The story of Suez's long forgotten 'Yellow Fleet'
SUEZ - Earlier this week, after remaining stuck for six days, the container ship Ever Given was refloated and the Suez Canal was reopened. Back in 1967, after the start of the Six-Day War, 14 ships were blocked in the Canal for 8 years.
On the afternoon of Monday, March 22nd, salvage teams working on land and water, with help from the moon and the tides, freed the giant container ship Ever Given whose bow was stuck in the Eastern embankment of the Suez Canal when its stern swivelled out diagonally across to the Western side, effectively blocking passage through the canal.
It is estimated that more than 400 ships were stuck for six days at each end of the 120-mile canal, which connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea en-route to the Indian Ocean and carries roughly 10 percent of worldwide shipping traffic. Before the Suez Canal was opened, ships had to circumnavigate Africa to reach the Indian Ocean; crossing the Canal reduces the distance between the Arabian Sea to London by approximately 8900 Km.
Back in 1967, during the brief war that took place from June 5–10, Israel occupied the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. A ceasefire was reached in less than a week and when the shooting stopped, the Suez Canal was the southern ceasefire line. Egypt ordered a complete standstill of the Canal and made it clear that, if any ships moved or any Israeli ships attempted to enter, they would be breaking the ceasefire. To make sure that no one could use the canal, the Egyptians dumped debris, scuttled old ships, and disseminated landmines to make it impassable.
As a result, a convoy of 14 ships that had been proceeding through the canal on June 5th, was trapped in the Great Bitter Lake, a 100-square-mile body of salt water in the Southern part of the waterway. The convoy was made up of commercial ships from 8 different nations: Great Britain, West Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, France, Bulgaria, and the United States. In the beginning, the crews weren’t told anything because there was a complete lockdown on information reaching the ships. Egypt banned them from using radio and imposed a police guard on every ship.
In the following weeks and months, the shipping companies endeavored to obtain permission to bring their crews home, while the United Nations carried on continuous negotiations to reopen the canal. After three months a compromise was finally reached. The Egyptians refused to reopen the Suez Canal, but allowed the crews that had been trapped on-board the 14 ships to leave and be replaced by other personnel. The men were pleased to go home but, in time, several of them returned to the canal for another tour of duty.
The ships had to be maintained so they could leave at a moment’s notice in case the canal was opened and they occasionally moved around the Bitter Lake to test the engines. For the sailors, work was like that on any other ship. There was plenty of maintenance work to be done: on the vessels there was a lot of cleaning, repair work, running the engines, fire safety drills. On account of the hot tropical climate - the outside temperature was close to 50 degrees centigrade - working hours were cut from eight hours to six hours on weekdays and to four hours on Saturday. Sundays were free. This left enough time for reading books, playing cards and ping-pong, and drinking beer.
After a while the men became unhappy because they were always eating the same food. And, since they were in the middle of a lake, in the middle of a desert, in the middle of a war zone, it wasn’t easy to get supplies. But the crews realized that among the stores of the fourteen ships there actually was plenty of variety. So they started pooling their resources and then they started hanging out a lot and since they were mainly young sailors, drinking and partying a lot. So, the captains started worrying about finding a way to diminish the amount of idle time on the ships, and they founded the Great Bitter Lake Association.
The GBLA was a special sort of social committee that had been conceived to bring some order to this provisional community, and to provide a sense of stability in an very unstable place. Thanks to the Association, the men were no longer just individuals on a ship, but members of a society. Each man was given a specially designed tie and a badge. The badge itself was in the shape of a shield, with a large anchor across the center. At the top were the letters GBLA and at the bottom was the number 14 for the 14 ships in the lake. Running diagonally behind the anchor was a thin blue strip to represent the Suez Canal.
The crews eventually set aside their nation’s Cold War hostilities, moored together, forming a sort of micronation, that was called the “Yellow Fleet,” because the frequent sandstorms had stained the hulls of the ships.
The story of the Yellow Fleet was told by British author Cath Senker in her book Stranded in the Six-Day War, self published in 2017.
Each ship was assigned a special duty. On account of its wide deck, one of the British ships was chosen to become the site of an official soccer pitch, surrounded by netting so the ball wouldn’t end up in the lake and used to hold tournaments. The Polish ship Jakarta was the Post Office; the GBLA even had its own hand-drawn stamps. Obviously, these stamps had no postal validity so to make sure the letters arrived at their destination, real Egyptian stamps were also attached to the envelopes. Nevertheless, some letters reached their recipients with Great Bitter Lake stamps alone. The Jakarta also had a doctor so it became the de facto hospital.
On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. In reality, these services were murmered to resemble a beer party (the Germans received regular supplies of free beer from breweries back home). Apparently, the stranded sailors drank a lot of beer and tossed all of the empty bottles into the lake, and so they joked that the bottom was probably covered by five feet of beer bottles.
In 1968, during the Mexico City Olympics, the sailors held their own “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with events in 14 sports, including sailing, diving, sprinting, swimming, high jumping, archery, shooting and water polo. Poland won the gold, the Germans came second and the British placed third.
After a couple of years, the shipping companies agreed to moor the vessels in groups and decided to shrink the crews to a skeleton team. In June 1969 there were 200 crew members on the Bitter Lake, by Christmas only 50 remained. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War the American vessel, the African Glen, was hit by a stray missile and sank but luckily, no lives were lost.
In 1974, an agreement to reopen the Suez Canal was finally reached but by this point most of the remaining ships in the Great Bitter Lake were no longer seaworthy and needed to be towed out of the canal.
Only the two German ships, the Münsterland and the Nordwind, were capable of sailing under their own steam, and they were well rewarded for their efforts. They were carrying raw materials like wool, steel, lead, and ore sand for making sandpaper, and these goods had enormously increased in value during the time they had been blocked in the Suez Canal. The two ships were given a memorable welcome back in Hamburg, where some 30,000 cheering spectators turned out to see them dock at their home port. The Münsterland set the world record - eight years, three months, and five days - for the longest sea shipping voyage in history.
Over a period of eight years, some 3,000 men (and one woman – a Swedish stewardess who became known as the Lady of the Lake) had spent some time on one of the ships of the Suez flotilla. For some, the experience in the canal was one of the most significant of their lives.
Two former members of the Yellow Fleet were quoted as follows in the British newspaper, Daily Express: “The events of June 1967 will stay with me for the rest of my life,” says Peter Flack, a crew member of the British ship Agapenor. George Wharton, a former crew member on the Melampus, has only fond memories of his time on the ship.
“I did two spells on the Great Bitter Lake,” he says. “And still have my gold medal when we held our own Olympics. Very happy days.”