service contract at the time, was in Lake Timsah when hostilities broke out. Its ownership, as well as that of the freighter African Glen, sunk by an Israeli missile in 1973, was later transferred to Egypt and the tanker sold to Marine Shipping Corporation for conversion into a bulk storage hulk for positioning at Port Said. The 1945-built African Glen, after being salvaged, went for scrap.

 
 

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