Anatomy of a disaster: the Bombay Docks Explosion

Black and white photograph of seaman Denis Mahoney in his uniform

Able Seaman Denis Mahoney of the SS Tinombo

This narrative begins with a recollection of my father’s, a resident of a care home in October 2016. Dad recalled not only the name of the vessel on which he was a DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship) gunner, but also the name of British ammunition ship SS Fort Stikine, the vessel that caused a massive explosion on Friday 14 April 1944 in the docks of Mumbai (called Bombay at the time).

This had remained in my father’s consciousness for many years not only because he was lucky to survive the disaster but because the explosions killed over 740 people and injured thousands more.

I examined our records in HO 187/739 and ADM 1/16065 to put together a timeline of the path to disaster and explain the inadequacies of the responses by all concerned.

The SS Fort Stikine, captained by Captain Naismith, was a 7,000 ton freighter. It reached Karachi on 30 March, where some of its cargo was unloaded, including crated spitfires, gold bars and 1400 tons of explosives including shells, torpedoes, mine signal rockets and incendiary bombs (most of which were for discharge at Bombay). Sulphur, cotton bales, timber, lubricating oil drums, turpentine, fish manure and resin were loaded to fill up the empty hold, flouting all normal rules.

The ship arrived in Victoria Dock on 12 April. Unloading started on the evening of 13 April, and then only of the fish manure and oil drums, some of which were leaking. This delay was the first of many errors that would lead to the catastrophic explosion.

Also on 13 April an officer of the Ministry of War Transport met with Chief Engineer Gow to discuss maintenance. The official sanctioned repair work but crucially this decision rendered the ship immovable except by tug.

Stowage plan of SS Fort Stikine

Stowage plan of SS Fort Stikine – note the cotton bales stored in No. 2 hold with explosives (catalogue reference: HO 187/739)

Fort Stikine was one of 13 ships being worked that day; next door in Princes Dock were a further ten ships. At midday on 14 April the stevedores broke for lunch. So, as it turned out, did the civilian watchmen, a fact unknown to the captain, his officers or the two DEMS Gunners patrolling the ship.

At approximately 12.45 smoke was seen coming from the ventilators of No. 2 hold. The Commission of Enquiry later speculated that a stevedore could have climbed the ladder out of No. 1 hold, gone through the bulkhead door and descended into No. 2 hold for a cigarette.

A member of the police force also saw the smoke at 13:30 but dismissed it, believing that those on board would have the situation in hand. It was not until 13.45 that Mohamed Taqi, a foreman of a stevedore gang, observed the smoke in No. 2 hold. The alarm was raised by the crew and soon several hoses were directed into No. 2 hold. A standard precaution in the docks was to have a trailer pump with full crew standing by when a ship was being discharged. Seeing the stampede of people from the ship, the Section Leader ordered his Sub Leader to contact the Fire Brigade Control Room and give them a Number Two message (this would have alerted the Fire Control Room that the ship carried explosives).

Unfortunately the Sub Leader was unable to telephone the control; he instead broke the glass on the fire alarm, alerting the Fire Brigade to a fire – but not that it involved explosives! Consequently only two engines were despatched. Due to the density of the smoke the crew and firemen could not find the source of the fire and poured water in blindly.

At 14:25 Major Oberst, Ordnance Service, (Indian Army), arrived on board and asked for the stowage plan; he pointed out the extreme danger to the docks and suggested the ship be scuttled. Around the same time, Commander J.H. Longmire, Chief Salvage Officer of RINR (Royal India Naval Reserve), and Mr N. Coombs, O.C. of the Fire Brigade Service, arrived and requested that a large quantity of sulphur and detonators be removed from No. 1 hold. A meeting between the Captain, Chief Engineer and all above mentioned was held, but it turned out that the depth of water prevented flooding the holds. Nevertheless Oberst reiterated his fears to the ship’s captain.

By 14:45 the bulkhead dividing holds No. 1 and No.2 had become hot, and the men in No. 1 hold could hear ammunition exploding in No.2. The viability of introducing steam into the hold and battening down the hatches was discussed. Oberst, Longmire and Coombs also talked about Captain Naismith’s inability to reach a decision as to the scuttling of his ship.

Colonel Sadler, the dock’s general manager, arrived on board at 14:50 and advised that the ship be floated out of the harbour. As the engines were disabled, the only way this could be done would be with tugs. Sadler and Coombs argued about the merits of the former’s solution; Coombs was optimistic that the ship could be saved.

Two water tugs arrived shortly after 15:00 with additional water hoses. None of the high profile men on board felt that he could take overall command; neither of the two men ashore authorised to do so could be contacted. So three conflicting points of view existed on board: Captain Naismith wanted to save his ship, Colonel Sadler his docks and Coombs wanted the Fort Stikine to stay where it was so that his crew could concentrate on extinguishing the fire.

After 15:00 an attempt was made to cut a hole in the hull where a hot spot has appeared, but the equipment failed and there was a delay obtaining more. By 15:15 the floating bales of cotton had begun to ignite and some of the explosives had caught fire. Thick black smoke poured through the hatches, engulfing the firemen; burning pieces of cotton spewed skywards threatening other ships in the docks.

At 15:50 a giant flame shot out of the hold and many firemen were forced to abandon the ship. Captain Naismith gave the order to his men to abandon ship; he was last seen walking towards one of the harbour sheds. His body was never recovered.

