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Volume 20, Number 3May/June 1969

In This Issue

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Bombs Beneath The Sea

Written and photographed by Ludwig Sillner

In the dim light, far beneath the surface of the Red Sea, the squat iron tubes scattered through the hold of the freighter looked like bowling pins. Then I swam closer, saw the stabilizers and realized they were bombs—part of a deadly cargo that has lain quietly but unpredictably on an African reef for 29 years.

I had first heard of this cargo 10 years before. Hans Hass, the famous underwater explorer, had visited it in 1949 and mentioned it in one of his books. I decided I would try to see it one day, but time passed and I never did. In the meantime, though, I began to piece together the story of the Umbria, a 10,000-ton Italian freighter that sank in 80 feet of water at the beginning of World War II with thousands of tons of ammunition, bombs and torpedoes in her holds.

Before World War II, the steamship Umbria was owned by the Lloyd Triestino Line. She carried passengers from Europe to Calcutta. When war broke out, but before England and Italy opened hostilities, the ship was converted into a freighter. In preparation for hostilities she was ordered to carry a cargo of bombs and shells—altogether about 6,000 tons of explosives—to the Italian colony Eritrea, and left Messina on May 29, 1940. Although no one knew it, it was to be her last voyage.

From Italy the Umbria steamed uneasily across the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal—uneasily because with England and Italy on the verge of war the captain, Lorenzo Muiesan, didn't like the idea of sailing a ship full of high explosives into what might turn into enemy territory at a minute's notice. At Port Said his uneasiness increased. It was clear that the British canal authorities —England then controlled the Suez Canal—knew something about the Umbria's cargo. It was also clear they did not relish the idea of letting it into the canal. And with good reason. If the Umbria's cargo were to explode, it could close Suez for the duration. Since England and Italy were not at war, however, the authorities had to let the Umbria pass through. They delayed her for three days—with a series of contrived inspections—but grudgingly gave way and under close escort the Umbria sailed down to Suez and out into the Red Sea.

For a short time, as the ship steamed down the coast of Africa, the tension eased. Then, out of the darkness, on the night of June 10, 1940, came a Royal Navy sloop, under the command of a New Zealand Lieutenant named Stevens. He and some British sailors boarded the Umbria, demanded the ship's papers, stationed guards throughout the ship and ordered the captain to set a course for Port Sudan. In the morning, on a hidden radio, Captain Muiesan learned why: Italy and Great Britain were at war.

The Umbria by then was heading for Port Sudan. If he were going to keep his cargo out of the hands of the English, the captain thought, he would have to act at once. Deciding on a bold gamble, he somehow passed on secret orders to his engineers, then invited the English officers to his cabin, offered drinks and asked for permission to get on with a life-boat drill that was, he said, regularly held at this time. The English agreed and the life-boats were swung out.

Down in the engine room, meanwhile, the engineers had opened flooding valves. The flooding went unnoticed at first but then the ship suddenly listed to port. Happily the captain ordered his men to abandon ship and, angrily, one assumes, the English joined him. As they rowed hastily away, the Umbria, the flag of Mussolini's Italy still flying at the stern, rolled onto her port side and sank just inside the Wingate Reef.

To get to this reef where the Umbria lay, I had joined a small party that a locally famous skin diver, 'Ali 'Ashi, had agreed to lead. It included a Jordanian banker, a young Swedish diver, an American and an English family. 'Ali was by far the most interesting individual there. He was—and probably still is—the only Sudanese diver who actually attacks sharks. What he does, he told us, is fire one spear into the shark's tail and, as the shark circles, biting at the tail, fire a second into his gills. At that point his score was 70.

We had met at 6 a.m. aboard 'Ali's 60-ton yacht in a bay near Port Sudan. Twenty minutes after departure we sighted four boat davits protruding from the water, and prepared to dive. As we went down the water was clear and we could see thousands of colorful fish scattering like birds flushed from a field. The ship is so large we could not see either the bow or the stern, but we could see bizarre shapes of coral clinging to the hull. Despite its long immersion, the ship seemed intact—except for the wooden deck long since rotted away.

Since I had no air tanks, my exploration was limited. I had to go up for air at least every 60 seconds. At one point, however, I saw 'Ali and the others clustering around a dark opening just as I was about to go up. We had found the bombs. They were spotted with spongy growths, and were almost invisible, but the short, deadly shape, and the sharp lines of the stabilizers left no doubt as to what they were.

Not wanting to go up then, I clapped the Swedish diver on the shoulder and signaled that I needed air—the same signal, incidentally, that mutes use to say they are hungry. The diver passed me his mouthpiece. I took a deep breath and began snapping photographs as quickly as I could, wondering, perhaps foolishly, if my flash gun could possibly set off an explosion. It didn't of course, and after we had seen everything, we returned to the launch and headed back to Port Sudan.

En route, we talked about the wreck and wondered if any of the bombs and torpedoes could possibly be live. Since the area was still prohibited to shipping, it seemed possible. Someone said he hoped not because he had been told that 6,000 tons of explosives would create a tidal wave big enough to wipe out Port Sudan. There was silence for a while after that. But as the launch headed for our harbor, I could see that most of the group were staring thoughtfully back at the four davits poking out of the sea. There was no need to ask what they were thinking.

Ludwig Sillner , an expert skin diver and underwater photographer, was named Photographer of the Year for 1968 by the Underwater Society of America.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the May/June 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1969 images.