throughout the War years of 1939-1945 the Ministry of Transport laid claim to all British owned or registered vessels. Shipbuilding in Britain would never again reach such levels of production, but then, the country would never again sustain such losses. British merchant ships were lost to aircraft, warships, submarines, commerce raiders, mines, internment and, even occasionally to accident. In the National Maritime Museum, London, the list of those Merchant Seamen who went down with their ships at this time in history runs to three volumes.
There were Atlantic convoys, Mediterranean convoys and the dreaded “PQ” Convoys to Murmansk. Some of these were so brutally slaughtered that only one or two vessels survived as hundreds went to the seabed. Some of the older vessels, however, were spared these duties, largely because they were old and too slow. These were the mighty “little ships” – left to carry the burden of preventing British trade from grinding to a halt in home waters.
The Rosalie Moller was just such a ship. Built-in Glasgow by Barclay Curle & Co, she was launched as the “Francis” in January 1910 and went into immediate service with the Booth Shipping Line. She was a smart ship for her day – which after all, was at a time when the much-loved sailing ship was barely a thing of the past. She was 108.2m long and displaced 3,960 tons. Her triple-expansion engines produced a very credible 10 knots.
In March 1931 she was sold to the Lancashire based Moller Line and re-named “Rosalie Moller.” Up to this point the vessel had plied British and European Coastal waters, but Messrs Moller soon had the gallant little Cargo ship operating in China between Shanghai and Tsingtao.
By the late thirties, of course, war was looming and the more it became inevitable, the more people consolidated their financial position. The Moller Line, like any other shipping line, was only too aware that if war was declared, they would probably never see many of their ships again, and “Loss or Damage due to War Causes” is still an exclusion clause on almost all Insurance Policies. The options, therefore, were simple; either they recalled their vessels, and assisted their country at a time of great need, or they risked financial ruin by losing their ships.
By 1940, the Rosalie Moller was, therefore, back in Liverpool and was under command of Captain James Byrne, a very experienced Master Mariner. Byrne was a rather brash Australian who’s Trademark was his bush hat. He was also a man who ran a tight ship and hated “Jerry” with every fibre of his body. The Rosalie Moller was, however, an old ship by any standards and her Chief Engineer spent his time nursing her engines from crisis to crisis in order to get the very best from them. By now this was only 7 knots – yes 7 MPH!, but even so, she was ideal for collier duties and was soon making a significant contribution by transporting anything up to 4,500 tons of best Welsh coal to whichever port the Royal Navy demanded.
The British Navy had discovered the value of “Best Welsh” many years before. Though few could explain why, it was an established fact that “Best Welsh Coal” burned brighter and made less smoke. The benefits for a Country at War with a fair proportion of it’s vessels still coal-fired, were, therefore, obvious. Not only was Welsh coal the equivalent of more miles per gallon, but less smoke into the bargain gave the British Navy a distinct advantage which amounted to being able to spot the enemy before being seen themselves.
Regularly loading at Cardiff and taking his valuable cargo to any of the Navy’s ports from Rosyth to Portsmouth and even occasionally Gibraltar, James Byrne was often seen at the helm of his beloved ship with his large wooden pipe clenched firmly in his teeth as he issued orders left right and centre. He was a hard task-master and, whenever he barked, the crew jumped, though they all knew that if ever they got into a tight spot, they would not wish to be with anyone else.
The time eventually came for the Rosalie Moller to venture further afield. The Royal Navy’s “Force K” was operating out of Malta under the most trying of circumstances with a need for refuelling facilities at both ends of the Mediterranean – i.e. Gibraltar and Alexandria. With Axis Forces occupying most of the north Mediterranean coastline, Malta was under constant siege and, whilst Warships were generally able to look after themselves, Merchant vessels rarely broke through the constant barrage of Air and Submarine attack.
In July 1941, the Rosalie Moller’s engines were given a thorough overhaul before being assigned the task that would prove to be her last. At the end of that month she took on 4,680 tons of “Best Welsh” and her Master was ordered to sail independently for Alexandria. With the Mediterranean route out of the question, the only safe passage was via South Africa.
