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HMT Empire Windrush

HMT Empire Windrush, originally MV Monte Rosa, was a passenger liner and cruise ship launched in Germany in 1930. She was operated as a German cruise ship under the name Monte Rosa in the 1930s, and as a German navy troopship during World War II. At the end of the war, she was acquired by the United Kingdom Government as a prize of war and renamed the Empire Windrush. In British service, she continued to be used as a troopship until March 1954, when the vessel caught fire and sank in the Mediterranean Sea with the loss of four crew.

HMT Empire Windrush FL9448.jpg
Empire Windrush
Name: MV Monte Rosa (1930–1947)
Namesake: Monte Rosa
  • Hamburg Süd (1930–40)
  • Kriegsmarine (1940–45)
Port of registry: Hamburg (1930–40)
Builder: Blohm & Voss, Hamburg
Yard number: 492
Launched: 4 December 1930
In service: 1931
Out of service: 1945
  • German Official Number 1640 (1930–45)
  • Code Letters RHWF (1930–33)
  • ICS Romeo.svgICS Whiskey.svgICS Hotel.svgICS Foxtrot.svg
  • Code Letters DIDU (1933–45)
  • ICS Delta.svgICS India.svgICS Delta.svgICS Uniform.svg
Fate: Seized by the United Kingdom as a war reparation
United Kingdom
Name: HMT Empire Windrush
Namesake: River Windrush
  • Ministry of War Transport (1945)
  • Ministry of Transport (1945–54)
Operator: New Zealand Shipping Company
Port of registry: London
Acquired: 1945
In service: 1946
Out of service: 30 March 1954
Fate: Sank after catching fire
General characteristics
Length: 500 ft 3 in (152.48 m)
Beam: 65 ft 7 in (19.99 m)
Depth: 37 ft 8 in (11.48 m)
Propulsion: 4 SCSA diesel engines (Blohm & Voss, Hamburg), double reduction geared driving two propellers.
Speed: 14.5 knots (26.9 km/h)

Empire Windrush brought one of the first large groups of postwar West Indian immigrants to the United Kingdom, carrying 1,027 passengers and two stowaways on a voyage from Jamaica to London in 1948.[1][2] 802 of these passengers gave their last country of residence as somewhere in the Caribbean: of these, 693 intended to settle in the United Kingdom.[1] British Caribbean people who came to the United Kingdom in the period after World War II are sometimes referred to as the Windrush generation.

Background and descriptionEdit

Empire Windrush's sister ship, Monte Cervantes, while in service with Hamburg Süd

Empire Windrush, under the name MV Monte Rosa, was the last of five almost identical Monte-class passenger ships (in German) that were built by Blohm & Voss in Hamburg between 1924 and 1931 for Hamburg Süd (Hamburg South American Steam Shipping Company).

During the 1920s, Hamburg Süd believed there would be a lucrative business in carrying German immigrants to South America and the first two ships (MV Monte Sarmiento and MV Monte Olivia) were built for that purpose. Passenger accommodation was single-class, with space for 1,150 in cabins and 1,350 in dormitories. In the event, the immigrant trade never materialized and the two ships were repurposed as cruise ships, operating in Northern European waters, the Mediterranean and around South America.[3]

This proved to be a great success. Until then, cruise holidays had been the preserve of the rich. But by providing modestly priced cruises, Hamburg Süd was able to profitably cater to a large new clientele.[3] Another ship was commissioned to cater for the demand – the MV Monte Cervantes. However, she struck an uncharted rock and sank after only two years in service. Despite this, Hamburg Süd remained confident in the design and quickly ordered two more ships, the MV Monte Pascoal and the MV Monte Rosa;[3] Monte Rosa was launched on 4 December 1930.

The five Monte-class vessels were diesel-powered motor ships, with four 1,436 nhp four-stroke diesel engines driving two propellers. At the time, the use of diesel engines was highly unusual in ships of this size, which would have been typically steam-powered. The first two to be launched Monte Sarmiento and Monte Olivia were in fact the first large diesel-powered passenger ships to see service with a German operator.[4] The use of diesel engines reflected the experience Blohm & Voss had gained by building diesel-powered U-boats during World War I.[3] The ships' top speed was 14 knots (26 km/h) (around half the speed of the large trans-Atlantic ocean liners of the era) but this was considered adequate for both the immigrant and cruise business.[3]

Monte Rosa was 500 ft 3 in (152.48 m) long, with a beam of 65 ft 7 in (19.99 m). She had a depth of 37 ft 8 in (11.48 m). The ship was assessed at 13,882 GRT, 7,788 NRT.

