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SS Ceramic (1913) .jpg
Ship data
flag United KingdomUnited Kingdom (trade flag) United Kingdom
Ship type Passenger ship
home port Liverpool
Shipping company Shaw, Savill & Albion Steamship Company
Shipyard Harland & Wolff , Belfast
Build number 432
Launch December 11, 1912
takeover July 5, 1913
Commissioning July 24, 1913
Whereabouts Sunk 7th December 1942
Ship dimensions and crew
199.67 m ( Lüa )
width 21.15 m
Draft Max. 13.4 m
measurement 18,713 GRT / 11,710 NRT
Machine system
machine Triple expansion steam engines
6,000 PS (4,413 kW)
16 kn (30 km / h)
propeller 3
Transport capacities
Permitted number of passengers 600

The Ceramic was a passenger ship of the British shipping company White Star Line that was put into service in 1913 and was built by the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast , Northern Ireland . For years she was the largest ship in White Stars Australia service. After the merger of the White Star Line with the Cunard Line in 1934, the Ceramic was sold to the Shaw, Savill & Albion Steamship Company . On December 7, 1942, the steamer was sunk west of the Azores by the German submarine U 515 with five torpedoes. Of the 656 passengers and crew members, only one survived. The U 515 took it on board to ask him about the destination of the ship and the troops he was carrying. The other travelers perished in the troubled sea, including dozens of women and children. She was the eleventh largest civil ship sunk in World War II.

The ship


The 18,713 GRT large Ceramic had eight built of steel decks , twelve watertight bulkheads , a chimney, four poles and three propeller . The triple expansion steam engine and the low pressure turbine developed 6,000 hp and enabled a maximum speed of 16 knots. She was equipped with electric lights , wireless telegraphy, and sufficient lifeboats for everyone on board. There was space for 600 passengers on board. The White Star Line was known for the elegant and comfortable furnishings in the cabins and lounges on their passenger ships. In addition to the main dining room with space for 540 guests and a 120-meter-long promenade deck , the Ceramic also had a reading and writing room, a lounge, an oak-paneled smoking room and a gym on the boat deck. The passenger cabins, which were equipped with either two or four beds, were spacious and had a ventilation system .

The Ceramic was built by the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland for the White Star Line's Australian service and was launched on December 11, 1912. On July 5, 1913, the completed ship was handed over to the shipping company. Six days later the Ceramic was anchored in Liverpool on the Mersey when King George V inaugurated the Gladstone Graving Dock. On July 24, 1913, the ship ran under the command of Captain John Stivey in Liverpool on its maiden voyage to Sydney .

A departure of Ceramic in 1925.

The Ceramic was built for passenger and freight traffic from Great Britain to Australia and was the largest, longest and fastest ship on this route, which was called the "Antipodean Route". The ship was often called Queen of the Southern Seas (in German: "Queen of the South Seas"). It also held the record for the tallest-masted ship that could pass under the Sydney Harbor Bridge . The Ceramic was built to fit through the old Tilbury Lock with just one foot . In August 1914, the steamer was requisitioned by the British Admiralty and called up for military service as Troopship A40. She transported units of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN & MEF). In May 1916, with 2,500 soldiers on board, she narrowly escaped a submarine attack in the Mediterranean. In June 1917 a torpedo missed the ship in the English Channel . On July 21 of the same year, the Ceramic was pursued by a surfaced submarine, but was able to take it down.

Port view of the deck.

From 1917 she mainly brought freight to Australia. After the end of the war, she was returned to the White Star Line, converted and set off on November 18, 1920 on her first post-war voyage to Australia. On December 18, 1930, she collided with the British motor ship Laguna near Gravesend on the Thames . There were no casualties, but both ships were damaged. In 1934 the Cunard Line and the White Star Line merged. The Shaw, Savill & Albion Steamship Company, commonly known as Shaw, Savill & Albion Line , bought the ships from White Star's Australian fleet, including the Ceramic . The steamer remained on the UK – Australia route via South Africa. On August 25, 1934, she began her first trip in service with the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line from Liverpool to Brisbane .

In 1935 Ceramic was brought back to Harland & Wolff to carry out major renovation and modernization measures. Her speed was increased from 15 to 16 knots, the passenger capacity was reduced from 600 to 480 and a veranda café was installed. In addition, the front bridge deck was newly glazed. The volume increased from the original 18,481 GRT to 18,713 GRT. In 1938 the passenger accommodation was limited to 340 people. In February 1939, the Ceramic was again declared a troop transport in the event of war, but continued to operate in regular passenger traffic . On August 11, 1940, she collided with the British merchant ship Testbank (5,083 GRT) of the Andrew Weir Line off the coast of South West Africa (now Namibia) and had to be towed to the port of Walvis Bay for repairs . 279 passengers were taken over by the P&O ship Viceroy of India .


