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Manager: Wilh. Wilhelmsen, Tønsberg.
Launched by Burmeister & Wain's Maskin- og Skibsbyggeri A/S, Copenhagen on Apr. 5-1930 (Yard No. 569). Completed June 10-1930.
Captain: Carl Thorleif Corneliussen, later Carsten Müller.
Related item on this website:
Please compare the above voyages with Arnold Hague's Voyage Record below.
(Received from Don Kindell - His source: The late Arnold Hague's database).
Follow the convoy links provided for more information on each.
Thermopylæ departed Oslo, Norway on Jan. 10-1940 with general cargo for Africa and Australia. Due to drifting mines and a snowstorm it took them 5 days to get as far as Ålesund, then headed out to sea, completely covered in ice. In 60N 15W they were stopped by a British aux. cruiser which told them to turn around and follow behind it, whereupon they headed in the other direction for 15 hours, then continued to Lisbon. 400 miles away they received a report saying that a British and a Greek ship had just been sunk off Lisbon in Thermopylæ's intended course, so the rest of the voyage was rather nerve racking, but they arrived Lisbon without further incident, then continued to Africa and Australia.
In Australia she took on board 4000 tons nickel ore, 26 000 bails of wool, 800 tons steel rods, oils and other general for France. She departed Albany on Apr. 24-1940 (Page 1 gives departure Apr. 27 - the document also indicates she was to head back to Norway early in Apr.-1940, but was diverted to Bordeaux and Avonmouth; Norway was invaded Apr. 9), arriving Port Said via Suez on the 19th where she was delayed for about 8 days because of fear of Italy's entry into the war. She left for Marseilles without escort on May 27 and arrived the pilot station in Marseilles on June 1 together with a Norwegian tanker and a British ship laden with ammunition, just as the city was being attacked by German aircraft. 3 bombs detonated in the sea near Thermopylæ, lifting her stern high out of the water, but caused only minor damages. The other 2 ships also escaped unharmed. In the harbour Orient Line's S/S Orford was hit by 2 bombs, and was on fire for a week. The next day a large, French aux. cruiser was also hit and set on fire, while Thermopylæ received some minor damages.
While in Marseilles, no one was allowed to go ashore except for the captain. The ships in the harbour were bombed day and night which made the crew rather nervous, but they did not have permission to take to the lifeboats. However, they rowed in to a breakwater several nights in a row, where they sat and watched the spectacle, and though they had no cover whatsoever there, they still felt safer than on the ship, knowing full well it was the ships the aircraft were after. Getting her cargo unloaded proved impossible so after 6 days she was ordered to depart for Verdon via Gibraltar, arriving Gibraltar on June 9. The following day they received orders to go to Casablanca as quickly as possible in order to join a French convoy because of Italy's entry into the war. She arrived Casablanca on June 11 and continued that same day in convoy to Verdon, arriving on the 15th (for this voyage, A. Hague has included her, together with Braga and Tai Yin, in Convoy KF 5, external link), only to experience heavy bombing yet again. They were not allowed on shore, and no boats were to be launched. 2 days later they saw 2 magnetic mines being dropped near the side of the ship; these were removed. While there, the ships were attacked several times a day. Tai Yin was also in port at the time.
On June 18, the captains of the allied ships at Verdon were summoned to the British cruiser Arethusa and were told that the city was being evacuated, and they were instructed to sail to Falmouth as soon as possible because the Germans were expected at any time. Thousands of people were waiting for a chance to get out, but Tai Yin and Thermopylæ departed without passengers as they were unable to get fresh water. The 2 Norwegian ships went out together, with aircraft swarming above them. En route they received a report from the British passenger vessel Arandora Star that she was under attack by a U-boat (this ship was later sunk by U-47 on July 2 - over 800 people lost their lives - ref. external link below), so they made some alterations to the planned course and arrived Falmouth in the evening of June 19 (again, compare w/Page 1), having passed hundreds of ships of all kinds, even unfinished submarines and torpedo boats in tow of Dutch tugs, carrying refugees from France. On arrival Falmouth there were 150 ships in the harbour.
