The British Steam Navigation Company
Part Two, 1914-1971
Lull Before The Storm
In the decade prior to war breaking out in 1914, The BI added substantial tonnage to its fleet as it was unthinkable that anything could disrupt the status quo and the maintenance of Empire. By the beginning of August that year, the fleet comprised 126 vessels, fifty-eight of which were ten or less years old. Six specific designs of ships either built or building evolved as a result of the Chairmen himself asking senior seagoing staff for their opinions and ideas, the only constraint being the limit of draft for navigation on the Hooghly up to Calcutta. This proliferation of ships was soon to be taken advantage of as the Government commandeered them to satisfy war need.
Every Friday, the Principals of the London agents Messrs Gray, Dawes & Co. sat down with The BI directors in The BI boardroom for a curry lunch, this culinary delight produced and served by Asian crew sent up from which ever BI ship happened to be in London at that time. Business carried on at a leisurely pace. In these days before radio, a communication to the managing agents in Calcutta would not bring forth a response for at least six weeks as this was the shortest time for a reply to reach HQ in London.
All the major passenger services had been revitalised with over thirty new ships boasting higher standards of cabin and crew accommodation and speeds capable of satisfying the new mail contracts. Amongst these, and capable of 18kts, were the first steam turbine propelled vessels in the fleet. Four vessels with the ability to specifically double as troop transports besides service on the London to Calcutta service were to play major roles during the war. The policy of design to enable interchange of ships between routes if required continued. Over a dozen cargo ships joined the fleet including three with a carrying capacity nearing 12000 tons, the largest so far. The normal peacetime trooping routine ran like clockwork with Rewa, Rohilla, Jelunga, Dilwara and Dunera called upon as required to meet seasonal needs.
The Great War
At one time or another, no less than 109 individual BI ships fell under the control of the Admiralty Transport Department, the first being Varela on 2nd August, two days before the declaration of the war. In the course of the war twenty-five were lost, roughly a fifth of the fleet, some by torpedo attack, some to mines. Chilkana became the first victim, sunk by the Emden in the Arabian Sea on the 19th October 1914, the last Surada, torpedoed off port Said on 2nd November 1918. Out of a fleet totalling nearly 570,000 gross tons, twenty-five ships were lost (128,000 gross tons).
Perhaps the most astonishing examples of The BI doing things no other shipping company could do were the convoys from Bombay in 1914 carrying Indian troops to Europe, East Africa and other points west. Troop carrying in large numbers presented no problems to The BI as it was quite the norm to handle several hundred un-berthed passengers at a time. In September two separate convoys including no less than thirteen and nineteen BI ships left India carrying Indian Army Troops for Marseilles, whilst the following month, twenty six left for various destinations, fourteen of which arrived in Marseilles.Such was the strength of The BI, no ship took part in more than one of the Marseilles convoys. The enemy naval treat came from the light cruisers Konigsberg and Emden and troop transports had to be escorted until the treat was dealt with, hence the convoys. At this stage in the war camouflage played no part in confusing the enemy, so merchant vessels still wore their company colours. The arrival of all these BI ships in peacetime guise in one place was sensational, the likes of which was never to be repeated.
At the call to support The Raj and Empire by the Viceroy, India's princely rulers took up the call to arms with an enthusiasm that confounded perceived German beliefs. Indian troops had been excluded from action in the Boer War, and these natural fighters were only too anxious to show their qualities. The bravery and commitment of all those sent to the Western front is unquestioned, but reality saw them thrown into a conflict for which they were ill prepared where loss of life to come on both sides could not be imagined. Without the Indian Corps relieving the initial Expeditionary Force there would not have been time for the Territorial Army to mobilise and take up the fight. Eventually the Territorial's were relieved by Kitchener's Army of Pals. The Slaughter on 1st July 1916 was to ensure never again would men from the same community be placed together in such numbers. Later, overseas forces shored up the diminishing numbers until the whole nonsense came to stop in November 1918. In a little over twelve months after landing in France, Indian Corps casualties totalled over 34,000 with Merrut and Lahore Divisions virtually wiped out. The last remnants of the Indian Corps left Marseilles on 26th December 1915.