Early historyEdit

Monte Rosa was delivered in 1931 to Hamburg Süd, which operated her as a cruise ship, traveling to Norway, the United Kingdom and the Mediterranean.[3] After the Nazi regime came to power in Germany in 1933, she was operated as part of the state-owned Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy) programme, which provided leisure activities and cheap holidays. She ran aground off Thorshavn, Faroe Islands, on 23 July 1934,[5] but was refloated the next day.[6]

German World War II serviceEdit

At the start of World War II, Monte Rosa was allocated for military use. She was used as a barracks ship at Stettin, then as a troopship for the invasion of Norway in April 1940. She was later used as an accommodation and recreational ship attached to the battleship Tirpitz, stationed in the north of Norway, from where Tirpitz and her flotilla attacked the Allied convoys en route to Russia. In 1942, she was one of several ships used for the deportation of Norwegian Jewish people,[7] carrying a total of 46 people from Norway to Denmark, including the Polish-Norwegian businessman and humanitarian Moritz Rabinowitz. Of the 46 deportees carried on Monte Rosa, all but two died in Auschwitz concentration camp.[8][9]

On 30 March 1944, Monte Rosa was attacked by British and Canadian Bristol Beaufighters. The strike was mounted for the explicit purpose of sinking her after British Intelligence had obtained details of the ship's movements.[10] The ship was traveling south, escorted by two flak ships, a destroyer and by German fighters.[10] The attacking force consisted of nine aircraft from Royal Air Force (RAF) 144 Squadron, five of which carried torpedoes; and nine aircraft from Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) 404 Squadron, all armed with armour-piercing RP-3 rockets.

The attack took place close to the Norwegian island of Utsira. The RCAF and RAF crews claimed two torpedo hits on Monte Rosa; the ship was also struck by eight rockets and by cannon fire.[11][10] One German Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter was claimed shot down and two Beaufighters were lost[12]; the two crew of one aircraft were killed, the crew of the other survived to become prisoners of war.[10] Despite her damage, Monte Rosa was able to reach Aarhus in Denmark on 3 April.[10]

In June 1944, Max Manus and Gregers Gram, members of Norwegian Independent Company 1 (a British Army sabotage and resistance unit composed of Norwegians), attached Limpet mines to Monte Rosa's hull while the ship was in Oslo harbour. They had learned the ship was to carry 3,000 German troops back to Germany and their purpose was to sink her during the trip.[13] The pair had twice bluffed their way into the dock area by posing as electricians, then hid for three days as they waited for the ship to arrive. After it docked, they paddled out to her from their hiding place on an inflatable rubber boat and attached their mines.[14] The mines detonated when the ship was near Øresund, damaging the hull; she remained afloat and returned to harbour under her own power.[15]Odd Claus [no], a Norwegian boy with German parents who was being forcibly taken to Germany, was one of those on board. In his 2008 memoirs, he wrote that as well as German troops, the vessel was carrying Norwegian women with young children, who were being taken to Germany as part of the Lebensborn programme. He notes the explosion happened at 5 am, and that around 200 on board were trapped and drowned as the ship's captain closed the watertight bulkhead doors to control flooding and stop the ship from sinking.[16]

In January 1945, the ship was converted into a hospital ship but was damaged by a mine explosion in February. She received temporary repairs at the German-occupied Polish port of Gdynia then traveled to Copenhagen, carrying 5,000 German refugees, fleeing from the advancing Red Army. In May 1945, she was captured by British forces at Kiel and taken as a prize of war.

