WWI Centennial: Arabs Take Aqaba, Kerensky Offensive Fails

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 281st installment in the series.

JULY 1-6, 1917: ARABS TAKE AQABA, KERENSKY OFFENSIVE FAILS

In mid-1917 the leaders of the Arab Revolt, Prince Faisal and his chief advisor, the British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, faced a conundrum. While they hoped to raise all the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire in rebellion and eventually capture Damascus as the capital of a new Arab state, to achieve these sweeping ambitions they required more supplies including rifles, machine guns, explosives, and armored cars, not to mention ammunition, food, medicine, and fuel. 

Britain’s mighty Royal Navy, with its unchallenged control of the seas, could supply all this and more, if only the Arabs could gain control of a suitable port on the Red Sea with a harbor deep enough to admit cargo ships and transports. Just as important, the port had to be close enough to the main theater of the Arab Revolt (northwestern Arabia, the modern country of Jordan, and their immediate surroundings) for the supplies to reach the itinerant Arab Army fast enough to make a difference; other ports already under Arab control, such as Duba and Al Wajh, were simply too far away in a region with no modern infrastructure aside from the Hejaz Railway, still under Turkish control. 

Arab Revolt Map
Erik Sass

There was just one port that fit the bill: Aqaba, a protected harbor that gave its name to the Gulf of Aqaba, one of two northern inlets of the Red Sea along with the Gulf of Suez, between which lay the arid Sinai Peninsula (see map above). However Aqaba was a formidable target to say the least, protected on the landward side by the trackless wastes of the An Nafud, an impenetrable desert hundreds of miles wide, and on the seaward side by heavy guns (and in any event the warships of the Royal Navy’s local squadrons were too busy guarding the approaches to the Suez Canal against enemy U-boats to attempt an amphibious assault). 

And so the Arab Revolt seemed doomed to wither on the vine, a small conflict on the fringes of a secondary theater of the First World War – that is, until Lawrence had a clever idea. The Arab Army simply had to do the impossible.

ACROSS THE DESERT 

The decision to attack Aqaba from the landward side by crossing the Nafud was widely considered suicidal, even by the Bedouin nomads: temperatures in July can reach as high as 54° Celsius or 129° Fahrenheit during the day, and without water even the camels would begin dying after a few weeks, at which point the human beings would be doomed as well. Thus Lawrence received permission to take only a small, expendable group of warriors with him, and would have to try to recruit more tribesmen living in the vicinity of Aqaba once – or rather if – they arrived.

Of course Lawrence had his own strategic reasons for wanting to capture Aqaba: in addition to allowing the British to supply the Arab Army, taking the town would deprive the Turks of a base from which they could threaten the advance of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, a combined British and Egyptian army, across the Sinai Peninsula into Palestine under Edmund Allenby, who took command on June 27, 1917. From the British perspective the whole Arab Revolt was just another gambit in their chess game with the Turks, and Lawrence shared their priorities – but secretly hoped to make it something more as well.

Climate wasn’t the only adversary during their epic journey across the Nafud, forcing them to confront natural and human foes in combination. Although the Arabs usually avoided battle in unfavorable conditions, the small band of warriors led by Lawrence and the fierce Howeitat chieftain Auda Abu Tayi, an ally of Faisal (above), were forced to attack a Turkish outpost blocking a key pass on the way to Aqaba. Lawrence recalled the desperate fight over sharp rocks in blazing desert heat:

Then we began to snipe them steadily in their positions under the slopes and rock-faces by the water hoping to provoke them out and up the hill in a charge against us… This went on all day. It was terribly hot, hotter than ever before I had felt it in Arabia, and the anxiety and constant moving made it hard for us. Some even of the tough tribesmen broke down under the cruelty of the sun and crawled or had to be thrown under rocks to recover in their shade. We had to run up and down, supplying our lack of numbers by mobility, ever looking over the long ranges of hill for a new spot from which to counter this or that Turkish effort. The hillsides were steep and exhausted our breath, and the plants and grasses twined like little hands about our ankles as we ran and plucked us back. The sharp ground tore our feet, and before evening the more energetic men were leaving rusty prints upon the ground with their every stride. Our rifles grew so hot with the sun and shooting that they seared our hands… The rocks on which flung ourselves to get our aim were burning with the sun, so that they scorched our breasts and arms, from which later the skin peeled off in ragged sheets.