After meeting their transport commitments, several of the larger passenger liners changed roles to become Naval or Military Hospital Ships. Conversions made easier by the general design to accommodate "unberthed" passengers. Significant amongst these, Rohilla was wrecked with 83 lives lost on 29th October 1914 off Saltwick Nab, Whitby on her way to Dunkirk to collect war wounded. Sister ship Rewa displaying full illumination in her role as a hospital ship laden with 279 sick and wounded was torpedoed in the Bristol Channel by U55 on 14th January 1918. The only casualties were four crew. In the context of a specific Indian contribution, the Tanda, delivered in May 1914 for the Calcutta - Far East service was unique. Requisitioned by the Government of India as a Hospital Ship, her conversion costs were met from The Madras War Fund, a purely voluntary civilian organisation. To acknowledge this she became Madras and carried the name until May 1921, although released from Government service in November 1919. A little over 2000 war sailings left Bombay in the four years to August 1918, of which 1317 were BI vessels undertaking transport duties. This intensity of activity can be explained by the fact that Bombay Port was the centre for all Indian troop movements and the supply base for all Indian forces involved in Mesopotamia, East Africa, Egypt, Palestine and France. Further north the new MM&Co office building in Karachi served as a hospital. As a final contribution to the war effort The BI's Katoria landed troops at noon on Armistice Day to accept surrender from the Turks on the Dardanelles.
The BI was still in the business of looking after its own interests despite the mayhem going on around, and within three months of war breaking out the amalgamation with the P&O was complete. Since 1852 MM&Co had leased the Calcutta office site, but after outright purchase during the war, a new construction commenced due to be completed by 1925. In 1915 the two dockyards in Bombay owned by The BI and P&O respectively were amalgamated to form The Mazagon Dock Company Dockyard vessels sported a BI funnel with the crossed house flags of the two companies below. A year later Garden Reach Workshops were set up in Calcutta on a 44-acre site with a river frontage of nearly 800 yards, part of which had originally been purchased by The BI in 1865. One of the strangest things The BI did was to start operating a cadet ship, its first, in 1916. Although cadets were first taken onto the company books in 1906, quite what the logic of putting twenty-five in one place in war-time was, who knows, but Berbera filled the bill, but not for long, as she was torpedoed in March 1917 with the loss of three cadets. Waipara was then converted to take on the role with accommodation for thirty-two cadets. She fulfilled this role until nearly becoming a total loss in August 1918 with the loss of one cadet.
Prior to the outbreak of war The BI ran twenty-five identifiable passenger and cargo liner services. By the end of the following year six had been mothballed, and other services cut back. Worse was to come. On Armistice Day, a mere four ships kept the Calcutta - Burma Straits run alive compared to eleven pre-war. The "Coast Service" from Calcutta to Bombay struggled on with one instead of nine. Nothing traded between Queensland or Africa and "Home Line" sailings were both infrequent and irregular. Services overall were a mere shadow of their former selves. Future intentions of the P&O of the New Zealand shipping company and Federal Line in 1916, the Union Steamship Company of The New Zealand and with The BI, The Hain Steamship Co. Ltd. in 1917. F.C. Strick & Co. Ltd. was acquired by Gray, Dawes & Co. the London agents in 1919.
Twenty Years of Peace
Losses inevitably required replacing so to this end besides wartime takeovers, negotiations were under way in 1918 to acquire new tonnage. These would be new, second hand, war prizes or war emergency standard ships bought from the Government. Of these standard cargo designs in various sizes, The BI bought thirty-nine and with other additions, the fleet increased in size to 161 ships totalling around 830,000 gross tons in 1920. This was the largest number of ships flagged under the Red Ensign ever owned by a british shipping company at one time. This enormous floating empire engaged the services of around 3,000 Europeans on company contracts, (excluding staff on leave). For a deck or engineer officer on "the coast" or "Eastern Service" as it eventually became known, this meant a 3 1/2 year spell followed by seven months paid leave. Add to this around 15,500 Asian crew on articles, all those ashore in some support capacity, the logistics of keeping 161 ships fuelled, watered and victualled, the thousands of passengers and thousands of tons of cargo transported, then the scale of The BI operation is quite astonishing.
