Following MAC’s forceful comments on claims regarding the capsize and sinking of the east German cargo ship Magdeburg after a collision with a Japanese ship, Yamashiro Maru, made by journalist Andrew Rosthorn and ‘naval historian’ E. John McGarry that the Central Intelligence Agency created the incident, implicitly with the aid of a Thames River pilot and the master of the Japanese vessel, two pilots offered to study the data presented to consider whether such an operation was technically feasible and what might have actually caused the incident.
John Clandillon-Baker is editor of The Pilot, the publication of the UK Pilots Association:
As a London pilot whose authorisation includes Broadness I have read the above exchanges regarding the CIA conspiracy theory with interest but must agree with the doubters that it would have been virtually impossible for the CIA to have deliberately set up a collision to destroy the Magdeburg with its cargo of Cuba bound buses.
In addition to the logistical difficulties of setting up a collision to destroy the Magdeburg, the overwhelming argument against such a plan is that it would have required a collision of enormous force accurately targeted to ensure the sinking of the Magdeburg and there was therefore an unacceptably high risk of horrendous loss of life, including that of the pilots involved. Indeed, the real miracle of this case is that no lives were lost, even when the Magdeburg eventually capsized. No, this was an accident resulting from one or more navigational errors.
Firstly it must be remembered that in 1964 the pilots on the Thames were self employed and examined and authorised by Trinity House and incidents were investigated by Trinity House so the lack of a report from the pilots involved in the Port of London archives is not in itself suspicious. The lack of records at Trinity House is probably a result of Captain Johnson exercising his right to remain silent and refusing to attend to be interviewed.
The fact that the owners of the Yamashiro Maru had requested the services of Captain Johnson is also not suspicious because in those days the pilotage service operated a “choice pilot” service whereby shipping companies whose vessels were regular traders to the port selected a few pilots to serve their vessels rather than randomly use the first available pilot on the roster.
When their own vessels were not requiring their services these choice pilots took their turn on a rolling roster and served all classes of vessels requiring a pilot. Therefore, on the night in question, Captain Greenfield would have been allocated a ship when his name came to the top of the list and so it was pure chance that he was sent to the Magdeburg. The inward sea pilot, Captain Ferguson, would have signalled his ETA at Gravesend during his inward passage from sea and as the choice pilot Captain Johnson would have been called in specially to take over the conduct of the vessel at Gravesend for the river passage.
Another aspect of this that also needs to be understood is that in 1964 there were still many vessels not fitted with radar and on those that were, the equipment was very basic with poor resolution and plotting of other vessels was achieved by transferring radar bearings and distances onto a paper plotting chart, a process that would have been impossible on a winding river. Even today, with the latest radars, the radar interference from shore structures renders radar plotting of targets unreliable and the stretch of river between Tilburyness and Broadness is one of the worst areas on the river for radar interference. This interference even affects the port’s VTS radar vector tracking and the VTS is now set up to prioritise AIS tracking.
In 1964 there was no VTS and with VHF still in its infancy the vast majority intership communications still relied on Morse signal lamp and sound signals. This meant that neither vessel would have been aware of the other’s position until visual contact was made as the Magdeburg rounded Broadness point as recounted by Captain Greenfield.
At the time of the accident there was a flood tide running at approximately 2 kts and this will have affected the handling of both vessels. On the flood tide the flow sweeps around Tilburyness creating a back eddy off the Tilbury Dock entrance and thus inward bound vessels are forced across to the South of the river if this is incorrectly anticipated. Likewise, the flood tide flows strongly to the West around Broadness and a back eddy is created to the West of Broadness point which means that as outward vessels approach Broadness the bow comes from the back eddy into the flood on the starboard bow just as the tight turn into the bend is commenced which has the dual effect of reducing the rate of swing to starboard and forcing the ship bodily to the North into mid channel resulting in a wide turn. The faster the ship’s speed to greater this effect and the speed of the Magdeburg as estimated by Captain Greenfield is about the maximum desirable even today.
When Captain Johnson boarded the Yamashiro Maru the two ships would have been about 3 miles apart and unaware of each other’s position. As he approached Tilburyness Captain Johnson would have been increasing engine speed to around 10 kts which would give him 12 kts over the ground with the tide.
