Bombay ‘bomb’ that decimated harbour was built in B.C

Packed into the Fort Stikine’s holds were 2,000 tons of shells, torpedoes, mines, signal rockets, magnesium flares and incendiary bombs! April 19, 1944.

The world was at war. The Normandy landings were imminent as was, half a world away, the invasion of Japanese-occupied Singapore.

In Bombay (Mumbai) Harbour dozens of ships were undergoing refitting and loading and discharging of vital materials. One of the men in charge of the refitting program was 26-year-old George Todd, who recounted his wartime experiences for me in Victoria in 1973.

He vividly recalled that April 19th when he went to work as foreman shipwright for the P. & O. Company’s Mazagaon Dock Ltd., in charge of the Prince and Victoria docks. “There would have been 40-50 Liberty [ships] out in the bay, carrying gas and explosives and troops, and that sort of thing, for the invasion of Singapore.”

Among his personal responsibilities as senior civilian official for the shipyard were the ships Fort Stikine, Jalapadma, Baroda and El Hind. All went normally until he returned from lunch at 1:30. Going to his office near the Yellow Gate, he was informed that fire had broken out aboard Fort Stikine, berthed at a slip that separated the two docks.

“It was such a stupid thing, you know, when I look back at it…” Seated in his living room, he shook his head at the 30-year-old memory of the resulting disaster which, in a few terrifying seconds, levelled most of Bombay Harbour, claimed an estimated 800 lives and injured 3,000 people.

“Quite often, fires break out aboard ships. So I went and inquired about the fire aboard the Fort Stikine and was told it had been caused by internal combustion. She had a bad loading plan – barrels, oil, wood and cotton in the same hold sticks out in my memory – and the fire was on the port side of the after end of Number 2 hatch, ‘tween decks. The plates got red hot just below the main deck – you could stand on the wharf and feel the heat.

“But we were not alarmed at this time.”

However, in the course of his duties, such as overseeing the final refitting of the pilgrim ship El Hind to a troopship, Mr. Todd kept checking to see what was happening. For the next five hours he heard rumours that the Stikine was also carrying explosives, a cargo of which, if correct, he should have been informed of earlier. Finally, at 3 o’clock, after the fire in the ship’s hold had become serious, he was officially notified of the lethal nature of the ship’s main cargo, although the reason for her being in Bombay was to discharge gold bullion – two million pounds’ worth.

But few in Bombay Harbour could have been aware of the extent of her manifest: Packed into her holds were 2,000 tons of shells, torpedoes, mines, signal rockets, magnesium flares and incendiary bombs!

By 3 o’clock that afternoon, the fire aboard the Stikine was growing in intensity, Mr. Todd recalling, “You could see the shell, or hull, at the after end of Number 2 hold, starting to get completely red hot. The fire brigade and their gear had done absolutely no good and it had become necessary for someone to make a decision. I’d have scuttled the ship.”

Frustrated in their efforts to cut through the hull to reach the heart of the blaze, firefighters had called for reinforcements from Mr. Todd’s men, a squad of shipwrights arriving with acetylene burning equipment as the clock ticked toward the fateful moment of the first explosion.

“The last time I talked to Capt. Martensz, the acting deputy manager of the docks, was about 20 minutes to 4 – 20 minutes before the first explosion occurred. I had begun to evacuate all my men at 3:30 after talking to him and deciding the ship was likely to explode.”

Continuing along the docks to where the S.S. El Hind was berthed, three slips away from the Fort Stikine, Mr. Todd was speaking to ship’s chief engineer when all hell broke loose. “I just had time to say, ‘It doesn’t look to me like she’s going to blow up,’ when we saw 20-30 Indian firemen dive over the side and – Whoosh! – they were shot up suddenly, 300 feet in the air! The flame was spectacular – nine feet in diameter and bluish-yellow.

“We were like spectators – it was long enough for us to observe this flame quite clearly, when all of the harbour mud came up from the bottom and all of the firemen were killed. For a few minutes after the explosion, there wasn’t a sound – then explosion and fire everywhere. And from then on life was pure misery.”

At the moment of the first, smaller explosion, Mr. Todd was standing on the El Hind’s shelter deck, the immediate concussion blowing him through a cabin door and singeing most of the skin on his chest and shoulder. Trapped in the artificial storm unleashed by the detonating Fort Stikine, the El Hind bucked and snapped at her mooring lines. Then, caught in a giant vortex, she began to slide toward the blazing Stikine!

“We sort of all got together by the fiddley [entrance to the boiler room] and had a sort of conflab,” said Mr. Todd. The shaken and battered seamen, soldiers and civilians were still debating their course of action when, some five minutes after the blast, the El Hind burst into flame, at which they decided to lower the lifeboats – many of which were also ablaze.

“The second explosion came as such a surprise…the dock bottom came up again and I landed on the main deck, about 30 feet below. There was debris falling, water, mud and all sorts of things peppered you from all over the place, and it was pitch black. [Later, doctors would remove 70 wood and steel splinters from his body.] “There was all this water around me and I was so shocked that it was not until I made a move that I realized that I was breathing. I was quite a good swimmer and decided to swim for it. That was one of the few times that I really prayed to God and thanked God I was alive.”

(To be continued)

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