After this battle for a Turkish outpost the attack on Aqaba itself was almost anticlimactic, in part because the Arabs soon enjoyed numerical superiority thanks to the arrival of local tribesmen eager for plunder, along with the advantage of surprise:

Unfortunately for the enemy, they never imagined attack from the interior and of all their great works not one trench or post faced inland. Our advance from so new a direction threw them into panic, and wisely they did not progressively resist us. The attempt if made would have availed them nothing, for we had the hill tribes with us, and by their help we could occupy the sheer peaks with riflemen whose plunging fire would render the gorge untenable for troops without overhead cover.

With the outskirts now under Arab control, over 1,000 Bedouin warriors were left facing around 300 unhappy Turkish defenders dug into trenches a few miles from Aqaba, and it was only a matter of time; in fact Lawrence’s main concern now was to prevent a massacre of the holdouts. A parlay with the Turkish commander yielded a tentative agreement to surrender at daylight, but chaotic combat soon erupted again, until Lawrence restored order with considerable personal bravery: 

Next day at dawn fighting broke out on all sides, for hundreds more hill men, again doubling our number, had come about us in the night and, not knowing the arrangement, began shooting at the Turks, who defended themselves. Nasir and I went out… to the open bend of the valley below our men, who ceased fire not to hit us. The Turks also stopped at once, for they had no more fight or food left in them, and thought that we were well supplied. So the surrender went off quietly after all.

Among the prisoners was a hapless German engineer who, like so many people caught in up in the whirlwind of war in a foreign land, freely admitted had no idea what was going on and generally seemed grateful just to be alive: 

As the Arabs rushed in to plunder the camp I noticed one of the prisoners in field-grey uniform, with a red beard and puzzled blue eyes, and spoke to him in German. He was the well-borer, and knew no Turkish and was amazed at the doings of the last two days. He begged me to explain what it all meant, since he had not understood the officers. I said that we were a rebellion, of the Arabs against the Turks. This took him time to appreciate. He wanted to know who was our leader and I said the Sherif of Mecca. He supposed he would be sent to Mecca. I said rather to Egypt, and he enquired the price of sugar there, and when I told him it was cheap and plentiful he was glad.

Aqaba had no direct communications with Egypt, so Lawrence was now forced to embark on another epic desert journey, this time across the Sinai Peninsula to the Suez Canal, to inform his superiors in Cairo that the Arab Army had performed a miracle, totally changing the outlook for Allenby’s planned advance into Palestine as well as the prospects of the Arab Revolt. 

KERENSKY OFFENSIVE FAILS

The fall of Aqaba was an unexpected, but much-needed, piece of good news for the Allies following another unmitigated disaster on the Eastern Front. This time it was the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, which would prove to be Russia’s last major effort of the First World War, as the vast realm quickly descended into the chaos of civil war. 

The offensive, named for the Provisional Government’s charismatic minister of war, Alexander Kerensky, was intended to show the Allies that Russia’s new revolutionary government was committed to continuing the war effort, as well as enhance its prestige in the eyes of the Russian people. Like his fellow cabinet ministers Kerensky was worried about the growing power of the Petrograd Soviet, a popular assembly dominated by socialists, which seemed determined to sideline the Provisional Government under Prince Lviv; they hoped that a big victory would shore up their legitimacy and check the ambitions of the Soviet’s radical members, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

North East Europe July 1917
Erik Sass

Things didn’t turn out the way, however. The Kerensky Offensive got off to a promising start, but this was largely due to the choice of a soft target – the demoralized, disorganized Austro-Hungarian armies facing the Russians in Galicia. After a fierce two-day bombardment from June 28-30, on July 1 troops from the Russian Eleventh, Eighth and Seventh Armies began a short-lived advance, and in some places made considerable progress towards Lemberg, which had already traded hands countless times over the course of the war – but then the wheels came off.