It is no coincidence that the recovery was achieved in such a short time as behind it all was Lord, soon to be Viscount, Inchcape who had his ear close to the ground in UK shipping matters. By 1922 normal service had been resumed all be it in the face of opportunist competition which had stepped into trade routes vacated by the BI during the war years.
Competition from European, Japanese and Indian national companies increased with the economic expansion of these countries. Commercial opposition to The BI was seen as fair game. Since 1856 The BI had been on the ball and so it still was. Around the turn of the century, to limit the damage any out and out competition could inflict, routes, freight rates, and other common interests were discussed with the various shipping companies at the Colombo Conference. It gave the new players a position in the grand scheme of things but the dominant partner - The BI, kept the whip hand, so protecting its interests. In 1923 a formal trading agreement was reached with the successful Scindia Company. Less fortunate organisations had been taken into The BI or P&O fold in previous years.
To satisfy cargo-passenger needs The BI turned to one of its favourite yards, Barclay, Curle & Co .Ltd., to build six vessels out of a total order of eight for the UK-East Africa and UK-India services. Technical developments included the adoption of twin screw geared turbines for the first time with oil fired boilers in all but the first delivered in 1920 which struck to twin screw reciprocating propulsion main engines. A further two ships of the same basic design again from Barclay, Curle had diesel main engines, another first for the company, carrying appropriately names beginning with "D". The lead ship, Domala was the first British passenger vessel to have diesel machinery of British design and manufacture. This innovation was not a precursor to widespread adoption of motor ships in the company as the majority of the fleet had access to cheap Indian coal, all be it of poor quality. Innovation continued with the first twin-screw diesel powered ships in 1924. One of this pair, Kistna had a remarkable life with various owners until sent to the breakers in 1971 still with the original engines. New tonnage continued to be added to the fleet on a regular basis up to 1927 including three triple funnel ships built for the calcutta-Japan service in 1924. Although the aftermost funnel was a dummy, the thinking behind three funnels was to impress the native Chinese who associated them with speed. And flyers the "T's" were, achieving over 17kts on trials. In 1926 two sisters, Rohna and Rajula entered service on the Straits Settlements-Madras Mail service. Rajula was destined not only to be the longest serving ship in the history of The BI., but a legend in her own lifetime. Not until 10th October 1973 did The BI house flag come down for the last time, just short of forty-eight years service.
"The Great Depression" which descended
on the world in the 1930's had disastrous consequences for many shipping
companies, but The BI with little emphasis on European trade weathered the
period very well ships were laid up or disposed of, but no sea going staff
lost their employment. The importance of Rangoon in activities had little
changed from 1856 with eight mail runs still on
See the World and be Educated, (with fun)
In 1932 the much loved and, for those who participated, never to be forgotten "Educational Cruises" commenced. The word "educational" only came into use at a later date, as the early ones were recreational in conception and execution and only undertaken by schoolboys. They had to assist with the preparation and serving of food aboard the Neuralia and Nevasa, so perhaps this was their only education. Accommodation was in the troop decks for schoolboys, the masters in passenger/officer cabins. These two veterans of WWI, now twenty years old have been built for the London-Calcutta liner service, but were converted into troop transports in 1925 for contracted liner service, but were converted into troop transports in 1925 for contracted Government service. One Mr. George White came up with the idea of using ships to give schoolboys an entertaining experience and the Scottish Secondary Schools Travel Trust took up the idea to set in motion an activity which carried on during the "off" trooping seasons until 19385 when the worsening international situation brought things to a halt. Normal routine for the contracted transports was for them to be laid up off Netley routine for the contracted transports was for them to be laid up off Netley in Southampton Water, opposite the Royal Victoria Hospital, during the hot summer months. Transiting the Red Sea and eastern waters in ships without any form of air conditioning was extremely uncomfortable at this time. A benefit to The BI was that this "out of season" use came as a handy earner.
