On 12 February 1944 the troopship Khedive Ismail was in convoy KR8 on its way to Colombo, Ceylon from Kilindini, Kenya with a large contingent of African troops as well as British military personnel, including eighty-three women. Early in the afternoon she was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-27 – she broke in two and sank quickly. Few who were below decks managed to make an escape.
Of the 1511 people on board only 208 men and 6 women survived. It was to become Britain’s third worst mercantile disaster in the Second World War and the worst ever involving British service women, seventy-seven were lost. The destroyers HMS Petard and Paladin went on the hunt for the submarine and eventually sank her, although it is believed that the depth charging caused some further casualties amongst people in the water. It was an incident that Nicholas Monserrat used in his novel The Cruel Sea, later memorably filmed.
Percival Crabb was Chief Petty Officer, Stoker on the SS Khedive Ismail:
I was in the POs mess with seven other petty officers when the troopship was torpedoed between 1400 and 1500. By I believe two tin fish, one in the engine room and one aft under the counter, I was asleep at the time. Immediately she listed over; everyone made a dash for the companionway except yours truly and PO Harper; we both made for the two portholes, which were open.
I remember scrambling through and hobbling down the ship’s side, stepping over the rolling chock and diving into the sea, by the time I surfaced the ship had gone. I swam to a green smoke canister some thirty yards away, hanging on to this I looked around me, there were several survivors either swimming or hanging on to whatever floated.
The convoy had dispersed by this time and it seemed we were left to our own devices; some 200 yards away were two lifeboats from the ship, one upside down, survivors were all making for them so I decided to do the same.
I am almost certain the submarine passed under me, as there was quite a turbulence of water and a wake left behind. This was the scene when the destroyers Petard and Paladin arrived at high speed, the submarine must have been picked up on their asdics, because they started depth charging some 300 yards away. I distinctly remember one charge from the thrower exploding just above the surface of the sea. It was a very strange experience to feel the shock waves coming through the water and the almighty thump in the stomach. Luckily, I was still hanging on to the smoke float, which took most of the concussion.
Paladin had dropped off a motor boat and sea boat to pick up survivors. I eventually made it to the troopship’s lifeboat and got aboard, we managed to row the boat towards Paladin, which was slowly circling us, while Petard was still depth charging further away. We got alongside Paladin and hastily scrambled aboard, among us were three nursing sisters, two wrens and one South African WTS; this was all that was left of their contingents. I remember a seaman throwing me a pair of sandals, as I was barefoot, because the steel decks of the destroyer were very hot.
At that moment a large Japanese submarine came to the surface and both ships opened fire and then Paladin started to increase speed, she was going in to ram. We were told to hang on to something solid, as the ship closed the submarine at high speed, the submarine veered off and Paladin struck her a glancing blow, the submarine’s hydroplanes tore a hole from the forward boiler room right aft to the engine room, putting the ship out of action, and flooding the boiler and engine rooms.
Survivors and crew went about the ship throwing everything moveable over the side to lighten her. I dumped loads of 4 inch shells from ready use lockers. Both sets of quadruple torpedo tubes were turned outboard by hand and fired to lighten ship. On board Petard, six torpedoes were fired at the Japanese submarine, but they all missed, the seventh was fired by local control and did the trick. It blew the submarine in half; I watched the two halves upend and sink with no survivors.
The next job was to remove everyone except essential personnel from Paladin to Petard, a tricky manoeuvre, but successfully done and now the job of all jobs, to take Paladin in tow and get her back to safety. After 36 hours of towing we arrived at Addu Atoll where the cruiser Hawkins was waiting with everything from pumps, collision mats, shoring and personnel to get Paladin seaworthy for the long trip to South Africa for essential repairs.
This is just one account that appears in Passage to Destiny: Story of the Tragic Loss of the S.S.Khedive Ismail, a new edition of which is expected soon. Author Brian Crabb, son of Percival, has collected a wide range of material on both the ship and the sinking and his site contains a Roll of Honour of those lost.
There is also an account of the sinking on BBC People’s War.