Death on the Equator – Khedive Ismail 12.02.44

HIJMS Submarine I-27: Tabular Record of Movement

SS Khedive Ismail

The Indian Ocean was at its best, the sky a flawless blue, the sea mirror-calm, the wind a gentle breeze from the north-east. An eerie quiet lay over the ocean, with only the measured thump of the engines and the swish of the bow-wave disturbing the silence of the early afternoon. Lunch was over, and most of the passengers were below enjoying a concert party in the main lounge. On deck, a few dedicated sun worshippers were stretched out in steamer chairs. At any other time the Khedive Ismail might have been a cruise liner of the 1930s carrying the privileged to their next exotic destination. But the year was 1944, and the world was at war.

By December 1943, after a long and hard-fought campaign, British forces in Burma had at last turned the tables on the Japanese invaders, and a major offensive aimed at regaining lost territory was about to be mounted. Fresh troops were being brought in from bases around the Indian Ocean, among them 996 men of the 301st Field Regiment of the East African Artillery, who made up the majority of the Khedive Ismail’s passengers. Also on board were 271 Royal Navy personnel, 54 nursing sisters, 19 Wrens and 9 drivers of the Women’s Transport Service. The ship’s crew consisted of 22 British officers, 5 medical staff, 12 DEMS gunners and 144 Indian ratings. With a total of 1,536 passengers and crew on board, the ship’s accommodation was fully occupied.

In her long life the Khedive Ismail had served many masters. Built on the River Clyde in 1922 for the Chilean Campania Sud Americana de Vapores for their Valparaiso to New York service, she had been launched as the Aconcagua, named for the highest mountain in the Andes. In l931, following heavy losses sustained by CSVA in the depression years, she had been sold to Lithgows of Port Glasgow and returned to the land of her birth. A few years later, the Lithgow yard sold her on to another shipbuilder, William Hamilton of Belfast, who in turn found a buyer for her in Egypt, the Khedivial Mail Line of Alexandria. She was then renamed Khedive Ismail and employed ferrying cargo and passengers between Alexandria and ports in Greece and France. Egypt was then under joint British and French control, and in 1940 she was requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport and converted for carrying troops in the Indian Ocean under the management of the British India Steam Navigation Company.

On Sunday, 5 February 1944 the Khedive Ismail sailed from Mombasa, East Africa with Convoy KR-8, bound for Colombo. The convoy consisted of five fast British troopships, Ellerman Line’s 10,902-ton City of Paris and four others operated by British India, the Ekma (5,108 tons), the Ellenga (5,196 tons), the Varsova (4,701 tons) and the Khedive Ismail. Between them, the five ships were carrying a total of 6,311 military personnel.

Commanded by 49-year-old Captain Roderick Macaulay, who had been appointed convoy commodore, the Khedive Ismail led the way out of Mombasa, and once clear of Mackenzie Point the ships formed up in three columns abreast. At the head of the port outer column was the convoy’s ocean escort, the heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins.

Built in 1917 and a veteran of the China Station, HMS Hawkins was a formidable looking warship armed with seven 7.5-inch and eight 12-pounders; but she was severely lacking in anti-submarine capability, which in this war was the main requirement of any convoy escort. She had no Asdic or any other underwater detecting equipment and was in reality far more vulnerable than any of the merchant ships she was charged with protecting. Fortunately, KR-8 also had a local escort comprising the Flower-class corvette Honesty and the two Banff-class sloops Lulworth and Senna, all fully equipped and well experienced in submarine warfare.

As the convoy formed up off the East African coast, 3,000 miles to the east the Japanese submarine I-27, which had sailed from Penang twenty-four hours earlier, was rounding the northern end of Sumatra and entering the Indian Ocean. In her conning tower was Commander Toshiaki Fukumura, who had orders to seek out and attack Allied shipping in the Gulf of Aden. The Suez Canal, which for some time had been inaccessible to the Allies, was once more in business, and it was reported that many ships were sailing unescorted in the Gulf.

