‘Bomb’ that decimated Bombay Harbour was built in B.C

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.


Just Posted

An example of the forest land in the Port Renfrew and Fairy Creek area of Vancouver Island is shown on May 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jen Osborne
Old-growth logging opponents launch hunger strike as arrests continue at Fairy Creek

Zain Haq says the hunger strikers will gather today at Burrard Street in downtown Vancouver

An example of the forest land in the Port Renfrew and Fairy Creek area of Vancouver Island is shown on May 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jen Osborne
Old-growth logging opponents launch hunger strike as arrests continue at Fairy Creek

Zain Haq says the hunger strikers will gather today at Burrard Street in downtown Vancouver

Grade 12 students Sophia Kazakoff and Catherine Yuan accept QMS’s Stigma Free Designation award from Stigma-Free Society president, Andrea Paquette. (Submitted)
Duncan’s QMS earns ‘Stigma-Free’ designation

“No school in the province has accomplished what QMS did in such a short period of time”

“About a year after it was last used for a bottle drive, Lake Cowichan’s derelict Scout and Guide Hall came down Monday, June 6. Girl Guides have since moved into different churches and halls around the area. Town council has yet to decide what will be done with the now vacant town-owned site.” (Tyler Clarke/Lake Cowichan Gazette, June 8, 2011)
Flashback: A.B. Greenwell, Lady of the Lake, good and bad news for the Lake News

What was making headlines this week around Cowichan Lake in years gone by

Conner Gilkin, 5, shows of some of his newfound loot to buddy Jax Dul, 7, during the Lake Cowichan treasure hunt on Saturday, June 5. (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)
Weekly hunt has Lake Cowichan digging for treasure

Gold? Silver? Candy? Andrew Braye has stashed away a range of prizes for eager treasure hunters

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Premier John Horgan speaks as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, right, and health minister Adrian Dix look on during a press conference to update on the province’s fall pandemic preparedness plan during a press conference from the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials to provide details on Step 2 of COVID reopening plan Monday

Step 2 could allow for larger gatherings and a resumption of recreational travel

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

Most Read