Capetown Castle

Built in 1938 by Harland & Wolff in Belfast with a tonnage of 27000grt, a length of 734ft, a beam of 82ft 6in and a service speed of 20 knots. She was launched by Mrs J. D. Low, the Mayoress of Cape Town, and the name of the city was bestowed as one word to conform with the policy of naming the ships after fictional South African castles.

Based on the Stirling Castle specification, but with more enclosed superstructure to provide more outside cabins, she was the longest motorship in the world and joined the fleet to operate a faster eight ship mail service.

R A G Poole was a director of Siemens. A supplier of instrumentation to Capetown Castle

When war broke out on 3rd September 1939 she was at Port Elizabeth and continued in commercial service until 1940 when she was requisitioned for use as a troopship.

Towards the end of 1942 she went from Bombay to Suez to pick up a load of German prisoners - "a particularly bad lot, this".   prisoners were in a continual state of unrest as they had been told prior to capture that no British ship could survive more than a day at sea.   Capetown Castle headed for Durban and Cape Town but the waters around the South African coast were infested at this time with the worst of the U-boat packs. She was sent to Saldanha Bay from where she made a dash across the South Atlantic to the Magellan Straits.   Emerging into the comparative quiet of the Pacific Ocean she made her way to Panama, eventually reaching New York and then crossed safely to Great Britain.

During 1943 she trooped between the USA and the UK as part of Operation Bolero, the build up for D-Day. After carrying some 164,000 troops and sailing 484,000 miles she returned to Union-Castle in 1946 and was refurbished at Belfast where her original fittings had been stored in complete safety.

Our ships were also unique in that they were a mix of cargo and passenger ship. This meant that we had seven large holds filled with freezer or general cargo that occupied much of the interior of the ship and thus we had fewer passenger cabins than normal and hence more passenger deck space per person than most other liners. Our major cargo going north was meat or fruit from the Cape in the freezers and Gold from goldfields in the Transvaal, destined for the Bank of England.

The gold was normally stored in special vaults in a forward hold . On that trip the gold cargo was greater than normal and a special compartment had been constructed to hold the excess, next to the normal vaults in the same forward hold.

During the passage from Cape Town, a couple of the crew had discovered that ventilation shafts into this temporary area had not been blocked off. They used them to enter the cages and steal ten boxes of the gold bullion, in the standard bars two to a box, valued at about £100,000 but many times that amount today. Gold was worth $35US an ounce back then. The loss was discovered when the ship unloaded in Southampton but for months no trace could be found of the gold.

The entire ship was searched many times before she sailed as usual for Cape Town two weeks later. They had no clues or suspects. Scotland Yard had decided that it was an inside job and that the people responsible must have left the bullion untouched, hidden on board. A strict watch was maintained over the next number of months, probably by undercover officers on the crew and eventually were rewarded when the thieves did make their move. An attempt was made to sell a few bars in Durban. The rest of the gold was discovered concreted into the base of a sand filled container on deck near the stern and was ultimately recovered and returned to the bank. Two seamen were sentenced later to ten years in jail.

I had just been appointed Junior Uncertificated 4th Officer on the Capetown Castle (a rank somewhat junior to the ships cat). The Capetown had just been replaced on the mail run by the new Mini Mail Ship Southampton Castle. But as there was still some life in the old girl she was placed on what UC called "The Extra Service". The Capetown Castle could not pick up her skirts and scamper down to Cape Town in 11 and half days which is what the new schedule required. So she was given an easier task that meant we sailed out of Southampton Water and TURNED LEFT... what ! No UC liner ever turned left there!

First port of call was to be Flushing to pick up German passengers and take them to Walvis Bay. Then on to Cape Town and then home again.

It was a lovely May morning in 1966 when the Capetown entered the buoyed channel leading to Flushing. What a lovely sight she was, flags flying, band playing and many Dutch holiday makers on the beach ahead of us.

At the end of the buoyed channel the ship had to turn 90 deg to port to enter harbour. Approaching the turn the pilot ordered full astern on both engines..... nothing happened. Pilot orders double full astern on both engines..... to the engineers' undying credit they gave it absolutely full power.... unfortunately they gave it forwards not backwards and 27,000 tons of lavender coloured splendour went straight onto the beach.

Head office was called and told of our predicament, they contacted Smits in Rotterdam and about three hours later who should appear on the bridge but Captain Rom Colthoff, the very same Salvage Master that had failed to save the Ayrshire. Much to the amazement of Captain Matthews on the Capetown we greeted each other like long lost brothers but once he found out the reason for such a friendship he was no longer so pleased with the choice of Salvage Master.

The tide went out and for a few hours Capetown Castle sat serenely on the beach with scarcely an inch of water around her.

