An extract from a new book. Cover picture courtesy of The German raider ATLANTIS also captured the SPEYBANK and the story is told in detail in the book.

The following account is taken from a new book, available for pre-order on AMAZON called ” STOP – at ONCE!”

The Zam Zam Story

The sinking of the ZAM ZAM by the German armed raider ATLANTIS

 The sinking of the Egyptian passenger vessel ZAM ZAM was one of the more bizarre episodes on the high seas.  Kommandant Rogge on the ATLANTIS must have regretted the action many times over after the event.    Not only was she neutral flag, but the passengers were largely American at a time when Hitler was trying not to provoke the USA into declaring war In support of Britain and the Allies.  Among the passengers were 138 Americans, 26 Canadians, 25 British, 5 South African, 4 Belgians, 1 Italian, 1 Norwegian, and 2 Greeks who were nurses.  The crew consisted of 129 persons made up of 106 Egyptian nationals, 9 from Sudan, 6 Greeks, 2 Yugoslav, 2 Turks, 1 Czech, 1 French, and the Captain and Chief Engineer who were both British.   It was a mixed bag, but the predominance of American citizens was a major problem, and it wasn’t long before the world was calling it, “ the second LUSITANIA” with all the consequences that that might mean.

Built back in 1919 as the Bibby Liner LEICESTERSHIRE, she was a stately old lady who had seen better days.  She was 4 masted, an unusual profile in WW2, and later analysis and post mortem confirmed that by a quirk of fate, Kommandant Rogge recognised her as one of the GLOUCESTERSHIRE/LEICESTERSHIRE class usually used as troop transports.    He was unaware of the sale and change of flag.      The mistake stemmed from a visit pre-war that Rogge had made to Dartmouth, during the coronation of George VI, when  he had admired their lines and use. 

Her details were Length 467.2ft, 54.3ft beam, and 31.7 depth.  Her tonnage was 8,059 tons gross and she was a twin screw vessel that could make 15 kts on a good day.  Accommodation was provided for 230 passengers in single berth cabins.    Her trooping activities when owned by Bibbys were numerous, and the Government of the day requisitioned her in 1914 over to be used by the Indian Expeditionary Force.  Then it was the turn of the troops to be transported to Russia in 1918 for the Bolshevik revolution.   A voyage was made down to Melbourne to repatriate Australian troops after WW1.   When finally handed back to Bibby Line, she was converted from coal to oil burning and updated in a comprehensive make over, after which she resumed a regular service around the Cape to Rangoon.

The LEICESTERSHIRE was laid up briefly in 1932 before being offered for sale, and going to The Egyptian Company for Transport and Navigation, who gave her the distinctive name of ZAM ZAM. According to Islamic tradition, “Stop Stop” or ZAM,ZAM were the words that Hagar cried when the Angel Gabriel struck the ground to bring forth water to save her and her son Ishmael. The water flowed and was God’s blessing which still flows today.

 The name was appropriate for the intended use on the popular run down the Red Sea to Jeddah, and it was the opposite of her previous world-wide wanderings.  After changing Egyptian owners and being laid up for a period, she again resumed sailing, this time on the Alexandria/Cape Town/New York route.  This was a few months before the fatal voyage and the confrontation with SCHIFF 16, the ATLANTIS, an action which is still reverberrating today, 80 plus years later, in court.

The fateful voyage began on March 20th, 1941, when the ZAM ZAM sailed from Jersey City bound for Brazil, and then onwards to the Middle East.  Although she had a neutral flag, a decision was made to sail at night without lights, something which became an issue when the neutrality was questioned after the sinking.   The Master was a dour Scot called William Gray Smith and he oversaw the boarding of the passengers with some misgiving.   On the quay at departure, some 120 missionaries booked as passengers, were singing, “ Lead, Kindly Light” which prompted him to comment about it being bad luck.  There was a majority of missionaries with their families, plus 24 ambulance drivers commited for service in Africa with the ‘ Free French’.     The crew were predominantly Muslim.

The ATLANTIS had a pre-arranged rendezvous with the Lloyd liner DRESDEN.  This ship was acting as a supply vessel for many German ships, including the ill fated GRAF SPEE.    After hiding in Santos Brazil, she now met up and handed over some supplies. The fresh food that Rogge and his crew were desperate for did not not materialise however, due to an order from Germany to supply another vessel, the BABITONGA.   Rogge was furious. 