On July 3 many of the Russian troops, figuring they had made enough progress, simply stopped advancing, and their officers – stripped of their authority by the Soviet’s famous Order No. 1 in March – were powerless to enforce any kind of discipline. By July 16 the advance had stopped in its tracks. The pause not only gave the Habsburg forces a break, but also allowed their formidable German allies to dispatch reinforcements who immediately staged a counterattack beginning on July 19, turning the Russian advance into a rout (below, Russian troops fleeing after the failure of the offensive).

By early August the Germans and Habsburg armies had advanced over 150 miles in places in pursuit of the retreating Russians, with no prospect of serious resistance; on the road to this debacle the Russians had sustained 200,000 casualties, including 40,000 killed and many more taken prisoner, as units surrendered en masse. The demoralization of the Russian Army was complete, and mass desertions and mutinies would undermine whatever was left of the once-mighty “steamroller” in the months to come. 

Everyone immediately recognized the enormity of the disaster, which helped set the stage for the militant Bolsheviks’ first attempt to seize power, further destabilizing the already weak government. On July 25, 1917, an anonymous English diplomatic courier believed to be Albert Henry Stopford wrote in his diary: 

The news from the Front is too terrible to think of – two Army Corps surrendered, and all the towns lost which were so lately won. Thank God, the Huns will find nothing to eat. I know what that is, as we are starving here. [The loss of] Tarnpol is a great disaster, and really last night… when that news came, we were all disheartened. You have no idea how tired it makes one; I sleep eight hours, only to wake up much more tired. There is nothing to eat, either; I am always hungry. For the moment all is quiet here, but there may yet be a pitched battle between those who want to maintain order and carry on the war, and those who don’t want to do either.

GREECE JOINS ALLIES 

The Allies had received another very modest piece of encouragement with the belated entry of Greece into the war on July 2, 1917. The decision came after months of paralysis resulting from the rift between King Constantine, the country’s pro-German monarch, and Eleftherios Venizelos, its pro-Allied senior statesman and most popular politician. 

Greek neutrality had already been violated in 1915 when the Allies landed at Salonika, where Venizelos soon set up a rival pro-Allied government and worked to marginalize King Constantine with the full encouragement and support of the Allies. Under intense pressure from the Allies, who had enforced a naval blockade and financial embargo against his regime, King Constantine finally resigned on June 11, 1917 and went into exile with his eldest son George, making way for his second son, Alexander, who now took the throne and ruled as a figurehead under the thumb of Venizelos. 

Venizelos wasted no time declaring war on the Central Powers, including the Bulgarians, who had occupied parts of northern Greece alongside German, Habsburg, and Ottoman forces, and who still laid claim to the ancient city of Salonika despite their disastrous defeat in the Second Balkan War. However the Greek contribution to the war effort was symbolic at best: for most of the conflict the main body of the Greek Army remained encamped far to the south of the frontlines in Thessaly, and just 5,000 Greek soldiers died in battle, a pinprick by the standards of the First World War. Many more would die in the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, when the Greeks, at the encouragement of the Allies, tried to detach Turkish territory without success.

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Things You Might Not Know About the Battle of New Orleans

Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The Battle of New Orleans was epic. Andrew Jackson's victory over 8000 British troops turned him into a folk hero, and paved his way to the White House. The campaign also helped modernize naval warfare and spelled doom for America’s oldest political party. Here's everything you need to know about the last major engagement in the War of 1812.

1. IT WAS FOUGHT AFTER THE AMERICANS AND THE BRITISH SIGNED A PEACE TREATY.

New Orleans was a major port and transportation hub that promised effective control of the lower Mississippi, which made it a prime target for Great Britain. So in late November 1814, Royal Navy Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane and a fleet of 50 ships set sail for Louisiana with the goal of capturing the city, along with the rest of the lower Mississippi Delta.

