Time: 1615, Date: 14th April 1944
Place: Victoria Dock, Bombay, India.
Captain Brinley Thomas Oberst a British Army Officer attached to the Indian Army Ordinance Corps had returned home to his apartment at Colaba for lunch. As he was finishing his lunch the telephone rang informing him that there was a fire aboard a ship berthed in the Victoria Dock. Captain Oberst enquired as to the name of the vessel, the reply ‘I don’t know’ did nothing to calm his nerves for lying in that dock were four ships loaded with explosives not least ‘Fort Stikine’ whose cargo contained a great deal. It was just after 1400 hours when the Captain made his way down to the docks where his men were onboard ‘Fort Stikine’ supervising the discharge of her highly dangerous cargo, on arriving at the docks Captain Oberst had his worst fears confirmed when he was informed that it was ‘Fort Stikine’ that was on fire. Fort Stikine was lying at Number One berth and was one of fourteen ships being worked that day, next door in Prince’s Dock were a further ten ships including one in dry dock. Both the docks were situated behind lock gates and a further two ships were tied up alongside the wall.
On boarding the ship Captain Oberst observed very little evidence of a fire, in fact there were just a few men stood around Number Two hatch playing a couple of hoses down into the hold, the hold was situated directly forward of the Bridge. Captain Oberst then encountered Mr Harris the ship’s Second Officer who was helping the firemen drag the hoses across the deck. After Oberst introduced himself both Officers made for Harris’s cabin where the stowage plans were laid out. After a brief discussion which revolved around the positioning of the explosives in relationship to the seat of the fire Oberst declared that unless the fire was quickly extinguished the whole of the dock was under threat.
Fort Stikine had been completed in the July of 1942 by the Prince Rupert Drydock & Shipyard at Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada. She weighed 7, 142 tons gross and had been handed over to the United States Shipping Admin/Maritime Commission who in turn bareboat chartered her to the British Government, His Majesty’s Government then appointed Port Line as managers. She was classed at Lloyds Register as + 100A1 which had long been accepted as an all round standard of excellence. Captain Naismith was in command, it was his first position as Captain and he had been with her since arriving on that fateful day in Bombay. Under his command she had made four complete round trips and had been loaded for her fifth trip, this time to Karachi and Bombay with the following cargo. Deep in the holds were 1, 395 tons of explosives including shells, torpedoes, mine signal rockets, magnesium flares and incendiary bombs, and these were for discharge at Bombay. Above these lay twelve crated Spitfires and more explosives for discharge at Karachi and finally gliders were stacked on the upper decks. More specifically in the tween decks of Number Two hold 238 tons of highly sensitive Category A explosives had been stacked on three sides, on the fourth side a steel container measured 5ft x 4ft x 4ft had been lashed. Within the container were thirty one wooden crates, each crate contained four gold ingots measuring 15″ x 3″ x 1.5″, each bar weighed two stone and was a part instalment to a bank in Bombay which was to be used to cancel out the adverse effect that the British War economy was having on the exchange rates in India. The estimated value of the gold varied from a low of £1, 000, 000 to a high of £2, 000, 000 depending on source of information either way it was a considerable amount in 1944. Mr. Harris the Second Officer had signed for the bullion in Birkenhead and as an extra precaution had arranged for the locked container lid to be welded closed, the lads having already disposed of this cargo in their minds on the voyage out to India.
Fort Stikine sailed from Birkenhead on the 24th of February and soon formed up into a twenty ship convoy; on her voyage north the convoy was joined by further vessels which had sailed from Belfast and Glasgow. Finally the convoy had grown to fifty ships excluding her escorts, this included two Merchant Aircraft Carriers, formerly tankers, Shell’s Amastra seen below was a typical example of what were affectionately referred to as ‘Woolworths’.
However the first leg of the voyage to Gibraltar wasn’t without incident, during adverse weather conditions two airmen were killed attempting to land their Swordfish on the deck of a ‘Woolworth’. A lesser incident occurred on the ‘Stikine’ when a stowaway gave himself up, Captain Naismith couldn’t land the miscreant and so he was sent to work down below under the charge of the Chief Engineer, Alexander Gow. Gow reflected at the time that young John O’Hare from Liverpool could have chosen a safer ship to stow away on loaded as she was to the gunnels with high explosives.