Postwar British serviceEdit

In 1946, Monte Rosa was assigned to the British Ministry of Transport and converted into a troopship. By this time, she was the only survivor of the five Monte-class ships. Monte Cervantes sank near Tierra del Fuego in 1930, one ship was sunk by an air raid in 1942, and was salvaged and scrapped the following year.[17] One was badly damaged by bombs and scrapped after the war. Monte Pascoal was set on fire and sunk in 1944, but was later salvaged. She was sunk a second time in 1946 when she was filled with chemical bombs and scuttled by the British in the Skagerrak.[17]

Monte Rosa was renamed HMT Empire Windrush on 21 January 1947, for use on the SouthamptonGibraltarSuezAdenColombo–Singapore–Hong Kong route, with voyages extended to Kure in Japan after the start of the Korean War. The vessel was operated for the British Government by the New Zealand Shipping Company, and made one voyage only to the Caribbean before resuming normal trooping voyages.[citation needed]

Merchant ships in service with the United Kingdom Government during and after World War 2 had names prefixed with Empire (second-hand ships acquired from other owners were renamed). They were known as Empire ships and numbered several hundred. Empire ships that had been seized from the Germans after the war had an Empire prefix followed by the name of a British river; in this case the River Windrush, a minor tributary of the Thames, flowing from the Cotswold Hills towards Oxford.

West Indian immigrantsEdit

Advert for passage on Empire Windrush from Kingston, Jamaica to the UK, The Daily Gleaner, 15 April 1948

In 1948, Empire Windrush, which was en route from Australia to England via the Atlantic, docked in Kingston, Jamaica, to pick up servicemen who were on leave. The British Nationality Act 1948, giving the status of citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC status) to all British subjects connected with the United Kingdom or a British colony, was going through parliament, and some Caribbean migrants decided to embark "ahead of the game". Prior to 1962, the UK had no immigration control for CUKCs, who could settle indefinitely in the UK without restrictions. The ship was far from full, and so an opportunistic advertisement was placed in a Jamaican newspaper offering cheap transport on the ship for anybody who wanted to come and work in the UK. Many former servicemen took this opportunity to return to Britain with the hopes of finding better employment including in some cases rejoining the RAF; others decided to make the journey just to see what the 'mother country' was like.[18][19] One passenger later recalled that demand for tickets far exceeded the supply and there was a long queue to obtain one.[20]

The ship docked at the Port of Tilbury, near London, on 21 June 1948,[21][22] and the 1,027 passengers began disembarking the next day. A commonly given figure for the number of West Indian immigrants on board is 492,[2][22] based understandably on news reports in the media at the time, which variously announced that "more than 400", "430" or "500" Jamaican men had arrived in Britain.[23][24][25] However, the ship's records, kept in the United Kingdom National Archives, indicate conclusively that 802 passengers gave their last place of residence as a country in the Caribbean.[1]

The ship also carried 66 people whose last country of residence was Mexico – they were a group of Polish people who had travelled from Siberia via India and the Pacific, and who had been granted permission to settle in the United Kingdom under the terms of the Polish Resettlement Act 1947.[1][2][26][27] They had been among a group of Polish people who had been living in Mexico since 1943,[26] and the Empire Windrush had called at Tampico, Mexico, in order to pick them up.[1]

Of the other passengers, 119 were from England and 40 from other parts of the world.[1]

The disembarkation of Empire Windrush's passengers was a notable news event, and was covered by newspaper reporters and by Pathé News newsreel cameras.[23] The name Windrush as a result come to be used as shorthand for West Indian migration, and by extension for the beginning of modern British multiracial society.

The arrival of the ship immediately prompted complaints from some members of parliament, but the first legislation controlling immigration was not passed until 1962. Among the passengers was Sam Beaver King, who went on to help found the Notting Hill Carnival and who became the first black Mayor of Southwark.[28] There were also the calypso musicians Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner, Lord Woodbine and Mona Baptiste. One of the stowaways was Evelyn Wauchope, a 39-year-old dressmaker.[21][29] She was discovered seven days out of Kingston. A whip-round was organised on board ship, raising £50 – enough for the fare and £4 pocket money for her. Nancy Cunard, heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune, who was on her way back from Trinidad, "took a fancy to her" and "intended looking after her".[30]

Those who had not already arranged accommodation were temporarily housed in the Clapham South deep shelter in south-west London, less than a mile away from the Coldharbour Lane Employment Exchange in Brixton, where some of the arrivals sought work. The stowaways served brief prison sentences, but were eligible to remain in the United Kingdom on their release.[31]