The next day, Thermopylæ was ordered to Belfast, still without escort and no armament, arriving June 21 (archive doc gives June 25). The bails of wool were finally unloaded, then on July 3 they were sent to Avonmouth to unload the rest of the cargo, arriving there on July 6 (archive doc gives July 8). She finally received some armament (a 4" gun) and degaussing and was also repaired, but the city and the docks were bombed up to 10 times a day so it could hardly be considered a vacation. On Aug. 2(? see Page 1) they departed for Milford Haven in order to join a convoy, heading for New York the next day in a convoy consisting of 50 ships escorted by 4 destroyers. On Aug. 5 a ship in the middle of the convoy was sunk by a U-boat, then the following day Thermopylæ left the convoy and continued alone. This was Convoy OB 193 (external page), in which the British Boma was sunk by U-56 on Aug. 5; survivors were picked up by Vilja. There's more on this attack at the external link below. The convoy had originated in Liverpool on Aug. 4 and was dispersed on Aug. 7 - in addition to Vilja already mentioned, Berto, Corvus, Ingertre, Loke and Ringhorn are also listed. It appears they suspected being followed by a German raider on Aug. 14, about 800 miles off New York. It got closer and closer to them, but they proceeded at maximum speed and managed to get ahead. The mysterious vessel altered course about 90°. The sighting was reported to New York, where she arrived on Aug. 16, and a couple of aircraft were sent out.
In New York she took on a cargo of oil, petrol in barrels, aircraft and general for South Africa, before proceeding to Philadelphia. She left Philadelphia again on Sept. 9, arriving Cape Town on Oct. 1, then headed to Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban, departing the latter in ballast for Australia on Oct. 18, arriving Fremantle on Oct. 31. She subsequently continued to Melbourne and Sydney where vehicles and war stores were taken on board and a machine gun installed on the bridge before departing on Dec. 3 (again, compare w/Page 1), heading north through the Sunda Straits due to the drifting German mines on the south and west coast of Australia and also because German raiders were reported in the area. She arrived Aden on Dec. 30-1940.
On Jan. 2-1941, she left Aden in a convoy with a strong escort, arriving Suez on Jan. 9 (A. Hague has listed her, along with Fram, Løvstad and Nordanger, in Convoy BN 12, which had originated in Bombay on Dec. 27-1940 - external link). Her cargo was meant for Suez, but British Sea Transport ordered her to Port Said and Haifa which subjected her to many dangerous situations, because they couldn't get out of the Mediterranean, as will be seen later. She departed Suez on Jan. 13, arrived Port Said Jan. 14, left Jan. 16 and arrived Haifa Jan. 17, where half of her cargo was unloaded. While there, they could see the wreck of the French Patria which had arrived Haifa with a large amount of Jewish refugees on board, but was ordered to leave again as the Jews had no entry visas. While the ship was still in port on Nov. 25-1940 (and the desperate refugees still on board), an enormous explosion had occurred. According to Roger W. Jordan's "The World's Merchant Fleets 1939", 279 died. The explosion was caused by a bomb planted on board by "Haganah" to prevent the ship from taking illegal immigrants to Mauritiu. When Thermopylæ was there, divers were still bringing bodies up from the wreck of this unfortunate ship.
Thermopylæ left Haifa again on Jan. 26, arriving Port Said Jan. 27, then unloaded until Febr. 8-1941. She was meant to load phosphates in the Red Sea for Australia, but because of the German mines in the Suez Canal she was delayed until Febr. 15. (At the beginning of Jan.-1941 the military situation in the eastern part of the Mediterranean was seemingly in British control. Italy's army was retreating from Libya, Crete was occupied by British forces, and Malta was still holding on. Tobruk was taken on Jan. 22, and the British army reached Benghazi on Febr. 6).