On arriving at the Straits of Gibraltar the convoy split into two, Stikine’s half headed into the Mediterranean, the remainder set course for West Africa. Stikine’s was joined a few hours later by further vessels which had sailed from the States for the voyage out to India and Pakistan, again Stikine was allocated an outside lane for obvious reasons. The convoy proceeded along the North African Coast and most of the ships hoisted a barrage balloon including Stikine as a defence against air attack, this action must have slowed the ships’ progress quite considerably. When off Algiers the convoy was attacked by four Focke-Wulf Condors, fortunately passing over Stikine’s line and opening fire on the second. For the next half hour of daylight and well into dusk the Germans maintained their attacks on the convoy and it was presumed by all in the convoy that it was shortage of fuel that forced the planes to return to their base when the attack was broken off.
The convoy proceeded into the Mediterranean without further mishap and again divided South of Sicily into two groups, the larger group turning north towards Italy, with Stikine and eleven others maintaining their course for Port Said. After entering the Canal Fort Stikine anchored at Port Taufiq to take on bunkers and fortunately her stowaway John O’Hare was handed over to the Authorities. Having completed her bunkers Stikine then sailed through the Canal, Red Sea and after calling at Aden for stores made her way to her first port of call, Karachi.
Fort Stikine arrived in Karachi at 1500 hours on the 30th of March. After discharging the crated gliders and Spitfires the ship’s Officers then began the task of filling the vacated space with 8, 700 bales of raw cotton, drums of lube oil, timber, scrap iron, sulphur, fish manure, rice and resin. To say that they were more than a little alarmed at what they were expected to carry would be putting it mildly. So much so that Captain Naismith complained to the Shippers, their response was in effect ‘Didn’t he know that there was a War on?’ The last straw was on the 7th of April when 750 drums of turpentine turned up with the Shippers proposing that the highly inflammable concoctions be placed on top of the ship’s coal bunkers, Captain Naismith turned them down flat. All the Deck Officers voiced their concerns over the stowage of cotton with lube oil in the same hold as explosives but couldn’t find any reference books on the ship or ashore and so it was with a great deal of misgivings that the cargo was loaded. In fact two years earlier a book had been published by the United States Government printing office written by Joseph Leming and it said the following on the carriage of cotton:
In storing cotton two factors require consideration: stowing so as to get the largest possible number of bales in the ship, but guarding against the danger of fire either from loading or during the voyage.
Adequate dunnage and mats should be used and all iron plates in the hold of the vessel should be well covered with burlap or mats.
Every vessel carrying cotton should be equipped with either steam or chemical fire extinguishers and they should be thoroughly inspected and overhauled before commencing to receive the cargo.
While loading or discharging cotton the fire hoses should be ready for immediate use and water barrels and buckets should be at hand near the hatches. ‘No Smoking’ notices should be posted and the ship’s Officers should rigidly enforce this order. All galley funnels should be covered with gauze or other suitable material to prevent sparks reaching the cargo.
Cotton bales which are, or have been, in contact with oil or grease are very liable to spontaneous combustion. For this reason cotton should never be loaded in holds which have recently been painted unless it is certain the paint has thoroughly dried or hardened. For this same reason cotton bales should not be stowed close to any oily or greasy goods.
Wet cotton bales are not liable to spontaneous combustion although this was for many years believed to be the case. Such bales will, however, deteriorate if stowed in a confined space and it is recommended that all wet or damp bales, as well as those with torn wrappers and missing bands, be refused.
During the voyage it is advisable to have all the ventilators covered with wire gauze to prevent carelessly thrown matches from entering the cargo holds and possibly starting a serious fire.
