This is an edited version of the post on the Merseyside Maritime Museum blog.
In June 1967, at the outbreak of the Six-Day War, 14 merchant ships were passing through the Suez Canal. As hostilities erupted, they were ordered to halt in the Great Lake. Although the war was brief, after it finished, the Egyptian government refused the ships permission to leave. Those ships remained stranded in the Suez Canal until June 1975.
Four of them were British-flagged, including three from Liverpool shipping lines: MS Melampus and MS Agapenor from Blue Funnel Line, and MS Scottish Star from Blue Star Line. Over the period, 3,000 seafarers served on the trapped ships in the middle of a war zone, maintaining the vessels and protecting their valuable cargos. Although they came from both sides of the Iron Curtain, they formed a close community.
On 1 June 2017, almost 50 years to the day after the ships were stranded, around 100 former Suez seafarers and their guests gathered at the Merseyside Maritime Museum for a special reunion event. The BBC One Show filmed at the event – the segment was part of the show broadcast on 12 July (about 50 minutes in), and can be viewed on BBC iPlayer until the end of July 2017.
We listened to various reminiscences from the Great Bitter Lake. Peter Flack spoke of the day of the Israeli attack on Egypt, when Mirage jets emerged from the east, flying frighteningly close over the ships in the Suez Canal. He witnessed huge explosions as bombs decimated the Egyptian airfields. Peter has painted a stunning watercolour of this scene, which he has donated to the Merseyside Maritime Museum.
Others were on board at the height of the Great Bitter Lake Association (GBLA), and had participated in the extraordinary range of social and sporting activities, including the weekly ‘church’ gatherings aboard the Nordwind, where people organised the exchange of supplies and services, upcoming sports fixtures, and had a drink or two.
George Wharton was a keen athlete who took part in the GBLA Olympic Games in 1968, a spectacular fortnight of sailing, diving, sprinting, weightlifting and water-polo contests. A few, including Malcolm Morrison, had prepared the ships for departure in 1975 – a tough job without the fun and games enjoyed by the earlier crews.
Some people had not met since they worked together on the ships 50 years ago, and there were emotional reunions as they rediscovered former shipmates. Andy Lanigan attended with his son. Elderly now, his memory is not what it used to be. But as he entered the museum that day, he spotted his old pal from the Great Bitter Lake, exclaiming “there’s Georgie Wharton”. Having not met for decades, they have now renewed their friendship.
All of us who attended are grateful to the Merseyside Maritime Museum for hosting this remarkable event. As Malcolm Morrison commented,
“It is amazing that you could get so many people together to discuss an event that took place 50 years ago.”