The fighting in Louisiana started on December 14, when a British naval squadron defeated an inferior American force in Lake Borgne. Nine days later, an encampment of around 1800 redcoats was ambushed by Jackson’s men at Villeré Plantation. Though the Americans soon pulled out, the skirmish bought Jackson, a.k.a. Old Hickory, some time to reinforce his defenses around New Orleans proper.

At the same time, an agreement to end the whole war was being negotiated. Representatives from both countries met in modern-day Belgium to hammer out the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on December 24, 1814, 15 days before the Battle of New Orleans broke out on January 8, 1815. The treaty didn’t go into effect until it was ratified on February 16, 1815, though, so the U.S. and Great Britain were still technically at war during the battle.

2. JACKSON SHOWED UP WITH A BAD CASE OF DYSENTERY.

The Battle Of New Orleans
iStock

On November 7, 1814, with 3000 men, Jackson (then a Major General) took the city of Pensacola in Spanish Florida, where he learned about Britain’s planned invasion of New Orleans. He left for Louisiana in mid-November and—after stopping to build up Mobile, Alabama’s defenses—arrived in NOLA at the beginning of December with his personal staff.

Jackson also brought some dysentery. When he first reached New Orleans, he could barely stand. Digestion problems forced him to subsist on boiled rice for much of the campaign, and before the redcoats attacked, many of Jackson’s orders were given while the general languished miserably on a couch. Still, he wasted no time in organizing a survey of the many swamps, bays, roads, creeks, and rivers in southern Louisiana.

3. NOTORIOUS PIRATE JEAN LAFFITE DOUBLE-CROSSED THE BRITISH SO HE COULD HELP THE AMERICANS.

Jean Laffite claimed he was born in France in 1780 or so, but historians aren’t entirely sure if that's true. What they do know is that at some point in the early 19th century, he moved to Louisiana with a man named Pierre, who claimed to be his brother. The pair were smugglers, pirates, and privateers, and by the time the War of 1812 rolled around, they had established themselves in the New Orleans black market. Their base of operations was the remote Barataria Bay in southern Louisiana, where Jean made a port for his ships and set up dwellings for the ragtag collection of ne'er-do-wells involved with his criminal operation.

On September 3, 1814, a contingent of British officers arrived in Barataria Bay with an offer for Jean Laffite. The proposal went like this: If Laffite agreed to help the redcoats take control of New Orleans, he would be rewarded with a good, high-ranking job in the British navy—and he’d get to keep at least some of his ill-gotten gains. Plus, he would supposedly receive some free land along with a large sum of money.

Laffite accepted the deal—then double-crossed the British as soon as he could. No one knows why the pirate decided to help the Americans, but he might have been thinking of Pierre, who was imprisoned in New Orleans at the time. By assisting the U.S., Laffite probably figured he could get Pierre released (as it turned out, that wasn't necessary; Pierre escaped). He may have also believed that his business empire would crumble if the British took over Louisiana.

In any case, Laffite had a hard time getting the American authorities to accept his help. When he explained the situation in a letter to Louisiana’s governor, the U.S. Navy responded by laying siege to Barataria Bay. Jackson initially balked at the idea of working with Laffite, calling the smuggler’s men “hellish banditti.”

But Old Hickory eventually came around and agreed to join forces. Laffite couldn’t supply many troops; his men only represented about 2 percent of all the soldiers at Jackson’s disposal. He did, however, donate weapons to the cause, and advised the general on how to navigate the tricky rivers and bayous of Louisiana—expertise that helped turn the tide against Great Britain.

After the war, the Laffites and their men received full pardons for past crimes from the U.S. government. Jean and Pierre eventually left New Orleans, relocating to Galveston Island off the coast of present-day Texas.

