Wednesday, 31 July 2013

SS Ulysses - the story of a ship

SS Ulysses - the story of a ship

In an earlier blog  I wrote about Lt. Stuart Hills whose parents were in Hong Kong when the Pacific War erupted  and were incacerated in Stanley Camp. He had joined the army and took part in the invasion of Normandy. He was a tank officer and he fought his way through France to Germany. In the earlier blog I included a reference to his sister Helen who was in Australia in late 1941 when the Pacific War commenced. She decided to return to UK and took passage on the blue funnel line SS Ulysses. However the ship was torpedoed off the Carolinas – the survivors were picked up by an American Destroyer the USS Manley. Helen eventually reached England safely.

This is the story of that ship with a focus again on Hong Kong - what I had not realized at the time is that SS Ulysses left Hong Kong on Sunday 7th December 1941 the day before war began.

The ship was launched in 1913 in Belfast for the China  Mutual Steam Navigation Company to sail from Glasgow - Liverpool - Brisbane.  After World War 1 broke out  in 1914 she served as a troopship resuming commercial service for the Blue Funnel Line in 1920.

Fast forward to 1941 - the Ulysses needed a refit and British dockyards were targets for German bombing so she was sent out to Hong Kong to undertake a full refit. While nearing completion in September 1941, the ship was damaged in a typhoon and ended up being grounded at Green Island, in the western entrance to Hong Kong's natural harbour.

Blue Funnel Liner - SS Ulysses

Lt Alexander Kennedy a young officer in the RNVR who had been recently posted to Hong Kong and was commanding officer of a Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB 09), had fallen in love and proposed to Rachel Smith, daughter of former Colonial Secretary and Acting Governor Mr Norman Lockhart  ("NL") Smith, who was due to retire from Hong Kong and return to UK on SS Ulysses, which by this time had almost completed repairs.

Lt Kennedy in a privately published book "Hong Kong Full Circe 1939-1945 takes up the story:

"On the evening of 6th December, the officers and crews of the merchantmen in harbor were recalled to their ships, and the passengers for the Ulysses told to be onboard within 12 hours. I went out to the ship to to say goodbye to Rachel and  "N L" early the next morning. Crossing the harbor the launch passed a coaster which had just arrived from Singapore and had brought among its few passengers the new Colonial Secretary, Mr Franklin Gimson.

A steady stream of ships put out from Hong Kong that Sunday morning, all heading south. Ashore the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corp were being mobilized, and the regular battalions were at their battle stations on the border." (1)

Ulysses sailed that fateful Sunday while the Japanese were preparing to attack the American Fleet at Pearl Harbour and to invade Hong Kong, Malaya and the Philippines and to plunge the Pacific into war and devastation.

One day out of Hong Hong and heading for Manila - they heard by wireless that war had begun and that Manila  was already under attack and accordingly the Master -  Captain Russell set course for Singapore. Early one morning the ship's siren sounded and a loud explosion was heard. The passengers rushed up to the boat deck to find that Japanese aircraft had passed overhead and dropped bombs which luckily were near misses and no damage was done. Another close escape.

The next day a single Japanese aircraft attacked the ship with gun-fire. Again no serious damage and no injuries were sustained. The ship eventually reached Singapore causing some surprise as people had thought she had been sunk - since the ship had maintained radio silence after the first aircraft attack.

The destroyers HMS Scout and HMS Thanet which left Hong Kong on Monday evening 8th December bound for Singapore had been ordered to look out for SS Ulysses as a distress signal had been received that she was under attack by Japanese aircraft. Although they spent some time searching on Tuesday 9th December they had seen no sign of her or of enemy aircraft.  

In Singapore she remained a week whilst she was placed in dry dock for bottom scraping and other repairs. The passengers including Rachel and her father were put shore and accommodated for a week in the Raffles Hotel. Just before Christmas Ulysses departed Singapore  for Fremantle after having embarked a large number of women and children evacuating from Singapore whilst battle raged ever closer in Malaya.

From Fremantle they sailed to Adelaide for repairs. By this time Hong Kong had surrendered and Lt Kennedy had escaped with the remaining MTBs to the coast of China and were making their way across country to Free China.

It was in Adelaide that Rachel heard that her fiancĂ© had escaped and was making his way to Rangoon in Burma.  She burst into tears with relief. After picking up cargo the ship sailed via Sydney across the Pacific and through the Panama Canal into the Atlantic Ocean. One of the passengers who joined the ship in Sydney was Helen Hills whose parents were now held captive in Hong Kong and whose brother Stuart would later land on the Normandy beaches and fight his way through France to Germany.

As she steamed up the coast of Florida Ulysses was involved in a collision.  On 8th April 1942 she collided with the Panamanian tanker  Gold Heels resulting in serious damage to the bows and a hole below the waterline. The ship had to slow down making it a perfect target for German U-boats.

On April 11th her luck ran out and she was torpedoed by U-160 off the coast of Carolina. Three torpedoes hit the ship but she settled slowly providing enough time for life boats to be launched and all 190 crew, 5 gunners and 95 passengers were picked up by an American Destroyer, the USS Manley.

SS Ulysses after having been struck by a torpedo - her final moments

The picture above shows the Ulysses' boilers blowing shortly before sinking. This was taken by a US aircraft who first reached the scene. Shortly afterwards the American destroyer arrived, scrambling nets were lowered and the the survivors brought up on deck. They were landed in Charleston and then sent by train to New York, where they took passage on SS Myrmidon back to England.

SS Ulysses had made her last voyage.


Passengers on SS Ulysses final journey include:

Helen Hills
Whose parents (Herbert and Edith) were interned in Stanley Camp and whose brother was
born in Hong Kong and served as a tank commander in the Battle of Normandy. She joins  the ship in Australia.

Group Captain Horry
He was commanding officer of the RAF in HK but was posted to Singapore and departed HK on 7th December on SS Ulysses. His successor being Wing Commander Sullivan.

Norman Lockhart Smith
N L Smith was returning to UK to retire - a former Colonial Secretary in Hong Kong an Acting Governor until the arrival of Sir Mark Young on 11th September 1941. His replacement as Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson arrived the day before war began - and on the very day that SS Ulysses sailed on her fateful last journey.

Rachel Smith
Daughter of "NL" she had recently become engaged to Lt. Alexander Kennedy RNVR who escaped from Hong Kong with the remaining Motor Torpedo Boats and made his way to Free China.


(1)  "Hong Kong Full Circle 1939-1945" -  Alexander Kennedy, Lt Cdr. 

Photo of SS Ulysses :                         

Photo of  SS Ulysses sinking:             

"By Tank into Normandy"                           Stuart Hills

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