A further publication from the U.S. stated the necessity for keeping lubricating oil and raw cotton well separated if stowed in the same hold. It then added when carrying cotton and explosives they should never be carried in the same hold and should be stowed at opposite ends of the ship. Also for all Officers of Fort Stikine this information was not available, British Ministry of War Transport pamphlets which were accessible and dealt with explosives made no mention, of cotton whatsoever. Prior to sailing the Chief Officer Mr. Harris gathered his deck crew together and tested all the ship’s fire fighting equipment and Captain Naismith declared he was to hold an extra fire drill once the ship had left Karachi. With five civilian watchmen, a crew member on the gangway and two Dems Gunners patrolling the deck, an Officer on watch and two Pakistan policemen on or near the ship it’s fair to say that sabotage was not a factor in events which were to follow. The cotton was stowed in the lower hold, wood and then scrap iron were placed on top and then the lower hatch covers were put into place. Before the lube oil could be stowed it was discovered that one of the drums was definitely leaking with others suspect, so Harris laid tarpaulin and nailed it down himself over the lower hold covers. The American regulations stipulated that no more than 250 barrels of oil should be carried in the same hold as raw cotton and then separated by the length of the hold, Fort Stikine loaded a thousand barrels and it was stacked immediately above the cotton.
Considering that three holds Numbers Two, Three and Four contained mixtures of explosives and ammunition it was hardly surprising that Captain Naismith declared to Harris and Henderson “We are carrying just about everything that will either burn or blow up”. “The least we can do is to have extra fire drills”. Harris duly organised the drills and was pleased the way the men carried them out, each one no doubt mindful of what lay beneath his feet. Fort Stikine sailed from Karachi on the 9th of April and joined a convoy of tankers for the voyage to Bombay.
Fort Stikine arrived at Bombay in the early hours of the 12th of April and anchored in the Roads which lay between Bombay Island and the mainland. The pilot arrived a few minutes before 1000 hours; the ship then made her way towards Victoria Dock and arrived alongside at midday. No-one within the dock area was aware of her dangerous cargo because the flying of the ‘Red Flag’ had been discontinued for the duration as the ships flying the flag were quite well aware of being ‘The Target Ship’ in the event of an air raid. Under normal conditions ships carrying explosives were not allowed alongside and were discharged into lighters, because of the war this prohibition had been lifted. Explosions fall into three categories, A,B and C, the least dangerous ‘C’ could be loaded into warehouses and await transport, ‘B’ had to be loaded into waiting wagons for immediate carriage and the highly sensitive ‘A’ could only be off loaded into lighters moored alongside the ship and never on the quay. Fort Stikine was immediately granted ‘A’ certificate of grave urgency by Major R.C.R. Hawkes on behalf of the Embarkation Commandant and work commenced a short while later when all five hold hatches covers were lifted. No lighters arrived to unload the category ‘A’ explosives until the following afternoon despite the grave urgency certificate issued by Major Hawkes.
Work commenced however on discharging other cargo including the drummed lube oil onto the jetty. The Foreman Stevedore Shapoorjee Desai noticed that after discharging the drums from both Number One and Two holds quite a few of the drums were leaking and that the tarpaulins nailed down by Harris has a slick of oil covering them. It was at this juncture that an extra gang were employed to work Number One hold to facilitate the rapid discharge of the fish manure which by now was causing distress to all onboard. The gang worked all night and it was this action which created much discussion at the later commission of enquiry. Could for instance one of the labour force have climbed the ladder out of Number One hold into the forward Mast house, gone through the bulkhead door should it have been unlocked and descended into Number Two hold for a cigarette unseen? Sadly for all concerned conjecture and not a solution. The Second Officer, Harris was convinced the interconnecting door was locked, Edward, the Third Officer however said that the key had been given to the Foreman Stevedore to ease access to Number One hold and that the door had been open for most of the night. On the morning of the thirteenth Sergeant Mc Phee of the Ordinance Corps, one of Captain Oberst’s men discussed with Desai the Foreman Stevedore exactly where the separate categories of explosives were to be landed, the lighters for the category ‘A’ explosives arrived at midday. At the same time an officer from the M.O.W.T. met with Alex Gow, the Chief Engineer to discuss the necessary maintenance required in the Engine Room the most difficult of which was the intermediate slide valve on the main engine. The official sanctioned the repair work, Gow along with his engineers and shore side fitters commenced work immediately thus rendering the ship immovable except by tug.
