Captains of the Great Bitter Lake

The role of the captain of a ship is usually crystal clear. But what about when he is stuck on a stranded ship in a war zone, with no prospect of leaving any time soon? On the 14 merchant vessels marooned for eight long years in the Suez Canal (1967–75), the captains maintained their responsibility but had to adapt to the extraordinary situation.


Here, I publish for the first time Master David Kemp’s 1968 photos of the captains of the Great Bitter Lake, along with some extracts from my book, Stranded in the Six-Day War. I’ve kept his helpful labels to identify the captains. I’ve also received a photo from Peter Valdner from 1968. If you can supply any of the missing names, please get in touch.



Relaxed rules

The rules on board ship are similar to those in the armed forces, with a strict hierarchy. When Captain Brian McManus arrived on Agalampus in December 1968, he found the rules had been modified to suit the special circumstances on the Bitter Lake. Rather than addressing officers by their titles, everyone was on first-name terms – but the captain’s names were still prefixed, so he was to be ‘Captain Brian’. Officers and crew socialised and played sports together, but there was still a chain of command. Some captains felt a little uncomfortable with the breaking down of barriers. Captain Wolfgang Scharrnbeck of the Münsterland felt that in his role of captain, it was wrong for him to befriend the crew, although some of his colleagues ‘didn’t seem as clear on this issue.’ (page 98)



First Officer Dirk Moldenhauer joined the German ships after they had been in the Bitter Lake for a year. It was tricky to find jobs to keep all the crew occupied for eight hours a day – and sometimes sailors complained about the work they were given, asking why it was really necessary.


Once the ships were moored together and the crews greatly reduced, seafarers had to do a wider variety of tasks than normal. As George Wharton’s letter of appointment for his second stint in the Great Bitter Lake on 15 July 1968 stated, ‘You will probably be called upon to undertake work not normally associated with your Department or your status on board.’ But by the time he arrived, there wasn’t that much work to do at all. He remembers working just one day in three and only about three hours a day. He even earned a bit of extra cash helping out the engineers and says ‘I became very good at table tennis.’



Others felt the compulsion to keep occupied. African Glen’s First Officer Jack Rodrigues commented, ‘The secret out here is to keep busy – or you’ll go psycho.’ On the same ship Captain Watt could be spotted rubbing down the wooden railings on the bridge or polishing the brass work. ‘It’s something to do’, he explained. (pages 95–6)



Captains of the GBLA, 1968 (Peter Valdner)


Cath Senker

December 2017
With thanks to David Kemp for generously supplying the first 3 photos and Peter Valdner for the 4th one.



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