Categories 1941

Disaster in Piraeus Harbour

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

Mussolini had brought Italy into the war in the hope of quick and easy victories, invading Greece from Albania and Egypt from Libya. In both theatres he was humiliated, with Italian forces being forced back and suffering large defeats. Now Hitler decided that he had to intervene to rescue them. Rommel had already arrived in North Africa.

Then on 6th April 1941 Germany invaded both Greece and Yugoslavia. 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.

Then in 2016 I was contacted by Nicholas John Varmazis, from Toronto:

Here is his recollection of the “Clan Fraser Explosion”, written 75 years later in October 2016, when he saw the Clan Fraser story on the Internet:

On April 06, 1941 Germany declared war and invaded Greece. At that time my family was living in a rented house in Drapetsona, (Δραπετσωνα) a suburb of Piraeus. Around noon of that day the Air Raid sirens sounded, but we did not bother to run to the shelter, since we saw that it was just a single German plane flying over the harbour, apparently taking photos.

That same night, at around 9 the air raid sirens sounded again and a few minutes later we heard the sound of planes coming. Everybody run to the nearest air raid shelter, which was the basement of a bakery shop at the intersection of Kanelopoulou and Raidestou Str. (Ethn. Antistasis & Kontopoulou). That building is still there today, 75 years later, ruined and abandoned.

This time it was a real air raid and there was no comparison in ferocity to previous air raids by the Italian Air Force. We could hear the explosions of the falling bombs and the frightening wailing sound of the sirens of the diving Stukas. The building was shaking, women and children were crying and everybody was terrified. The bombing lasted for approximately 2 hours and then there was absolute silence. We did not know if the air raid was over, because the sirens never sounded the end of the raid.

Little by little people started leaving the shelter and heading for home. I did not go with my parents, but I joined a bunch of other adventurous kids of my age (I was 12) and we walked to the harbour, (approximately 0.5km) to “watch the show” from the top of the bluffs, over the Vasiliadou Quay (Ακτη Βασιλειαδου), 50m from the waterfront.

The spectacle was horrifying! Tens of ships were engulfed in flames with their sirens waling like humans. There was no fire fighting activity except around one burning ship that was trapped underneath a huge loading crane. (I read later that the ship was named Clan Fraser). A tug boat and other Navy ships were trying to free and tug the ship away, but they soon realized that this was impossible and finally they gave up. We saw a ship blowing up after hitting a mine. Two other navy ships managed to get away and leave the harbour. (I read years later that these were the British destroyers Achilles and Ajax, famous from the battle of River La Plata, near Montevideo, where they chased and forced the sinking of the German battleship Admiral Graf von Spee.)

In our innocence we were all just enjoying the spectacle. Around midnight a bunch of policemen and other men in uniform arrived and chased us kids away and also went to all the adjacent houses telling people to evacuate and move as far as they could, because there was going to be a big explosion.

We left the harbour and returned to our homes. I lied by telling my parents that I was at the bomb shelter looking for them, but I still received a spanking from my father. I did not dare to tell my parents about the expected explosion.

We all went to bed and then, a couple of hours later, we were all awakened by a tremendous deafening sound. The doors and windows were all blown out. A 2m long chicken coup that was in our yard landed right on top of me, while I was sleeping, but fortunately, all that I suffered were some minor scratches. We all run out on the street in our nightwear and found out that all our neighbours were out too. We could see the flames from the burning ships, less than 1km away. There was a real pandemonium and nobody could explain what was happening. I tried to tell them about the burning ship and the expected explosion as told by the policemen, but nobody was listening.

Our house as well as most of the other houses were ruined and uninhabitable. So my father decided that we should collect as many clothes as we could carry and try to reach some relatives living in Nikaia (Νικαια), nearly 2hrs walk from our home. That was the last time (for many years) that I saw the house where I was borne and lived all my life until then.

We started walking and on the way we turned around from time to time to see the flames from the burning harbour, visible in the horizon. We also heard another two or three explosions, not as big as the first one. Another strange thing happened on the way. There were thousands of foreign banknotes falling from the sky, like confetti, all around us. We collected as many as we could and filled our pockets. As we read in the papers a few days later, these were Turkish banknotes printed in England and destined for Turkey on board Clan Fraser.

We eventually reached Nikaia and stayed with our relatives for 3 days. Then on April 10, 1941 we moved to Zografou (Ζωγραφου), a suburb of Athens, where I lived until September of 1958, when I emigrated to Canada. So, in some way the Clan Fraser explosion changed drastically my life!!!

Piraeus on the morning of 7th April 1941, after the bombing and explosions. (Australian War Memorial)
Piraeus on the morning of 7th April 1941, after the bombing and explosions. (Australian War Memorial)

9 thoughts on “Disaster in Piraeus Harbour”

  1. An eye witness told me that my uncle -Sapper William Hendry Russell- 1989030-swam from the Clan Fraser successfully and was reported as missing . I have visited Piraeus and seen his grave in Phaleron War Cemetery 14.A.9. I knew he was a good swimmer.

  2. My Grandfather Sapper Samuel Cartmale was one of the casualties on the Hellas. So Geoff if you email or Facebook me I will let you know what information I have.

  3. Hi there,
    I was particuarly interested in Nicholas Varmazis’s comment re the location of the Clan Fraser when it was bombed in Piraeus Harbour, April 7 1941.

    (See WW2Today Disaster in Piraeus Harbour, April 7 1941)

    I am currently researching the bombing of another ship, the SS Hellas, seventeen days later on 24 April 1941, with the loss of an estimated 600 lives. The Hellas was loading Greek civilians and sick and wounded British and Australian soldiers.

    I am keen to learn the location of the Hellas ( previously known as SS Valiant and Ira M) in Piraeus Harbour on the night it was bombed.

    Any information to this effect would be greatly appreciated.

    Best regards,

  4. My great uncle Thomas Hogg the Chief Engineer on the Clan Fraser was killed in this bombing. His father was my grandfather’s brother.

  5. After I submitted my comments, I read David Robb”s story of events (see the excerpt below), as it was narrated to him by his father (Ernie Robb). I find that my story and Ernie’s agree, that actually British Sailors (and Greek policemen) went around advising civilians “that a huge explosion was inevitable”.
    That’s quite a coincidence!!!
    ********* ***********
    “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.”

  6. 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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