The Empire Windrush: The Story of a Ship

 

Throughout history ships have been seen as more than just big wood or steel constructions that floated on the sea, more than just a means of transport for goods and passengers, more than their mercantile reason for being.  Amazingly, they have tended to be given personalities, partly by being called 'she', as though they were living beings that we trusted to protect and shelter us as we crossed the unforgiving seas, and partly because we sensed their individuality. No two ships were or are alike.

 

Quite often ships could be regarded as lucky or unlucky, an idea based on the experience of sailors who knew their life was on the line if the ship failed them. A good ship, a lucky ship, was what all sailors wanted and needed. An unlucky ship could spell doom for those on board.

 

On rare occasions a ship achieved an emotional and meaningful expression so powerful that its name echoes through decades. Lucky or unlucky, the name of a ship could become synonymous with with some deeper meaning or movement in history. Such a ship was the Empire Windrush, which on one occasion in the year 1948 brought West Indian migrants to London. It became symbolic of a whole generation of West Indian migrants into Britain from the late forties to the early seventies, known as the Windrush Generation. This event was of enormous political, social and cultural significance for Britain, so much so that now, seventy years later, the phrase "Windrush Generation" is more known than ever before.  It has to be said that present knowledge of the Windrush Gereration has heightened in recent times because many of the people invited here as citizens of the UK and Colonies have been betrayed by a calous state and told they were not British and should leave or risk being deported.

 

This catastrophic political debacle is of prime importance, but this article looks at the ship itself, because it appears to have had a kind of leverage in historic events in the twentieth century.

 

The Empire Windrush was built in Hamburg in 1930 as the MV Monte Rosa by the Blohm and Voss company, one of the bigest shipbuilders in Germany.  It was Blohm and Voss that in 1940  built the battleship Bismarck, one of the most powerful warships of the Second World War. The Monte Rosa was designed to be a cruise liner for the company Hamburg-Sudamerikanische Dampfs. It was named MV Monte Rosa, after a high peak in the Alps, located between Switzerland and Italy, the second highest mountain in Western Europe.

 

 

Monte Rosa in the Alps

View of the Monte Rosa in the Alps.

 

 

monte rosa

Photograph of the Monte Rosa at sea. Note the black painted hull with white decks above, a standard pattern for commercial cruise ships during the 1920s and 30s. It was a smart, sophisticated colour scheme that looked good on all the great cruise liners of the period.

 

The ship had a gross tonnage of 13,882 tons, and its diesel engines made it capable of a speed of up to 14.5 knots. It could carry 1,372 tourist class passengers, and 1,036 steerage class.

 

The Monte Class of ships included four sister ships. They were:

 

 

This photograph of the Monte Olivia shows how similar the ships were.

 

Monte Olivia

Photograph of the Monte Olivia at sea.

 

The MV before the name Monte Rosa indicates that it was a motor vessel, meaning it was powered by diesel engines rather than the traditional steam power of cruise liners of the time.  The diesel engines powered two propellers.  Here is a photo of the sister ship Monte Pascal in dry dock in Hamburg showing the huge twin propellers.

 

Monte Pascal

Monte Pascal in dry dock in Hamburg showing the twin propellers.

 

And here is a photo of the engine room of another sister ship, the Monte Cervantes, showing the diesel engines that powered the twin propellers.

 

Monte Cervantes Engine Room

The Engine Room of the Monte Cervantes.

 

The photo below shows the impressive presence of the Monte Rosa in Hamburg Harbour.

 

Monte Rosa

Photograph of the Monte Rosa moored at dolphins at Hamburg, some time in the 1930s.

 

 

After the Nazi regime came to power in Germany in 1933, they developed the idea of providing  affordable holidays for loyal party members. A company was set up called Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) which promoted holidays, enterainment, health and fitness for the population.  Holiday camps were set up along the Baltic and Friesland coasts, including islands like Heligoland. Passenger ships like the Monte Rosa were commissioned to provide cruises around the Baltic and beyond. Many leading Nazis enjoyed cruises on the Monte Rosa.

 

 

Poster for Kraft durch Freude

Leaflet advertising a variety show in Kassel involving people and animals organised by the company Kraft Durch Freude.

By Alexander Buschorn - Collection Alexander Buschorn, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=564093

 

 

Passengers on the Monte Rosa

Cruise passengers relaxing on the the deck of a ship believed to be the Monte Rosa.

 

 

Following the start of the Second World War, the Monte Rosa was requisioned as a troop ship and took part in the invasion of Norway in April 1940.  However, as the war progressed, things became darker. It became a prisoner of war ferry ship running between Oslo and Aarhus in Denmark. Much worse, the first batch of Jews to be deported from Norway did so on the Monte Rosa. On arrival at Aarhus they would have been sent by train to concentration camps in Germany or Poland.

 

Towards the end of the war, in 1944, she served as a support ship for the battleship Tirpitz, which was stationed in Norway and under attack by the British RAF. 

 

At the end of the war a number of German and axis ships were siezed and became the property of the British Government.  The Monte Rosa was captured at Keil in May 1945 and became a British Ministry of Transport troop ship. On 21st January 1947 she was renamed the Empire Windrush, named after the River Windrush in the Cotswolds just north west of Oxford and which is a tributary of the Thames.

 

The River Windrush

The River Windrush at Bourton-on-the-water.

 

 

A number of the former passenger ships captured by Britain at the end of the war were renamed using the initial word Empire, creating the names:

 

 

It is curious that all these ships were given the first name "Empire" at the very point when the Empire ceased to exist. British hubris was alive and well in those days.

 

The Empire Windrush had its hull painted white, the standard colour used for troop ships, and was put to work serving the Far East and Australia. In 1948 on the way back from Australia it crossed the Atlantic and stopped off at Kingston in Jamaica to pick up the first group of migrants taking up employment in Britain. This was the most significant event in the history of the ship, the event that led to a whole generation being named after it. 

 

 

 

Windrush arriving in London June 1948

The Empire Windrush arriving in London, 1948.

 

 

 

Empire Windrush

The Empire Windrush at the dock in 1948.

 

 

 

 

Windrush

British troops preparing to board the Empire Windrush on their way to Korea, 1954. Note that although the photograph looks almost identical to the one above there is now a dark stripe painted along the length of the ship. This is a green stripe. A white hull with a green stripe indicates a hospital ship.

 

As a hospital ship, the Empire Windrush set off from Japan in February 1954 on a voyage carrying 1,500 wounded and recovering servicemen from the Korean war back to England. They got as far as the Mediterranean Sea when the ship caught fire. An attempt was made by the destroyer HMS Saintes to tow it to a safe harbour, but on Monday 30th March 1954 the Empire Windrush sank. It now lies at the bottom of the Mediterraenean Sea.

 

 

Windrush on fire

The Empire Windrush on fire, 1954.

 

 

Windrush on fire

The Empire Windrush on fire, 1954, showing lifeboat being launched.

 

 

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