The story of the fifteen ships trapped for eight years in the Suez Canal

On May 24, 1975, the port of Hamburg became an improvised stage for a spectacle that in itself would not have anything extraordinary, such as the arrival of two ships. They were not the type of ship that arouses the curiosity of the spectator, as happens with cruisers or warships, but simple merchantand still more than thirty thousand people they crowded into the docks to see them arrive and dock in what was a grand reception.

But it is that he münsterland (of the company Hapag) and the nordwind (of the Nordstern Reederei), which were their names, returned to their country after having stayed eight years trapped in a foreign land because of a war conflict. In fact, they had not been the only ones, but together with them they suffered the same fate. thirteen other ships that, after so much time, they could no longer move from where they were, at least by themselves.

This group of victims was known as yellow fleet (Yellow Fleet), due to the chromatic tone that its exterior structures acquired when going soaking up the desert sand surrounding area carried by the wind. Because the place where they were blocked was the great bitter lakea pocket of salt water that together with the Little Bitter Lake covers an area of ​​two hundred and fifty square kilometers in the middle of the Suez Canalwhich measures more than one hundred and sixty kilometers in length, linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean.

It was not the first time that this site -of natural origin- was seen mixed in a war context, since in the Second World War it served to concentrate the captured Italian ships by allies.

The Great Bitter Lake/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

And on February 14, 1945, he welcomed the USS Quincya heavy cruiser on board of which the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Rooseveltonce the Yalta Conference was over, he met with the Arab leader Abd al-Aziz to sign a military aid for oil deal and, incidentally, try to convince him to support the emigration of Jews to Palestine. Precisely the latter would unleash the problem for the yellow fleet A few years later.

And it is that on June 5, 1967 the call exploded War of the six daysin which Israel had to face a arab coalition made up of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. It basically consisted of a withering Israeli pre-emptive strike that virtually destroyed the Egyptian air force (Operation Focus), followed by the occupation of territories such as Gaza, Judea, Hebron, the Sinai Peninsula and Jerusalem while repulsing Jordanian and Syrian attacks in the Golan and the Straits of Tiran were reopened.

On June 10, the Israeli government accepted the proposal to Stop the fire of the UN and terminated the operations. However, the situation did not change for some. At the start of hostilities there were fifteen ships sailing north through the Suez Canal and they found that They couldn’t go forward or back..

At first it was for a period of three days but then it was extended indefinitely, since the Israeli army took control of the eastern bank and the Egyptians sank various boats and structures (a bridge, for example) to block the way; they even mined a part of the canal, so ships in transit had to anchor in the lake and wait.

That wait would continue despite the end of the war because Nasser understood that public opinion would not allow him to reopen the canal allowing Israeli ships to pass.

The USS Quincy/Photo: Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

Even if an agreement had been reached, at that time no shipping company was willing to risk their units by sending them down that route as long as the tension persisted (the Israelis and Egyptians continued to exchange fire sporadically from their respective positions on both sides of the canal), thus the reopening was not economically successful either viable at the moment.

The fifteen ships trapped were the swedes killara Y Nippon; the French essays; the British Agapenor, Melampus, port invercargill Y Scottish Star; the americans African Glen Y observer; Polish djakarta Y Boleslaw Bierut; the bulgarian Vassil Levisky; and the czechoslovakian lednice, in addition to the Germans already mentioned. All freighters (some with perishable goods that were lost) or passengers except the observerwhich the US Navy used to transport troops.

The crews founded the GBLA (Great Bitter Lake Association), a mutual support association thanks to which they faced the situation in a more bearable way: board games, leisure activities (the killara it had a swimming pool), film screenings, religious services and sports competitions (in 1968 they even organized their own Olympic Games in parallel to those held in Mexico). They even designed your own flag: a triangle with two blue bands and a white one with the number 14 inscribed on it.

Then the sailors went progressively evacuated, leaving small checkpoints that in 1969 joined the ships together to facilitate their maintenance among all with the minimum of personnel; These checkpoints, which launched their boats at full speed across the lake every thirty days so that the propellers would not corrode from the saltpeter, rotated every three months until in 1972 they were definitively replaced in this task by a norwegian company hired ad hoc.

Many of those three thousand men of all races – “a little UN” as one of them described it – would engage in good friendship and would maintain contact later.

Speaking of maintenance, the Suez Canal was deprived of it and the lack of dredging, together with the absence of currents generated by the ship’s propellers, caused large amounts of mud in their bottoms, aggravating the situation. And so eight years passed from 1967 to the beginning of 1975, when he finally returned to open to navigation. Unfortunately, by then only the two German ships were able to return home by themselves.

Yes, they did longest sea voyage of history: the münsterland it had taken eight years, three months and five days to reach its destination since it left Australia. She would still go through Egypt again that same year, heading to Korea.


The Sea in World History. Exploration, Travel and Trade (Stephen K. Stein, ed.)/Hapag-Lloyd (Official website)/Down To The Sea In Ships. Of Ageless Oceans and Modern Men (Horatio Clare)/Wikipedia