At midday the Stevedores broke for lunch and as it turned out so did the civilian watchmen, a matter unknown to Captain Naismith, his Officers or the two Dems Gunners who were patrolling the ship both forward and aft. At half past twelve smoke was seen to be emitting from the ventilators of Number Two hold by the Chief Officer of Fort Crevier which lay across the dock at Number Eleven berth. Two other men on Fort Crevier spotted the same smoke a short while later and a Dems Gunner on S.S. Iran also reported seeing it. Sub Inspector Critchell of the Boimbay Police in the dockside tower remembered seeing it at half past one but as like many other witnesses dismissed the idea that anything was seriously wrong on the premise that if it was those onboard would have had the situation in hand. It wasn’t until another fifteen minutes had passed that the smoke was spotted by Mohamed Taqi a Foreman whose gang had recommenced work in Number Two hold. As the smoke thickened the Stevedores began to scramble out of the hold shouting warnings to those above of the imminent danger. At the same time members of Stikines crew spotted the smoke and raised the alarm. On hearing the shouts of ‘Fire’ Alex Gow quickly entered the Engine Room and started the fire pump, Harris the Second Mate with the aid of the Deck Crew ran out a hose to Number Two hatchway and they were soon joined by other Crew Members with more hoses; and water was directed into the hold. A standard precaution in the docks was to have an emergency trailer pump with a full crew standing by when a ship was being discharged. Alerted that something was terribly wrong by the stampede to get off Stikine the Section Leader gave the order to get onboard with their hoses and remembering that the ship contained explosives ordered his Sub Leader to contact the Fire Brigade Control Room and give them a ‘Number Two’ message.
Unfortuantely the Sub Officer unable to get through to the Control Room on the telephone broke the glass on the fire alarm out of sheer desperation, all this effectively did was to alert the Fire Brigade to the existence of a fire, not that it involved explosives! Consequently only two engines were dispatched. Meanwhile onboard with five hoses playing into the hold those involved began to feel mildly optimistic. In an attempt to discover the seat of the fire Henderson the Mate accompanied by one of the Firemen descended into the hold to ascertain just exactly where it was. Due to the density of the smoke both men climbed back out of the hold and the five hoses continued to pour in water blindly. Within eight minutes the two engines arrived at Number One berth and six more hoses were added to the five already in situ, on learning that explosives were onboard the Officer in charge, Mobarak Singh notified the Control Room that it was a ‘Number Two’ situation and more help was required. Five minutes later Major Oberst arrived and as we know made the declaration that unless the fire was extinguished rapidly the whole of the dock area was under threat.
Within minutes a meeting was held on deck between Oberst, Naismith, Henderson, Harris, Gow and Commander J.H. Longmire of the Royal Indian Navy who was the Chief Salvage Officer in Bombay, and had arrived onboard to offer assistance. Oberst declared that Stikine had the equivalent explosive power onboard equal to 150 Blockbusters and the only option open to the Captain was to scuttle his ship. However the depth of the water in which Stikine was lying ruled out winching her over and the bilge lines were all fixed with non-return valves which negated flooding the hold. Gow stated that the Engine and Boiler Rooms could be flooded but he doubted whether this would be sufficient to sink her. As previously stated the depth of water in the dock also ruled out this possibility. Oberst had no power onboard Stikine, he could advise only, his powers came into force once the explosives had been landed, and he again reiterated his fears to the ship’s Captain.