On the 17th of April, 1941, when still in sight of the DRESDEN, and during the moonlit night, ATLANTIS spotted the distinctive outline of the ZAM ZAM.   At that time, ATLANTIS was dressed as the Norwegian ship TAMASIS and much effort had gone into making it look authentic, including the men dressed in Noregian uniforms and the boats marked with the TAMESIS name. ZAM ZAM had departed from Recife in Brazil with the next intended stop being Capetown.  She was sailing on a course close to the DRESDEN,  who promptly steamed away.  Believing the stranger was a British  troop transport  he gave the order to shadow the vessel through the night, and to attack at dawn.      Firing commenced at 9,200 yards distance, shells exploding on the bridge with the fusilage lasting 9 minutes.    There were many injuries onboard, and panic ensued with the lifeboats swung into action and women and children running everywhere. The ship stopped and blew off steam. There were 76 women onboard, 5 of whom were pregnant. 35 babies were also passengers.  Of the injured, the ambulance group leader Frank Vicovari was seriously hurt and was to be later cared for in the hospital of the ATLANTIS.  Also, Ned Laughinghouse who had been sleeping on deck  received serious head wounds from schrapnel. A rescue operation was mounted to save the survivors, and the people in boats and in the water were efficiently brought on board, the crying children in improvised baskets lowered over the side.

 When the ATLANTIS had called in Brazil, Life magazine photographer, David E Scherman, and Charles Murphy, editor of Fortune magazine, had boarded the ship for passage to Cape Town, and they later was able to provide many photos, even being advised and assisted  by Lietenent Mohr to film the sinking.  ( See picture).  Weeks later and when the Americans were landed in France most of the film was confiscated, but the wily photographer managed to hide precious rolls containing spectacular phots in a toothpaste tube and other toilrtries hidden in a missionaries doctor’s bag. When released, the two flew to New York, and the sensational pictures made headlines.  The ATLANTIS views were circulated to Royal Navy ships.

Over on ATLANTIS, Rogge was beginning to realise the gravity of his actions, and the likely outcome in the eyes of the world.   He quickly briefed his team of officers and the crew regarding the ship they had just attacked, and the task ahead being responsible for many women and children, largely American nationals.   It was then 2 pm before ZAM ZAM lay ready to be sunk, and all the passengers accounted for, and papers and needed items removed . Boats went to and fro loaded down with items, especially clothes snatched  from the cabins and needed by the survivors.  Stores and food also were taken before the ZAM ZAM was abandoned.   The ship was later fitted with three explosive charges, and when fired, she rolled over and sank, all the while being photographed by the LIFE magazine photographer.  A particular photo of the ATLANTIS later proved useful when it was circulated to the Allied forces hunting the raider.

The rescued people and the Master were quick to complain to Rogge about the sinking, voicing their objections and accusations that a neutral ship had wrongly been attacked, but this was dealt with by Rogge who immediately pointed out that the ship was sailing without lights, that she maintained radio silence, and that she was following British Admiralty directions.  Some of the cargo was  also identified as being supplies for the British troops in Egypt.  

Although the ATLANTIS now had around 800 persons on board, Rogge knew that the DRESDEN was nearby, and it was a heaven sent chance to offload the ZAM ZAM survivors, many of whom were confused and troublesome, asking for facilities that did not exist on the tightly run raider.  They met up the morning after the sinking, and most of the passengers, apart from the injured too ill to move, transferred over to the DRESDEN.     A rendesvous with a supply ship the ASTERUFER took place at the same time, and ATLANTIS received much needed stores.  This included 3 new ARADO seaplanes, plus mail for the crew who had now been away well over 12 months.

ZAM ZAM / the DRESDEN follow up…

The story of the ZAM ZAM would not be complete without an account of the time survivors spent on the German DRESDEN under her Captain,  Jaegger.   5 weeks of captivity in difficult and somewhat primitive conditions made worse by knowledge that the majority of the captives were American and still neutrals in the conflict presently raging.   After the new arrangements between the ships, ATLANTIS resumed her aggressive hunt for more victims.  DRESDEN meanwhile was ordered by Rogge to sail to a neutral port and to release the passengers.  His idea was the Canary Islands, but this order was countermanded by Berlin who directed the DRESDEN to occupied France, where she arrived at the small town of St Jean-De-Luz, near the Spanish border with France on May 20th.  


This short extract about the ZAM ZAM is a sample only. There were many different ships of all nationalities caught by the ATLANTIS and the PINGUIN.

The book release date is April 18th 2022

all comments welcome!

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