4. THE FAMOUS KENTUCKY MILITIAMEN DIDN’T BRING ENOUGH GUNS—OR CLOTHES.

At his rallies during the presidential elections of 1824 and 1828, Jackson’s supporters would sing a little ditty called “The Hunters of Kentucky.” Written by Samuel Woodworth in 1821, the song pays tribute to the roughly 2500 Kentucky militiamen who fought under Old Hickory at the Battle of New Orleans. It turned into one of the most popular anthems of the 1820s and encouraged future politicians to choose campaign songs of their own.

But Woodworth’s lyrics don’t paint the whole picture. According to one verse, “Jackson he was wide awake, and was not scar’d at trifles, for well he knew what aim we take, with our Kentucky rifles.” But before taking aim, you need a gun—and most of those 2500-odd Kentuckians were unarmed when they reached New Orleans in early January 1815.

The militiamen had been led to believe that munitions would be handed out in New Orleans, so only around one-third of them came down with their own guns. But in New Orleans, there weren't enough arms to go around. “I don’t believe it,” Jackson supposedly said. “I have never seen a Kentuckian without a gun and a pack of cards and a bottle of whiskey in my life.”

Decent clothing was also in short supply among his visitors from the Bluegrass State, so the Louisiana citizenry and state legislature spent $16,000 to make new clothes and bedding for them.

5. STEAMBOAT WARFARE CAN TRACE ITS ROOTS TO THIS CAMPAIGN.

Jackson, who needed all the weapons he could get, must have been relieved to hear that Secretary of War James Monroe was sending over a veritable stockpile. One of the men who ferried the crucial firearms down the Mississippi was Henry Miller Shreve, captain of a large, flat-bottomed steamboat called the Enterprise. On January 3, 1815, Jackson asked Shreve to deliver some supplies to Americans holed up at Fort St. Philip, 80 miles downriver from New Orleans. Though the Enterprise had to bypass armed British forces en route, she completed the mission—a feat recognized as the first usage of a steam vessel in a military campaign. As for Shreve, he saw action at the Battle of New Orleans itself, where he commanded a 24-pound gun.

6. OLD HICKORY PLACED NEW ORLEANS UNDER MARTIAL LAW.

During the conflict, Jackson took actions that no American general had ever taken before. The decisions would ultimately come back to haunt him.

On December 16, 1814, General Jackson subjected all of New Orleans to martial law and suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, a legal principle that acts as a safeguard against unlawful imprisonment. He kept a tight hold on the reins: Ship captains needed military-issued passports to take their vessels out of the city and all citizens had to abide by a 9 p.m. curfew or be threatened with immediate arrest.

It didn’t take long for Jackson’s men to start incarcerating locals: Mayor Nicolas Girod warned on Christmas Day that the Guard House would soon be overstuffed with prisoners. It was hoped that all was going to return to normal if and when the redcoats were driven out of Louisiana. Things didn’t work out that way. Fearing a second British attack against New Orleans, Jackson decided to keep it under martial law until March 13, when the state learned that the Treaty of Ghent had been ratified.

These were tough times for the Big Easy. During his tenure, Jackson censored local newspapers and banished French-American citizens suspected of disloyalty. Louisianans were further outraged when he had State Senator Louis Louaillier and U.S. District Court Judge Dominick Hall arrested. Once the latter was eventually set free, he put Jackson on trial and fined him $1000 for contempt of court. The general paid up, but he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Old Hickory’s actions came back to bite him decades later, when anti-Jacksonians used his conduct in New Orleans to paint the man as a tyrant.

7. A 1500-YARD RAMPART WAS KEY TO THE AMERICAN VICTORY.

Map of Battle of New Orleans
Stefan Kühn, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

General Edward Pakenham came to the January 8 battle with around 8000 professionally trained British soldiers. By comparison, Jackson was at a distinct disadvantage: Many of his men—a hodgepodge coalition of forces from the Army/Navy/Marine Corps, militiamen, pirates, Choctaw recruits, and other fighters totalling 5700 people—had little experience fighting together. To give his troops an advantage, Old Hickory did some terraforming.

