SS Yoma torpedoed – 451 troops lost

17th June 1943: SS Yoma torpedoed – 451 troops lost …

by this time the Yoma was well down by the stern and the next thing I knew she sank under my feet and I found myself in the water…as the boat rose I saw a lot of men on the foc’sle head: they would not jump into the water, …as the bow lifted a number of them lost their footing and fell onto the bridge, many others being dragged under by the ship.

SS Yoma
The “Yoma” was built in 1928 by Wm Denny & Bros at Dumbarton for the
Henderson Line of Glasgow. 17 June 1943 while in convoy off Derna, in the Mediterranean,
was struck by two torpedoes, one in the engine room, one in number 4 hold, and sank within five minutes.

The Battle of the Atlantic may have effectively been won but the U Boat menace remained a real threat for the remainder of the war. A sharp reminder of this reality came with the loss of the SS Yoma on the 17th June. She was carrying troops back from Algeria to Alexandria, many of them Royal Engineers who were to assist with port facilities for the Sicily invasion. The SS Yoma was hit by two torpedoes and went down in under 5 minutes. Sources vary but it seems that 451 troops were lost together with 29 crew.

Few bodies were recovered so most of the men were listed as “missing”. For hundreds of families there was an agonising, uncertain wait as they tried to discover what had happened to their sons and husbands.

Herbie 'Bert' Cullum
Herbie ‘Bert’ Cullum. One of the hundreds believed drowned with the loss of the SS Yoma.

The family of Herbie ‘Bert’ Cullum were to wait months for news.

In August 1943 they got an account from a friend of Bert, George Monk, who managed to escape from the hold of the ship:

Bert was at hands reach from me, when it happened. We all got thrown across seats and on the floor and after I managed to regain my feet, which was very difficult, I looked around for Bert. He was nowhere to be seen … after great difficulty and luck I found myself in the water, and for the one and three quarter hours in which I was drifting around my eyes were constantly looking for Bert, but could not see him.

That was the most definitive information they would ever get. For a long time his Bert’s mother was to wait, hoping that news of her son’s survival would somehow arrive, placing hope in her knowledge that her son was a strong swimmer. She continued in this hope long after official confirmation that he was ‘presumed dead’ in February 1944.

It was years later, when she saw her son’s name listed on the official War Grave memorial at Brookwood that she began to come to terms with the death of her son. Her experience was to be visited on many other families.

Only much later would the family discover this account of the sinking, in the official papers released in 1976, from Chief Officer Olds:

Although the explosion was loud, it was not as loud as I would have expected. The vessel was ‘lifted’ by the explosion, and settled rapidly by the stern. I was in the Wireless Room at the time. I came out onto the bridge, but could see nothing owing to the steam which enveloped the ship…

Nos. 3 and 4 hatches were blown away, and clouds of coal dust were thrown high into the air, smothering everything, including myself. I heard the Master order “abandon ship” and hurried to my lifeboats…

After wrestling with the lifeboats, he found that:

… by this time the Yoma was well down by the stern and the next thing I knew she sank under my feet and I found myself in the water…as the boat rose I saw a lot of men on the foc’sle head: they would not jump into the water, …as the bow lifted a number of them lost their footing and fell onto the bridge, many others being dragged under by the ship.

See BBC People’s War. For more on Bert Cullum’s family see separate BBC People’s War story.

26 thoughts on “SS Yoma torpedoed – 451 troops lost”

  1. Carol Fryer nee Thacker
    My grandad Walter Cecil Thacker sadly lost his life on the SS YOMA, gone but never forgotten. Never met him but always remembered.

  2. My father Pitoiset robert was a French sailor . he was convoyed on the ship to alexandria to join the French force X.
    Suddenly in the morning, in the back of the boat he was raised in the air, he knew that the ship had been torpedoed and he jumped overboard.
    He was spotted by Australian destroyer. he ended the war on cruiser Duquesne
    He died in 2012 aged 91.

  3. Through my work taking me to the Brookwood cemetery, I had the chance to see my Grandfather’s name listed on the monument to the 3500 missing of WWII for the first time three days ago. He went down with the Yoma also, leaving behind my Grandmother and my Mum then aged 3. I carry his name within mine. He was a bricklayer from the East end, and lived in Sutton. My Grandmother could never talk about him so I sadly don’t much about him as a person.
    James Henry Nolte, Sapper, Royal Engineers.
    Aged 31.
    Lost but not forgotten.

  4. My uncle Frederick Ramsey was a Sapper with the 994 Docks Operating Company who were embarked on board the SS YOMA when it was torpedoed by U-81. Unfortunately he
    was one of the nearly 500 who went down with the ship. He was 33years old. Didn’t
    know this until recently.

  5. My Grandad Walter Cecil Thacker was in the Royal Engineers and was on board The Yoma when it went down in 1943. Reported missing.
    He sadly left behind a wife and five children, not forgetting his mother and siblings.
    Sadly missed by all, I never got to meet my grandad, but think about him often, so will never be forgotten.
    Jan Seaman

  6. My father was on the Yoma when it sank, his name was James Nelson, he was a Royal Engineer. He found a life jacket and abandoned the ship into the sea. He was in the water for 6hrs and was rescued by an Australian minesweeper named the Lismore. He survived this and other attacks, he is still alive today and aged 96yrs old. God bless him. x

  7. My uncle David Martin from Ayr went down with the Yoma. My son is named after him.

  8. My Father Frank Reginald Orton Pollock wasnt on the ill fated SS Yoma when it sank but he did set sail on it on the 18th February 1941 en route to Port Tewfik. His diary states that it was a dirty ship and the troops called it a “Hell ship”. His diary finishes that year with limited notes on driving through the The Battlefields of Sidi Rezegh and arriving at Tobruk on Monday 15th Dec 1941. Frank survived the war passing away in 1988.