I-27 was a 356ft-long cruiser-class submarine with a displacement on the surface of 2,584 tons, almost twice the size of the Type IX, her German equivalent, and considerably larger than the average British destroyer. She was armed with six torpedo tubes in the bow, a 5.5-inch deck gun and a twin-barrelled 25mm AA gun in the conning tower. Housed in a hangar forward of the tower was a small reconnaissance seaplane, and she was also equipped to carry a midget submarine on deck when required. With a surface speed of 23 knots and an underwater speed of 8 knots, I-27 was undoubtedly fast, but she had an Achilles heel: largely because of her size, she was slow to manoeuvre and slow to dive, two characteristics that could prove fatal to a submarine at war.

Thirty-nine-year-old Toshiaki Fukumura was a long-serving member of the Imperial Japanese Navy, having entered the service as a midshipman in 1927. After sailing in the battleship Matsu he had joined the submarine arm in l933 as a navigator, advancing quickly through the ranks until in November 1939 he was given command of the small coastal submarine RO-34. Since taking command of I-27 in February 1943 he had had considerable success, sinking ten Allied ships of 54,453 tons and damaging three others. In the course of these sinkings he had earned the reputation of being a ruthless foe, prone to machine-gunning survivors in the water.

Four days after sailing from Mombasa, when crossing the Equator north of the Seychelles, KR-8’s local escort returned to port, leaving the cruiser Hawkins in sole charge. The voyage so far had been without incident, and with the Admiralty reporting no German or Japanese submarines in the area, the indications were that it would continue so. Some forty hours later, on the morning of the 11th, HMS Hawkins was joined by the P-class destroyers Paladin and Petard, two of the Royal Navy’s best. Less than three years off the stocks, they were 37-knotters equipped with the latest in anti-submarine gear. The two destroyers took up station 3,000yds on either bow and began zigzagging, their Asdics sweeping ahead for any sign of an underwater enemy. KR-8 was then only 270 miles west of the naval air base on Addu Atoll, and with air cover expected soon it seemed that, to quote an old adage, ‘it was all over bar the shouting’.

Dawn on the 12th saw the convoy approaching the One and a Half Degree Channel, the 80-mile-wide gap in the Maldive archipelago, and making 13 knots. During the course of the morning, Captain Whitehorn, as convoy commodore, suggested to the Senior Officer Escort, Captain Josselyn in HMS Hawkins, that the merchant ships should now commence zigzagging. The convoy, consisting of the Khedive Ismail, four other troop ships and four 46 escorts including HMS Hawkins, departed on February 3, 1944. Captain R. C. Whiteman, commodore on board the Khedive Ismail, decided not to plot a zig-zag course as, not only would it would have meant an extra night at sea owing to the greater distance the course would create but the port of Colombo was closed at night so timing was everything. In the subsequent Board of Inquiry blame was placed on this decision for the sinking of the Khedive Ismail. But throughout the war different strategies had been adopted, for example ships in convoy using zig-zag or else ships travelling without convoy so his decision was not unusual. Captain John William Josselyn of HMS Hawkins had recommended an alternative strategy but had backed down, not before insisting that if it became advisable at any time during the voyage, zig-zag numbers 12 and 38 should be used.

Aboard the Khedive Ismail noon sights had been taken and the course adjusted appropriately. Normal afternoon routine was being followed. Below decks, the concert party was in full swing, with Nursing Sister Edith Bateman giving a spirited rendering on the grand piano of the Warsaw Concerto, while on deck the sunbathers sipped their post-lunch gin and tonics contentedly. The war seemed to be on some far-off planet. Then, without warning, this peaceful scene was cruelly shattered.

I-27’s periscope was sighted simultaneously by the leading ship of the starboard column, British India’s Varsova, which was slightly ahead of her station, and the destroyer Petard. Aboard Petard, zigzagging on the starboard bow, the Officer of the Watch, Lieutenant R. de Pass, happened to be looking astern when he caught a glimpse of the periscope as Fukumura took a quick sweep around the horizon. At the same time, three DEMS gunners, standing to at the 4-inch on the Varsova’s poop, saw what they described as ‘A dark green periscope protruding some 3ft above the water and travelling towards the Khedive Ismail at about 4 knots’. The gunners tried to bring their gun to bear, but it would not depress low enough.

