Stranded in the Six-Day War: homecoming to Hamburg

As I’m about to launch a new edition of Stranded in the Six-Day War, I continue my series of posts with extracts from the book alongside new, unpublished photos – some here kindly provided by Siegfried Hellwig following the 2017 Nordwind reunion.


This extract covers the triumphant return of the two German ships, which powered themselves all the way back to Hamburg – after eight years stranded in the Suez Canal.


The Great Bitter Lake Association flag

The Nordwind and Münsterland were the only stranded vessels to return home independently, under the capable command of Captain Peter Leder and Captain Helmut Raasch respectively. A crew of 32 men were sent out to Egypt in January 1975 to prepare the ships for the journey, although preparations went on for so long that some of the seafarers were replaced in April with relief crew. The crews charged with bringing back the German ships discovered a one-metre growth of mussels on the hulls. Yet once the Nordwind and Münsterland were separated, the seafarers found the engines were in good working order. Things started to move fast from the end of April, and it appeared the ships would soon be leaving. On 3 May, 43 new crew members were sent out to the Great Bitter Lake.


The Münsterland (Captain Brian McManus)


Model of the Nordwind (Siegfried Hellwig)


That night, the crew experienced ‘something of the old romantic Bitter Lake atmosphere. As always, the sun glowed red behind the sand dunes.’ The following day was Sunday. The final ‘church’ gathering of all the seafarers was held on the Nordwind, and all vowed to stay in contact through the Great Bitter Lake Association.


On the final day, the crews of the Münsterland and Nordwind made final visits to say goodbye to the other seafarers. For Captain Raasch, it was an emotional farewell; even in these final few months, everyone had appreciated the unique atmosphere in the little community on the lake. The ships departed on 7 May, travelling slowly and cautiously. On 8 May 1975, Nordwind captain Peter Leder announced on Radio Norddeich that the engines of both ships were working properly, and they were making their way back to their home port.


Although the ships had got off to a good start, Münsterland crew member Wilhelm Schifferdecker remembers feeling nervous that they would run into bad weather or experience engine difficulties. On the journey, the seafarers decided to make a special homecoming pennant. There would be 1cm of bunting for every day of the voyage: 30.16 metres for the Münsterland and 30.14 metres for the Nordwind. They worked intensively on the pennants, but unfortunately the vast amount of fabric made them too long and heavy to fly freely.


Arrival of the Nordwind (Wilhelm Schifferdecker)

As the Münsterland and Nordwind drew alongside, the crowds clapped and cheered. ‘Almost everyone who had had anything to do with the ships was there – owners, friends, relatives and acquaintances. No one wanted to miss this occasion’. To the astonished Captain Raasch, it was ‘one of the greatest pageants that the port has ever experienced’.


It was an event worth celebrating – the Münsterland had made the longest sea-shipping voyage in history: 8 years, 3 months and 5 days.


And the crews did stay in touch. Nordwind reunion, 2017:
From left: Josef Gattermayr, Peter Leder, Siegfried Hellwig, Horst Wagner, who spent the longest time at sea, Peter Erdmann, Günter Strobel, Karl Salmutter (Siegfried Hellwig)

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