She arrived Bitter Lake in the middle of the Suez Canal on Febr. 16 and was held up for weeks along with about 30 other ships because magnetic mines had been dropped by German aircraft and had to be cleared before the ships could proceed. No sooner were the mines removed than new ones were dropped. At the beginning of March the Germans started their offensiv against Greece, while at the same time the German Africa corps was shipped out of Italy. The British were now facing trouble on all fronts, and had to shift their attention from North Africa to reinforcements for Greece. The first allied convoy departed Alexandria for Piræus on March 5, followed by several more in the subsequent weeks. The convoys were constantly attacked by aircraft, and several ships were lost, especially in Greek waters.
Thermopylæ was finally able to leave Bitter Lake on March 9 and headed for Port Said where she arrived the same day. Since by then all available tonnage in the Mediterranean was needed for the Greece convoys, Thermopylæ was requisitioned for this service. (This seems quite fitting, considering her name which is derived from the warm sulphurous springs in eastern Greece =Therme in Greek and Pylæ=Greek word for gates - located near the mountain pass where the Spartan king Leonidas and his 300 men attempted to halt the Persian King Xerxes' invasion of Ancient Greece). She left again the following day for Alexandria, arrived March 11 and loaded tanks, trucks and Australian troops for Greece. Following a horrendous sand storm, she left on March 14 in a convoy consisting of 7 ships with a very strong escort (A. Hague has her in Convoy AG 6 - external link; Brattdal is also listed), reaching Piræus safely (where they noticed there were hardly any young men left; they were all at the front fighting), departing again a couple of days later for Alexandria, and though the convoy was attacked by aircraft south of Crete, it again reached its destination without losses (? she's included, again with Brattdal, as well as Solheim, in Convoy AS 21 - also external page, but note that Solheim was sunk, as was a Greek ship). See also Page 1.
Her 2nd trip to Piræus was to be rather a strange one. On March 25 Admiral Cunningham learned that an Italian offensive was planned, and he ordered the convoys away from the most dangerous area and let just 1 convoy leave Alexandria on the 26th, again consisitng of 7 ships, Thermopylæ being 1 of them (see Convoy AG 9 - Brattdal is again included, 6 ships are named). At this time, the British Mediterranean fleet had already departed, and was ready for action. On March 27, the convoy was south of Crete, when to everyone's astonishment the Commodore turned completely around and headed back, ordering the rest of the ships to follow suit. The order was followed without anyone aboard the merchant ships knowing the reason for this unusual behaviour. The next morning orders were given for the convoy to turn around yet again and head for Piræus, and the explanation came soon enough on arrival there on March 29. The Italian fleet, which had been notified of, and expected a convoy of innocent merchant ships, and was ready for attack, ran straight into the British naval forces instead, and in the battle that followed (Battle of Matapan), the Italians lost several modern cruisers as well as destroyers, while the British losses were minimal. In other words, the convoy with the merchant ships had been used as bait.
From Piræus, Thermopylæ returned to Alexandria in convoy, and en route they passed a northbound convoy that was attacked by aircraft with the loss of several ships. It appears the convoy Thermopylæ was in was also attacked, first by a U-boat, later by 3 German dive bombers and 4 Italian bombers. 3 ships were sunk, a cruiser damaged, 2 Italian aircraft shot down; this according to the captain's report, but I believe his info might be a mix up with the events taking place in the northbound convoy. She's listed (with Brattdal) in Convoy ASF 22, which left Piræus on Apr. 1-1941 and arrived Alexandria on the 4th (also external link). Her voyages in this period are shown on Page 2.
