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Stranded in the Suez Canal

22 March 2017 by Ben

Flags flying from one of the Suez Canal ships, 1967. Reproduced with permission of George Wharton.

On 1 June Merseyside Maritime Museum is hosting a special reunion event to mark the 50th anniversary of ships being stranded on the Suez Canal between 1967 and 1975.  Three of the stranded ships were from Liverpool; MS Melampus and MS Agapenor from the Blue Funnel Line and MS Scottish Star from the Blue Star Line.

Our guest blogger Cath Senker explains how the event came about:

“I first discovered that 14 merchant ships were trapped in the Suez Canal during the Six-Day War in 1967 when I viewed Uriel Orlow’s intriguing art installation, The Short and the Long of It, at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne in 2014. It seemed incredible that the ships were stuck for eight years and that a strong community formed in the middle of the Great Bitter Lake, between the two warring armies of Israel and Egypt. This community – the Great Bitter Lakes Association (GBLA) – bridged the Cold War divide: there were Polish, Bulgarian and Czech seafarers alongside people from the UK, France, Germany and the USA, as well as neutral Sweden.

The story piqued my interest. Looking online, I found several web pages devoted to the Yellow Fleet – as the ships became known once their paintwork faded and was blasted by the desert sands. I joined seafarers’ forums, including Ships Nostalgia and the British Merchant Navy Old Friends Plus. A few threads discussed the Suez ships. I realised that since the advent of the internet, crew members who had been in the Great Bitter Lake had re-established contact with each other. There was renewed media interest in the story too. In 2010 BBC Radio 4 broadcast ‘The Yellow Fleet’, and a GBLA reunion took place the same year in Germany. But I couldn’t find a single history book documenting the events in detail and putting them in context.

The cover of Cath Senker’s forthcoming book. Cover design by Jane Hawkins. Cover photo courtesy of Captain Brian McManus

An experienced author, I decided to write one myself. I posted messages on seafarers’ forums, and several people came forward, unearthing memoirs, letters, documents and photos, many of which had never been published. They had memorabilia, including sports medals and home-made GBLA stamps. Others interested in the story generously shared their materials. I met with some people who’d been on the Suez ships, spoke to several more and held discussions online with former sailors around the world. I heard from seafarers who were trapped in June 1967, those who were involved at the height of the GBLA, and others who prepared the ships for departure in 1975. Piecing together their accounts, I set them against the background of the Arab–Israeli conflict and the history of the Suez Canal. I became convinced this unusual story should be more widely known and that the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War was the perfect opportunity for the seafarers’ voices to be heard.

I approached Ben Whittaker at Merseyside Maritime Museum, who was fascinated by some GBLA trophies and memorabilia in the museum’s collection and similarly enthusiastic about my idea of bringing together the people involved in this unique experience in maritime history. The Museum generously agreed to host an anniversary reunion, which will take place 50 years after the ships were stranded in the Six-Day War.”

Cath Senker’s book ‘Stranded in the Six-Day War’ will be launched on 1 June 2017 at the 50th anniversary reunion on of seafarers from the ships trapped in the Suez Canal, at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool.

If you or a family member were on one of the stranded ships on the Great Bitter Lake during 1967 to 1975 and want to share your story and be part of the reunion, contact Ben Whittaker.  Telephone 0151 478 4401 or email ben.whittaker@liverpoolmuseums.org.uk.

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