The sinking of SS Ceramic

A black and white photograph of HMAT CERAMIC which was used during World War 1 as a troop carrier. The frame around the photograph containing signatures of soldiers and the date '15.12.15' From this date, it is most likely that the soldiers were part of the 12th Reinforcements for the 4th Light Horse Regiment. They departed Melbourne on 23 November 1915. This Regiment was recruited exclusively Victoria in August 1914. ANMM Collection 00027600.

A black and white photograph of HMAT Ceramic, which was used during World War 1 as a troop carrier. The frame around the photograph contains the signatures of soldiers and the date ‘15.12.15’ –  it is likely that the soldiers were part of the 12th Reinforcements for the 4th Light Horse Regiment. They departed Melbourne on 23 November 1915. ANMM Collection 00027600.

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.

SS <em>Ceramic</em> departing the White Star Line wharf at Millers Point, Sydney, c1920-1939. ANMM Collection 00035571, Samuel Hood Collection.

SS Ceramic departing the White Star Line wharf at Millers Point, Sydney, c1920-1939. At the end of WWI, Ceramic returned to service as a passenger ship, again sailing the Liverpool to Sydney route. ANMM Collection 00035571, Samuel Hood Collection.

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.

The story the sinking of SS <em>Ceramic</em> was reported in papers in both London and Australia, only after the sole survivor Sapper Eric Munday contacted his family 10 months later. The <em>Argus</em>, Tuesday 16 October 1945, via <a href="https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/12147383">Trove</a>.

The story the sinking of SS Ceramic was reported in papers in both London and Australia, only after the sole survivor Sapper Eric Munday contacted his family 10 months later. The Argus, Tuesday 16 October 1945, via Trove.

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.

SS <em>Ceramic</em>, of the White Star Line, was built in 1913 and was active on the Australia route. It was used as a troop transport in World War I. In 1934 CERAMIC was sold to the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line. In 1942 the ship was enroute to Australia when it was torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean by a German U-boat. There was only one survivor of the 656 onboard. ANMM Collection 00023483, Samuel Hood Collection.

SS Ceramic, of the White Star Line, was built in 1913 and was active on the Australia route. It was used as a troop transport in World War I. In 1934 Ceramic was sold to the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line. In 1942 the ship was enroute to Australia when it was torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean by a German U-boat. There was only one survivor of the 656 onboard. ANMM Collection 00023483, Samuel Hood Collection.

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 

Explore more stories from World War II in our feature stories, including the Sinking of HMAS Armidale (I), the lucky ship USS Helm and the Bombing of Darwin.

2 thoughts on “The sinking of SS Ceramic

  1. My mother and I were on the Ceramic, returning to Australia, when she was holed by another ship. We were taken off in small boats and had to remain. in Cape Town until we could get another ship to bring us to Sydney. The tragedy of the loss of Ceramic has always been on my mind because we knew one of the officers and he would visit us in Sydney when the ship was here. My mother and I arrived in Sydney in November 1940 I believe

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