Early in January, 150 German bombers had been stationed in Sicily. Jan. 10 saw the beginning of heavy bombardments of Malta which lasted for several months, with the result that the island was practically isolated from the rest of the world and in desperate need of supplies. On arrival Alexandria on Apr. 4, Thermopylæ was ordered to start loading cargo for Malta, enduring continuous air attacks while in Alexandria. While there, they also learned that the next convoy to Greece that she had originally been intended for lost 6 of its 8 ships. She departed Alexandria for Malta on May 6 together with the Danish Amerika (under MoWT control), the British Settler and the Norwegian Talabot (see Convoy MW 7A). 2 other ships, because they were somewhat slower at 12 knots, had left the previous day, namely the Norwegian Svenør and Høegh Hood (this was Convoy MW 7B). They all arrived Malta on May 9.
The captain says these convoys had the strongest escort ever given to a convoy (the entire Mediterranean Fleet) so it was obvious that it was important to get their cargoes through. He adds that all the ships had 20-30 men to arm the guns, and Thermopylæ received 8 extra machine guns for this voyage. Several enemy aircraft were seen, but they did not attack. 12 hours before arrival the escort left them, except for 4 destroyers that went on ahead along with minesweepers. 5 miles off Valetta they were told to continue in alone, arriving in the morning of May 9, as mentioned. The agreement was for the pilot to come out and guide the ships in, but none came. A minesweeper signalled that the channel was not clear yet. After having waited for about half an hour they were told to come in alone, Settler first, then Thermopylæ, followed by Talabot, Amerika and Høegh Hood. On Malta they had listening devices which enabled them to hear when the aircraft stationed in Sicily started up, and by estimating how long it would take these aircraft to reach Malta (15-20 minutes), they were able to assume that the ships had time to get to port before being attacked.
All the ships did arrive without damage, but the minute they did, the air raid warning was sounded and the crew had to go to a rock shelter for protection. Malta was bombed so many times while they were there that Thermopylæ's crew ended up sleeping in this shelter every night. Since no escort vessels could be obtained for them they were forced to stay for almost 3 months, but they were treated like kings and made many new friends. They were invited to private homes, sightseeing trips were organized for them etc.; some of the Norwegian boys even got married. A sad occurence took place while there. Talabot's captain Bjarne Kristiansen died of a heat stroke when he was out swimming one day with Thermopylæ's captain, and the gratitude and respect of the Maltese for the efforts of the foreign seamen were clearly demonstrated in the large crowd of locals following him to his grave.
At the end of July, another convoy was expected in from Gibraltar with more supplies for Malta (probably Convoy GM 1) and all 6 ships could finally leave on July 23 (Convoy MG 1A - external page), escorted only by an aux. cruiser and a destroyer, which only stayed with them for one day (another source says they had no escort whatsoever - please go to my page about Høegh Hood for more on these events, "Operation Substance"). After the ships had gone out they were to be divided into groups, with the aux. cruiser and Talabot in the first group which was to sail at 17 knots, while the 2nd group consisted of Thermopylæ and Amerika (16 knots), and the 3rd of Settler, Svenør and Høegh Hood (13 knots), Thermopylæ being the Commodore vessel for her group, Settler for the 3rd group.
All went well until the next day when they were attacked by 3 torpedo aircraft. Torpedoes missed, but when the aircraft returned and used machine guns Amerika received some damages and a crew member was shot in the shoulder. The captain says the water around them looked like they were in a heavy hail storm. 15 minutes later the aircraft returned and dropped 4 large bombs but none hit their targets, though they were extremely close. They had been told to send special signals if they were attacked and this was done, but no help was received. The following day Høegh Hood was hit by a torpedo, but could continue, though she had a hole in her side so big that a row boat could go through it. Thermopylæ arrived Gibraltar in the afternoon of July 26. On board she had about 600 tons of scrap iron from aircraft that had been shot down in Malta, and 19 passengers who were landed in Gibraltar. On Aug. 6, she departed Gibraltar in a convoy consisting of 4 ships escorted by 4 destroyers and an aircraft - this was Convoy HG 34FA (also external page). After 3 days she left the convoy which continued to the U.K., while Thermopylæ and Talabot proceeded alone; they were both bound for New York. Thermopylæ arrived New York early in the afternoon of Aug. 16-1941.