The first cruise departed from Leith on the 25th July 1932 journeying to Baltic waters with over a thousand schoolboys aboard anticipating fresh air and a fortnight of fun. The idea also appealed south of the border and, later in the summer, the English Secondary Schools Travel Trust repeated the experience sailing from Hull. So started the routine pattern of two voyages a summer. Dilwara and Dunera participated in the duties from 1936 until the premature end in 1938. History has a habit of repeating things and in 1961 after a £100,000 refit the Dunera, converted specifically for educational cruises recommenced the pre-war tradition of a unique experience for those boys taking part, but with a subtle addition girls.
Here We Go Again
On the 3rd September 1939 The BI owned 103 ships, fifty-five passenger and, forty-eight cargo. Roughly half the total were in port at places between the Persian Gulf and Singapore, the rest scattered across the web of BI routes. From April 1940 the Admiralty or the Ministry of War Transport controlled the whole fleet. The fleet loss was Sirdhana on 13th November 1939 to a friendly mine off Singapore and in successive years losses to enemy action numbered 4 in 1940, 13 in 1941, 13 in 1942, 12 in 1943, and 1 in each 1944 and 1945. Two ships also grounded, two were lost to fire, one was used as a block-ship, and most unluckily, sir Harvey Adamson, lost without trace and all hands to what was thought to be a mine off the Burmese coast in 1947. A total of fifty-one ships and a loss of 1083 lives. In the course of the war, The BI managed 72 ships of other nationalities and of these 16 were lost along with BI personnel amongst the ships staff.
Some significant losses are worth a mention in some detail. Mashobra, the first of the post WWI "M" class for the London-Calcutta service was bombed off Narvik in May 1940 and later that year the brand new Aska became a victim to bombs in the Western Approaches. She and her two sisters were destined never to fulfil their potential on the Calcutta-Rangoon Mail Service. Another relatively modern vessel was Karaanja, lost to a bomb in the Mediterranean in November 1942 whilst the immediate pre-war cadet ship, Wargoonga was torpedoed in the Atlantic five months later. A victim of a bombing attack despite full hospital ship colours, Talamba, one of the trio of the trio three funnel Calcutta-Japan liners built in 1924, sank off Alova, sicily in July 1943. By far the largest loss of life involving a BI ship was the bombing of Rohna with a radio guided device in the Mediterranean in November 1943. At this time Rohna had a goat as a mascot with the free run of the accommodation as did her sister Rajula after the war. As both ships ran the Straits Mail in peace time, were the goats related? Carrying American troops to Bombay in convoy the ship sank taking 134 crew, 1015 troops and the mascot with her. This was only second in American loss of life to the sinking of Arizona at Pearl Harbour in December 1941 with 1103 causalities. A freak loss was Baroda, destroyed in the Victoria Dock, Bombay explosion of 14 April 1944 after Fort Strikine blew up. Last but not least a veteran of WWI, a regular contracted transport between the wars, and a pioneer of the "Educational Cruise" concept, the 1912 built Neuralia had the misfortune to hit an Italian mine on 1 May 1945, the eve of VE Day. The war in the east carried on until a spectacular end came about in August 1945.
Post War Revival
The toll of nearly six years' conflict gave The BI problems not dissimilar to other shipping companies, but at least it had not succumbed as some others had to near or complete wipe out. Half the fleet gone was bad enough though. With loss of tonnage went crews, much reduced economic activity, total loss of markets to various factors, speculative and emerging national fleets, clamour for political change, and though that independence from the colonial power. So what to do? True to the traditions of this well established company it set about a programme of replacement vessels to sustain viable passenger, passenger-cargo and cargo services in its traditional trading vessels.