It was a long and uneventful journey and on 11 September she slipped her moorings in Durban before sailing up the east coast of Africa. After another brief stop at Aden, the Rosalie Moller finally entered the Red Sea and, on reaching the Gulf of Suez, was assigned “Safe Anchorage H” to await further instructions. The Master let out the starboard anchor and some 200m of chain as the gentle current pushed the vessel back. This was “good holding ground” and, at long last, the engine was closed down. All they could do now was wait.
Being called forward to proceed through the Canal was dependent on several factors; Enemy activity – especially Air Raids, cargo priority and how long other vessels had been waiting, were all taken into consideration. Unfortunately, two vessels had collided in Suez Bay and were virtually blocked the canal entrance. This is why the “Thistlegorm” with her much needed and valuable cargo remained in “Safe Anchorage F” for a full two weeks before finally becoming lost.
Up until now, these “Safe Anchorages” had been exactly that, Safe! No enemy ships and enemy aircraft rarely ventured this far south. This was, however, all about to change when German Intelligence received information that a large troopship (possibly the Queen Mary) was due to travel through the Suez Canal with 1200 British Troops to reinforce North Africa.
Having mastered the relatively new skill of night flying, Heinkel He 111’s from II/Kg26 (No 2 Squadron 26th Kamp Geswader) based in Crete were alerted to the possible presence of such a large vessel. Their task was to seek and destroy. Late at night on 5th October 1941, two twin-engine Heinkels crossed the north Egyptian coast heading southeast in search of this prize.
They attacked and sank the Thistlegorm at 0130 hrs 6th October 1941, detonating much of her ammunition as they did so. In so doing, the night sky was briefly illuminated revealing more vessels at anchor. From that moment, everyone knew that the aircraft would be back.
48 hours later, on the nigh of 7th October 1941, Captain Byrne and his crew were blissfully unaware that at 2258 hrs two more twin-engine Heinkels had crossed the north Egyptian coast and were heading Southeast, straight for them. Even if they had been forewarned, there was nothing they could have done.
Captain Byrne had a bunk on the Bridge of his ship and, awoken by the noise of Aircraft engines, stepped outside. Unable to defend his ship, the Master of the Rosalie Moller could only watch as one of the aircraft spotted his vessel and came in for a low level attack. Characteristically, he shook his fist in a last gesture of defiance as the aircraft passed close above him and released her bombs.
He was later reported in the War Diary (now declassified) as stating:
“Two bombs released, one striking No 3 Hold at 0045 hrs. Vessel sank 0140 hrs 8 October 1941, two Crew missing.”
Taken from the same War Diary, on 10th October 1941, the Admiralty sent a “SECRET” message to Washington with regard to salvage. The message commenced:
“(1) Following ships now lying sunk Red Sea and on adjacent NE African Coast. In Gulf of Suez and straits of Jubal THISTLEGORM (4,898 tons bombed badly damaged)….. ROSALIE MOLLER (3,963 tons bombed)….”
Thus it was that within two days of each other, both the Thistlegorm and the Rosalie Moller went to the bottom with a combined loss of eleven lives. Interest in the Rosalie Moller, however, then faded for one very good reason. After the War, raw materials were in short supply and throughout the Gulf of Suez many lost ships were raised and salvaged whilst others were cleared as hazards to shipping. Understandably, many of these were wrongly identified by those who had other priorities at the time.
In two independent and separate accounts – i.e. the Histories of the Booth Line and the Moller Line, the Rosalie Moller is recorded as being “raised and broken up” after the War, even though she never was!
Finding the Rosalie Moller
In December 1998 I had never even heard of the Rosalie Moller. Then, about seven days before I was due to depart for a one week Diving Safari, the tour operator asked me if I knew anything about the ship. Of course I did not – but I immediately did some hasty research and we compared notes. Please don’t ask me how but, by the time I arrived in Hurghada, I was under the impression this Diving Company had actually found a “new” wreck, but they thought I knew where it was!
Within moments of my arrival, therefore, we were actually discussing the prospect of a search. Certainly the idea had merit, but we had to be realistic. Between us we had virtually no information (apart from a faxed copy of an old photograph of her sister ship), and the general search area was so vague it equated to something like “south of Plymouth!” On top of that, two sources were stating the Rosalie Moller was scrapped over 50 years ago. On the positive side, however, we did have an optimistic outlook and a combined experience and passion for Diving – plus one or two clues.
