SS City of Cairo

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SS City of Cairo.jpg
SS City of Cairo in wartime livery
Career Civil Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
Name: SS City of Cairo
Operator: Ellerman Lines Ltd, London
Builder: Earle’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd, Hull
Completed: 1915
Fate: sunk on 6 November 1942
General characteristics
Class and type: Steam passenger ship
Tonnage: 8,034 tons
Length: 450 feet
Speed: 12 knots
Capacity: 7,422 tons general cargo
311 passengers and crew

The SS City of Cairo was a British passenger steamer. She was sunk in the Second World War with heavy loss of life.

She was built by Earle’s Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd, Hull in 1915 for Ellerman Lines Ltd of London. She was 450 feet (140 m) long, had two decks, two masts and measured 8,034 tons. She was homeported in Liverpool.

Last voyage

She was requisitioned during the Second World War to bring supplies to the United Kingdom. Her last voyage, under the command of her Master, William A. Rogerson, was to take her from Bombay, which she departed on 1 October 1940 to the UK, via Durban, Cape Town and Pernambuco, Brazil.

City of Cairo departed Cape Town at 06:00 on the morning of 1 November, carrying 101 passengers, of which 28 women and 19 children. Also onboard were 10 D.E.M.S. (Defence Equipped Merchant Ships) Gunners from the Army and Royal Navy. Among the total complement were two spare Lascar crews recruited in India for service on British ships. She was carrying 7,422 tons of general cargo, including pig iron, timber, wool, cotton, manganese ore and 2,000 boxes of silver coins. She travelled north for 800 miles (1,300 km), zig-zagging during the day and keeping about 45 miles (72 km) off the African coast, before turning westwards across the South Atlantic towards Brazil and her next port of call. She was unescorted and only capable of 12 knots (22 km/h). Her problems were exacerbated by the excessive smokiness of her engines which increased her visibility.


On 6 November, the smoke trail was sighted by the U-boat U-68 under the command of Karl-Friedrich Merten. At 21.36 hours U-68 fired a torpedo at the lone merchant. The torpedo struck the City of Cairo abreast of the after-mast. The master gave order to abandon ship and all the women and children left the ship safely, only six people, two crew and four passengers, being lost in the evacuation. The ship, still underway, had stabilised but she was slowly settling by the stern. A distress call was made, which was acknowledged by the U-68, who provided the callsign of the Walvis Bay station in South Africa.

Merten fired a second torpedo 20 minutes after the first, which caused the ship to sink by the stern about 480 miles (770 km) south of St Helena. One of the two crew lost in the sinking, Chief Radio Officer Harry Peever, was killed in this strike. He had remained in the wireless room to send distress signals. Once the City of Cairo had sunk, U-68 surfaced alongside the six lifeboats that had been launched. Merten spoke to the occupants of No.6 boat, asked the ship's name, cargo and whether it was carrying prisoners of war. He then gave a course for the nearest land, which by now was either the Brazilian coast, approximately 2,000 miles (3,200 km) away, Africa was 1,000 miles (1,600 km) and St Helena was 500 miles (800 km). Merten then left them, with the words "Goodnight, and sorry for sinking you".[1] He privately thought that they had little chance of survival.[2]


Six lifeboats had been successfully launched after the sinking. The larger ones, Lifeboats 1, 5, 6, 7 and 8 held 54, 54, 55, 57 and 55 people respectively, whilst the smaller Lifeboat 2 held 17 people. After assessing the situation, it was decided to attempt to reach the nearest land, St Helena, despite the danger of overshooting the small island and becoming lost. There were 189 people in six boats, each of which had a compass, but there was only one sextant among them. These, along with Master William Rogerson's Rolex watch, would be needed for navigation, and this would require the boats to remain together. The survivors hoped to reach St Helena within two or three weeks and water was rationed at 110 ml a day per person, despite the tropical heat. Over the next three weeks, most of the boats lost contact with each other, and numerous occupants died. Rogerson had hoped to prevent a fragmentation of the boats for as long as possible, but as the situation worsened he was compelled to allow one of the faster boats which was short of supplies and taking on water, to press on ahead. The boats also suffered damage, with rudders or masts being broken, causing some to lag behind. Eventually most of the boats had lost sight of each other and were proceeding alone.


Three of the boats, consisting of the Master and 154 survivors were eventually rescued on the morning of 9 November, by the SS Clan Alpine, en route to St Helena. The survivors reported that there were three other boats at sea, but by now were unsure where they were. After fruitless searches the Clan Alpine landed the survivors at St Helena, though more would die after being transferred to the hospital. Later in the evening of 19 November another boat with 47 survivors was rescued by the SS Bendoran, and taken to Cape Town. These four boats had been at sea for 13 days before being rescued. Of those picked up, one man later died aboard the Bendoran, two aboard the Clan Alpine, and another four died in hospital in St Helena.

One boat with 17 people on board, having not sighted St Helena by 23 November, decided that they must have overshot it. Several of the occupants were already dead and rather than trying to search the area for the island, decided to head west to the coast of South America 1,500 miles (2,400 km) to the west. On 27 December, after a voyage of 51 days, only two survivors, the City of Cairo’s third officer and a female passenger, remained alive when their boat was spotted and picked up by Brazilian Navy minelayer Caravelas. They had got within 80 miles (130 km) of the Brazilian coast and were landed at Recife. The third officer was awarded the MBE and was repatriated on the SS City of Pretoria. He was killed when the City of Pretoria was torpedoed and sunk by U-172 on 4 March, 1943. The female survivor, Margaret Gordon, was awarded the BEM and refused to cross the Atlantic until the war was over.

Another three survivors were picked up by the German merchant and blockade runner Rhakotis, which was travelling from Japan to Bordeaux, on 12 December, 1942. They had spent 36 days at sea. One of the survivors then died aboard the Rhakotis. The Rhakotis was intercepted by the cruiser HMS Scylla on 1 January 1943, who torpedoed and sank the merchant off Cape Finisterre. The two remaining survivors from the City of Cairo managed to make it into different lifeboats and survive their second sinking. One was picked up the next day by U-410 and landed at Saint-Nazaire three days later. The submarine was almost destroyed en route, when she was detected and attacked by British bombers. The other City of Cairo survivor's lifeboat eventually landed in Spain.

Out of a total of 311 people aboard the City of Cairo 104 had died, including 79 crew members, three gunners and 22 passengers, with 207 surviving. Six are known to have died in the sinking, 90 in the boats, and seven after being rescued. Some of the names of those lost are inscribed on the Tower Hill Memorial.



Coordinates: 23°30′S 5°30′W / 23.5°S 5.5°W / -23.5; -5.5

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