As the tide rose no fewer than 7 tugs were made fast and nearing high tide she was pulled free. The only damage being a snapped tug hawser wrapped around the port propeller but that was freed by a diver in port.

Some days later when we reached Madeira we received a letter from the Cayzers expressing their disappointment to see U-C officers waving at the BBC News camera crew that had circled around in a light aircraft, whilst we were aground. Otherwise no harm done !

Chris Isaac

Capetown Castle

Artist - Tony Westmore

Capetown Castle Departing Southampton

Artist - Colin Verity

In February 2016 I had an email conversation with Eddie Daly who was 2nd Electrician on her at the time and was consequently on the engine room manoeuvring platform keeping the engine room movement book. I had been on the bridge keeping the bridge movement book .

It is interesting to read the two accounts of the event:

From Chris Isaac

I was Cadet or J4/O on Capetown Castle the last voyage before the strike. It was the voyage that we ran aground in Flushing.

She was not on the full mail service but on the extra service turning round at Cape Town.

Eddie’s Reply

Thanks for the update I well remember going aground in Flushing & all the relevant consequences, when we returned back to the UK..

You may be aware there was an enquiry held at the London office, after the flushing incident.

I was tasked with testing & checking out the direction indicator system from the main drive shaft all the way through & also to write a report as to the systems operational state during our time aground in Flushing.

I was also on the manoeuvring  platform in the engine room at the time of the incident as were my duties during standby for port arrival & departure etc etc.

As you will be aware it was disputed what manoeuvre was asked for & what manoeuvre was delivered ?

From Chris

I was on the bridge movement book entering Flushing.

The pilot and master ordered full astern on both engines and nothing happened.

They then ordered double full astern both engines, the engines were started and went double full ahead, up the beach we went.

From Eddie

Pity it was in the days before there was [Automatic Telegraph  Movement Logging] or even [Bridge Engine Controls] which both came in later, with very much improved clarity..

When you consider the various difficult manoeuvring situations taking place, such as was the case entering Flushing they were accidents waiting to happen.

As a matter of interest I spent many hours during my sea-going career on the Engine Room movements book & at various times including emergencies the telegraph movements were coming in a lot quicker than the could possibly be recorded or confirmed & as such the movement books were really not an accurate guide in such an incident .The good thing in this case is that human or other error was not catastrophic, only embarrassing.

RMMV Capetown Castle with SAAF Ventura.

Painted in 1986

Artist - Ron Belling

Review - October 1967

Built in 1938, she was powered by two 10 cylinder Harland and Wolff double acting two stroke cycle diesel engines 660 mm bore and 1500 mm stroke.

As normal with large marine diesel engines, compressed air was used to start the engines by admitting it into the cylinders in sequence using main air start valves, the timing being controlled by camshaft operated pilot valves (After starting the system was vented through 3/8 "copper drain lines. )

Because some of the air start valves were defective and not seating properly, products of combustion and unburnt carbon leaked past the valves and used to choke the drains on the air start venting system. This had led to a routine being established to clear the choked drains before arrival in port. However, no instructions had been issued on how this work was to have been carried out, and was generally left to the junior engineers.

A practice had grown up to connect the hydraulic pump used for the tie bolt jacks to the drain lines and force lubricating oil up the drain lines to clear the blockage. If the drain lines had been disconnected, then no harm would have been done, but on the occasion in question some oil must have been forced into the air start line.

After that all Clan line / Union-Castle ships had a synthetic compressor oil , I think it was called autosaf or something similar . It was an horrendous price but "Fireproof"

On the 17th October 1960 at 04:41 the engines were rung to stand by for arrival Las Palmas. The Chief Engineer was at the controls of the starboard engine and the 2nd Engineer at the controls of the port engine. (This ship was built in the days before control rooms; the engines were manoeuvred locally, and extra engineers were present in the engine room to operate the "handamatic" equipment). After slowing down, "Stop" was rung at 04:48, followed by "Half Astern" at 04:49. Seconds later an explosion occurred and a sheet of flame swept through the engine room killing the Chief, First, Snr and Jnr 2nd, two Junior Engineers and a greaser.

At the formal investigation which followed it was established that the explosion started in the air start line in the port engine. For an explosion to occur, that together with the air, there must have been oil and a source of ignition. Expert witnesses agreed that the initial explosion was due to the presence of about 4 fluid oz (110 cc) of oil - about half a teacup. It was agreed that this oil probably came from the hydraulic pump used to clear the drain lines.

The Air start pipe lines were coated with a film of oil carried over from the compressors. It was agreed that this film of oil did not cause the initial explosion, but was contributory to the escalation of the incident as described below.