Many of Empire Windrush's passengers only intended to stay for a few years. Although a number did return the majority remained to settle permanently. Those born in the West Indies who settled in the UK in this migration movement over the following years are now typically referred to as the "Windrush Generation".[32]

Later serviceEdit

In May 1949, Empire Windrush was on a voyage from Gibraltar to Port Said when a fire broke out on board. Four ships were put on standby to assist if the ship had to be abandoned. Although the passengers were placed in the lifeboats, they were not launched and the ship was subsequently towed back to Gibraltar.[33]

In February 1950, the ship was used to transport the last British troops stationed in Greece back to the United Kingdom,[34] embarking the First Battalion of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment at Thessaloniki on February 5th, and further troops and their families at Piraeus.[35][36] British forces had been in Greece since 1944, fighting on the side of the Kingdom of Greece in the Greek Civil War.

On 7 February 1953, around 200 miles (320 km) south of the Nicobar Islands, Windrush sighted a small cargo ship, the Holchu, adrift and sent out a general warning. The Holchu was later boarded by the crew of a British cargo ship, alerted by Windrush's warning. They found no trace of the crew and the Holchu was towed to Colombo. She was carrying a cargo of rice and was in good condition aside from a broken mast. Adequate supplies of food, water and fuel were found, and a meal had been prepared in the ship's galley.[37] The fate of Holchu's crew remains unknown and the incident is cited in several works on Ufology and the Bermuda Triangle.[38][39][40]

In June 1953, Windrush was one of the ships that took part in the Fleet review that marked the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.[41]

Last voyage and sinkingEdit

An aerial photograph of the burning Empire Windrush, taken after the ship was abandoned, March 28–29, 1954

Empire Windrush set off from Yokohama, Japan, in February 1954 on what proved to be her final voyage. She called at Kure and was to sail to the United Kingdom, calling at Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo, Aden and Port Said. Her passengers included recovering wounded United Nations veterans of the Korean War, some soldiers from the Duke of Wellington's Regiment wounded at the Third Battle of the Hook in May 1953.

However, the voyage was plagued with engine breakdowns and other defects, including a fire after the departure from Hong Kong.[42] It took 10 weeks to reach Port Said, from where the ship sailed for the last time.[43] On board were 222 crew and 1,276 passengers, including military personnel and some women and children, dependents of some of the military personnel.[44]

At around 6:15 am on Sunday March 28, there was a sudden explosion and fierce fire in the engine room that killed the third engineer, two other members of the engine-room crew and the first electrician; a fifth crew member in the engine room and one in the boiler room, both greasers, managed to escape.[45] The ship quickly lost all electrical power as the four main electrical generators were located in the burning engine room; the backup generator was started, but problems with the main circuit breaker made its power unusable.[45]

The ship did not have a sprinkler system. The chief officer heard the explosion from the ship's bridge and assembled the ship's firefighting squad, who happened to be on deck at the time doing routine work. However they were only able to fight the fire for a few minutes before the loss of electrical power stopped the water pumps that fed their fire hoses. The second engineer was able to enter the engine room by wearing a smoke hood, but was unable to close a watertight door that might have contained the fire, due to a lack of electrical power. Attempts to close all watertight doors using the controls on the bridge had also failed.[45]

Wreck location, in the Western Mediterranean off the coast of Algeria

At 6:23 am, the first distress calls were transmitted; further SOS calls used the emergency radio transmitter as electrical power had been lost. The order was given to wake the passengers and crew and assemble them at their emergency stations, but the ship's public address system was not working, nor were its air and steam whistles, so the order had to be transmitted by word of mouth. At 6:45 am, all attempts to fight the fire were halted and the order was given to launch the lifeboats, with the first ones away carrying the women and children on board[45][44] and the ship's cat.[46]

While the ship's 22 lifeboats could accommodate all on board, thick smoke and the lack of electrical power prevented many of them from being launched. Each set of lifeboat davits accommodated two lifeboats and without electrical power, raising the wire ropes to lower the second boat was an arduous and slow task. With fire spreading rapidly, the order was given to drop the remaining boats into the sea.[45]

