The Arabs and the Jews have never got along. Since the rise of Zionism and Arab nationalism towards the end of the 19th century, the two groups have been involved in petty conflicts that have often led to serious consequences. But out of all the horrible things war entails, one of the best things to come out of the conflict in the Middle East is the story of the “Yellow Fleet”.
In 1967, Israel’s relationship with Egypt turned sour over the closure of the Straits of Tiran, around the Sinai Peninsula, to Israeli vessels. Israel reacted by capturing the Sinai Peninsula and Egyptian forces retreated to the west. But as they did, Egypt blocked the Suez Canal behind them to prevent the enemy from using it.
That summer, a convoy of fifteen ships—four British, two American, two Swedish, two Polish, two West German, one French, one Bulgarian and one Czechoslovak—were heading southward through the 100-mile Suez Canal when fighting broke out. The convoy had reached nearly the halfway mark through the canal when Egypt’s President Gamal Abdul Nasser ordered the Suez Canal to be blocked. Within hours of the President’s order Egyptian forces dragged old ships, dredgers and other water crafts to both ends of the canal and sunk them to make entering or exiting the canal impossible.
The United States vessel SS Observer strayed away from the convoy and was stalled at Lake Timsah, while the others moved to the widest part of the Suez Canal, called the Great Bitter Lake, and dropped their anchors.
While the war itself was short-lived, lasting only six days, the canal remained closed for the next eight years imprisoning the fifteen ships and their reluctant crews inside.
“We were in a very comfortable prison,” said Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.”
Scuttled ships block the entrance to the Suez canal at Port Said during the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt.
On the fifth month, the officers and crews of all fourteen ships got together and found the “Great Bitter Lake Association”. To pass time they organized social events and activities, such as card games, barbeque parties on the deck, movie nights, football tournaments and water skiing. Life boats were equipped with sailing gear and a yachting club was founded. Soccer games were played on the largest ship, the MS Port Invercargill, while church services were held on the West German motorship Nordwind. Movies were shown on the Bulgarian freighter Vasil Levsky, and the Swedish Killara had a pool.
More than a year into their captivity, the fleet organized the “Bitter Lake Olympics”, coinciding with the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. Crews from eight nations competed in 14 disciplines, including sailing, diving, sprinting, high jump, archery, shooting and water polo. The Poles won the Olympics overall, the Germans came second and the British third.
They even devised a postal system with hand-crafted postage stamps and cancellation rubber stamps that said “Mailed on Board”. Of course, the stamps were not real and had no postal validity. To make sure the letters actually reached their destination, real Egyptian stamps were attached along with the ships’ decorative stamps. Yet, some covers are known to have reached their recipients with Great Bitter Lake stamps alone.
Fortunately, the crews were not trapped inside the canal for the entire eight years. They were allowed to go home and replacement crews were brought in. This was needed to keep the ships in order. There was plenty of maintenance work to be done on the vessels—cleaning and repairing, transferring of fuel, fire safety drills. Because of the hot tropical climate, working hours were cut from eight hours to six hours on weekdays and to four hours on Saturday. Sundays were free. This left enough time for reading books, playing bridge and ping-pong, and drinking beer.
The crews were rotated every three to four months. Over this eight year period, some 3,000 men did duty on the stranded Suez ships. For some, the experience in the canal was one of the most memorable.
“But what was remarkable was the strong community these crews forged, even though they came from countries on opposing sides of the Cold War,” British writer Cath Senker told Express.
The canal finally opened in 1975, but only two ships—the German ships Münsterland and Nordwind—were able to return home under their own power, and were received by 30,000 cheering spectators in Hamburg. After years of inactivity and isolation, the rest of the sand-battered ships—which became known as the Yellow Fleet—were in too bad shape to be salvaged. One of the ships, the American vessel SS African Glen was sunk in 1973 by an Israeli rocket. The British wrote off its four ships as insurance loss, and the Swedish ship Nippon was bought by Norway.