SS Ulysses was launched in 1913 in Belfast. She was a steam passenger ship with a displacement of 14,647 tons. She was built for Alfred Holt & Co, trading as the Blue Funnel Line, to sail the route Glasgow - Liverpool - Brisbane. Her home port was Liverpool. During WW1 she served as a troopship and carried Australian soldiers to the Middle East and Europe, and American soldiers across the Atlantic. After the war she resumed commercial service for the Blue Funnel Line in 1920. The Blue Funnel ships all took their names from Greek mythology. They all had that distinctive high blue painted funnel. Most of the ships were cargo ships but a few like Ulysses were passenger liners. Ulysses was sunk in April 1942 by a U-boat and this is the story of her last voyage.
In 1941 she was in Hong Kong for refitting. Her Captain was James Appleton Russell. The crew were billeted ashore. In September, 1941, whilst nearing completion, the ship was damaged in a typhoon. She had been towed out to a buoy in the harbour, and moored fore and aft, but in the storm, she broke her moorings and ran aground at Green Island, at the western entrance to the harbour. This necessitated further repairs and delayed her departure from Hong Kong. Hong Kong had been living under the threat of a Japanese invasion for several years since Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and the rest of China in 1937. In 1940, many of the British women and children resident in Hong Kong were evacuated to Australia. In November 1941, two Canadian infantry battalions arrived as reinforcements. The garrison was split into two infantry brigades, one holding the Mainland and the other defending the Island. Hong Kong was on the eve of war, and the Mainland Brigade was already manning the "inner line" known as the Gin Drinkers Line. Tensions were high, but many thought Japan was blustering and that war could be averted.
In December 1941, Lt Alexander ("Alec") Kennedy, RNVR, commanding officer of MTB 09 one of eight motor torpedo boats based in Hong Kong, had proposed to Rachel Smith. Rachel was the daughter of Norman Lockhart Smith, the Colonial Secretary. Smith, who was known by his initials "NL", was due to retire from the Colonial Government Administration and he and his daughter, Rachel, were booked to sail back to Britain on the Ulysses. Alec Kennedy in a privately published book titled Hong Kong Full Circle 1939-1945 described their departure.
"On the evening of 6th December, the officers and crews of the merchantmen in harbour 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 "NL" 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 mobilised, and the regular battalions were at their battle stations on the border."
The 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. After one day's passage from Hong Kong, and whilst heading for Manila, they heard by wireless that war had begun, and that Manila was already under attack. Captain Russell decided to change course and sail to 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 a Japanese aircraft had passed overhead and dropped bombs, which resulted in near misses and no damage was done. The next day a Japanese aircraft strafed the ship with machine guns. Again no serious damage and no injuries were sustained. 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 the Ulysses, after her distress signal had been received, stating that she was under attack by Japanese aircraft. They found no sign of her.
The ship eventually reached Singapore, causing some surprise, as people thought she had been sunk, as after sending out the distress signal, the ship had maintained radio silence. She remained in Singapore for a week, where she undertook further repairs. The passengers, including Rachel and her father, were put ashore and accommodated for a week in the Raffles Hotel. Singapore was being bombed and the Japanese were fighting their way through Malaya towards Singapore. Just before Christmas Ulysses departed Singapore for Fremantle after having embarked a large number of women and children evacuees. From Fremantle they sailed to Adelaide for repairs. By this time Hong Kong had surrendered and Lt Alec Kennedy had escaped with the five remaining MTBs to the coast of China and made his way with the other boat crews across country to Free China. It was in Adelaide that Rachel first heard that her fiancé had escaped and was on his way to Burma. After picking up some cargo, the ship sailed via Sydney, and Auckland across the Pacific and through the Panama Canal into the Atlantic Ocean. One of the passengers who joined the ship in Sydney was nineteen-year-old Helen Hills. She and her mother Edith had gone to Australia in October 1941 to stay with relations. When Edith returned to Hong Kong, she decided to leave Helen in Australia where it would be safer. Edith worked as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse in a military hospital in Hong Kong during hostilities, and her husband, Hebert worked in Air Raid Precautions (ARP). After the British surrender Edith and Herbert were interned at Stanley Camp. Helen had two brothers at boarding school in England and decided to return to England on the Ulysses. She later joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Stuart, the oldest of her two brothers, joined the Army after leaving school and took part in the invasion of Normandy. He was awarded the Military Cross.
