What Was the Great Bitter Lake Flotilla?

Source: Conde Nast Traveler

Egypt intentionally sank ships to prevent the Israelis from taking the Suez Canal, trapping multiple ships and crewmen there for several years as a result!

In 1967, war came to the desert. Fearing an Egyptian invasion, the Israeli Army launched a preemptive lightning campaign into the Sinai desert. In three days, Israeli tanks had shattered the Egyptian defenses and were pushing towards the Suez Canal, the most important shipping route in the world. In an act of desperation, fearing the loss of the canal to the Israelis, the Egyptian Navy sank ships and blocked both entrances to the canal. These hulks, as well as much of the main channel, were then mined and booby-trapped to deter any attempts to remove them.

The canal would remain closed until 1975, when the Israelis and Egyptians agreed to clear the wreckage. Economically, the closing of the Suez Canal caused problems and increased the cost in shipping goods from Asia and the Persian Gulf to Europe. Yet these pains were quickly accommodated as businesses forged new routes. On the other hand, for the crew of the 15 ships trapped in the canal in 1967, the following eight years were filled with hardship, privation, and comradery.

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Creating The Great Bitter Lake Flotilla

Aboard one of the flotilla ships shortly after internment. Source: Wikipedia
Aboard one of the flotilla ships shortly after internment. Source: Wikipedia

Of the 15 ships trapped by the Egyptians, 14 were able to sail to the largest body of water along the canal – the so-called Great Bitter Lake. There, the ships lashed themselves together and formed the Great Bitter Lake Association, which is sometimes also called the Great Bitter Lake Flotilla or the Yellow Fleet. These ships were predominantly European owned and operated with French, West German, British, and Polish ships all trapped on the lake along with two American ships.

The multinational makeup of the flotilla made repatriation difficult. Most of the ships' crews were forced to remain onboard, trapped and interred with their vessels. Life aboard the flotilla was hard and unpleasant. While many of its cargo ships were designed for long-distance voyages, they were never designed to become the exclusive homes to their crews. Space and accommodations were often sparse and supplies were only meant to last weeks. The crews became increasingly dependent on the Egyptians for food, and because of the high salinity of the Great Bitter Lake and the aridity of the surrounding desert, water. This situation remained tense as the crew of the Flotilla naturally saw the neighboring Egyptians, who were largely soldiers, as their captors.

To make matters worse, the crews of the Flotilla struggled to perform routine maintenance on their ships. Without access to replacement parts and equipment, many ships lost propulsion and power. By 1970, the ships of the Flotilla had to be lashed together so that they could pool their resources. Even then, each ship was battered by the elements. The crews fought an unending and unwinnable battle against the wind and sand which, over the length of their interment, blasted the paint off hulls and piled up on the decks. This would give the ships their most colorful moniker, the Yellow Fleet, after the yellowed sand covered hulls.

Despite these hardships the sailors faced, they developed a strong bond and community thanks to their shared experience. Cross boundaries of nationality, ideology (many of the ships interred were from the Communist bloc), language, and culture, the crews came together to save their ships and themselves.

Maintaining the Flotilla State

The Great Bitter Lake Association not only advocated for the release of the ships and sailors, it also organized recreation and distraction for the interred. In 1968, to coincide with the summer Olympic games, the Association held its own set of games which included life boat races, swimming events, and even a soccer match. Movies were regularly brought in from shore, and several ships even built improvised athletics facilities including gyms and pools. Additionally, the Association printed stamps for inter-ship mail, and assumed many of the functions of a legitimate government.

A Sailor at the 1968 Bitter Lake Games. Source: The Daily Express
A Sailor at the 1968 Bitter Lake Games. Source: The Daily Express

By 1972, the Great Bitter Lake Association arranged for the release of the crews of the trapped ships. After almost five years, many were sent home. However, a new group of sailors were rotated onto the ships to continue to maintain them and protect the company's claim to the hull and cargo. This group, which would no longer lived continuously aboard, maintained the increasingly decrepit Flotilla.

But the ships and their guardians once again had front row seats to a showdown between the Egyptian and Israeli armies in 1973. The Great Bitter Lake once again became the no-man's land between the two sides. While the '73 war did no damage to the Flotilla, the political changes it ushered into the Sinai had a tremendous impact. Following the conclusion of the war, the Egyptians and the Israelis began to slowly move towards de-escalation and a demilitarization of the Sinai. The first step in this process was removing the obstructions at the mouth of the canal and reopening it to trade. By 1975 this work was complete.

Unfortunately, many of the ships of the Flotilla had fallen victim to time and weather, and were unable to sail out of the Great Bitter Lake. Only two, both of the West German ships, were able to sail home. The rest were towed out of the canal and sold for scrap. So ended the ordeal of the Great Bitter lake fleet.

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.