Seventy three years ago today, an entire regiment of East African troops was almost completely wiped out when the ship taking them to war sank in the Indian Ocean.
The sinking of the troopship SS Khedive Ismail a week after sailing from Mombasa, with the loss of 1,297 lives, has been widely acclaimed as Britain’s third worst maritime disaster during World War II.
Nearly 1,000 East African troops perished on the fateful afternoon of Saturday February 12, 1944. Yet the sinking, which ranks as one of the most dramatic encounters of World War II, has been largely forgotten here in Kenya and the rest of East Africa.
To this day, the Khedive Ismail tragedy remains the worst maritime tragedy associated with the port of Mombasa.
A frequent visitor to Mombasa during the war, the Khedive Ismail had just sailed from Mombasa’s Kilindini harbour seven days before it was sunk by a Japanese Navy submarine as it navigated its way through the Maldives islands.
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The Khedive Ismail had arrived at Kilindini from Colombo, Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, to pick up African troops and their British officers and deliver them to Burma.
A battered Britain, fighting a bloody war against Nazi Germany in Europe and against the Japanese in South-East Asia, had suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of Japanese forces in Singapore, Malaya and Burma.
The sinking is even more remarkable for Kenya and the rest of East Africa because most of those who died were African soldiers from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika), on their way to fight for Britain in the humid jungles of Burma, now known as Myanmar.
Despite the unprecedented heavy loss of life, over the years there has virtually been no mention of the Khedive Ismail tragedy in Kenya apart from the silent commemoration of the dead soldiers at the East Africa Memorial within the Commonwealth War graves Cemetery on Ngong Road.
Out of the nearly 1,000 East African soldiers and their officers aboard the Khedive Ismail, only 144 survived, according to the most authoritative book on the tragedy, Passage to Destiny, written by British author Brian Crabb. His late father, Percival Crabb, known in the Royal Navy as: Buster”, was a Petty Officer Stoker travelling in the Khedive Ismail.
He miraculously escaped from the sinking ship despite having his right leg encased in a plaster cast after a football accident.
The meticulously researched and easy-to-read book contains many photos and eye-witness accounts of the tragic event. Sadly, there are no photos of the African troops who boarded the ill-fated ship at Kilindini. Appendices at the back of the book contain all the names of the dead and the survivors.
The Khedive Ismail departed Kilindini uneventfully on February 5, 1944 as part of a convoy code named KR8 accompanied by four other troopships, City of Paris, Varsova, Ekma and Ellenga. The troopships were sailing to Colombo, Ceylon. On board the five troopships were 6,300 army and naval personnel, mainly from East Africa, on their way to Burma via Ceylon.
Armed escort was provided by the Royal Navy’s heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins and three smaller naval vessels, Landguard, Lulworth and Honesty. A Royal Marine band aboard the Hawkins was playing on the deck as the heavy cruiser led the convoy out of Kilindini, followed shortly by the Khedive Ismail and the other troopships.
On board the Khedive Ismail were 1,324 passengers, including 996 officers and men of the East African Artillery’s 301st Field Regiment, 271 Royal Navy personnel, including 19 members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS or Wrens), 53 nursing sisters and their matron, nine members of the Women’s Territorial Service (formerly known as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) and 178 members of the ship’s crew.
The nursing sisters and their matron were on their way to staff the British military hospital in Colombo. After four days at sea, the three smaller escorts departed from the convoy to return to Kilindini, leaving HMS Hawkins to continue with the escort duty.
In the morning of that fateful Saturday, two Royal Navy destroyers; HMS Paladin and HMS Petard, joined the convoy to replace the escorts that had turned back.
That afternoon the weather was good — hot and sunny. The sea was calm, with excellent visibility. All on board the Khedive Ismail had been served lunch.
After lunch, many European officers on board were watching a concert in the ship’s music room while others were asleep in their cabins.