"Oil, in quantity of at least four fluid ounces from the force pump that was used for clearing drain pipes was retained in the air starting system of the port engine, in or near to an air starting valve. When the port manoeuvring lever was moved to "start" the air start valve opened and highly turbulent air entrained the oil, sweeping it into the cylinder, acting to some extent like an air blast atomizer. The mixture of oil and air ignited as a result of high temperatures in the cylinder at some point remote from the starting air valve. This ignition first expelled a mixture of unburnt oil and air into the open line through the valve, then the explosion flame propagated from the source of ignition through the cylinder and out through the starting valve into the pipeline, there consuming the explosive mixture that had just been expelled. The flame accelerated and initiated a film detonation involving compressor oil in the main air pipelines. The detonation waves when reflected at the extremities of the system, or at T junctions, produced very high instantaneous pressures (in some way akin to a "water hammer" effect) and caused severe damage at these places. Rupture of the connections to the port aft air receiver caused the air in the receiver to be discharged directly at the back of the port engine, passing between the cylinders and swirling down over the manoeuvring platform. Flames associated with this discharge caused the casualties in the engine room. Fires in the generator room were likewise caused when the port forward air receiver connections were ruptured." (report of court No 8022)

The fires were eventually extinguished by the use of CO2 gas.

Following the formal investigation an M notice was issued (No M474) which recommended that:

Oil force pumps should not be used to clear drains on starting air pipe lines.

Oil from any source should, as far as practicable and reasonable, be excluded from air pipe lines. 1n particular, air compressor discharge lines should be provided with means for effective interception and draining of oil and water. If necessary, filters or separators should be fitted for this purpose and drains of adequate size and number should be fitted to air pipes, receivers and other fittings to avoid any accumulation of oil at low points in the system.

Periodic inspections should, where practicable, include examination of air pipe lines to ensure that measures taken are effective.

After the explosion Capetown Castle was berthed in Las Palmas.

Rothesay Castle was put alongside her to provide electrical power.

Pendennis Castle can be seen berthed astern.

 Capetown Castle Memorial 

Preparing for war in Liverpool

At sea in war-time colours

Defensive gun positions can be clearly seen fore and aft

She was the company's first ship to return to post-war service, sailing from Southampton on 9th January 1947.

On 17th October 1960 a compressor exploded in the engine room, disabling the ship, which was near Las Palmas, and killing seven persons. The passengers were transferred to other ships and she eventually returned to Belfast where she was repaired; the Braemar Castle temporarily replacing her.

In 1965 £100,000 worth of gold ingots were stolen from the bullion room but were found cemented in a hold during the following voyage. Two members of the crew were subsequently imprisoned for the theft.

On 26th September 1967 she arrived at La Spezia for breaking up by Terrestre Marittima having been replaced by the Southampton Castle and Good Hope Castle.

Capetown Castle has sailed on her last passenger run; she was withdrawn from service in September (1967).   

The vessel left Cape Town flying a 29-ft paying off pennant, but a complete lack of wind on arrival at Southampton prevented the final ceremony.   Passengers disembarked and the job of stripping out and de-storing began.

The 27,000 ton liner, always a popular and happy ship with passengers and crew, was built by Harland & Wolff, Belfast in 1938.   She served as a troopship during the war and on some voyages carrying as many as 6,000 troops.   

A group with memories to recall met , at the invitation of Captain R.A.D. Cambridge, at Southampton's Red Lion Hotel.   They were the ship's gunners during the war. Captain Cambridge was second officer of Capetown Castle when hostilities were declared and he was in charge of the 6 inch gun of 1911 vintage which was installed at Cape Town.   This was later changed at New Zealand for a 1916 anti-submarine gun and the ship also had a 3 inch anti-aircraft gun.

Among those at the reunion was Mr. Towyn 'Taffy' Jones, subsequently bosun in Pendennis Castle, who recalled that "we carried half a million troops during the war without losing a single life.   There were some narrow misses.   Once the ship's stern was practically lifted out of the water by an explosion and the hull had plenty of bullet marks.

Capetown Castle was the first of the mail ships to be restored to pre-war standards of elegance and comfort and almost forgotten memories of luxurious ocean travel were revived when she left Southampton for the Cape in January 1947.

Since 1965 she has been engaged in an extra service to Cape Town via Madeira, with calls either at Ascension and St. Helena or Walvis Bay.

Launch of Capetown Castle - 1938

Service in WW2

A Sign of Things to Come

Explosion at Las Palmas - 1960

Aground at Flushing - 1966

Farewell Capetown Castle - 1967

Capetown Castle - Art Gallery

Capetown Castle Interior

The Bullion Robbery - 1965

RMMV Capetown Castle with RAF Shackleton 2

Painted in 1987

Artist - Ron Belling

Capetown Castle In Foggy Weather

Artist -  J C A Goedhart (1893-1975)

Oil on Board

Royal Tour of South Africa - 1947

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