More legends and myths about SS Somali

Divers and wrecks make a heady mix, especially when locals are factored in! We have such great legends as 'The Oban Monkey', courtesy of SS Breda and 'Sovereigns in the Safe', courtesy of SS Somali. This one also finds its routes on SS Somali, so read on.....

Firstly a bit of an overview on the Somali, she was a relatively large vessel at 140m length and 6904 grt displacement, she was relatively new having been launched in 1930 and with a state of the art 'quadruple expansion steam turbine' she was quite fast for a cargo vessel. From her launch to requistion she had been owned and operated by what is now P&O operating between the UK and Far East, from her requistion she had been operating mainly in Norweigan waters. The cargo carrying capacity of SS Somali was around 6,000t and she was coal fired, both important in the context of the rest of this article.

Lets continue with some more 'knowns', we know that the Somali was attacked by a flight of Heinkel 111 bombers on 24th March 1941 and subsequently exploded and sank the next day following a rather large explosion.....


Thats quite a bang for a vessel with nothing explosive on-board.....

It's the force of the explosion that was so extrordinary.......it blew the bow section a 'considerable' distance away from the wreck, it's location hasn't been fixed so no-one is sure quite how far and there was considerable damage to properties at Beadnell and Seahouses, at the Craster Arms in Beadnell the window lintels were cracked and the windows blown in, it was the same in the cottages along the sea-front, these houses are about 1.5 miles from the site of the explosion.

Intrestingly the manifest for the Somali doesn't detail any explosives, she was carrying 'all-sorts' and was en-route from the Thames Estuary to Firth of Forth in convoy FN442, she was then due to join convoy EN92/1 and go to Oban for heading to the Far East. Included in this diverse cargo were cosmetics, hospital supplies, engineering supplies, bags of cement and horses, in one of the reports the explosion was put down to the horse fodder exploding, christ you wouldn't want to stand in a turd from one of those horses!

The only thing that could have exploded was the coal for the engines, that is providing it was mainly dust! There is nothing declared in the manifest which would cause such a vigorous explosion. So with this in mind I had to look and try and calculate how much explosive would be required to cause the damage at Beadnell.


Data on effects of explosions compared with distance and damage

The information I found is in the table above, the damage seen at Beadnell is classified as 'Ca', which equates to 50% of the windows smashed, a few tiles dislodged and minor structural issues.

The distance from the explosion to the village is about 8,000 feet so based on the information we have the equivalent mass of TNT is between 16,000lbs and 30,000 lbs if we use the higher figure that is around 10 tonnes of high explosives! If we look at the density of the more common high explosives there would need to be a volume of about 6 cubic meters for this amount of explosive and that is before storage containers are considered. That is a large volume of explosives to be stored on-board a vessel and not included in the manifest, it would be possible but I'm not sure how practical.

The local conjecture is simpler, the manifest was false or incomplete and she was carrying a nuclear bomb which was being shipped to the far-east to use against Japan, unfortunately the main problem here is that Japan didn't declare war until 8th December 1941 so our dates are out of sync, but that is not to say that there may be a grain of truth....

The strongly held belief rather shocked me but I thought, maybe a bit of truth somewhere, certainly there was nothing in the manifest to cause an explosion of that magnitude, so with a bit of time on my hands I had a grub about and this is what I found.

I first thought, well what was the UK involvement in 'The Manhatten Project', the code-name of the programme to develop the first atomic device and I was surprised to find that in the early 1940's the UK had a standalone project 'Tube alloy' which in 1942 was further advanced than the fledgling US project. I was unaware of this project but there again Britain had been the leader in atomic physics so perhaps it is not such a surprise that the use of new technology in the struggle against Germany was being investigated.

In 1941 things weren't great for the UK, the USA was still neutral and would remain so until the end of the year whilst in Europe Germany and the USSR had a non-agression pact which Stalin was keen to maintain, this meant that the UK and its empire was basically alone and whilst the threat of invasion had retreated there was still an ongoing concern that projects critical to the war effort should be transferred to colonial bases where the fight could be continued if the UK fell.

A critical part of the UK development of an atomic device was the production by ICI at Teeside of Uranium Hexafluoride, 3kg of which was ordered in 1940. Now this compound has many uses but when the more unstable isotope of uranium is used it is critical to the process of making an atomic device and whilst it is relatively stable when stored as a dry gas when it gets wet it will explode, violently, extremely violently and rapidly almost like a nuclear bomb?

That was a slight digression, by 1942 the British team had been relocated to Montreal in Canada to continue with their work and later render some assistance to the now dominant American project. This date in 1942 would imply that all of the necessary equipment and supplies would have previously been despatched to Canada and would be awaiting the arrival of the engineers and scientists. This meant the movement of all tools, equipment and material.....could the Somali have left the Tees carrying a consignment of Uranium Hexafluoride?

My first port of call was a site 'convoy web' which details which vessels were sailing in particular convoys, on this site there was no confirmation that the Somali was sailing in FN442 a second visit to a site populated with data supplied by the late Arnold Hague advised that she was sunk as part of this convoy.........but there again looking at the make up of the convoy it seemed to grow as it travelled North with vessels joining from Sunderland and the Tyne and only two vessels setting out from Southend, there was no information to say where the Somali had joined the convoy. So she could just have left a North East port loaded with the nuclear material, joined the covoy, then be routed to Oban and from there anywhere.

I will keep looking at the issue, a local tv programme has already demonstrated and confirmed the link between ICI and the British nuclear programme so maybe information about when, how and where the 3kg of material went can be obtained. One thing is certain, the force of the explosion was far in excess of that which would have been encountered if the manifest was accurate!

In the meantime I don't think that you will get radiation poisoning if you dive the Somali but please...

Dive safe!!



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