Our Dive Guide was the ever popular Ali Baba from whom I always learned something. The Skipper was Captain Mohammed Hassan, widely regarded as the second best Captain in the entire Red Sea. Not that he minds being second best; everyone acknowledges his father as the outstanding figure in this regard, and he located the Thistlegorm in 1963!
Captain Hassan handed me a chart and asked me to plot a certain position given to him by his father. It was right on the edge of our general search area and when I showed it to him, he smiled “We go tomorrow” he said and we did. At 0630 hrs the engines coughed into life. This is usually the early morning call for those on board but today there was an air of excitement and few were still asleep. Most of us were checking to make sure we had a “good fill” and every time I looked at Ali Baba he smiled. “Rosie Muller!” he said, and somehow, I suspect the ship will eventually become known by his version of her name. By 0800 hrs we were searching and, would you believe it, we actually found it!
I must point out, however, that although we did genuinely discover this shipwreck all by ourselves, it soon became quite clear that we were not the first to have found her. Somehow I suppose we never thought we would be. Those who had gone before us had not proclaimed their discovery to the rest of the Diving Community so that others might share the experience. Perhaps they were more interested in stripping the wreck first. Who knows?
Diving the Rosalie Moller
The Rosalie Moller stands as a proud example of British engineering from the early 20th Century. She is upright on the seabed on an even keel. The first thing we saw as we approached the wreck was the forward mast, with the mast-head lamp in place at 17m. Below this, the Bows are at 39m and the starboard anchor is deployed with the chain running down to the seabed at 50m and then out of sight. The port anchor remains fully retracted. The railings are largely still in place as is much of the accommodation, winch houses, blocks, winches, hawsers and other paraphernalia.
Almost eerily somehow, everything still appears to be tidy. Clearly Byrne had run a tight ship and, I am sure he would have been happy with how she looks today. The cargo hatches are gone, revealing the full cargo of Best Welsh still in place. Pots and pans still hang in the Galley where they are now concreted to the walls above a large stove. Although the wooden decks have rotted away, all the portholes are still in place, and not a broken glass anywhere.
You will understand, therefore, our high level of expectation as we finally approached the Bridge, but when we got there the cupboard was bare! The Bell, Telegraphs, Compass and Binnacle are all gone, and the Captain’s safe lay forced open on the floor. Doubtless somebody will tell me, yet again, that these items were removed for important reasons of research and identification, but surely we can all read what is written on a Bell, and enjoy seeing it in it’s rightful place!
Aft of the Bridge, the funnel is still standing – with only the slightest list to port. On the leading edge is a small ladder up to a magnificent copper steam-whistle. Beyond this, the rear mast is also intact, the lifeboats davits are swung out and at 35m at the stern, the steering gear is available for inspection. Below this, the rudder is at 45m and hard over to starboard. Curiously, one of the four propeller blades is missing. There is external damage to both rear quarters, being slightly more extensive to starboard. Incredibly, the damage that caused the ship to sink is hardly noticeable and none of the cargo of coal appears to have spilled out.
The vessel is not on any of the regular Diving routes and, unfortunately, does not enjoy the high levels of underwater visibility one expects from the Red Sea, 15-20m being normal. That said, corals are growing on the decks and the fish life can only be described as prolific. First thing in the morning Jacks and Tuna are seen feeding on the large shoals that congregate here and in the evening only the largest Grouper are found.
As I have said, we were not the first to have found this wreck, and have never claimed such an honour. I remain convinced that those who had gone before us had hoped to keep their secret until they had finished stripping the vessel of all valuables. Then, and only then, might they have permitted other Divers to visit such a finely preserved time-capsule from another age of shipping and yet another age of War in the Middle East. I know nothing of the profits to be made from such finds, but I do know something of the losses because all future visitors are much the poorer for such greed.
Of course, the Rosalie Moller can never be “undiscovered” and if I do not tell her story, then somebody else will. Before doing so, however, I informed the Egyptian authorities of the existence of the shipwreck and urged the Minister of Tourism to place a Protection Order on this and all other shipwrecks in the Egyptian