Some tonnage ordered before the outbreak of war and delivered as war time conditions allowed had supplemented losses, but of these seven, three had a premature end before 1943. Toward the war's end, six standard "Empire" design were ordered and new vessels from a variety of years continued to be added to the fleet from 1945. With second hand ships, 43 in total were in service by the end of 1952. As with the fleet rebuilding prior to be added to the fleet rebuilding prior to WWI, the new ships were larger, more luxurious for passengers nd, faster. They ranged from the diminutive Kilwa, bought from Chinese owners for feeder services down the East Africa coast to the largest vessels built for "coast" service; Kampala and Karanja to operate the East Africe Mail. The London-East Africa service would see the introduction of probably the best known "home line" ships with Kenya and Uganda displacing the now tired, but still loved pre-war "M's". The Persian Gulf service, dating back to 1862 was to see four new "D" Class diesel engined ships and the Calcutta-Japan line now without any Japanese competition would benefit from three twin screw "S" Class diesels. A class of thirteen cargo vessels, the "C's" would be the main workhouses of the cargo fleet right to the end of The BII. Two of these, Chindwara and Chantala took up the cadet ship tradition, given up at the out break of war in 1939.
All these new toys would have been welcomed with open arms by sea staff after nursing time expired ships well beyond their economic life through the war and beyond. Indeed some ships and staff had seen grueling service through both conflicts. As if to show the recovery was complete and normal service had been resumed, Kenja docked in Mombassa on 16th September 1951 at the end of her maiden voyage to be greeted by a BI ship at every berth, six in all, with Sofala on the slip of African Marine undergoing repair. In the same year the company entered into a fifteen year trooping contract and agreement with the government to build a new troopship designed specifically for the armed forces and their families. Laid down in May 1953, and delivered in July 1956, BI's Centenary Year, Nevasa was the largest vessel in the history of The BI at just over 20,500 tons. Another first was a decision in 1955 to enter the tanker business with large bulk tankers to be operated by the various P&O group companies and the first five on order would carry BI colours. All were subsequently transferred to Trident Tankers by 1970.
A significant blow, and the real beginning of the end of The BI was Indian Independence on 15th August 1947 and in the same year that of Burma. This would lead quickly to the loss of purely Indian and Burmese trade. Passenger services to and from India continued as before if economic, but only for as long as the same vessels stayed on the run, other than at time of survey or vary rarely, breakdown. If The BI took ships off, then there was no way back. Another threat, but as yet underrated in the effect it would have on the world of passenger transport, was the long haul jet to be followed in the 1960's by the wide body jet plane. The seriousness the impact these factors could have would not be felt for another decade, so in it's centenary year The BI fleet consisted of sixty-three vessels and it looked forward to a bright and sustainable future. Around seventy Commanders and seventy Chief Engineers had this great fleet in their charge that carried around 3,500,000 tons of cargo, 300,000 passengers, steamed 3,000,000 nautical miles, and cost £1,500,000 in wages for ships' staff per year.
The post war burst of activity though was not the end of further acquisitions as new, second hand, or transferred ships from other group companies joined the fleet. Significant were the five "B" Class for the Australia-India and Persian Gulf trades introduced in 1959. Fully air conditioned for officers and crew alike, with machinery spaces and accommodation aft, these were totally different to any previously owned in the companies history. The reintroduction of Dunera to "Educational Cruising" in April 1961 had been a significant gamble, but numbers carried were sufficient for The BI to take another gamble and purchase the redundant troop transport Devonshire from Bibby Line. Renamed Devonia, and refitted to take 190 or so cabin passengers and over 800 school children, she joined Dunera. Within two seasons the pair carried over 34,000 children,in a year on a variety of cruises of about fourteen days at a time. In 1962 after the government terminated the trooping contract as Great Britain withdrew east of Suez and from Empire, Nevasa joined the established duo for three seasons before new safety at sea regulations rendered the "D"s obsolete. Uganda was withdrawn from the London-East Africa service and converted to take their place in 1968 as air transport was now significantly affecting international maritime passenger travel. An irony of this was that "fly cruises" had been part of the "Education Cruise" arrangements since 1965. Closure of the Suez Canal from late 1967 made the East Africa service uneconomic and resulted in the East Africa service uneconomic resulted in the withdrawal of sister ship Kenya.