Many of the crew and troops on board abandoned the ship by climbing down ladders or ropes and jumping into the sea.[45] However, they were quickly picked up by Windrush's lifeboats and also by a boat from the first rescue ship, which reached the scene at 7.00 am.[45][44] The ships responding to Windrush's distress call were the Dutch ship MV Mentor, the British P&O Cargo liner MV Socotra, the Norwegian ship SS Hemsefjell and the Italian ships SS Taigete and SS Helschell.[47][48] A Royal Air Force Avro Shackleton from 224 Squadron assisted in the rescue.[49] The last person to leave Windrush was the chief officer at 7:30 am.[44] All the passengers were saved and the only fatalities were the four crew killed in the engine room.[43]

The rescue vessels took the passengers and crew to Algiers, where they were cared for by the French Red Cross and the French Army. They were taken to Gibraltar by the aircraft carrier HMS Triumph, and from there returned to the United Kingdom by air.

HMS Saintes in 1946

Around 26 hours after Empire Windrush had been abandoned, she was reached by HMS Saintes of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet 100km northwest of Algiers. The fire was still burning fiercely more than a day after it started, but a party from Saintes managed to get on board and attach a tow cable. At about midday, Saintes began to tow the ship to Gibraltar, at a speed of around 3.5 knots (6.5 km/h), but Empire Windrush sank in the early hours of the following morning, Tuesday, 30 March 1954,[45] after having been towed a distance of only around 16 kilometres (8.6 nmi). The wreck lies at a depth of around 2,600 metres (8,500 ft).[50]

Inquiry into the sinkingEdit

An inquiry into the sinking of Empire Windrush was held in London between the 21 June and 7 July 1954.[45] No firm cause for the fire was established, but it was thought the most likely cause was that corrosion in one of the ship's funnels, or uptakes, may have led to a panel failing, causing incandescently hot soot to fall into the engine room, where it damaged a fuel oil supply pipe and ignited the leaking oil.[51] An alternative theory was that a fractured oil pipe deposited oil onto a hot exhaust pipe.[45] As the ship was government property, she was not insured.[48]


Windrush Square, London (2006)

In 1954, several of the military personnel on board Empire Windrush during her final voyage received decorations for their role in the evacuation of the burning ship. A military nurse was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her role in evacuating the patients under her care.[52]

In 1998, an area of public open space in Brixton, London, was renamed Windrush Square to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Empire Windrush's West Indian passengers. To commemorate the "Windrush Generation", in 2008, a Thurrock Heritage plaque was unveiled at the London Cruise Terminal at Tilbury.[53] This chapter in the boat's history was also commemorated, although fleetingly only, in the Pandemonium sequence of the Opening Ceremony of the Games of the XXX Olympiad in London, 27 July 2012. A small replica of the ship plastered with newsprint was the facsimile representation in the ceremony.

Hamburg Süd commemorates Empire Windrush by operating a modern container ship with her original name, Monte Rosa.[54]

Engines and auxiliary machineryEdit

The engine room of Windrush's sister ship, Monte Cerventes (1928)

Windrush carried four, oil-burning, four-stroke single-acting MAN diesel engines of 6,880 horsepower (5,130 kW) total. They were single reduction geared in pairs to two propellers. The ship's maximum speed was 14.5 knots (26.9 km/h; 16.7 mph).

Electrical power was initially provided by three, 350 kW DC generators, powered by internal combustion engines and installed in the engine room; a fourth generator was installed in 1949. There was also an emergency generator. The ship also carried two Scotch marine boilers to produce high-pressure steam for some auxiliary machinery. These could be heated either by burning oil or by using the hot exhaust gases from the main engines.[45]

Official number and code lettersEdit

Official Numbers are ship identifier numbers assigned to merchant ships by their country of registration. Each country developed its own official numbering system, some on a national and some on a port-by-port basis, and the formats have sometimes changed over time. National Official Numbers are different to IMO Numbers. Flag states still use national systems, which also cover those vessels not subject to the IMO regulations. Monte Rosa had the German Official Number 1640. She used the Maritime call sign RHWF until 1933[55] and then DIDU until 1945.[56] When the ship sank in 1954 she had the British Official Number 181561.[45]

See alsoEdit

  • Windrush – a 1998 BBC documentary series about the first postwar West Indian immigrants to the UK
  • MS Monte Rosa – list of ships named Monte Rosa


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External linksEdit