Meanwhile on receiving the ‘Number Two’ message the Fire Brigade Control Room dispatched a further eight engines, the switchboard also informed the Chief of Bombay Fire Brigade, Mr. Norman Coombs, both arrived at the scene within minutes of each other. By this time 32 hoses were playing into the hold and Coombs tried to assess where the seat of the fire was from the deck. Finding the task impossible he called for volunteers to go down into the hold, Mobarak Singh and Arthur Reynolds, a Fire Officer with the Bombay Port Trust, answered his call. Donning smoke helmets both men descended into the hold but were forced back, not by the smoke, but by the intense heat now being generated in the Tween Deck. Aware that detonators lay in Number One hold adjacent to the bulkhead with Number Two Harris with Crew members that could be spared along with Ordinance men attempted to move them forward out of danger. By 14:45 hours the bulkhead dividing these two holds had become increasingly hot and the men in Number One could hear ammunition exploding in Number Two. On deck further discussion was taking place as to the viability of introducing steam into the hold and battening down the hatches. Gow’s opinion was that it was impossible to close down the lower hatch because of the heat and that by battening the upper hatch only made the space to be smothered too great. Coombs ordered five more engines and also asked for Colonel J.R. Sadler the dock’s General Manager to come down to the ship, at this juncture Coombs was unaware that Oberst the explosives expert was onboard. Some discussion took place as to Captain Naismith’s inability to reach a decision as to the scuttling of his ship; none were aware that the depth of water beneath her keel would have allowed this anyway.
Colonel Sadler arrived onboard at 1450 Hrs and after surveying the hold informed the Captain that Stikine should be floated out of the harbour.Yet another piece of inadequate advice for Captain Naismith to consider, he knew that his ships engine was disabled due to the repair work and the only way Stikine could vacate the dock was with the assistance of tugs. An argument then ensued between Sadler and Coomb’s as to the merits of the formers solution, Sadler’s parting shot was that she would most probably blow up long before she could be towed to deep water. Coomb’s however remained optimistic that his crew’s efforts would prevail, after all they had saved sixty ships in the past at an average of one a month and fifteen of those had been carrying explosives.
Two water boats arrived on the scene shortly after 1500Hrs, the Doris was able to play three hoses, the Panwell a further six. None of the high profile men now onboard Stikine felt that he could take overall command of the increasingly dangerous situation, of the two men authorised to do so ashore neither could be contacted, namely The Commodore, Royal Indian Navy, Bombay and the Naval Officer in Charge, Bombay. Therefore onboard the ship was three conflicting points of view as to how best to cope with the problem and who if any had the authority to make a decision. Captain Naismith wanted to save his ship, Sadler his docks and Coomb’s wanted Stikine to stay where she was so his crew could concentrate on extinguishing the fire. Oberst however doubted that none of the men could comprehend what was about to happen when Stikine blew up as she was sure to do in his opinion.
At just after 1500Hrs Coombs was passed the information that a hot spot had appeared on the port side just above deck level, he at last had his seat of the fire. His first decision was to cut a hole in the three eighths thick steel which constituted the ships hull using an oxy-acetylene set which would enable his crews to direct their hoses right at the heart of the fire. However due to the inadequacy of the first set on the docks and a delay in receiving a set sent for from the authorities his solution was not to be. Conditions onboard deteriorated rapidly, on the upper deck the plates had become so hot that Coombs ordered water to be played on them, his firemen were now standing in water that was beginning to boil! There was that much water in the hold some nine hundred tons, that the bales of cotton were by now floating around inside creating further havoc.
Palmer having given up on the defective oxy-acetylene ashore went back onboard Stikine and took charge of the firemen on the port side, Coombs remained with his men on the starboard side. The floating bales by now had ignited the dunnage which had been used to pack round the cases of ammunition. At 1515Hrs the explosives caught fire and thick black smoke poured up through the hatches engulfing the firemen still playing their hoses. This was quickly followed by flames leaping above the hatch combing, at the same time burning pieces of cotton spewed skywards drifting away from Stikine threatening other ships tied up in the docks. Palmer and Coombs rallied their men once more and to a man they all returned to the hatch carrying their hoses. The following five minutes saw the flames rise and fall until at 1550Hrs a giant flame shot out of the hold, even passing the height of the ships mast. Coombs screamed the order for his men to ” Get Clear “, Palmer and his men jumped onto the jetty many sustaining broken limbs, Coombs and his party jumped into the water. Palmer with those able bodied started to tackle the fires breaking out at number one shed, Coombs tackled the blaze at number fourteen with those men which had successfully crossed the dock.