At 16:06 there was a massive explosion. Fort Stikine was blown in two; its boiler, still intact, was found a half mile away. A huge tidal wave swept across the dock and ripped ships from their moorings, with one ship finishing astride a warehouse. At 16:33 a second explosion occurred, damaging or destroying the remaining ships in Victoria and Princess Dock, including the SS Tinombo, of which my father was a crew member. He survived by jumping into the dock. In Victoria Dock alone, 13 ships were lost.

Image of a wreck of a ship with an illustrated map showing the position of wrecked ships after the explosion

Wreck of a ship in Victoria Dock after the explosion (catalogue reference: ADM 1/16065)

Many people were killed outside the dock area by falling shrapnel and shells which exploded on impact. Approaching channels to the docks were littered with obstruction, and a vast land area was utterly devastated. It took four days to extinguish the main fire and for a  further two weeks smaller fires continued to smoulder in the ruins.

Map showing the expanse of the fire

Sketch map showing expanse of the fire (catalogue reference: HO 187/739)

Overall, 231 people attached to the various services were killed, and another 476 injured. Outside the docks over 500 civilians were killed and a further 2,408 were injured. Thirteen ships were lost and 50,000 tons of shipping was destroyed, with a further 50,000 tons severely damaged.

10 comments

  1. Clare Thorp says:

    A fascinating insight into the events leading up to a WW2 maritime tragedy.

  2. M Conway says:

    A very informative and interesting blog about a little known disaster of the Second World War. Clearly mistakes were made by a series of officials in authority but above all the rules of transporting ammunition with other combustible materials was flouted!

  3. C Berry says:

    It must have been very interesting to speak to your father about this and then even more interesting for you to then go away and research this. It has been real privilege as a reader to get insight into what actually happened. Thanks for sharing what must have been in part a personal journey with your father.

  4. John Fieldhouse says:

    Hello Michael
    I came across your account by chance recognizing the maps and diagrams as having been taken from the Government of India War Transport Department Commission of Inquiry; First and Second Reports of the Bombay Explosions.
    I know this because I have both reports here together with a short handwritten account written by my father Raymond who felt and heard the first explosion from his fourth floor apartment in Shanti Kuteer on Marin Drive. My father was a sergeant serving in the Royal Corps of Signals but had been posted on Special (secret) Duty in Bombay in April 1944. He was sitting together with his corporal colleague and their first assumption was that either the city was being shelled by Japanese warships, bombed by aircraft, or that a stray shell – from earlier allied target practicing in the bay – had exploded. After half an hour the two of them hired a taxi to go to the Central Station so that the corporal could catch his train to Delhi. While passing along Marine Drive toward Chowpatti the two of them witnessed the second explosion and its aftermath from which – because of the secret nature of their work – they were prevented from assisting in rescue work.
    My father’s description is both chilling and beautiful. He describes the second explosion; ‘the golden ball swelled, turned heliotrope and flattened like a mushroom.’
    My father died over 35 years ago and though I have kept some of his ‘archives’ I never imagined that I would be able to share them with anyone! Many were killed in the explosions, even more were injured. Your father was fortunate to survive!

    1. Richard dias says:

      While doing research work on the dock explosion of 1944, I came across your comments. I just want to know the life of common people in Bombay during that troubled period. any help will be much appreciated you can send any reply to my email [personal details removed] tks.

  5. John Fieldhouse says:

    As a postscript I might add that my father writes that the entire event was neither mentioned in the local newspaper the following day, nor in the days thereafter – weird!
    John Fieldhouse

  6. Bob Mossman says:

    I am wondering if there is a list of the names of everyone, who died, dock workers, firefighters, and civilians that can be referred to somewhere online. I am particularly interested in the fate of Ali Mahomed and his father Haji Mahomed. Ali may have been involved in some working role at dockside and his father was a businessman in the nearby neighborhood. Any help would be appreciated as I am working on a non-fiction biographical book in which Ali Mahomed is a one of the main characters. Many thanks. Bob Mossman

    1. Nell Brown (Admin) says:

      Hi Bob,

      We’re unable to help with research requests on the blog, but if you go to our contact us page: http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/contact/ you’ll see how to get in touch with our record experts via phone, email or live chat.

      Good luck with your research.

      Nell

  7. Commander Mohan Narayan, IN (Retd), Mumbai, India says:

    A fascinating account of a catastrophe that rocked Bombay in the midst of a raging World War.I was particularly intrigued by the comments of Mr John Fieldhouse of 21 May 2017 as I once resided next door to, Shanti Kuteer, Marine Drive, Bombay (now Mumbai ) .
    I am doing independent research on the subject and have read John Ennis’s book on the subject. May I request you for some assistance. Would it be possible to access Part 2 of the Commission of Inquiry Report ( I already have Pt 1) headed by Sir Leonard Stone, the then Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court . It dealt with the events after the second explosion and discusses in detail about the damages the city of Bombay suffered due to the explosion. Any help would be greatly appreciated and duly acknowledged.

    1. Liz Bryant (Admin) says:

      Dear Commander Narayan,

      Thanks for your comment.

      We can’t answer research requests on the blog, but if you go to our ‘contact us’ page at http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/contact/ you’ll see how to get in touch with our record experts by email, live chat or phone.

      Best regards,

      Liz.

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