Recent steps to normalise relationships between the United States and Cuba reminded MAC of an old post that bears republication as a reminder of darker days and the conspiracy theories surrounding the collision between the Magdeburg and the Yamashiro in the Thames.
MAC’s eye for mystery was caught by a recent report in the Observer retailing claims that the CIA was responsible for a collision of two vessels on the Thames in 1964. Real sea mysteries are fascinating, one of these days we’ll nose around the tale of the Mary Celeste, non-mysteries like the fraudulent ‘Bermuda Triangle’ we don’t have time for. Are tales of the CIA sinking ships in the Thames evidence of a plot, or the tales by a clot?
To set the scene for younger readers, 1964 was the height of the Cold War between capitalism, led by the US, and Communism, led by countries mainly belonging to the Soviet Bloc. Five years earlier, the corrupt Cuban regime of Fulgencio Batista was overthrown in a revolt lead by Fidel Castro, not a communist at the time, who appealed to the US for help rebuilding his country, was turned down and who turned to the Soviets for h only announcing two years after the revolution that Cuba was to be developed as a Soviet-style state. Subsequently, US President John Kennedy authorised an invasion of Cuba, a fiasco now know as the Bay Of Pigs, for which the Cubans have never been forgiven. The Cuban missile crisis didn’t improve their temper either.
It was a time of paranoid dottiness in which almost any skullduggery by one side or the other seemed rational.
Motor manufacturer British Leyland secured a contract to supply Leyland Olympic buses to Havana. To get around some thorny US restrictions, which threatened to blacklist any shipowner foolhardy enough to transport anything to Cuba, the company went to an East German carrier to transport the vehicles. Washington was livid. Says the observer report “Rab Butler (British Foreign Secretary) was called to see Johnson. ‘His reward was a tongue-lashing,’ wrote Anthony Howard in the Spectator, ‘during which the great, glowering figure behind the desk reached in his pocket to produce a wad of dollar bills which he flourished as he instructed Her Majesty’s Britannic Foreign Secretary to come to him in future if his country wanted a cash handout rather than go selling buses to Cuba.’
Britain’s Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home stood his ground and in October 1964 the first shipment of 42 buses was loaded onto the decks of the 10,700 tonne East German general cargo ship Magdeburg, one of 15 type IV ships under the East German flag.
She set sail just after midnight, 27thOctober, with 1,900 tonnes of cargo in her hold with a Thames pilot, Gordon Greenfield, onboard.
Coming from Antwerp by way of Liverpool, was a Japanese freighter, Yamashiro Maru, in ballast. From Antwerp, the vessel had been guided by pilot Hugh Ferguson who recalls: “the nearer we got to
Gravesend the thicker the fog became. However, we arrived Gravesend and I handed over to the river pilot.” As he relaxed at the Clarendon Hotel he listened “ to the cacophony of sounds of fog signals and anchors being let go in a hurry-I was glad to be out of it.”
As Magdeburg approached the sharp bend of Broadness Point at about 1.50am Captain Greenfield could clearly see the Yamashiro Maru, proceeding at 10 knots, apparently going to the south of the middle channel. He heard a signal from the approaching vessel which he took to mean that she intended to alter course to starboard to pass port-to-port.
Greenfield saw no risk of collision but, shortly afterwards, Yamashiro ploughed into Magdeburg midships, holing her. Magdeburg started to take on water and listed, continuing to float and almost hitting several other vessels, including HMS Worcester, formerly HMS Exmouth, finally coming to rest near Tilbury Point.
Yamashiro Maru sustained damage to her bow and was drydocked at the King George V and later resumed her passage. Magdeburg was not so lucky. Two lifting cranes, Magnus I and Magnus II were brought in from East Germany along with aa pair of tugs, Eisvogel and Peene. She was patched up, with HM Customs on hand to keep an eye on the rest of her cargo, and sold to Greece as scrap for around $150,000 but sank, finally and irretrievably, 20 miles of the coast of Brest.
Given the times it’s not surprising that rumours of a CIA involvement spread quickly but they did not gain much traction until 11 years later. In 1975 two Washington Post reporters, Jack Anderson and Les Whitten claimed to have information from the CIA that British intelligence was tapping the telephones of the Cuban Embassy in London ad passing the ship’s movements to the CIA, suggesting that British intelligence, MI5 connived with the CIA to sink the ship.
Says Ferguson, on a ship enthusiast’s website “The report by Jack Anderson in the Washington Post was utter balderdash. I read it with total disbelief: it was the kind of journalism that brings the whole profession into disrepute.”
It seems unlikely that MI5 would have received the go signal from the upper echelons of British government, which fully supported the Leyland contract with Cuba. It is also unlikely that they would have taken such action unilaterally, it was not long since the head of MI5 was fired for sending diver Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb to snoop on a Russian cruiser in Portsmouth. Crabb’s subsequent disappearance and death led the government to tighten the reins on its domestic intelligence agency.
