A British liner, a German U-boat, the mid-Atlantic Ocean and the Royal Australian Navy – what do they have in common? The SS Ceramic.
Built by the famous Belfast shipbuilders, Harland & Wolff, SS Ceramic was launched on 11 December 1912 for the White Star Line’s Australian service. For 10 years the ocean liner was the largest ship sailing between Europe and Australia. During World War I was requisitioned for the First Australian Imperial Forces as a troopship with the pennant number A40.
With the end of WWI, Ceramic returned to service as a passenger ship, again sailing the Liverpool to Sydney route. With the formation in 1934 of the Cunard-White Star Line, Shaw, Saville and Albion purchased the Australian assets, which included the Ceramic. In 1939, the ship was once more requisitioned for troopship duties out of Australia, although it continued to transport civilian passengers as well.
As a troop transport, Ceramic was lightly armed with two 4.7-inch (120-mm) guns operated by 14 Royal Navy and Royal Australian Naval Reserve gunners. The ship usually travelled in convoy for protection, but also sailed unescorted at times.
On 3 November 1942, Ceramic left Liverpool (unescorted) bound once more for Australia via the Cape of Good Hope. On board were 656 passengers and crew, including military and naval personnel, British Army nursing sisters and more than 100 civilians, including 12 children. Also on board were 16 men from the Royal Australian Navy: three were gunners attached to the Ceramic and the remaining were travelling home to Australia as passengers.
Attacked in the night
At midnight on 6 December, west of the archipelago of the Azores in the mid-Atlantic, SS Ceramic was torpedoed by the German submarine U-515. Struck by three torpedoes but still afloat, distress signals were sent and lifeboats were launched. Early in the morning of 7 December, U-515 returned and fired two more torpedoes. SS Ceramic sank in the stormy Atlantic. Lifeboats capsized and rescue ships from the Azores were unable to put to sea because of the heavy and dangerous weather.
Once more U-515 returned to the area, intending to capture the Ceramic’s captain. With the seas against him, he took the first survivor he could find – Sapper Eric Munday of the Royal Engineers. None of the other survivors were ever seen again. Munday was interned at a German prisoner-of-war camp and the British government only learned the details of the sinking 10 months later when he was allowed to write home to his family.
On 9 April 1944, the U-515 was sunk by US destroyers, and Captain Werner Henke was captured along with 43 of his crew. Henke was killed when he tried to escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in Virginia, USA.
This December we remember the 75th anniversary of the sinking of SS Ceramic and the loss of 655 lives, including 16 from the Royal Australian Navy.
— Lindsey Shaw, Australian National Museum Honorary Research Associate