Troopship SS Mohamed Ali el-Kebir torpedoed

The SS Mohamed Ali el-Kebir had previously operated out of Alexandria before being requisitioned as a troopship in 1940.

From the War Diary of Captain Lieutenant Liebe, Commandant of ‘U–38’ :

21.00

Surfaced. After surfacing, again surprised by 1 passenger steamer (10,000t) escorted by two destroyers forward to port, distance 8–9000m. Owing to swell and heavy sea, full view not possible before surfacing, an unpleasant situation, which has twice already led to surprise situations.

21.46

Torpedo spread within escort. Distance 1000m. Two clicks, then detonation. 1 torpedo definite hit. According to acoustic surveillance, steamer immediately stopped. Further observation not possible owing to immediate pursuit, depth–charges, s–equipment. Heavy damage definitely to be assumed. More exact details on steamer could not be established. In course of pursuit, 3 more depth–charges further away. At one point s–equipment precisely overhead. Impression of steel wire dragging over boat, heavy knocking and noise, as if glass being crunched. However, no depth–charges dropped at this point.

The Chief Officer of the SS Mohamed Ali el-Kebir , Mr L.C. Hill was interviewed by the Shipping Casualties Section, Trade Division, Admiralty, on the 12th August 1940 and provided a full account of the sinking:

‘We were bound from Avonmouth to Gibraltar with a cargo of military stores. The colour of our hull was black, superstructure buff and funnel buff. Wireless was fitted and we were armed with a 4″ HE gun and 6 Lewis guns belonging to the military. We were flying a Red Ensign at the time of the attack. The crew including the Captain numbered 164 of whom 2 are slightly injured, 4 Europeans (Captain, Chief W/T Operator, Doctor and a quartermaster) and 6 natives are missing. We also had on board 26 officers and 706 other ranks. I believe some 40 or 50 of these are missing, and I know that 36 are injured and in hospital. The confidential books were all thrown overboard in the weighted bag. The ship had just been degaussed at Liverpool and the apparatus was switched on.

We left Avonmouth at 20.00 BST on 5 August bound for Gibraltar, sailing independently with one destroyer as escort. We continued without incident at a speed of 15 knots, zig-zagging on No. 15 (a predetermined sequence of course changes), until the 7 August. On this day there was a big swell, but not much sea, a moderate breeze, good visibility but overcast. The destroyer kept ahead of us most of the time, but also on a zig-zag course.

At 20.45 BST on 7 August when in position 550 North 150 West about 250 miles from land, there was an explosion aft. I was amidships on the promenade deck, I felt the ship vibrate, as if a gun had been fired. I could not see aft from where I was, but as far as I know there was no flash or smoke, but a column of water was thrown up which I saw descending on the port side. There was no smell. The ship immediately settled aft, but did not list. When the explosion occurred, the destroyer was on our port quarter. A few hours earlier she had been listening, but I do not think she was doing so then, as there was no sign of the U-boat, nor of the wake of the torpedo.

I immediately went to the bridge to report to the Captain, then I saw that the watertight doors were properly closed (they were operated electrically from the bridge) and went aft to see what damage had been done. I think we were hit slightly on the starboard quarter, very near the stern, at the after end of the gun platform. The gun had fallen forward, against the davits of a boat, jamming the falls. At the point of the explosion was a house, then the poopdeck with the dynamo house, the gun and 4 boats. The magazine was between the dynamo house and the hospital on the after side of the gun with the steel house intervening. We had two bulkheads in the engine room, the after peak bulkhead which presumably went right away, and another bulkhead between nos. 4 and 5 holds.

The 2nd. Officer who was aft heard the second bulkhead go. The deck at the after end was sloping into the water, there was no fire, and amidships everything was intact. I went back to the bridge and reported the damage to the captain. He had already given orders to man the boats; I superintended the lowering of them and launching of rafts. The outboard boats were perfectly alright, as they were ready for lowering, but the inner boats (we had two rows) were more difficult. One of these inner boats was smashed by the explosion, another had the davits buckled, all the after boats were put out of action. None of the boats capsized.

The ship was badly down by the stern but upright during the launching of the boats, and all serviceable lifeboats and rafts were got away before she went down. Everyone had a Board of Trade lifebelt.

The last I personally saw of the Captain we were both on the bridge together, he gave the order to jump, so I went onto the deck and thought he followed me. I jumped into the water and was picked up by the destroyer about half an hour later.

The destroyer immediately after she saw the explosion, dropped depth charges one side, swept straight across our quarter and dropped more charges on the other side. After about 1hr 50 minutes, the ship which had been going down by the stern all the time, rose absolutely vertical, with the bow out of the water, then plunged straight down. After that the destroyer dropped no more depth charges, but began picking up the various boats and rafts. She lowered two whalers in the position where the ship sank, then returned and took the whalers back on board, after steaming round in all directions.

She brought us back to Greenock where we arrived at 5 am on Friday 9th August. A number of men had their legs broken by the explosion. Everybody of every rank was exceedingly helpful. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the naval ratings on board, they were magnificent. Some of the military personnel spoke very highly of Quartermaster Anderson, particularly the way he kept up morale of the boat’s crew and got them away from the ship.’

TNA ADM 199/ 2133

Surgeon Lieutenant G J Walley was the Medical Officer on board the destroyer HMS Griffin, which effected the rescue, later recorded the treatment of the casualties:

Late in the evening this ship was called on to rescue the survivors of the troopship Mahomet el Ali Kebir. For various reasons rescue work proceeded throughout the night. A variety of injuries were encountered – the majority being fractures of the leg and arm – splints were entirely inadequate for such a large number and a large amount had to be contrived.

Open fractures were reduced under local anaesthesia (2% novatex) roughly splinted and debridement followed by instillation of powdered sulphonamide. Debridement was assisted by staining the wound with an alcoholic solution of 1/1000 Gentian Violet – all stained and dead tissue being removed. Only one death occurred – a naval rating, name unknown (body transferred to Naval Authorities, Greenock) from multiple fractures of tibia, femur, pelvis and humerus.

It was reported in the Times that many deaths occurred on board from exposure. In view of the facts, this was felt to be a gross error and was much resented by my willing helpers in the ship’s company and myself.

In all, 766 survivors were landed at Greenock comprising 704 uninjured or mildly injured, and 62 discharged to Hospital (59 to the Military Hospital and 3 to Naval Hospital).

I should like to mention the superb assistance given by members of the ship’s company during a trying 36 hours, special reference being made to RNASBR Dix and Chief Stoker Kent RN.

TNA ADM 101 /564

For much more on the ship and the sinking see Mohamed Ali el-Kebir

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