|Ulysses (Source: Wikipedia)|
As the Ulysses steamed up the coast of Florida she was involved in a collision. On 8th April 1942 she collided with the Panamanian tanker Gold Heels causing a hole in her hull below the waterline and major damage to her bows. The ship had to slow down, which made her a 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 the life boats to be lowered. Her 195 crew members, which included five gunners, and her 95 passengers, were picked up by an American destroyer, the USS Manley.
|SS Myrmidon (Source: www.wrecksite.eu)|
Roger Lewis also sent me these press cuttings:"My mother,Mary Patricia Rowell,had boarded the ship in Austrailia with her parents,her father being Thomas Richmond Rowell (later to be Director of Education in Hong Kong and awarded the CBE in 1950). Apparently the ship was full of rubber from Malaya and therefore did not capsize. In my mother's account she talks of the incredible generosity of the American people. Baroness Rothschild took every passenger to Macy's store in New York for replacement shoes. On her return to the UK my mother joined the WRNS, was on incendiary duty on the roof of St Paul's and was later posted to Bletchley Park where she worked as a cypher clerk on the enigma project. Hopefully this will be of interest."
|Awaiting rescue in the lifeboats|
The ship's radio officer had sent a distress message before abandoning ship. In response a US military aircraft arrived at the scene. The destroyer USS Manley reached the area some seventy-five minutes later and rescued all the passengers and crew who had taken to the ships boats. All ten of the ship's lifeboats had been utilised before she sank. For one of the ship's stewardesses, Katherine Lacy, this was the third time she had been torpedoed at sea, but for Lester Pilbean, one of the crew, it was the fifth time he had been torpedoed at sea and lived to tell the tale. The story of the Ulysses captured the imagination of the American public. The passengers and crew were shown great kindness by the people of Charleston where they landed. In Charleston the passengers were accommodated in the Francis Marion and Fort Sumter hotels. The next day they were taken by train to New York via Washington. They stayed in the Wellington Hotel for ten days. When you look at the faces of the survivors in the newspaper photographs, although they have lost everything, and nearly lost their lives, they don't look downcast, they look indomitable.
In the centre is Judith Rowell, Roger Lewis's aunt, then aged 11, and although difficult to seeing the photograph, she is holding three kittens which she had rescued from the ship. The cats mother was the only casualty - she went down with the ship. On the right is Vera Wickett with her baby son Peter. Vera was known by her stage name Vera Wood and was a well known opera singer.
Captain J.A. Russell was the last to leave his stricken ship. Gibson, his Quartermaster, refused to leave the bridge, and left after searching the ship to make sure that no-one had been left behind. He left with his Captain. There was no panic, women and children boarded the lifeboats first, the crew were efficient. The lifeboats pulled away before the ship sank. It was the last voyage for the Ulysses.
SS Ulysses Passengers list on her last voyage :
Please email me at Philip.G.Cracknell@gmail.com or comment in comments section to advise me of any additional names of passengers or crew or any amendments needed or other information relating to the last voyage.
Cotton Frederick William. Ship's Doctor
Addendum Doctor F W Cotton (1874-1950)
I received an email from Andrew Connor (April 2021) advising me that his godfather Doctor Frederick Cotton was the ship's doctor on SS Ulysses during her departure from Hong Kong on the eve of battle and her subsequent sinking in the Atlantic. He was sixty-seven years old at the time. Following the sinking he returned to UK from Halifax on SS Vibran which departed Halifax 12 May 1942 and arrived Liverpool 21 May 1942. There were eleven passengers all seamen (presumably Ulysses crew members.