SS Ceramic, a victim of U-515 on the 7th. of December 1942
(see the new pictures at the bottom of the page thanks to Tony)
Ceramic had a long history, she had been built and delivered by Harland and Wolff Ltd of Belfast in 1913 for her then owners White Star Line Ltd. Her length: 655.1 feet, beam: 69.4 feet and draught: 43.8 feet, giving her a gross tonnage of 18,481 tons. Her speed, 15knots, powered by three triple expansion and low powered turbines all geared to a central shaft.
Ceramic when sailing under White Star colours
Ceramic plied the UK/Australia route via the Cape of Good Hope, with her tall masts, she reportedly held the record for the highest masts that could still clear the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
In 1914, with the declaration of WW1, she was requisitioned as a Trooper for the Australian Expeditionary Force.
Near misses by torpedoes.
Twice during WW1, the ship escaped being torpedoed, once in the Mediterranean in 1916, and a second time in 1917, in the English Channel.
Change of Ownership.
Cunard - White Star Ltd. was formed in 1934 to aid the Queen Mary project, and Shaw Saville and Albion acquired the Australian assets of the old White Star line, and these included SS Ceramic.
Reconstruction of the ship by her original builders.
In 1935, Harland and Wolff reconstructed this vessel, her new tonnage a shade heavier at 18,713 gross, and a slightly improved speed of 16 knots. The new design catered for 480 cabin class passengers, and her "Veranda Cafe" aft, dates from this rework.
With the advent of WW2, once again Ceramic donned Troopship colours, for service in that capacity out of Australia, but she still carried some passengers.
On the 11th. of August in 1940 the ship was involved in a collision with SS Testbank, and was towed into Walwis Bay in SW Africa for temporary repairs.
Ceramic on a cigarette card
On the 23rd. of November 1942, Ceramic, under the command of Captain Elford, cleared the Mersey River at Liverpool, and set off for St Helena, Durban, and Sydney. She had on board, 378 passengers, which included 12 children, and 244 Naval/Military/Nursing personnel, her crew numbering 278, in that number were 33 Australian seamen. In her holds were stowed 12,362 tons of general cargo and government stores.
That fateful day of the 7th. of December 1942.
When steaming west of the Azores on the 7th. of December 1942 the ship was sighted and then stalked by the German U-Boat U-515. We have already made the acquaintance of this boat and her Captain Werner Henke. The weather was cold with rough seas and the time about 2000. ( 8 PM ) Then Henke struck with one torpedo, and several minutes after this explosion, two more hits were made in the engine room.
The stricken ship stopped, and darkness descended on board, 8 life boats, all crammed full were lowered and got away from the sinking ship, but she did not go down immediately. Just prior to midnight, two more torpedoes were released, to break the ship in two, and in another 10 seconds she was gone.
By now it was raining to make the life of the survivors even more miserable, and the sea was very rough, with the life boats in danger of being swamped by the rising waves. By 0800 ( 8 AM ) the next morning, a Force 10 gale was blowing, and lifeboats were capsizing, many of the survivors found themselves battling it out with huge seas, supported only by their lifejackets.
About noon, U-515 returned to the tragic scene and surfaced close to a group of survivors, they thought that rescue was at hand, sadly no. Two German sailors threw a line to one man, Sapper Eric Monday of the Royal Engineers, he was hauled aboard to become a Prisoner of War and to be interrogated. He wound up in Stalag 8B in Upper Silesia, to remain imprisioned until his final release when WW2 came to an end. Apparently U-Boat Command had ordered Henke to return to the scene of the sinking, to try and pick up the ship's Captain to ascertain Ceramic's destination.
U-515 now sailed away, leaving 655 of the ship's company to perish. Eric Monday her sole survivor.
Fate of U-515 and her Captain.
The sinking of U-515 in 1944 has already been covered in a previous article published on AHOY. It is thought that Henke when a POW in the United States behaved as he did, to be shot trying to escape, as he feared his conduct at the sinking of Ceramic could well find him hauled before a Military Court to be tried as a War Criminal. He left all but one of 656 people to die, when the sea claimed them all in 1942.
Recording the names of those who perished in Ceramic.
All the Service personnel have their names recorded on the Brookwood War Memorial in Surrey England. The Civilian War Dead Register names all the civilian passengers. The Merchant Navy Personnel have their names recorded on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. The 33 Australian Seamen in Ceramic's crew are recorded on the Australian Merchant Seamen's Memorial in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.
Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets whose names
are honoured on the walls of this Garden
gave their lives for their country and have no grave but the sea
Once again, a U-Boat and the Cruel Sea took their collective toll of an enormous number of lives during the height of the Battle of the Atlantic.
In England, the loss of Ceramic is recorded as the 6th. of December 1942, that is reporting this loss by English time rather than the local time obtaining at the time which made the sinking on the 7th. of December 1942.
Thanks to Tony for these pictures: (I think the photos of Ceramic may well show the damage after her collision with SS Testbank on the 11th. of August 1940.)