Fukumura had been approaching the One and a Half Degree Channel from the east when he sighted the smoke of the convoy, which was then on a reciprocal course. Remaining on the surface until the sighting was confirmed by the appearance of mast and funnels on the horizon, Fukumura submerged and waited. KR-8 continued on course in complete ignorance of the danger it was steaming towards.

As the convoy drew nearer, Fukumura sank deep, and with motors stopped and observing silent routine, he allowed the two destroyers to pass over him. Once inside the convoy, he came back to periscope depth and took another quick look around. I-27 was then about 50yds astern of the Varsova, but Fukumura had eyes only for the cruiser Hawkins. He took careful aim and fired a spread of four torpedoes.

I-27’s spread bracketed the British cruiser, one torpedo passing ahead of her, another astern. The Khedive Ismail, which at the time was partially overlapping Hawkins, was the unlucky recipient of the other two torpedoes. Second Officer Cecil Munday, who was on watch on the bridge of the troopship at the time, later stated:

I am of the opinion the submarine fired a fan of torpedoes from the starboard quarter of the convoy; I was on watch at the time, talking to one of the signalmen, when I saw the wake of a torpedo pass our stern and miss the stern of HMS Hawkins by 50 feet. Immediately afterwards we were struck by a torpedo in No. 4 hold on the starboard side, followed five seconds later by a second torpedo, which struck in the boiler room, on the starboard side. No one saw the track of either of these torpedoes, but I sighted the U-boat’s periscope about 400 feet away between the centre and starboard columns.

There was a loud explosion with the first torpedo, which caused the vessel to list 12° to starboard; the second explosion, which was more violent than the first, may have caused one of the boilers to explode. There was no flash with either explosion, but I saw flames rising outside the funnel through the fidley gratings. No water was thrown up, but a great amount of debris was flung high into the air. The second explosion caused the main stairway and troop deck to collapse, thereby trapping a great number of people. The vessel continued to heel over to starboard, until she was on her beam ends, and then disappeared.

An unnamed eyewitness described how, when the first torpedo struck, he saw the mainmast collapse and much of the after part of the superstructure cave in, while the hatch covers of the after hold were blown high in the air. When, five seconds later, the other torpedo hit directly below the funnel, there was a major explosion inside the vessel, resulting in the Khedive Ismail breaking in two. The stern sank first, then the bow section up-ended and corkscrewed below the surface. One minute and forty seconds after she was first hit, the ship was gone.

Acting Petty Officer Percy Crabb, one of the Royal Navy contingent on board the Khedive Ismail, in later years recorded his experience:

I was in the POs’ mess with seven other petty officers when the troopship was torpedoed between 1400 and 1500 by, I believe, two tin fish, one in the engine room and one aft under the counter. I was asleep at the time. Immediately she listed over; everyone made a dash for the companionway except yours truly and PO Harper; we both made for the two portholes, which were open. I remember scrambling through and hobbling down the ship’s side, stepping over the rolling chock and diving into the sea, by the time I surfaced the ship had gone. I swam to a green smoke canister some thirty yards away, hanging on to this I looked around me, there were several survivors either swimming or hanging on to whatever floated.

Soon after the second torpedo hit, Captain Whiteman, realizing that his ship was mortally wounded, gave the order to abandon ship, informing Second Officer Munday that he would remain on board until everyone else was off. This was a brave gesture that would cost Roderick Whiteman his life; the Khedive Ismail capsized and sank only seconds later.

Second Officer Munday later said:

There was no time to launch any boats, but many rafts and four lifeboats broke away as the ship sank. The Chief Officer and the Troop Officer ordered everybody to jump overboard as the ship was turning over. The Chief Officer jumped, but fouled some ropes and was pulled under with the ship; he eventually came to the surface, found a raft onto which he climbed and managed to pull on board a Wren who was struggling in the water. He said that he felt no effect of suction on the low side of the ship as she sank. I went along to No. 2 boat and saw a Wren officer lying on the deck; as she was unconscious and frothing at the mouth, I did not consider anything could be done for her, so I climbed over the high side and walked down the ship’s side into the water.

