The White Star Line’s transatlantic SS Ceramic during WWI and WWII

SS Ceramic, White Star Line. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

SS Ceramic, White Star Line. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It was virtually impossible for me to not cover this story about the SS Ceramic. I just couldn’t resist on the face of it. As I got further into the story, however, I realized it was very much worth retelling. The SS Ceramic came to be known as the “Queen of the Southern Ocean.” A British passenger steamship and part of the White Star Line, she was launched on December 11, 1912 and was completed July 5, 1913. Her design bears similarities to the Titanic. Both ships were built at the same shipyard, Harland and Wolff, Ltd., in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Titanic was designed by Thomas Andrews and since he was head of the drafting department when the Ceramic was designed, it’s likely he oversaw its design, too. The Titanic was launched May 31, 1911. It’s maiden voyage started on April 10, 1912 and it sunk April 15, 1912. The SS Ceramic was quite a bit smaller, at 665′-679′, had only one smokestack and was slower, running a maximum of 15 knots. Her maiden voyage took her to Australia, which would became her regular route. With the outbreak of World War I, she became a British troop ship, according to Wikipedia but, afterward, she returned to her regular run: Liverpool, St. Helena, Durban, Sydney. Eventually, White Star merged with Cunard and, in 1934, the Ceramic was sold to Shaw, Savill and Albion. She continued her run, but at the start of WW II, she was commissioned for service and, once again, carried troops. Not long after, though, she returned to her regular route. By this time, the SS Ceramic had already evaded German torpedos three times. Its fate was sealed in the North Atlantic, though, at the midpoint between Canada and Portugal. The SS Ceramic was torpedoed by a German submarine, captained by Werner Henke, about 420 miles west-northwest of the Azores, according to uboat.net.

Clare Hardy, quoting J.H. Isherwood, states that on Nov. 23, 1942, the SS Ceramic “left the Mersey for Australia, independently routed, with 378 passengers. Her subsequent complete disappearance was at first little publicised at home, due to the general censorship of shipping information, and the Admiralty assumed that she had been sunk without survivors from the 500 or so persons on board. It was learned a long time later that she had been torpedoed and sunk on December 6 in latitude 40 deg. 30 min. N., longitude 40 deg., 20 min. W, and that one survivor, a sapper of the Royal Engineers, had been picked up by the U-boat and taken to a German prison camp. The full story, as far as I know, has never been published.

Hardy is the granddaughter of one of the passengers who went down with the ship, one Trevor Winser. She has written the history of the event in a book called SS Ceramic: The Untold Tale. The site promoting the book said that, “for the first time, sole survivor Eric Munday tells in full the story of his remarkable rescue by the U-boat and subsequent imprisonment as a POW.” This same website shows photographs of people who sank with the ship, giving biographical information. It’s hard to look at these fresh young faces and know about the fate that befell them.

According to Picture History of British Ocean Liners: 1900 To the Present, by William H. Miller, the Ceramic’s route to Australia took it around South Africa. The White Star Liners, he says, were “largely interested in the outbound migrant trade.” Ceramic was the largest ship to service Australia, she had a large cargo hold and only catered to third-class travelers, states Miller. She was completely refitted after the third time she was sold and became an all-cabin-class ship. So, the passengers who sank with the ship would have been first class passengers, save military personnel. It was said that when she was hit by the torpedo, “the explosion was so severe no radio call was sent out,” explains Miller. “She sank within minutes.”

Writing about the SS Ceramic has endeared me to her. The story is a tragedy that had unforeseen angles. The captain of the German submarine spoke perfect American English, as he’d worked for some time in the shipyards in Boston, Massachusetts. He was eventually captured and put in a US POW camp, where he committed suicide by trying to ‘escape’ when he knew he’d be most likely to be shot. In many ways it is a curious story. I was unable to find out anything about the origin of the ship’s name. It remains a mystery to me. Usually ships are named after people, symbols, or allusions. Why SS Ceramic? Did it have anything to do with the British ceramic trade at its height? Was there some actually named Ceramic? I don’t know, but I aim to find out.

Ss_ceramic

New Zealand post card, The SS Ceramic, 1913 – 1942. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

9 Comments

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9 Responses to The White Star Line’s transatlantic SS Ceramic during WWI and WWII

  1. Derek

    Many shipping lines had naming traditions. Cunard named their ships with names ending in “ia” and I think these were chosen from former Roman Provinces (eg. Mauretania, Carpathia, Lucania, Lusitania, Aquitania, etc.). White Star named their ships with names ending in “ic” (eg. Titanic, Olympic, Ceramic, Megantic, Georgic etc)

    • Jan

      Derek, thank you so very much for writing and telling me about ship naming traditions. You have helped me make much more sense of it! As you can see, this is a ceramics blog and I’m out of my element…. I couldn’t resist with the SS Ceramic, though, and when I got further into the story, I began to feel fond of her. What a life she had! Thank you for cluing me into Cunard’s Roman provincial names and the White Star’s ‘ic’…I do appreciate it! — Jan

    • Robert Hill

      My Grandfather was with the 4th Transvaal Scottish in WW1 and shipped to England in 1917 on board the Ceramic . He wrote “Two days out U Boats had a crack at us . Our Skipper swung the ship and the torpedo just missed the stern . One U Boat sunk the Armadale , our ship and the ex Blue funnel liner loaded with Aussies went full out , while the rest , being slower came on later “

  2. Derek is correct, the White Star Line ship names ended in IC. I think they must have run out of inspiration by the time they got to Ceramic! Jan, you say you’re out of your element digressing into ships; likewise, I have got to learn more than I anticipated about ceramics in my online searches about this ship!

  3. Charley Smith

    The ‘Ceramic’ had 5 running mates on White Star’s Australia circuit:
    Afric, Medic, Persic, Runic & Suevic.

  4. Barbara Quirk

    In searching for records of my father who sailed in the steamship Ceramic I came across this very interesting history of the ship. I have wage receipts for my father dated 26/05/1922 and 08/10/1922 both for sailings to Australia. We are not too sure exactly when he joined White Star but he was born in 1898 and it wasn’t uncommon for men in Liverpool in the early 1900’s to join the merchant marine at an early age. I am trying to find lists of the crew from launching up to say, 1939 so if you, or any of your correspondents have any further information on the ship I would be most interested.

    • Nicholas Elford Stone

      My grandfather, Herbert Charles Elford, was Captain of the Ceramic from 1936 until her sinking in December 1942 off the Azores as a result of a torpedo attack.. Sadly, he and all souls on-board, save one, were lost.

  5. David Frodsham

    My Father William Clifford Frodsham was a crew member of the Ceramic and I remember my Mother telling me that the first she knew of the loss of the ship was when she visited the Company’s offices in connection with her husband’s pay and saw that a red line had been drawn through the records indicating that the ship had gone. I was 4 years of age at the time. I try to remember the anniversary of the sinking each year by placing a notice in the Daily Telegraph. The Liverpool Echo has written articles about the loss of the Ceramic as she was a Liverpool ship and many of the crew were from Merseyside. There was an article on the 25th Anniversary and again on the 50th in 1992.
    David Frodsham.

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