During the lockdown, readers have been looking for titles that reflect their experiences. I’ve had a small flurry of interest in Stranded in the Six-Day War. People see some similarity between being marooned on a ship because of the external dangers and being cooped up in their homes to avoid Covid-19 infection.
One such reader is Derek Kelly, who wrote to me recently:
‘I’m cocooned in my home with my wife Nuala in Dublin. I discovered your book on Kindle. I have to tell you it is brilliant and I really enjoyed every bit of it. Superb. Being cocooned it really cheered me up because it evokes great memories and a nice synopsis of the history of the importance of the Suez Canal and the effects of its closure on many countries.’
Derek also recounted his own story from the Great Bitter Lake. I wish I’d been able to include it in the book – but now you can read it.
In 1967, the young Irish Merchant Navy Radio Officer was asked if he would be prepared to do a two-month stint in the Suez Canal to relieve the original crew who were trapped on Melampus. He joined the stranded ship for two months, from 23 August to 24 October 1967.
‘We landed in Cairo and stayed the first night in a very luxurious hotel. We went for a swim before dinner in their beautiful outdoor pool. On returning for dinner we found the food was inedible and even the butter was rancid. Our first indication there had been a war and it was not quite over. The following morning we were driven in a battered minibus into the desert to join our respective ships.’
From radio officer . . .
‘Everyone on the Melampus got on great from the start. The first thing I found out was that I was unemployed. The radio room was locked, and we had two Egyptian guards to ensure it would remain so. Captain Lee told me that he would arrange for our guards to be distracted. He wanted me to get through the window of the radio room and check if everything was working.’ The radio would be needed if the ships were freed to leave or in case of an emergency.
‘To me this was more fun than a risk so I complied happily. Everything was in perfect working order. However, I was not left to be totally idle.’
… to film librarian
Derek’s new job was to help the Third Officer with the film library. Most ships carry two films. The stranded ships formed a library scheme so they could exchange films.
‘This was an arduous task for me. Every couple of days, we set off to all the other ships. After boarding a vessel to exchange a film, it was almost mandatory to have a drink. To get around all the ships with that kind of hospitality took a long time.’
Captain Lee had another job for Derek.
Sightseeing in a war zone
‘After a month, the captain asked me to take a couple of our ratings and a few from the Agapenor to Cairo for a couple of days’ sightseeing. The [Egyptian] agent would take care of everything. This I gladly did. While having lunch in a hotel, there was the scream of a jet. The agent, in a panicked voice, instructed us all to get under the table quick to be safe from falling debris. Nothing happened, but I’m sure the agent had seen a lot in the previous months. On board ship we frequently saw jets flying over and signs of skirmishes. On one occasion we saw a lot of black smoke, which we guessed might have been the destruction of an oil storage plant near Cairo.’
Founding the GBLA
Derek witnessed the founding of the Great Bitter Lake Association in October 1967.
‘The GBLA was formed by the first relief crew – I still have my GBLA tie. At the initial meeting on board Melampus, we agreed membership would cost a pound. We invited the British Foreign Secretary George Brown, a colourful and controversial character, to join the GBLA. We got no reply. Two months later, as I was disembarking at Heathrow airport, I was reliably informed that a black car drew up beside the plane. The driver got out and handed an envelope to someone in our party. It contained a pound note from the Foreign Secretary George Brown for his membership fee.’
Accident on board
Derek’s return journey was memorable for other reasons.
‘A day or two before our crew were due to return home, I was walking down the companionway when the heel of my shoe caught in the aluminium of the lino on the step. I tripped and fell down the steps. I was about to get up when Captain Lee appeared beside me. He said “Don’t move, Derek – one of your legs is pointing where it shouldn’t.” ’
‘He rushed off and was back in a minute. He gave me morphine and somehow I ended up in my bunk. A lifeboat was launched to fetch the doctor on the Polish ship. He arrived and strapped up my leg. The next morning I was put on a hatch cover, lowered into a launch and taken to shore to be driven to Cairo hospital.’
‘After an operation the following day, I was told I was nine storeys up. All the windows had huge strips of tape on them to stop glass flying into the ward in the event of an air raid. Not a comforting thought, with a broken leg in a cast. To cheer me up, the Melampus crew had sent in flowers and a get-well card.’
Boarding on a forklift
‘I was soon brought to the airport with the rest of our crew for the return journey home. I was loaded by forklift truck on to the plane and provided with three first-class seats to myself. My shipmates and the aircraft crew all signed my plaster cast. I was informed I could have all the free drinks I wanted. But wondering how I would go for a pee, I prudently declined. After a transfer in London, I eventually arrived back at Dublin Airport to be met by my girlfriend Nuala, now my wife of 50 years.’