Concluding my 1973 interview with Victoria shipwright George Todd who barely survived the explosion of the ammo-laden freighter Fort Stikine, April 19, 1944.
Almost buried alive by debris, Mr. Todd was convinced that the El Hind had capsized and that he was under water! He was about to begin swimming when he noticed “a pinhole of light – the sun – and realized that I was right side up.
“If I remember correctly, another couple of guys had tried putting a lifeboat fire out when the second explosion put the boat on top of them, splitting one man’s side open. We all got on the boat deck, where quite a bunch of us released him and got him to the fiddley, I think – I forget exactly…”
Once again clustered about the entrance to the boiler room, the ragged survivors were convinced that the end had come. As most were injured, the fires aboard the El Hind increasing in intensity, “we couldn’t see much chance of getting out. Some chaps were in a really bad state, one had a broken spine, the chap from the boat had stomach damage.”
Just then, someone made a cheering discovery in one of the ship’s cabins: cigarettes and some water. Refreshed by a smoke and drink, the survivors again debated their course of action although the situation, according to Mr. Todd, “looked pretty desperate – in fact, it seemed impossible. It was the cotton season and the docks were a blazing inferno of cotton bales. The [S.S.] Jalapadma had been blown out of the water. She was full of
explosives which were popping off.
“We were huddling under the deck, wondering what to do, when a landing craft bumped alongside.”
The drifting craft came as the answer to their prayers, and they were quick to throw a rope ladder over the ship’s side. Then the two dozen or so survivors, including the seriously injured, boarded the craft and, started its engine and navigated their way through the debris-choked harbour, miraculously fleeing through the Red Gate and towards the city.
The sight which greeted him as he stumbled through the dockyard gate remained indelibly impressed upon his memory, 30 years later. With a “hissing inferno” all about him, needled with more than 70 slivers of metal and wood, he’d staggered through the gate, to be met by thousands of troops lined up in formation, awaiting orders to fight the fire.
As it turned out, they had quite a wait as “it was quite a while before anyone could get in – some things continued to burn for three months”! As for Mr. Todd, he was hospitalized for two weeks, when he returned to work. His initial duty proved to be a gruesome one, identifying some of the dead. Making his way from the charred, ruptured remains of one ship after another, he attempted to identify human remains, most of which had been reduced to little more than lumps of ash and were identifiable only by their dog tags. Then, that hideous task completed, he was able to turn his attention to repairing the harbour by pumping out the dry docks and overhauling those ships worth salvaging.
“A complete DEMS gun mount from the [Fort] Stikine’s stern was blown one and a-half mile away, there were anchors and things blown all over the place. Only a small amount of the Fort Stikine was left, the Jalapadma, the famous Scandia Company’s biggest ship, which had been berthed 50 feet astern of the Stikine, was blown on top of the dock. She was 500 feet long, about 12,000 tons and fully loaded. The army cut off her bow section and let it drop, then cut up the rest and hauled it away in trucks.
“The Baroda, which had been in the west berth to the Jalapadma, was towed out and sunk. As for the El Hind, we fixed her up as a merchant ship, eventually.
About a dozen other ships in the harbour were destroyed and had to be towed out and sunk.”
According to the records, the Allies lost 35,000 tons of precious shipping in Bombay Harbour. Not to mention the loss of 800 lives and 3,000 injured.
Describing the cotton bales from the Persian Gulf as being three times the size of a bale of peat moss, Mr. Todd recalled that they’d been stacked two bales high and covered the docks for acres. These had continued to burn for weeks. Fortunately, most of the warehouses were built of stone and, loaded with food stores, survived almost intact. But it was a full seven months before the harbour resumed full operation.
“When we drained the harbour, we found quite a few things in the mud: dead oxen [used to move 60 per cent of all goods], and almost all the gold bullion [two million pounds’ worth] which had been aboard the Fort Stikine.”
Much of the residential district, immediately adjacent to the harbour, mostly comprised of stuccoed houses, had been destroyed also. Mr. Todd marvelled at the memory of burning “sulphur all over the place…About June 14, the monsoon started but the sulphur seemed to thrive on water – it took almost three months to completely put the fires out.
“We didn’t have a heck of a lot to work with; it was unbelievable what was devastated.”
For years after the devastating explosion of the Fort Stikine, Mr. Todd could feel slivers of wood working their way out of his knee, and bits of stone beneath the skin. It had been, to say the least, a memorable event of a career as shipwright which began at the Sir William Gray Shipyard in West Hartlepool. He’d gone on to become a ship’s carpenter in Calcutta and serve in the Royal Navy Reserve, for a time sailing on an armed merchant cruiser between England and South Africa. Prior to the Stikine disaster, he’d twice survived being bombed and strafed. In 1953 he and his family left Bombay for Canada. At the time of my interview, he was a charge-hand at Yarrows Shipyard.
A superstitious seaman had predicted that the two-year-old Prince Rupert-built Fort Stikine would be unlucky after he watched her during her trials.
While proceeding to Vancouver, she’d been rammed by an American ship and had to return to Prince Rupert for repairs. Then, loaded with 2,000 tons of explosives, she was off to Bombay and disaster.