I swam some half dozen strokes from the ship when a big wave overtook me, and as I was drawn under I saw many bodies and wreckage floating past; I momentarily surfaced and managed to take a few deep breaths before being again drawn under. I was then on the port side of the ship, but on surfacing again I found myself off the starboard bow. I therefore must have passed completely under the ship.

The reaction of Paladin and Petard to the sighting of the periscope by Lieutenant de Pass was immediate. Both destroyers turned outwards under full helm and raced back to the rear of the convoy, where it was thought the attacker might be. Asdic contact was established, and with Petard directing, Paladin dropped two patterns of depth charges. There was no visible reaction, Fukumura having already moved out of range. Now the hunt had to begin in earnest.

At this point, as Senior Officer Escort, Captain Josselyn in HMS Hawkins intervened. Having in mind the possibility of more than one enemy submarine being involved, he called for one destroyer to return to the convoy, leaving the other to deal with the attacker. Petard being the senior ship, Commander Egan ordered Paladin to rejoin, after first picking up survivors sighted in the water. Among those survivors was Petty Officer Crabb, who later wrote:

The convoy had dispersed by this time and it seemed we were left to our own devices; some 200 yards away were two lifeboats from the ship, one upside down, survivors were all making for them so I decided to do the same.

I am almost certain the submarine passed under me, as there was quite a turbulence of water and a wake left behind. This was the scene when the destroyers Petard and Paladin arrived at high speed, the submarine must have been picked up on their Asdics, because they started depth charging some 300 yards away. I distinctly remember one charge from the thrower exploding just above the surface of the sea. It was a very strange experience to feel shock waves coming through the water and the almighty thump in the stomach. Luckily, I was still hanging on to the smoke float, which took most of the concussion.

Paladin had dropped off a motor boat and sea boat to pick up survivors. I eventually made it to the troopship’s lifeboat and got aboard, we managed to row towards Paladin, which was slowly circling us, while Petard was still depth charging further away. We got alongside Paladin and hastily scrambled aboard, among us three nursing sisters, two Wrens and one South African WTS; this was all that was left of their contingents. I remember a seaman throwing me a pair of sandals, as I was barefoot, because the steel decks of the destroyer were very hot.

HMS Paladin was in the act of sending away her boats to pick up survivors when I-27 appeared to give away her position. Commander Egan, on the bridge of Petard, saw a sudden eruption in the water about 1,000yds to the east which had the appearance of a submarine blowing its tanks. Egan carried out an Asdic sweep in the area but could get no contact. He then concluded that the disturbance must have been caused by a sudden rush of air escaping from the submerged wreck of the Khedive Ismail and decided to join Paladin in the more urgent business of rescuing people from the water. It soon became obvious that there were not many of them. To quote Commander Egan, ‘Survivors were regrettably few and concentrated in a small area, with barely half a dozen up-turned boats and a few rafts.’

As Petard approached the survivors with her boats swung out ready to lower, another large bubble of air broke the surface close to the wreckage marking the last resting place of the Khedive Ismail. Egan immediately abandoned the rescue and made for the spot at full speed. Once again he was disappointed, for no Asdic contact could be made. He was about to rejoin Paladin when, to his great surprise, a submarine suddenly shot to the surface about 1½ miles on Petard’s starboard quarter. Egan’s report reads:

By this time Paladin had recovered all survivors and both ships turned simultaneously to the attack, firing with all weapons and scoring many hits. I then proceeded to pass as close astern of the U-boat as practicable, firing three depth charges from the port throwers and trap, set to 50 feet, when close aboard, which fell reasonably near but were not lethal.

Meanwhile the U-boat got under way but attempts by the crew to come out of the conning tower were frustrated by the combined fire of both ships. At least two of the crew were blown to shreds. Petard now opened from the target while Paladin closed at high speed to the attack, signalling that she intended to ram.

Although there was a possibility of the U-boat re-submerging, I did not wish to take this action, except as a last resort, I therefore ordered Paladin not to ram.

Egan’s signal came too late. Paladin was then only 600yds from the surfaced submarine and bearing down on her at full speed. The Khedive Ismail’s second officer, Cecil Munday, who had been picked up by HMS Paladin, described the action:

All the survivors in the Paladin were ordered to lie flat on deck. We then proceeded at full speed and steamed straight for the submarine with the intention of ramming. When only a few feet away the Senior Officer in HMS Petard signalled, ‘Don’t ram’. Immediately the helm was put over in an attempt to clear, but as she shot past the submarine’s hydroplane guard caught in the Paladin’s side, below water, and ripped her side from amidships as far aft as the 4″ gun. Water poured into the ship and everybody was ordered on deck.

Damage parties reported that the Paladin’s hull had been sliced open for some 80ft just below the waterline. Her engine room was awash, and two fuel tanks and the after magazine were flooded. The destroyer slowly lost way, until she was lying dead in the water and listing to starboard. Paladin was out of the fight.

Petard now took up the sword, and there followed a bizarre running action lasting nearly an hour, in which destroyer and submarine circled each other like two prize fighters in the ring, each looking for an opportunity to land the killer punch. I-27 appeared to be unable to dive, and because of the hail of machine-gun and cannon fire sweeping her decks her gunners were unable to man her 5.5-inch. However, her six torpedo tubes were a menace not to be ignored. If she were able to manoeuvre into a position to fire, Petard would be in great danger. As it was, the destroyer smothered the submarine with shot and shell, firing a total of 300 rounds of 4-inch and a constant stream of smaller shot. I-27’s deck gun was blasted over the side and her conning tower riddled, but due to Petard’s lack of armour-piercing shells, she failed to hole the submarine’s hull. Commander Egan wrote in his report:

The problem of tackling a U-boat under these conditions was vexatious. Gunfire inflicted no apparent damage to pressure hull and running up alongside sufficiently close to lob depth charges to a lethal distance, with the U-boat under helm, at the same time keeping clear of bow and stern tubes, was hazardous. These tactics were finally abandoned due to the danger of collision and it was decided to sink her by torpedo.

Here again the target appeared simple, but only the seventh torpedo found its mark and she finally blew up at 1153 (GMT). When the column of water subsided, nothing was visible except an oil patch. Another violent underwater explosion occurred seven minutes later, which only brought more diesel oil and a few pieces of wreckage to the surface.

Paladin now reported she was in danger of sinking. Her engine room was flooded and it was feared that the forward engine room bulkhead would give way under the weight of water. Her remaining torpedoes were fired off, and everything moveable and not essential was thrown overboard, while her survivors were transferred to HMS Petard. Fortunately, by the time the sun went down Paladin had stopped taking on water and appeared to be out of danger. Petard then passed a tow line, and the two destroyers set off for Addu Atoll, leaving HMS Hawkins to look after the remaining four ships of the convoy. The destroyers arrived safely at the base t 0740 the next morning.

The sinking of the Khedive Ismail with the loss of 1,297 lives, including 77 women and 137 of her crew of 183, will go down in history as one of the worst shipping disasters of the Second World War. There are conflicting reports as to why so many people died, when the weather was so favourable and other ships were close by. It has been said, although never officially confirmed, that I-27 was hiding under the survivors in the water and that HMS Petard made at least one depth charge run through them, causing many deaths. If this was so, then Commander Rupert Egan was only following Navy protocol, the safety of the other ships in the convoy taking precedence over the lives of survivors in the water.

Kenneth Harrup, who was serving in the repair ship HMS Lucas at the time, in later years wrote:

Our orders were to join the Khedive Ismail and convoy KR 8 but when they learned that our maximum speed was only 9 knots they departed without us at 15 knots on the 5th. We left on the 8th and sailed through the wreckage and empty lifeboats before arriving at the Maldives where we carried out first aid repairs to the damaged destroyer. Apart from this our voyage was completely uneventful, but only now do I realize how close we came to disaster.

If that raider had not been disposed of in that terrible moment of decision by the Petard captain, my ship and the lives of some 500 navy men would almost certainly have fallen to that Japanese submarine. We had so little in the way of defences – just a 12 pounder gun and a few depth charges, we would have been a sitting duck. With that thought in mind, perhaps those dozens of poor souls did not die in vain on that most tragic day 61 long years ago, when swimming hopefully towards their rescuers only to find that they were their executioners.