In late December, he visited the Rodriguez Canal, a shallow drainage ditch on the eastern bank of the Mississippi six miles south of New Orleans. Knowing that Pakenham would march his men up the river across some wide-open terrain, Jackson had his men build a 1500-yard rampart—made of wood, earth, and possibly cotton bales—in front of the canal. Dubbed Line Jackson, the wall began on the river bank and jetted deep into a nearby cypress swamp. For insurance, Old Hickory had the Rodriguez Canal widened so it could be used as a moat; the extra dirt that they dug up went into building the rampart.

The Battle of New Orleans began at 5 a.m. on January 8, 1815. Though there was an American contingent stationed across the river, most of the men were lying in wait for the British behind Line Jackson. The geography forced column after column of red-coated soldiers to pass through a narrow stretch of exposed countryside as they pushed towards the rampart. From the safety of their muddy wall, Jackson’s men mowed down over 2000 British troops in about two hours. It was a slaughter.

8. MISPLACED LADDERS HURT THE BRITISH.

Pakenham had a plan for dealing with Line Jackson, but one of his subordinates botched it. Before the battle, Pakenham had gathered some ladders, sugar cane bales, and other valuable supplies and entrusted them to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Mullins. With the ladders, Pakenham’s men could have climbed over Line Jackson while using sugar bales to fill the moat. But Mullins quickly lost track of the goods—and didn’t realize his mistake until his regiment was within 1000 yards of the American line.

At that point it was too late. Unable to cross the barricade or ford the moat, the British on the eastern bank turned into sitting ducks. Pakenham was killed and so was Major General Gibbs, who supposedly said, “If I live until tomorrow, I will hang Colonel Mullins from one of these trees.” Despite gaining lots of ground on the western bank, the surviving British officers chose to withdraw from both sides of the river.

By one estimate Jackson lost just 13 men (with an additional 49 missing, captured, or wounded), despite inflicting thousands of casualties. His job wasn’t over yet: Britain didn’t pull out of Louisiana until the end of January. Nevertheless, he’d scored an impressive, morale-boosting victory along the Rodriguez Canal. America would never forget it. “History records no example of so glorious a victory obtained with so little bloodshed on the part of the victorious,” wrote Secretary of War James Monroe.

9. NO, THE SCOTTISH TROOPS DIDN’T WEAR KILTS INTO BATTLE.

Great battles inspire great artwork, but artists don’t always pay heed to historical accuracy. Some of the paintings that were made to celebrate Jackson’s rout show the Scottish troops in Britain’s 93rd Highland Regiment wearing kilts in combat. The Scotsmen at best donned tartan trousers, although some historians doubt even that, saying they likely wore gray campaign overalls.

10. IT HELPED KILL THE FEDERALIST PARTY.

Established by Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist Party is recognized as the first political party in U.S. history. It enjoyed national dominance under the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams—but the Federalists lost that control in 1800 with the election of Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's tenure bred discontent across New England, a Federalist stronghold, and members of the party who lived there began to discuss seceding from the Union as early as 1804.

The War of 1812 intensified their resolve; New England Federalists were extremely suspicious of Democratic-Republican President Madison’s efforts, with prominent Federalist Rufus King proclaiming it “a war of party, and not of the Country.” To discuss their grievances against President Madison, his Jeffersonian agenda, and the war, Federalist representatives from all over New England quietly convened in Hartford, Connecticut on December 15, 1814. They put together a list of constitutional amendments for the U.S. federal government to consider that were designed to benefit northeastern states.

It was rumored that New England would secede if the Federalists’ suggestions were ignored. The Hartford Convention wrapped up on January 5, 1815, and its proposals were soon read aloud in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. At the same time, the country was just starting to celebrate Andrew Jackson’s big win in New Orleans. Most Americans were in a jubilant mood, and the griping Federalists now looked more out of touch than ever. “Hartford Convention Federalist” became a euphemism for “disloyal traitor,” and the party declined into oblivion.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

iStock
iStock

Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER