Disaster in Piraeus Harbour

The Clan Fraser burning in Piraeus harbour on the 6th April 1941, before the massive explosion.

On 6th April 1941 Germany invaded both Greece and Yugoslavia, forced to come to the aid of Italy, which had invaded Greece in October but humiliatingly been pushed back into Albania. The campaign began with a bombing raid on Piraeus harbour where British ships were unloading:

Wakened at 4 am with a blast of ungodly sound and weird blue light. Our casement windows blew open and we were literally shaken from our beds.

The whole southern sky flamed over Piraeus, an unearthly brilliance that silhouetted the calm Parthenon in stark ghostly beauty. The continuing explosion left Peggy and me with wits shaken, speechless and a sense of the world’s end.

From neighboring houses came sounds of maids screaming, and the wild cries of a macaw. Nothing in all the sound effects of catastrophe in Hollywood films could match the crashing thunder, the crackling individual blasts under the greater roar, the howl of the dogs and human shrieks.

Later we learned that the eleven o’clock raid last night had struck a tanker which flamed, setting fire in time to a ship loaded with TNT. A British destroyer then had entered the harbor and had tried to tow the munitions ship out to sea. The tow line broke three times.

But the destroyer got the freighter outside the breakwater before it exploded – taking those brave British boys and their ship to destruction with it. Harbor installations, buildings and homes in a rim around the sea were flattened but the city in general was spared. The Greeks will never forget the sacrifice of those British seamen.

See Laird Archer Athens Journal, 1940-1941: The Graeco-Italian and the Graeco-German Wars and the German Operation.

Archer was mistaken in believing that a British destroyer had been blown up towing the ship out of the harbour – the official record states:

There was a heavy raid on the Piraeus by 10 German aircraft on the night of the 6th/7th which put the port completely out of action for several days. About a dozen mines were laid in the harbour, but H.M. Ships Ajax and Calcutta successfully made their way out. The s.s. Clan Fraser, 7,529 tons, with 350 tons of T.N.T. and a lighter alongside her with a further 100 tons, both blew up. Many fires were caused ashore and in ships in the harbour.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week see TNA CAB 66/16/6

See also Merchant Navy Officers for more on the Clan ships:

On the evening of 6th April, she was struck by three bombs during an air raid, one hitting her forward, one amidships and one aft. Seven crewmembers were killed. The remainder evacuated the ship and for five hours CLAN FRASER burned, glowing red from bulwarks to water line, she then blew up with a tremendous explosion. The explosion did tremendous damage to the Port of Piraeus and other shipping, together with shaking buildings 15 miles inland.

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David Robb April 9, 2012 at 4:34 pm

I may be able to update this event 6-7th April 1941
Ernest Robb was one of the officers in board a neighbouring clan line ship during that night. I was told many years ago, that Ernie Robb and other officers took it upon themselves to evacuate the households near to Clan Fraser. they knew it was loaded with explosives and that a huge explosion was inevitable so wi side arms available, they took a street each and cleared the people from their houses. After reaching about a mile I think from the Port, they found a pub, cleared the occupants and decided that this was far enough….poured a whiskey and lay down in the bar to for a sleep! According the tale, about 4am there was a massive explosion. The bollard off the deck of Clan Fraser came through the roof of a house nearby. On returning to the ship next morning and once again, putting out fires, the Admiral of the fleet turned up to get a first hand report of what had happened. He was duly informed of events, notes we’re written down, with the comment, all your names have recorded with the recommendation for DSO. The Admiral then departed in his motor boat, across Piraeus harbour only to be blown to pieces by a submerged mine. This extraordinary event was passed on to me about 40 years after the event by my Dad, Ernie Robb his ship, not sure, either Clan Cumming or Clan Lamont.

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