At the same time that Coombs gave the order for his men to stand down Captain Naismith issued the order to abandon ship, his men who had remained onboard throughout scrambled down the gangway followed by their Captain and Chief Officer. Naismith not sure everyone was accounted for returned onboard for one last look round to make sure, having assured himself that all were ashore he retraced his steps down the gangway and started to walk aft to join up with Henderson and Stevens. As he approached them at the vessel’s stern Stikine exploded throwing Stevens, many yards along the quay, Stevens came round totally naked and alone, of Naismith and Henderson no trace was ever found.
The clock in the Dock Yard Tower was stopped when the first explosion occurred, 1606Hrs and remained so for many months. Oberst was flung up in the air by the blast and landed on a pile of dunnage, as he surveyed the scene around him in the gloom he observed bodies lying all around, most with their skin burnt off. Of the firemen in the immediate vicinity forty were killed outright. Fort Stikine was blown in two and her boiler, still intact was found a half mile away from number one berth. A huge tidal wave swept across the dock and ripped ships from their moorings, one ship finished astride a warehouse and Jalapadma finished up alongside what was left of Stikine. At 1633Hrs as Coombs stared across the dock surveying the scene of destruction the second explosion occurred throwing debris 2,000ft into the air. Jalapadma’s poop deck along with her twelve pounder gun was blown clear over the warehouse to land some 200 yards distant. British India’s Baroda which had been set on fire by the first explosion when parts of number four shed fell onboard was blown across the end of the adjacent berth when the second explosion occurred.
This secondary explosion wrecked Baroda, the remaining crew onboard had abandoned ship when she caught fire leaving Chief Officer James, Chief Engineer Stewart, his Fourth Engineer and the Purser to fight the fire on their own. The second explosion had rendered the Chief Engineer unconscious and he fell beneath a stokehold ventilator. The three remaining Officers attempted to lower him into the water but because of obstructions and their own weakness were forced to abandon not only Mr Stewart but Baroda herself. A rescue party arrived on the scene and with the assistance of the Fourth Engineer made an attempt to re-board Baroda and rescue her Chief Engineer, sadly for Mr Stewart the heat and intensity of the flames drove them back and the attempt had to be abandoned. As well as Chief Engineer Stewart Captain S.A. Kiely of Shirala also perished in the explosion.
The account which follows are Mr Derek P. Ings personnel memories of that fateful day, Derek had joined H.M.T. Chantilly as Assistant Purser in October of 1943.
Chantilly had arrived in Bombay on the 3rd of March, had discharged her American Troops and in the days preceeding the explosion her crew had been informed that Chantilly was to be converted for use as a Hospital Ship, number 63.
Built in 1923 by AT. ET. Chant. De la Loire, St. Nazaire.
Tonnage : 9,986g, 5,959n.
Engines : Twin screw, 2×3 Stage Turbines by Builder
Launched 14th March 1922, completed January 1923.
She was requisitioned in 1941 and managed by B.I.S.N., then to Gray, Dawes & Co but still retained her B.I. Officers. She served in the Liner Division, first as a Personnel Ship before being converted for use as a Hospital Ship in Bombay. She was returned to her French owners at Wars end and was finally scrapped in Marseilles in 1952.
This Article first appeared in The B.I. News No 61 in October of 1969.
After twenty five years the memory loses its edge but I recall that for me Friday, 14th April 1944, started out much as any other day at that time. I was Assistant Purser of Chantilly and at that time she was undergoing conversion from a troopship to become a hospital ship.
I remember going ashore during the afternoon for a haircut. On the return to the ship at about 4.15 p.m. I was walking along a road just inside Alexandra Dock from Green Gate when I became conscious that smoke and flames were shooting high into the sky in the distance immediately in front of me. Before I could fully realise what was happening the ground around was shaken by a tremendous explosion which made me step back a pace or two and raise my hands as though to protect myself.
My next recollection is of the surrounding confusion as the people in the dock area took to their heels in no uncertain manner. I made my way to Chantilly which was lying on the outer wall of Alexandra Dock. I expected that a nearby tanker had exploded but as I neared the berth I could see that the explosion had taken place further away than I had thought, and in fact it was in Victoria Dock.