On Monday, November 23, 1942, the Ceramic left Liverpool for another crossing to Sydney via St. Helena and South Africa . The 67-year-old Captain Herbert Charles Elford was in command. On board there were 278 crew members and 378 passengers, a total of 656 people. Among the passengers were 196 members of the Royal Navy and the British military, 30 nurses from the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) and 152 civilians, including 50 women and 12 children and Rudolph Dolmetsch, the son of Arnold Dolmetsch . The 12,362 tons of cargo included aircraft parts for the Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Australia and South Africa. The ship was armed with a 4-pounder cannon and anti-aircraft guns.

The presence of submarines in the North Atlantic was known, so the steamer left Liverpool as part of the transatlantic convoy ON-149 heading west. On December 2, the Ceramic left the convoy and steamed south at top speed towards St. Helena. Captain Elford was convinced that any submarine could escape thanks to the speed of his ship. On December 6th at 2:38 p.m. the Ceramic was discovered west of the Azores by U 515 , a submarine of the German Navy . It was on its second patrol under the command of Kapitänleutnant Werner Henke . Henke took up the chase of the steaming ship at top speed.

On December 7, 1942, shortly after midnight, U 515 fired a torpedo at Ceramic , which was darkened at the time. The alarm was immediately triggered on board the passenger steamer. A few minutes after the first hit, the submarine fired two more times, this time the engine room was hit. The Ceramic came to a standstill and the lights on board went out. The steamer was now in complete darkness, plus very cold weather, a churned sea and poor visibility. Despite these adverse conditions, there was discipline among passengers and crew on board and a total of eight lifeboats could be launched. When the struck steamer still did not sink after three hours, U 515 fired a fifth torpedo, which was a direct hit and caused the Ceramic to sink within ten seconds.

In the meantime the weather had deteriorated further, there were heavy waves and it had started to rain heavily. The lifeboats ran full and had to be constantly exhausted by the castaways . A heavy storm with typhoon-like gusts broke out at around eight the following day. The storm was later described by sailors from other nearby ships as the strongest they had ever seen. One boat after the other capsized and sank, many dead and survivors in life jackets floated in the water. Captain Henke received instructions by radio to return to the place of the sinking. He was supposed to find the master of the Ceramic to find out something about the ship's destination and any prisoners of war or troops on board. Around noon on December 8, U 515 therefore reappeared near the swimmers. Since only corpses and debris could be seen at first, Henke ordered his men to take in the first survivor they would find. When a man drifted near U 515 , the first officer on watch and a boat mate threw him a rope. It was possible to take the castaways on board. It was Eric Alfred Munday, 24, a sapper in the Royal Navy.

They did not find the captain of Ceramic , Herbert Elford. Although the crew also saw some of the lifeboats whose occupants waved to the submarine, no other people were taken. The Enterprise , a British light cruiser of the Emerald class and the Portuguese destroyer Dao were sent on 9 December, to search for survivors, but no one took longer present. Because of the storm, they soon had to cancel the rescue operation and withdraw from the area.


U 515 set course for Lorient on the coast of Brittany , where it entered on January 6, 1943. Eric Munday was the only survivor of the Ceramic , all other 655 passengers and crew were killed. He was taken as a prisoner of war to the Stalag VIII-B prisoner of war camp, where he remained until he was liberated.

In 2006, Munday was the only existing eyewitness to help the American author Clare Hardy, whose grandfather, passenger Trevor Winsor, died in the sinking, with the preparation of her book SS Ceramic: The Untold Story .

Furthermore, the sinking should be decisive for the fate of the German submarine commander Werner Henke. He was publicly accused , apparently by the UK , actually on the initiative of the USA , of shooting survivors floating in the water. This was reported by 85 alleged survivors of Ceramic . In reality, only the man U 515 brought on board had survived .

When U 515 was tracked down on April 9, 1944 by the submarine fighter unit of Captain Daniel Vincent Gallery and attacked by planes from the escort carrier Guadalcanal and four destroyers, it had to surface damaged. Henke and 43 members of his crew became US prisoners of war . He was taken to the Fort Hunt Interrogation Center in Alexandria, Virginia . There he was shot while trying to escape on June 15, 1944.

The names of the Ceramic's victims are recorded on numerous war memorials in Britain, including the Brookwood War Memorial in Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey and the Tower Hill Memorial in London.


  • Isherwood, JH: Steamers of the Past . Sea Breezes, London, 1966
  • Mulligan, Timothy P .: Lone Wolf: The Life and Death of U-Boat Ace Werner Henke . Praeger Publishers, 1993
  • Hardy, Clare: SS Ceramic: The Untold Story . Central Publishing, 2006

Similar cases

Other British passenger ships sunk by German submarines:

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b Hans Herlin : Damned Atlantic - Fates of German submarine drivers. 11th edition. Wilhelm Heyne Verlag Munich, 1979, ISBN 3-453-00173-7 , page 120.
  2. Hans Herlin : Damned Atlantic - Fates of German submarine drivers. 11th edition. Wilhelm Heyne Verlag Munich, 1979, ISBN 3-453-00173-7 , page 125 ff.

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