  9. To Karen Hayes I have only just found your name and your grandfathers account of the sinking of the SS Yoma. My Father was on that ship and he was killed, I have been searching for a long time to find out what happened to my Dad – his name was Ernest Counsell and he was in The Royal Engineers, it would be wonderful if your Grandfather had known him, I so missed him in my life.

  10. My Uncle, Henry (Harry) Kean, was a Lance Corporal in the Royal Army Corps who died on the SS Yoma. The attack happened in the early morning when many were at breakfast below & stood little chance of escape. Harry was born in July 1912 in Birkenhead, Wirral, Merseyside and would have been almost 31 at his death. He wasn’t yet married.

    We shall not forget.

  11. My great uncle William Rutt, a sapper in the RE is listed as killed in action – death at Sea on the 17th of June 1943. Is there a way to check if he was on the Yoma?

  12. My father’s cousin George Frederick Alan Wheelhouse was lost on this ship – a fact that I have only found out tonight. My father always believing that Alan had been lost en roite to Sicily. My Great Uncle George was a broken man with the loss of his only son. My mother had six brothers who served and all came home, my father one cousin who never returned. The indiscriminate nature of war. As I bear Alan’s name this information is especially important to me.

  13. My father James D’Arcy, a Royal Engineer from Liverpool was on the Yoma was she was sunk. He was on deck when the torpedos struck, from what I’ve read on the internet many others were tradgically trapped below. So he was a very lucky man indeed.
    He was a quiet man, who spoke very little of his wartime experiences, but that was typical of his generation.
    Coincidentally, he went to New Zealand to visit my brother in 1989 & there met a Kiwi veteran who was in the same convoy as the Yoma & watched her go down. He was convinced no one had survived. These two old men became firm friends & both walked together in the Anzac parade, my dad with his war medals on, he had never worn them before. He didn’t request his medals until the 1980’s & he gave them to my brother.
    He sadly died in 1993 & I found a letter he had written mentioning the Yoma, I have also asked some elderly relatives & have pieced together what young James D’Arcy got up to all those years ago.
    Thank you for giving us the chance to give our stories.
    Best wishes

  14. My uncle sapper William Marsland was on the SS Yoma when it was torpedoed. He was listed as missing presumed dead. I believe his name is on the Brookland War Memorial. Thank you for allowing me to read about the ship. His two younger brothers are still alive.

  15. My grandfather Henry Walsh, Sapper Royal Engineers, was lost on SS Yoma. He had three children aged thirteen, twelve and eleven at the time. He was listed as missing and well into the 1950s,when I was small, his eldest child, my mother, expected him to return home at any minute. She, like the rest of the family believed the troop ship had been lost en-route to Italy. Thanks to the information above I now understand why he died in 1943, when allied action in Italy took place in 1944. It was a detail which always puzzled me.

  16. My dad was on the Yoma but did not get torpedoed.
    He embarked at Liverpool to sail to Cape Town en route to India and to fight the Japanese
    He sailed home in 1945. He was in the RAF specialising in war photography. He served in Calcutta and also served in Burma. Previously, he had served in Rangoon
    In UK he had served at RAF Oakington in Cambridgeshire.
    He met my mum on Oakington Aerodrome
    John Turner

  17. My Great Uncle Ted was on the YOMA, he was a Corporal in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. He was 28 years old, I have a copy of his ‘Notification of Death’ from the war office which states he was ‘killed in action’, along with a postcard and letter he wrote from Algiers. His name is on the Brookwood Memorial. My youngest son (7) had the honor of placing a cross on Remembrance Sunday this year. It is so lovely to see other people on here that lost family members sharing their stories.

  18. My father, Ronald Henry Mason, from Countesthorpe in Leicester, was on the SS Yoma . My Mother received the letter saying that he was “missing, believed killed” his commanding officer wrote to her and said “not content with blasting us out of the water, the bastards then machine gunned the water” she lived with this heartbreak for the rest of her life. My Grandfather would never accept that his son was dead and even on his death bed spoke to his parents and brothers but kept saying “Ronnie, where are you son” this gave My Aunt, Ron’s twin, and my Mother, hope for many years.

  19. My uncle Joe McCarrick Royal Engineer Age 28 also lose is life aboard the SS Yomo. He had six sisters and one brother is brother was my Dad Norman McCarrick. With great respect to there bravery for all who lost there life’s aboard the SS Yomo along side my uncle Joe. Kind regards Jeff

  20. This is a memorial to add if possible of Lance -Corporal Patrick Gough, Corps of the Royal Engineers . Killed on SS Yoma convoy GTX2 17/06/1943 , the only notice to be given was a scroll commemorating his honour. He was a member of the D.E.M.S Defence equipped Merchant ships.

  21. My Uncle Patrick Canning Did not survive the day too. Though I am from a large family and was not even Born until the fifties I now understand the full horror of war . May they all rest in peace.

  22. My Great Uncle Frank Ludlow from Birmingham died when the ship went down

  23. I have my grandfathers diarys (Frederick William Smith) from the war and he was also on the YOMA, It is sad and poignant to read, I have all of his war diaries and his whole account of the sinking of the YOMA from start to finish. It would be lovely to hear from any other family members of others men on this boat.
    Karen Hayes

  24. My grandfather, George Henry Gordon was on this ship when it went down. Thank you the account of what happened.

  25. My Father.G.H.Pearce was one of the Dems gunners to survive the sinking
    He was RN gunner attached to Dems and served other Merchant ships as
    a Gunner all during the war.Including the SS Leopoldville another troopship sunk
    xmas eve 1944 with great loss of life,although he was not on it at that time.
    He died in 1990 aged 78

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