No.55: Sambut

Two sections of Mulberry Harbour used for the D-Day landings of 1944 and relocated to Portland Harbour in 1946. Listed Grade I
Old and new: Two sections of Mulberry Harbour used for the D-Day landings of 1944 and relocated to Portland Harbour in 1946, as seen from Portland Castle. Listed Grade II. (Image courtesy of Andrew Wyngard)

D-Day

[This blog entry was originally written to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, 6 June 2014, and has been updated for the 75th anniversary, 6 June 2019.]

Today, on 6 June, I would like to turn my attention to a wreck which took place shortly after noon on 6 June 1944.

Although the south coast was the prime departure location for D-Day, it’s important to remember that other ports also contributed to the huge invasion effort with ships, men and materials crossing the Channel from other ports. Air cover and support operations for Normandy also took place from airfields that were not necessarily the closest to the invasion sites, such as RAF Rivenhall/USAAF Station AAF-168.

The Thames was another focal point of activity in the run-up to the Normandy landings and beyond. For example, in the run-up to D-Day aircraft struck at the Pas-de-Calais, drawing enemy attention away from the actual invasion site, as part of Operation Fortitude, a co-ordinated deception operation. The Thames also played its part on D-Day itself.

On D-Day -3, 3 June 1944, troops had embarked on SS Sambut in London, including members of the 92nd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery. (1) It was common during wartime for embarkation to take place several days beforehand and there were cases later in 1944 when troops ‘swung at anchor at Glasgow in the murk for five days before we finally set sail.’ (2) On 6 June 1944 convoy ETM-1 left Southend under the command of Captain Willis, bound for Normandy, composed principally of escorts and American Liberty ships loaned to Britain under the Lend-Lease programme, Sambut sailing with her sisters Samark, Samarovsk, Sambut, Samdel, Saminver, Sammont, Samneva, Samos, Sampep, Samphill, Samvern, and Samzona, (3) carrying troops, vehicles, and ammunition. Cargo was stowed inside other cargo to maximise space: lorries were filled with motorbikes in some cases, gelignite in others.

Unfortunately, shells fired at random from German gun batteries on the Calais side struck the Sambut off Dover at 1215. Lorries and petrol cans on deck caught fire, followed by a gelignite explosion in the hold. The troops tried to jettison some of the munitions but it was quickly realised that it was a futile effort. Within 15 minutes the order was given to abandon ship, and by 1245 the ship had been completely abandoned, although not without the loss of 136 crew and military personnel out of 625 (562 military/63 crew) on board. (4)

She was the first Liberty ship to be lost in Operation Overlord, half way through D-Day itself: other Liberty ships would follow as the Normandy campaign wore on over the ensuing weeks and months, such as the well-known Richard Montgomery, also off Southend, in August 1944.

The Sambut shares several features in common with other 20th century wartime wrecks. Primarily, of course, her combustible cargoes contributed to her loss, but blazing wrecks in navigational channels were also a danger to other shipping, and this hazard was compounded under wartime conditions by their potential to direct enemy attention towards operations.

Her master had been ordered to lower the ship’s barrage balloon to make the vessel less conspicuous against the white cliffs of Dover, but it was already too late: either the ship had already been spotted or the barrage from the shore had managed to score a lucky hit.

As with the War Knight off the Isle of Wight in 1918, so with the Sambut in the Straits of Dover in 1944: the burning ship was scuttled by her own side, as the Royal Navy fired a torpedo to finally sink her. (5)

One other feature of 20th century wrecks, as we have often recorded in this blog (for example, the Ballarat, 1917) is that they tend to be well-documented by ‘real-time’ evidence in a way that was not possible before the advent of photography, and of course it then became critical to document operations as they unfolded, for both record and propaganda purposes. This moving film in the IWM Collections records a church service aboard Samarovsk followed by a view of the Sambut on fire, with explosions visible at intervals.

At one and the same time the vessel is characteristic of the archaeological remains of 20th century conflict around the English coastline, and a unique reminder of a specific day which turned the tide of the war.  Today she lies intact and upright on the seabed, a tangible reminder of 6 June 1944.

(1) William Wills, “92 LAA Regt. Loss of the Sambut on D-Day“, BBC People’s War archive, 10 July 2005

(2) Oral history reminiscence, Corporal Cant RAF, Convoy KMF 36, November 6, 1944

(3) Convoy ETM-1, Arnold Hague Convoy Database

(4) Tom McCarthy, True Loyals: A History of 7th Battalion, The Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire/92nd (Loyals) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, 1940-1946, 2nd ed., Countyvise Editions Ltd., Birkenhead, 2012, republished online

(5) ibid.

(6) UKHO 13665

7 thoughts on “No.55: Sambut

  1. Thank you for telling us about your grandfather. The human story behind the wreck event is crucial, and poignant, as we approach this weekend’s Remembrance commemorations.

    1. My dad was on the Sambut, Major George Leslie Williams, he is mentioned in your book which I just received from England, I live in Canada. When I look at the picture of the burning Sambut, I realize that at the point this was taken, he was probably still in the water, gave me goosebumps, as he died two months later.

      1. Thank you very much for adding your comments. I am very pleased to know that the post has touched a chord among descendants of those who were on the wreck. Part of the reason I do what I do in recording shipwrecks is to help keep their memory alive.

  2. My father was a anti aircraft Gunner on this ship when it was sunk, I think he was 18 years old, we only got little snippets at New year etc, but he spoke about going back into the flames to rescue crew mates. And he spoke of how freezing the water was once they had gone overboard, and of the length of time it took to get rescued.

    My Father was Robert Thomson from Aberdeen

    1. Thank you very much for sending your father’s memories to help flesh out the account of what happened to the Sambut. These events happened to, and were traumatic for, real people and we must never forget that – which is why it is important to preserve their memory. It was an extremely courageous act to return to the flames to save lives – you must be very proud of him.

      He would probably have been a DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) gunner. It was a dangerous job in an exposed and vulnerable position under aerial attack and, indeed, in many of our records we can see specifically that the DEMS gunners are recorded as having lost their lives.

      Once again, thank you for sharing your father’s experiences. Wishing you a Happy New Year.

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