Her subsequent voyages are listed on Page 2.
More information on the other Norwegian ships mentioned here can be found via the alphabet index at the bottom of this page, or go to the Master Ship Index.
As can be seen below, her luck ran out the following year.
Captain was now Carsten Müller. Thermopylæ had arrived Alexandria from Australia late in Dec.-1941, and early in the new year of 1942 she took on board a general cargo as well as war stores, 800 tons of ammunition and bombs, but her destination was kept secret (there's a curious entry at the end of Page 2 of the archive documents, saying she left Beirut for Port Said on Jan. 6-1942 - I don't quite understand this, as it does not fit with other facts. A. Hague has also included this voyage in his Voyage Record above, but indicates she proceeded to Alexandria, so perhaps she had made a voyage to Beirut in between?). On Jan. 15, 336 British officers and soldiers embarked, before she left on Jan 16, heading for Malta, Convoy MW 8A (escorted by Admiral Vian's cruisers and destroyers). According to a report presented at the subsequent maritime hearings she left with the British Ajax, and was later joined by Clan Ferguson and City of Calcutta.
The convoy was attacked by aircraft in the morning of the 17th but did no damage on that occasion. That evening Thermopylæ encountered technical problems (2 joints blew out on the steering engine) and had to reduce her speed while repairing, with 2 destroyers standing by. The rudder had to be shored in order to prevent knocking, and during this work 2 glands were smashed, so that once the other problems had been fixed the rudder had to be moved as little as possible so as to avoid pressure on them. This meant that she could not zig-zag, but orders were received to continue the voyage and to overtake the commodore, which she did at daybreak on the 18th. At 09:00 they turned around to meet the second part of the convoy which was assembled an hour later, continuing with 15 destroyers escorting. However, Thermopylæ could no longer keep the convoy speed in the rough weather and heavy seas and was, therefore, ordered to alter course and head for Benghazi as she was delaying the convoy and consequently, shortly after noon that day, course was set for that port, escorted by the cruiser Carlisle and the destroyers Arrow and Havock. Later that afternoon orders were received to alter course back to Alexandria.
Despite the advice from the naval headquarters to stay close to the coast so that Thermopylæ as quickly as possible could get aircraft protection from Tobruk if need be, the escort chief chose the shorter route further out to sea, a decision that proved fatal to Thermopylæ. In the morning of the 19th a German Ju 88 bomber dropped 4 bombs from 1500 feet, 2 striking in the engine room, the other 2 falling in the sea. 1 of the bombs passed through the hospital and the deck of the pantry and exploded in the day tanks with the result that the engine room was set on fire, while the other went through the skylight and exploded on the maneuvering platform. 3 men were killed in the engine room. Mechanic Oliversen attempted to get down into the engine room through the tunnel entrance (wanting to save his best friend), but had to give it up because of the smoke and fumes. As the flames threatened to spread to Holds No. 3 and 4 where ammunition and bombs were stored, the captain gave the order to abandon ship, whereupon the lifeboats were launched. These could not hold all the passengers, so about 200 soldiers, who had lifebelts, were told to jump overboard, but they were still in great danger as some of them could not swim very well and ended up too close to the time bomb the ship had now become. Also, when Havock attempted to maneuver alongside in order to save those who were still on board, some of the soldiers were crushed to death in between the two ships, others were seriously injured when they jumped from Thermopylæ and down to the deck of the destroyer.
An hour and a half after the bombs had struck the captain was brought to safety as the last man, and Havock quickly pulled away, while sending a torpedo into the wreck, and she sank at 11:53, position 34 03N 24 16E. Arrow, meanwhile, had picked up more survivors from the sea, but at 12:30 the search was abandoned and the destroyers continued to Alexandria, arriving at 10 in the morning of the following day, Jan. 20-1942.