The navigational requirement is for vessels to navigate on the starboard side of the channel so port to port passing would have been normal and anticipated by both pilots.
In the absence of a report from Captain Johnson we have to accept Captain Greenfield’s observation of seeing the Yamashiro Maru too far to the south (wrong side) of the channel. At 5 cables apart with a closing speed of around 20 kts the two vessels were only 90 seconds from a collision and Captain Greenfield’s increase of rudder would have been slow to take effect due to the continuing resistance of the tide on the starboard bow.
With the tide now setting the Yamashiro Maru up to the north she would have had no realistic chance of getting back across to the correct side of the channel in time to clear the Magdeburg so by this time a collision was almost inevitable. The full astern movements by both vessels when 2 cables (36 seconds) apart was an understandable but futile reaction because it would have taken longer than 30 seconds for the engines to stop from ahead and then at least another 30 seconds for the engine to start turning astern.
We will never know why the Yamashiro Maru was on the wrong side of the channel but a possible reason could be that at that stage of the tide there would have been a many small vessels running up river on the tide and the Yamashiro Maru could have been overtaking one or more of these as she approached Tilburyness inwards. She would then have been in the middle of the channel and the set to the south would have been enhanced. Today we don’t overtake when approaching Tilburyness on the flood unless VTS has confirmed that there is no outward bound traffic, the risk of collision is still just as great!
Broadness is recognised as one of the most dangerous bends on the river and Northfleet Hope where this collision occurred has been the site of several near misses. At Broadness, following the grounding and subsequent capsize of a dredger (exempt from compulsory pilotage) about 10 years ago, 3 buoys were established to mark the N & S channel limits.
As I have previously noted, I don’t believe that it would have been possible to set this collision up in advance but, given the political climate at that time, it would not be an understatement to suggest that the CIA probably couldn’t believe their luck when they learned of the collision and it would certainly not have harmed their reputation to have sown a few seeds around to suggest that they had somehow arranged it!
One final point is that the Observer’s account mentions that the Magdeburg ended up on Tilburyness. Although I am not aware of the final resting place I believe that it was on the south side of the channel in Fiddlers reach to the West of Broadness. Following the collision, with the list increasing as mentioned in the report, the Magdeburg’s engine would have been stopped and the engine room vacated. She would have drifted back up round Broadness on the tide and would have been set down to the south after rounding Broadness, hence the close encounter with HMS Worcester, which was a merchant Navy training ship permanently moored off Greenhithe to the West of Broadness (www.hms-worcester.co.uk/history8.html)
Editor: The Pilot (www.pilotmag.co.uk)
We’re grateful to John for his analysis.
The reference to ‘choice pilot’ may be significant also in other ways unrelated to CIA but very related to fatigue. Because choice, or preferred, pilots carry out normal pilotage duties and are also oncall for ‘their’ company vessels, they can be asked to conduct a vessel when they are in a fatigued condition. At this distance, without information on the Yamashiro Maru pilot’s workload, it is not possible to estimate the likelihood of fatigue affected his decisions but we would venture to say that it is somewhat higher than the chances of sabotage by the Men From Uncle.
With regard to John’s suggestion that the Yamashiro Maru may have been ‘too far’ to the south of the channel because of small vessel traffic it is worth noting that in the case of the Arco Arun, the dredger referred to in John’s analysis and which grounded in almost the same spot as the Yamashiro Maru/Magdeburg incident, the master and second mate were looking at yachts moored to the north. It is, therefore, entirely feasible that the pilot of the Yamashiro Maru moved to the south to avoid small vessel traffic in this area.
The story does have a happy ending: Look at that photograph of the capsized vessel and the buses lashed to her deck. You will notice that the bus hasn’t moved an inch. None of the buses moved, although the Magdeburg had capsized.
The buses were all lashed by Harry Spencer, head rigger to the Port of London Authority.
This made Harry’s name; he went on to set up Spencer Rigging in Cowes, Isle of Wight, where the business still is, rigging all the world’s finest yachts. That might be a good number to keep in your contacts book.