The 'Empire Windrush generation' controversy has rightfully loomed large in the UK media in recent months – but there's more to the fascinating story of the ship whose name has become synonymous with West Indian immigration.
Originally named Monte Rosa and launched in 1930, the 13,882grt vessel was the last of five sisterships built for the German operator Hamburg Süd. Powered by four oil-burning, four-stroke single-acting MAN diesel engines of 6,880hp each, the ship was capable of up to 14.5 knots and carried up to 1,150 passengers in cabins and 1,350 in dormitories.
Monte Rosa spent two years running cruises to Norway, the UK and the Mediterranean before being taken over by the Nazi regime in 1933 to offer Mediterranean cruises to workers through the Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy) programme.
In 1940, the ship was taken over for military use – initially serving as garrison ship, then as a troopship, a transport ship (deporting Jewish people from Norway), a repair ship, a hospital ship and a store ship.
In the autumn of 1945, Monte Rosa was taken as a British war prize, fitted out as a troop transport ship and renamed Empire Windrush in January 1947. Owned by the Ministry of Transport, the vessel was operated by the New Zealand Shipping Company and registered in the port of London.
It was 70 years ago, in June 1948, that Empire Windrush arrived in the port of Tilbury with the first large group of immigrants from the Caribbean. The total is often reported as 492, but new research puts the figure as 802 Trinidadians, Jamaicans and Bermudans – as well as a few stowaways – who had been invited to the UK to alleviate post-war labour shortages.
Although remembered for just one voyage, Empire Windrush had an eventful career including Nazi holiday cruises and Korean War troop transportation.
As a troopship, Empire Windrush operated between the UK, the Middle East and the Far East, and its final voyage began in February 1954, carrying 1,265 passengers – including soldiers from the Korean War, together with military personnel and their families from Hong Kong and Singapore – and 234 crew.
The voyage was delayed by a series of engine breakdowns and mechanical problems, and on 28 March, some 55 miles off the coast of Algeria, Empire Windrush suffered an engineroom fire and explosion. Four members of the crew were killed, but the remaining passengers and crew were safely evacuated and rescued by other ships, including the Dutch vessel Mentor, the P&O passenger/cargo ship Socotra, the Norwegian vessel Hemsefjell and two Italian ships.
The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Saintes managed to attach a tow to Empire Windrush, and began to tow the ship to Gibraltar – but in worsening weather, the vessel sank in the early hours of 30 March after being towed less than 9nm.
A subsequent formal investigation concluded that the most probable cause of the incident was a fractured oil fuel pipe, leading to an intense fire.
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