Disposal of older vessels continued through the 1960's, but as the next decade dawned it became clear that writing was on the wall for this famous company. It was unable to replace aging ships on passenger services because of Indian Government regulations International air travel had decimated passenger liner services and, the container ship was making rapid inroads into cargo transportation worldwide carrying the equivalent of perhaps eight conventional general cargo ships. Despite this, The BI endeavoured to find niche markets to trade in and, in 1969 the first of two "A" Class heavy lift ships entered service on the Japan-Gulf run to be followed in 1970 by the first of four "M" Class vessels for the Australia-Persian Gulf trade. By one of those historical coincidences, the last ships to be delivered to The BI, two specialised refrigerated carriers, had names beginning with the last letter of the alphabet, "Z". The only initial letter never to have used to name BI ships with was "X".
Maritime trading worldwide was by 1970 in charge to a level and magnitude never previously experienced. Many well known British companies went to the wall or shuffled on by adapting to the frightening speed of change they found themselves engulfed in. The P&O decided to rationalise their activities into defined divisions based on type of trade. With effect from the 1st October 1971 all the constituent companies lost their separate identities and, for The BI this meant the remaining vessels passed into a "General Cargo Division". Absorption was visible as the ships took on board P&O colours and to all intents and purposes, 15 years of independent achievement passed into history. Not quite though, as The BI was to have the last word at international level.
Tales of Four Ships
Some ships gave many years of service unsung, un-noticed and in some cases unloved. Here are four that fell into none of these categories.
Unknown, lurking below the waves off Mount Adolphus Island in Torres Strait, off Cape York, Queensland , Australia, a pinnacle of rock ripped the bottom out of Quetta on 28th February 1890. Of 293 on board, 133 lost their lives. The rock is now known as Quetta Rock, and on Thursday Island in the Quetta Memorial Church is the ships bell along with other artefacts recovered from the sea. For years after, every BI ship dipped its ensign as it passed to recognise the assistance given by the Jardine family to the rescue of survivors.
One of the post WWII "D" Class built for the Bombay-Persian Gulf Service, Dara left Dubai on 7th April 1961 to stand off during a freak storm. The following morning at about twenty to five an explosion, later attributed to a bomb, but not proven occurred and, as a result the ship sank with the loss of over 200 lives. When the surviving BI officers arrived back in Bombay with nothing other than the clothes on their backs they were met by a tailor to fit them out with all their needs at his cost until such time as the officers were in Bombay next time. BI sahibs credit was good. It made him for years to come.
BI services from Bombay to Karachi and the Persian Gulf started in 1862. On the 15th May 1982 the Dwarke, built in 1947 for this service arrived at Bombay for the last time. Three years earlier she had played a staring role in Richard Attenborough's film "Gandhi." It was perhaps fitting that one of the inaugural BI services and the last imperial Liner Service in the world still operating should be the last to ring down the curtain on The BI after 126 years of this illustrious company. Like many before and since, Dwarka was run up the beach at Gadani, Pakistan to be broken up in June 1982.
Since 1968, Uganda had been entertaining school children as successor a tradition started in 1932. Although within the P&O passenger division she still flew the BI house flag and carried BI colours. In 1936 the then Chairmen of The BI, the Hon. Alexander Shaw (son-in-law of Lord Inchcape) assured the Government all ships were at the disposal of H.M. Government in the event of an emergency. On 10th April 1982 whilst laying at Alexandria she was requisitioned by H.M. Government for Falkland service. After landing all the passengers at Naples conversion work to turn her into a hospital ship was carried out at Gibraltar. Following distinguished service in the Falklands War she returned to cruising in September 1982, but in January 1983 the government chartered her for transport services between Ascension Islands and Port Stanley. This continued until April 1985. After laying up at Falmouth for nearly a year, no permanent future afloat was forth coming despite serious endeavour, so the P&O sold her to breakers in Taiwan. She departed Falmouth under her own steam to an emotional farewell on 20th May 1986. Three months later on 22nd August, cyclone "Wayne" blew her broadside to the shore where she lay with her back broken.
That was the end of The BI and The Raj at Sea.
© Dave Mitchell 2009