As for the CIA, the Observer cites Les Whitten, the survivor of the two journalists who broke the story: “Jack’s contacts were in the CIA and my contacts were in the National Security Agency. I don’t remember a lot but I do know our sources were pretty good, the best really.’”
Tracking the movements of Magdeburg at the time and passing the information to the Americans wouold have been de rigueur. It was widely assumed, and not without justification, tht ships of Soviet client states doubled as intelligence gatherers. To leap from that to a CIA plot is a big step.
Says the Observer: “Now a historian has found documents that add weight to the suspicions of academics that the ship was rammed at the behest of the CIA – as part of an effort to sabotage anyone breaking the US embargo on Fidel Castro’s Cuba…. McGarry believes a crime was committed. ‘I felt that the question of CIA involvement might be resolved by an examination of the pilots’ logs which were supposed to be stored at Trinity House and in the Port of London Archives. They cannot be found. The East German papers show Greenfield was deceived by someone on the Yamashiro Maru who sounded a single siren blast before the collision, an intention to pass port to port,’ he said.”
One is entitled to wonder how much research McGarry actually did. Trinity House records ofg that era are actually stored at the Guildhall Library.
Greenfield himself discounts the CIA conspiracy theory, according to the Observer:: “Given the atmosphere of the day, I suppose it’s not surprising people read something into what happened but there’s no truth in it, there was no blame attached.“
On the other hand. Greenfield was not on the bridge of Yamashiro Maru so he may not be in a position to know what really happened and currently, no information is available from the master or pilot of Yamashiro Maru, a not unusual situation even today in maritime accidents with which neither the CIA nor any other intelligence organisation can have the remotest connection.
Accidents do happen and numerous similar incidents happened before the Magdeburg/Yamashiro collision and have happened since. Conspiracy clots, of course, will simply say that only goes to prove it was a CIA plot.
What would the CIA have required in order to carry out the plot? First an amenable Captain aboard the Yamashiro Maru willing to risk his ship, its crew and his own life in a hazardous adventure with an uncertain outcome. Since the vessel was navigating “under pilots advice, to master’s orders” they would have needed a suitably compliant Thames River pilot, also an experienced master himself, willing to damage his own reputation, and to put his job and life at risk. Both would also have to willing to ram another ship and potentially injure or kill its seafarers.
Perhaps McGarry hasn’t spent much time with seafarers. If he had, he wouldn’t have made his allegations nearly so casually.
Further, the CIA would have had to be sure that ‘their’ pilot was aboard the Yamashiro Maru well in advance, something almost impossible to do without the help of someone in the pilotage authority.
Now the plot is getting messy. To carry it out successfully would have taken spilt second timing. The fact is that the Yamashiro Maru should have arrived in the Thames long before the Magdeburg left Dagenham. Unknown, apparently, to McGarry is that she was held up in Liverpool for several days due to bad weather. To get her to meet Magdeburg where she did would also have taken the added complicity of Hugh Ferguson..
On just about every level McGarry’s thesis falls apart. The documents he descrtibes do not implicate the CIA, nor, really, do Anderson and Whitten. Giving a fairly unimpressive performance during the Cold War, or course, it’s possible that a CIA contact might want to claim credit for an accident, especially after so many plans to assassinate Castro fell apart.
McGarry’s statement: “Greenfield was deceived by someone on the Yamashiro Maru”implies deliberate intent, for which he presents no evidence at all. He evidentally believes mistakes are never made.
So what really did happen? The answer may actually lay in colregs and the Greenfield statement McGarry found in East German records. Sadly, we don’t know the provenance of those records, such as whether they came from actual East German interviews or from papers given to the East Germans by British authorities.
It may well be that rather than sending signals that contravened colregs, Yamashiro Maru send the right signal but it was misinterpreted on the Magdeburg.
Colregs Rule 34 (a) says: “When vessels are in sight of one another, a power-driven vessel underway, when manoeuvring as authorized or required by these Rules, shall indicate …- one short blast to mean “I am altering my course to starboard”.
Now take a look at Rule 34 (e) “A vessel nearing a bend or an area of a channel or fairway where other vessels may be obscured by an intervening obstruction shall sound one prolonged blast.”
Yamashiro Maru was approaching a bend. It is possible that she gave the appropriate sound signal, which was misinterpreted as the signal described in Rule 34 (a).
At the same time there were other sound signals being made in the vicinity – one at no more than two second intervals for fog.
In MAC’s view, like most conspiracy clots, McGarry needs to do his homework before he starts impuning the integrity of Thames pilots.
Read the pilot’s analysis in Part Two