More European officers were sunbathing on the ship’s deck as were some of the East African troops. Most of the African troops were in their cramped and stiflingly hot compartments in the holds below deck.
So far everything had gone well since the Khedive Ismail had departed Kilindini a week earlier. The convoy was approximately two days away from docking in Colombo. Unknown to the passengers and crew, a deadly enemy lurked beneath the calm waters. The convoy had been spotted by a Japanese submarine. The submarine infiltrated the convoy undetected while preparing to unleash its deadly arsenal.
The after-lunch tranquility aboard the troopships was about to be suddenly shattered.
At around 2.30 pm, the concert in the music room was rising to a crescendo. Groups of soldiers and sailors were sunbathing on the open deck. Others were playing card games. The Khedive Ismail was suddenly shook by a huge explosion.
A torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine struck the Khedive Ismail on the starboard (right side), penetrated deep and exploded in the engine room, immediately putting the engines out of action and causing the ship to list dangerously to starboard.
Seconds later, a second torpedo struck the ship, again on the starboard side, penetrated and exploded in the boiler room.
Eye-witnesses in the other troopships watched in horror as the Khedive Ismail broke into two and sank within two minutes, carrying with it 1,297 lives. To avoid meeting the same fate as the Khedive Ismail, the other four troopships sped away from the scene, leaving desperate survivors struggling to remain afloat.
Out of a total complement of 1,511 passengers and crew on board the ship, only 208 men and six women survived the sinking. A total of 77 women lost their lives, making it Britain’s worst loss of women service personnel in its history.
Flung into sea
The entire East African Artillery’s 301st Field Regiment was virtually wiped out in less than two minutes.
Some survivors reported seeing the captain of the stricken ship standing by the ship’s railings as the ship was sinking. He urged the terrified survivors to jump into the sea to save themselves but chose to go down with his ship.
Eye-witness accounts say it happened so fast that the crew had no time to launch the lifeboats that were meant for just such an eventuality.
As fate would have it, some lifeboats, rafts and debris were flung into the sea by the two explosions.
They were to come in handy for the survivors who floundered in the sea for several hours before they were picked up, first by the destroyer Paladin and later, by its sister ship, Petard.
The destroyers swung around and began an agonising three-hour hunt for the submarine.
After expending many depth charges (anti-submarine bombs), killing some of the survivors, the two destroyers forced the submarine to rise to the surface.
It was a notorious submarine, numbered I-27, which had sunk many ships in the Bay of Bengal, Gulf of Oman, the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific.
The submarine’s murderous campaign was about to come to an end. The depth charges had inflicted damage to the submarine although it was still capable of launching more torpedoes.
The captain of the Paladin decided to ram the submarine to prevent it diving again but was stopped at the last moment by the more senior commander on board the Petard.
Even then, the Paladin collided with the submarine and suffered serious damage to its hull.
With Paladin damaged and taking in water, the task of finishing off the submarine was left to Petard, which fired six torpedoes individually, but none struck the submarine.
The seventh torpedo struck the submarine at around 5.30pm, whereupon the Japanese vessel broke into two and sank, leaving no survivors.
Approximately three hours after sinking the Khedive Ismail, the Japanese submarine had followed its victims to a watery grave in a sea where it had consigned many to their deaths.
To this day, Gunners Abare Songa and his colleagues Adiriyani Ngobi, Alois Masinde, Atanasio Okello, Barasa Okwaro, Benedicto Msafiri, Chacha Waryuba, Chege Mungai, Chepkiyeng Kibitono, Njuguna Karogo, Gabulyeri Musoke , Gachiri Gitubi and more than 800 others from the East African Artillery’s 301st Field Regiment have no known graves, many entombed in the wreck of the Khedive Ismail, some 12,000 feet below the surface. Such is the cruelty of war.
The writer is a veteran journalist and has worked at different times for the Weekly Review/Nairobi Times, The Nation and The Standard.