3 crew were lost, 35 survived, 30 troops died, 306 survived. 2nd Engineer Gunnar Roll-Larsen had a nasty fracture in his back, 3rd Engineer Trygve Reinertsen had been badly burnt on his arms and legs, and Stewardess Helga Åbel had a large cut on her forehead, and also had a 3" wide wound on her leg. All 3 were admitted to a hospital on arrival Alexandria. Chief Engineer Oluf Waal Hansen, Carpenter Hildemar Hansen, Gunner Berge and Mechanic Johnsen were also injured, but less seriously.
Maritime hearings were held in Alexandria on Febr. 2-1942 with the captain, the 1st mate, the 1st engineer, Mechanic Oliversen, and Ordinary Seaman Jensen (helmsman) appearing (see crew list below).
There's a chapter about Thermopylæ in the book "Tusen norske ship" by Lise Lindbæk. The story is told by Radio Operator, Arne B. Knudsen and details her voyages (he must have paid off by the time she was sunk, as he's not included in the crew list). There's also a chapter containing a story told by Helga Åbel (later Mrs. Rønsen). The book was translated to English under the title "Norway's New Saga of the Sea", and consists of diaries as well as Lise Lindbæk's interviews with seamen, first published in Norwegian in New York in Nov. 1943 - see My sources for information on how to find a copy. (As an example of what can be found in it, see Rudzin's Diary. He was the stoker on board the ship my father was on, D/S Ringulv).
Helga had previously served on Bergensfjord. The last thing she remembered from the bombing of Thermopylæ was looking up and seeing a red, rotating bomb coming down above her. Her next memory was of being in a lifeboat, and seeing the 3rd engineer, his face and hands black and badly burnt. She later learned that the captain had found her unconscious on the deck and had carried her to the lifeboat. When she came to again, she was in a cabin on board the destroyer, and a doctor was stitching her head wound, then she remembered nothing until she woke up in a hospital in Alexandria. Her leg had almost been ripped off, her head wound had required 16 stitches, and she stayed in hospital for almost 4 months, enduring frightening air attacks, as she was too badly wounded to be moved to a shelter. After her stay in hospital, she got passage on her "old" ship, Bergensfjord, which had a doctor on board. On Bergensfjord was also Thermopylæ's stewardess, Elna Kristensen as well as over a thousand German prisoners of war who, Helga says, "were singing and seemed to be in a good mood" (though it wasn't 4 months after the bombing of Thermopylæ, this may have been in Apr.-1942, when Bergensfjord is said to have made a voyage to Durban with 1500 POW's on board - see my page about Bergensfjord. She may, of course, have had prisoners on board on later voyages as well; unfortunately, her voyages are not detailed on the archive document for this period). Helga later got passage to New York on Nordal, which was just 24 hours from her destination when a torpedo hit (U-404 on June 25-1942 - follow the link for details). There were no casualties this time. Helga was taken to Moresby City naval station, the Red Cross gave her some clothes, and more medical treatments followed. She got a little vacation at Wyandotte, Long Island where Norwegian organizations had opened a place in the summer of 1942. Due to her leg injuries, Helga could never resume her job as messgirl on board a ship.
* It appears Hågen Poppe later joined Herborg and experienced her capture by the German Thor in June-1942. See the end of my text for Herborg, as well as the crew list for that ship (listed as 3rd mate). Also, there's a Trygve Berge among the crew of Madrono, which was captured by Thor in July-1942 (read "A sabotage attempt"), but his name is not very unusual, so I'm not sure it's the same person. Here's a crew list for Madrono. He's also mentioned on this page.
Related external link:
Back to Thermopylæ on the "Ships starting with T" page.
The text on this page was compiled with the help of: Article in "Tilbakeblikk", appears to be the captain's report(?), "Nortraships flåte", J. R. Hegland, Wilh. Wilhelmsen's fleet list, "Tusen norske skip", Lise Lindbæk, "Sjøforklaringer fra 2. verdenskrig", Volume II (Norwegian Maritime Museum) and several misc. other - (ref. My sources).