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)


On the 70th anniversary of D-Day commemorating the invasion of Europe in 1944, I would like to turn my attention to a wreck which took place away from the main departure points on the south coast, shortly after noon on 6 June 1944.

As a map of Mulberry Harbours, published by the War Office in 1947, shows, the Thames was also a focal point of activity, and ships, men and materials also came from further afield.

In the run-up to D-Day aircraft struck at the Pas-de-Calais, drawing enemy attention away from the actual invasion site, part of the overall strategy of Operation Fortitude. A convoy left London and Southend including the SS Sambut, an American-built Liberty ship loaned to Britain under Lend-Lease, 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. 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 on board. 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.

She has several features in common with other 20th century wartime wrecks. Her combustible cargoes contributed to her loss, of course, but blazing wrecks in navigational channels also endanger other ships and direct enemy attention towards operations. As with the War Knight off the Isle of Wight in 1918, so with the Sambut off the Goodwin Sands in 1944: she was scuttled by her own side, as the Royal Navy fired a torpedo to sink her.


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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