All the while there were minor explosions but at approximately 4.45 p.m. there was another explosion as violent, if not more so, than the first. By this time I was back onboard and the whole ship shook as though hit by a torpedo. A number of windows, window frames and door locks were shattered and shrapnel from the explosion, about three quarters of a mile away, fell on and around the ship.
I had to return ashore shortly afterwards and, passing through the dock area, found abandoned vehicles and dhows at many points, some of the dhows in the stream with their cargoes of cotton ablaze.
My journey took me through Green Gate and along Ballard Road to St. George’s Hospital where I intended visiting a shipmate. It was now an hour after the first explosion and all the shops, stalls and eating places had closed. Many of the windows of offices and shops had been blown out and glass and roof tiles were strewn everywhere. There were some people in the streets, mostly office or shop workers, but there was no sign of the sweeper class.
I reached the hospital at about 5.30 p.m.; passing a dead gharry horse lying at the entrance. My friend had been put out of his bed to make room for the injured that were arriving by ambulance in a very dirty and bedraggled condition. Mattresses were being put down all over the ground floor to treat the casualties.
On my way back to the ship I could see the R.I.N. sailors being sent by lorry to fight the fire at Victoria Dock, the pall of smoke from which hung like a cloud over the whole of the city.
The police had now closed the Red Gate and I had to walk round to Green Gate to get back into the docks. On the way round, and only a few yards from Mackinnons’ office, I came upon a piece of twisted steel plate about twelve inches by six inches which had been blown over a mile by the explosion to land harmlessly in the road.
There was now more movement in the docks and the Indian Army was busy pulling dhows away to clear the locks. I was able to cross to the other side by jumping from one dhow to another as they were moving.
As I neared the ship I saw some of the crew leaving hurriedly and found that another explosion ( of 1200 cylinders of H.P. gas ) was expected at any time and we were warned to keep off the decks.
The earlier explosions had flung incendiary bombs over a wide area and small fires were burning everywhere. There were now thirty burning dhows in the stream and, as they sank, their cargoes of cotton still smoldered on the surface. The ships on the harbour wall, including ourselves and Mantola, put down boats to rescue the dhow crews.
Darkness fell and the night sky reflected the blazing parts of the city. I watched from the monkey island and could hear the hiss of the cylinders as they ignited one by one.
I turned in at 11.00 p.m. to the sound of the occasional explosion of gas cylinders and with a burning dhow outside my port.
Next morning the fire was reported to be under control but the smoke still poured skywards. The only explosions to be heard were those caused by the demolition parties. During the morning I walked towards the scene of the explosion and, whilst still in Alexandra Dock, saw several large steel plates, all twisted and torn, too heavy for one person to lift.
By this time Alexandra Dock had been almost cleared of ships, only two were left and we were on four hour’ notice. The Ismailia had been loading explosives just across from where we were lying and there had been a tanker lying ahead of us flying the danger flag.
The fire continued to burn for all of that day and for the following night; by this time dead bodies were to be seen floating in the water off the ship.
It was not until sometime afterwards that I was able to learn the full story leading to the catastrophe. At that period of war-time restrictions, the newspapers were unable to print the facts, but I see from ” The Evening News of India ” dated 15th of April that the explosion took a relative minor place compared with the news of the rout of the Germans in the Crimea.
The culprit was the Fort Stikine, where fire had broken out at 1.30 p.m. on the 14th of April; the ship having been loaded with cotton and other combustibles on top of explosives in the lower holds. The cotton had self-combusted and although the Bombay fire brigade had tried to put out the blaze their efforts were without avail and it was too late to take the ship out into the harbour before the first explosion took place.
In all 27 ships were destroyed in Victoria and Princess Docks, including the Baroda whose Chief Engineer Officer, Mr James Stewart, was lost with the ship, Captain S.A.Kiely who was in command of Shirala at the time also died in the explosion.
Chantilly as Hospital Ship No 63.
A further 25 firemen had been killed in the second explosion with 83 injured leaving the fire brigade all but decimated. Many people were killed outside the dock area by falling shrapnel and shells which exploded on impact, many buildings collapsed and others were set on fire.
Workers fleeing the scene after the second explosion.
