As Israeli forces raced across the Siani Peninsula, Egyptian forces took measures to ensure that the Suez Canal wouldn’t be captured. They scuttled ships on either end of the canal to prevent it from being used.
Unfortunately, there were ships still in the canal and they got stuck…..for a long time.
Learn more about the Yellow Fleet and crews that sailed to nowhere, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
On June 5, 1967, war broke out again between Egypt and Israel. The war, the Six-Day War, was as the name suggests, a very short one.
In a matter of a few days, Israeli forces had raced across the Sinai Peninsula and were approaching the Suez Canal.
The Suez Cana was extremely important for Egypt. With it, they controlled almost all shipping between Europe and Asia. It gave them geopolitical leverage as well as a great deal of money.
As the Israelis were racing towards the canal the Egyptians had to make a hard choice. They could either lose control of the canal to their enemies and everything which come with it, or they could deny the Israelis use of the canal.
They went with the second option.
They scuttled numerous vessels on either end of the canal to block the passage of ships. They blew up a bridge, and they also mined the canal.
The Suez Canal was closed for business.
This had enormous impacts on global shipping. The Suez Canal shortened the length between Europe and Asia by 8,900 kilometers or 5,500 miles. Goods would now take weeks longer to reach their final destination.
Ships that were just outside the canal on either end had to turn around and either go back to their homeport or take the much longer route around Africa.
Those ships, however, were able to turn around. There were a small number of ships that were caught in the middle of the canal. There were 15 ships traveling north through the canal when it was closed.
Fourteen ships were trapped in the widening of the canal known as Great Bitter Lake. One was stuck further north a widening known as Lake Timsah.
Not only was the way out on either end blocked with sunken ships and mines, but on either side of the canal, there were bitter enemies who were shooting at each other.
For months the ships just sat there. They couldn’t go anywhere, and none of the crew could get off the ships.
Finally, in October, five months after the canal was closed off, the officers of the 14 ships in the Great Bitter Lake met onboard the British Ship Melampus to discuss their collective problem.
They agreed to create the informal “Great Bitter Lake Association”. They would jointly visit each other ships for various activities to keep the crews occupied.
A British ship, the MS Port Invercargill was the largest ship and they hosted soccer matches. Church services were held on the West German ship. The Bulgarian ship had movie nights, and the Swedish ship had a pool.
The next year, 1968, the ships held their own version of the Olympics at the same time as the Mexico City games. The “Bitter Lake Olympic Games” were held between the various ships. The eight nations represented competed in 14 events sailing, diving, sprinting, high jump, archery, shooting, and water polo.
The first place country was Poland, with the Germans coming in second, and the British coming in third.
By 1969, with no end in sight for the rescue of the ships, something had to be done. The crews couldn’t be expected to spend the rest of their lives imprisoned on these ships.
By the same token, they couldn’t abandon the ships entirely.
They eventually developed a plan to let most of the crew go home.
They decided to cluster the ships up into three groups. Each group would have a small caretaker crew with representatives from each ship. The caretaker crews would perform basic maintenance on the ships and would be rotated out every three months. In between their three-month tours, the crews could go home.
Given the high temperatures of the region, most of the crew on the ships only had to work for six hours a day. They cleaned, maintained the engines, conducted drills, and basically tried to keep the ships operational given the conditions.
Over the years, the ships developed a quasi-political status. The “Great Bitter Lake Association” became a sort of micronation between Egypt and Israel.
They developed their own postage system and their own stamps. The stamps had no legal authority, but they actually worked. Coupled with Egyptian postage, they managed to get sent and routed to the correct ships.
The stamps and envelopes from the Great Bitter Lake Association have become collectibles for people who collect stamps.
Over time, the dust of the desert began to cover the ships and they developed a yellowish hue, which is how they got their name, the Yellow Fleet.
Eventually, all wars come to an end.
In 1975, the Suez Canal opened again, and the ships were all free to leave. Over 3,000 sailors were rotated in and out over the years they were stuck in the Great Bitter Lake.
The British ended up writing off the total value of their four ships. The Swedish ship was purchased by a Norwegian company. One of the American ships was accidentally sunk by an Israeli rocket in 1973.
The two West German ships were the only ones of the 15 who were able to sail out of the canal on their own power. When they sailed into Hamburg, they were greeted by a crowd of 30,000 people.
When the German SS Münsterland finally arrived it had completed a voyage that had lasted eight years, three months, and five days.