Captain Ken #23 - Suez and French Foreign Legionnaries
Captain Ken Owen had a long career at sea which included sailing as master with Overseas Containers Limited (OCL), P&O Containers and P&O Nedlloyd. Ken is now retired and in 2020 he started writing a monthly article for publication using the pen name 'Captain Ken' in the Mellor Church Outlook magazine.
A number of articles that Ken has written are about his time at sea and he has very kindly agreed that we can share them here.
In the 23rd article of the Captain Ken articles to be reproduced on the PONLHeritage site Captain Owen tells of the time he witnessed French Foreign Legion soldiers taking the opportunity to desert as their ship transited the Suez Canal.
This article was first published in the church magazine in May 2022.
Sailing home from the Far East through the Suez Canal was nearly always a pleasant experience. Though I’m sure that it’s not at all how that’s how the officers and crew of the mega-sized container ship, ‘Ever Given' felt last year when, for six days, their grounding simply stopped round the world container traffic, an incident that is still being felt to this very day [Editor's note - Ken Owen wrote this piece in April 2022 and the containership Ever Given incident was in March 2021].
One homeward passage that I clearly remember would be in 1954. I was a twenty year-old midshipman, on a Blue Funnel cargo/passenger liner. I was assisting the bridge team as a lookout, and was totally surprised when I spotted a person swimming in the canal very close to the ship. When I drew the captain’s attention to this, I was amazed that he seemed immediately to know the reason why.
The ship in front of us was a French troop ship, and he was aware that the world-renowned French Foreign Legion was being transferred from Vietnam, or Indochina as we then knew it, to Algeria where a war of independence, had broken out. The only way that Legionnaire troops could desert was to jump overboard as their ship transited the Suez Canal and surrender to the Egyptian Army, and hopefully get transferred back to Europe.
The French Foreign Legion was renowned as one of toughest armies in the world and would readily enlist men of any nationality. They had for many years enabled France to control her colonies but had finally been defeated by the North Vietnamese at the battle of Dien Bien Fu.
As the French reluctantly pulled out, the Americans replaced them and the truly terrible war continued for several more years. So in 1954 they were transferred by troop-ships to Algeria until 1962 when Algeria gained its independence and the Legion greatly reduced.
Our pilot told us that in order to try and prevent intended deserters jumping overboard during the Canal transit, no legionnaires were allowed near the ship's rails and military police were stationed at the ship's side prepared to shoot any intended deserter. This made it necessary for any deserter to dive over the side directly into the water.
As we proceeded along, we saw dozens of these strong fit and bronzed soldiers climbing up the canal banks and surrendering to the Egyptian armed police. Many of our crew gave them a cheer and they waved goodbye to us.
It was known that many of the Foreign Legion had joined directly from the German Army at the end of World War 2 and so would be anxious to return to Germany.
In the Suez Canal Great Bitter Lake we spotted a navigation buoy with six deserters clinging to it.
This was before we had VHF radio communication and our only way of notifying the Canal Authorities of the necessary rescue was for our radio officer to send out a Morse code message. We were pleased to learn later from our Agents in Port Said, that they had been rescued.
(This article was first published in the May 2022 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine).
For further articles in this series:
Captain Ken #2 - Main Express (Strathconon) marine observation
Captain Ken #4 - Suez Canal blockages, the Ever Given and the Cardigan Bay
Captain Ken Owen has kindly provided us with a new series of articles which will be published on a regular basis here. If you are interested in reading other articles that he has written which we haven't yet used then please feel free to go to mellorchurch.org/outlook-magazine/.