In amongst the debris falling from the sky were the 28lb ingots of gold, one of the first to be found was picked up by Burjorji Motiwala a retired Parsee Civil Engineer. The ingot had crashed through the buildings corrugated roof, penetrated the floor of the balcony above and come to rest on his balcony in the corner. The bar was stamped Z13256 and was worth 90,000 Rupee’s, Mr Motiwala received a reward of 999 Rupee’s which he donated to the relief fund.
Within the docks fire raged in most of the warehouses and on many of the ships, those firemen and volunteers, many of them servicemen were hampered to a large extent by the amount of debris floating on the water which blocked the pump suction filters.
Position of Ships after explosions.
Debris floats in a solid mass.
The chaos and lack of organisation which had occurred aboard Stikine extended beyond and hampered the efforts of those who now found themselves fighting the fires within the immediate dock area. A typical example occurred when Army Officers marched into a brigade station and requisitioned the remaining pumps, handed them over to inexperienced soldiers and left 68 firemen with no means of fighting anything. The area of fire extended out from the epicentre by approximately 900 yards and included all of Victoria and Princess Docks, the Godown estate to the West, the Burmah Oil installation to the North and the Rice Market to the South. On the Western side it had gone beyond the Godowns and had set fire to many of the dwellings of the poorer natives who lived on the fringes of the city proper. It took four more days to extinguish the main fire and for a further two weeks smaller fires continued to smolder in the ruins.
231 people were killed attached to the various services which included the fire brigade and dock employee’s, another 476 were injured. Outside the docks over 500 civilians were killed and a further 2,408 were injured. Thirteen ships were lost, Fort Stikine, Baroda, Fort Crevier,Kinguan, El Hind, and Jalapadma, all British. Van der Heyden, General Van der Sweiten and the Tenoba all Dutch, Iran and Norse Trader were Panamanian, the Rod El Farag for Egypt and finally the Norwegian Graciosa. In all some 50,000 tons of shipping was destroyed with a further 50,000 tons severely damaged. Of the Stikine’s Officers and crew, Captain Naismith, Chief Officer Henderson and Alexander Jopp the Second Cook lost their lives, the remainder miraculously survived. Within seven months the Docks in Bombay was back in operation and it was estimated that up to 8,000 men had been involved in the clean up project including troops from Britain, West Africa and India itself.
Warehouse with Railroad Cars.
Ships Crews salvaging.
On the 28th of October the authorities began to flood the basin at a rate of 3ft for each tide, this allowed the salvageable ships to re-float at a gradual rate and also allowed the repair crews to repair leaks as and when they were located. It took forty eight hours to complete the operation and four days later the docks were back in normal use. Three hundred acres around the docks had been cleared using bulldozers, grabs, cranes and bare hands. Three hundred and fifty Lorries a day made four round trips to Sewree carrying 3,500 tons of debris, the total amount transported exceeded 800,000 tons. I assume that there is a memorial of events which occurred in Bombay all those years ago and if anyone could provide this site with a photograph we would place it here as another permanent memorial to those that lost their lives.
The accompanying photograph to which the site is indebted was sent by Malcolm & Frank Heppolette, their Uncle, Dennis Palmer-Rose was the adopted son of Harold Palmer, Assistant Officer Commanding Bombay Fire Service. Harold Palmer was the Officer who had tried to cut a hole in the ships side using the defective cutting gear, whilst waiting for a second set to be delivered he returned to Fort Stikine to rejoin his men fighting the fire. When the order to abandon ship was given, he along with his men was the group that had to jump onto the dockside. He then redirected his men to fight the fire that was raging in the warehouse adjacent to Fort Stikine, tragically Harold, along with a significant number of his men were killed in the first explosion.
The photo shows the Memorial to the Bombay Fire Service Officers and Men that died that day and is to be found in the grounds of Bombay Fire Service at Byculla.
The following tribute appears on a plaque situated on the left of the Memorial.
“Erected by Public Subscription
in sacred memory of
The Officers and Men of the Bombay Fire Services
who lost their lives in the Bombay Dock explosions
while on duty on 14th April 1944″
At the base of the plinth is a scene which depicts firemen working and rescuing people at the Docks.