Sea Stories

Wartime Hush over the Loudest Bombay Bang in History

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The Fort Stikine was one of 26 identical company freighters.  The fleet of ocean-going vessels included the Fort Stikine that weighed-in at 7,142 gross tons voyaged at up to eleven knots with its 7,000-ton cargo. 

The Fort Stikine’s captain was Alexander Naismith, who took command of the vessel in May 1942. The Fort Stikine was a mass produced ‘Sam Boat. They were constructed under President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease system in World War II in an effort to save the Soviet Union from defeat as the liberating forces of the Reich swept through the USSR.

SS Fort Stikine

It is said that the United States produced one Sam Boat every day and if it survived even one Atlantic crossing it would pay for itself.

The Fort Stikine departed Birkenhead in February 1944. The vessel was set a course for Bombay in India via the Suez Canal. The ship, of course, was one of a convoy. The vessel distanced itself from the convoy’s other vessels for good reason.

The ship’s cargo included twelve Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft. The cargo included also 1,395 tons of explosives; of which 238 tons was the highly sensitive category ‘A type’. The explosives were essential to the war effort in the Far East. The Fort Stikine was the only ship that was going to Bombay as the other ships would turn away to their mostly Persian (Iran) destinations before the Fort Stikine reached the Indian Ocean.

As well as the explosives, there was also another curious part of the ship’s cargo. In the upper half of No. 2 hold, there was a specially constructed steel tank measuring 5’ by 4’ by 4’. Inside the tank were to be found thirty-one wooden boxes, each containing four bars of gold. In 1944, this quantity was worth in excess of £1,000,000 (now £16 million). The tank had been padlocked and then welded on for extra security.

After bunkering at Suez, the Fort Stikine reached Karachi on March 30, 1944. The twelve Spitfires were first unloaded. In the empty space left the vessel took on 8,700 bales of raw cotton, several thousand gallons of lubricating oil, sulphur, rice, resin, scrap iron and fish meal.

This additional cargo was in a word, dynamite. It was highly inflammable and it was questionable if it should be carried with the already laden thousands of tons of explosives in the ship. Captain Naismith and his senior officers were unhappy about the new cargo but had no choice but to accept it.

The Fort Stikine left Karachi on April 9 and reached Bombay three days later and moored at No 1 berth at the Victoria Dock. According to regulations, the ship should have flown a red flag to show it was carrying explosives. Ships skippers were reluctant to fly the red flag, feeling that it made their ships a better target for an air attack and possible sabotage. Perhaps, for this reason, Captain Naismith chose not to fly the flag, possibly a misjudgement that sealed the fate of the ship.

As the Fort Stikine was carrying explosives, it was given priority for unloading. The category ‘A’ explosives could not be directly unloaded onto the dock and instead had to be transferred onto barges and then shipped to the quayside for final unloading. No barges were available and so caused a 24-hour delay in the unloading process. In the meantime, dock workers started unloading the oil drums and the fish meal that had gone rotten and was putting out a dreadful stink.

By midday on April 14 few if any explosives had been brought ashore. About this time the Chief Officer of the Fort Crevier, moored at a berth situated across the dock from the Fort Stikine’s berth. It was from its sister ship that the first sight of smoke pouring from one of the Fort Stikine’s ventilators were seen.

About half a dozen other seamen saw the smoke but shoulder-shrugged it off. It was time for a lunch break, nothing was moving. Eventually, three water hoses were deployed into the No 2 hold. It was thought that the fire would be put out in a couple of minutes. The smoke, however, continued to spread.

The Bombay City fire brigade arrived to also lend their assistance. The officer in charge of explosives at the docks, Captain Oberst arrived at the docks at 2.30 pm and asked to see the sight of the Fort Stikine’s manifest. When he read about the explosives, and the burning cotton, he requested that the Fort Stikine should be immediately scuttled to eliminate any chance of a major explosion. Unfortunately for Oberst, the water was not deep enough in the dock for the ship to be scuttled.

Someone noticed that the bulkhead between No 1 and No 2 hold was getting very hot. Two fire-fighters descended into No 1 hold and moved detonators that were resting against the bulkhead. It was suggested that the Fort Stikine should immediately head back out to sea, where an explosion would not damage the docks. Once again circumstances conspired against this plan. The vessel’s engine was being repaired making it impossible for the Fort Stikine to head out into the open seas.

By 3.00 pm it was obvious that the situation was worsening and paint on the outside of the ship began to bubble. The seat of the fire had been identified, the aft port-side corner.

By 3.45 pm flames began to spew from the hatch. Within minutes the fiery arcs had reached the height of the Fort Stikine’s mast. Captain Naismith gave the order to abandon the ship. The animated crowd gathered to watch the excitement now dispersed and surged towards the dock gates. At 4.06 pm, Naismith had just completed a final check of the ship to see that all crew members had disembarked. Then, with cataclysmic force, the Fort Stikine detonated. The body of Captain Naismith immediately evaporated as did the still hundreds gathered in the vicinity of the doomed vessel.

A cloud of smoke over Bombay following the first explosion on board Fort Stikine.

Shards of flying metal careered through the air and landed up to a mile away. The Jalapadma, a 4,000-ton cargo ship berthed next to the Fort Stikine, was lifted into the air and deposited on the quay wall. One of the Fort Stikine’s anchors was caught in the rigging of a ship in a neighbouring dock.

Eleven vessels were now blazing and four were either sunk or sinking. At 4.40 pm the explosives in what was left of the aft end of the Fort Stikine detonated and hurled debris 3,000 feet into the air. With such devastation, the victim roll-call was high. But, due to wartime censorship and the chaos and confusion after the explosion, figures for the dead and maimed vary.

Approximately 230 dock employees were killed, along with over 500 civilians. Some claim that the total death total was closer to 1,500. The Bombay Fire Service took the brunt of the explosion. Of the 156 fire-fighters involved, 65 were killed and 80 maimed. Approximately 2,500 people were injured. It took three days to bring all of the fires under control, and a further seven months before all of the debris were removed and the docks became operational once more.

Once the fires had been extinguished, the authorities’ thoughts turned to what had become of the gold ingots stored in the steel tank in No 2 hold. It became obvious that all of the gold bars had been scattered by the explosion. Many civilians returned bars that they had found after the explosion, with other bars found lying on the ground unclaimed. Whenever the dock was dredged, the odd bar was found, with one of the last finds being in February 2011.

Related books: The Leaving of Liverpool, UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA Volume I (The USAThe UK), UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA Vol II (The USAThe UK), UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA VOL. III ( The USA and The UK) and All I Ask is a Tall Ship by Liverpool writer Michael Walsh

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