A famous ship

67 years ago, 509 members of the 1st Battalion, Green Howards embarked a troopship in Singapore to bring them home after a three-year deployment to Malaysia.  The ship sailed the next day; 23 October 1952.  It was called the Empire Windrush.


As the ship slowly drew away, the Band of the Royal West Kents played ‘The Bonnie English Rose’ and The Green Howards band on the after-deck took up the strains. With the Battalion flag fluttering from the yard-arm, the 1st Battalion sailed for home. The passenger list reveals that amongst them was a Mrs Mary Jarrett and her four children aged between two and eight years old.  Her ‘proposed address’ in England’ is recorded as ‘c/o Depot, The Green Howards, Richmond, Yorks.’  The journey back to the UK was sedate at a steady 12 knots, taking a month, with several stops and chances for shore leave.

The ship docked at Southampton at 3pm on Friday 21 November with the Band of Royal Marines playing on the quayside to welcome the men home. An official party of twenty-five was there to meet the Empire Windrush, including the Colonel of the Regiment and Lieutenant-Colonel Bulfin.

Also present was the Norwegian Military Attaché bringing a message from the Colonel-in-Chief, King Haakon.“I fully recognise the hardships you have all endured during your three years’ service in Malaya, and I am proud to know that this service has been in accord with the best traditions of my Regiment. On this occasion I want to pay tribute to the memory of the officers and men who lost their lives in Malaya. Their duty demanded of them the supreme sacrifice and their memory will never be forgotten. I hope that your stay at home will be a pleasant one, and I send my very best wishes for the future of the 1st Battalion, The Green Howards, its officers and men.”


HMT Empire Windrush started out as the MV Monte Rosa; a passenger liner and cruise ship, launched in Germany in 1930. At the start of the Second World War, she was allocated for military use and used variously as a barracks ship, a troop ship, and an accommodation and recreational ship attached to the battleship Tirpitz. In 1942, she was one of several ships used for the deportation of Norwegian Jewish people, carrying a total of 46 people from Norway to Denmark; all but two died in Auschwitz concentration camp.

By 1945 she was being used as a hospital ship bringing German refugees fleeing the Red Army.  The Monte Rosa was repeatedly targeted by Allied forces, either via air attacks or, on one occasion, by the placement of limpet mines. Damaged in February 1945, Monte Rosa ended the war in Copenhagen from where she was towed to Kiel. In August 1945, she was surrendered to the British Government and allocated to the Ministry of War Transport (MOWT) for use as a troopship on the Southampton–Gibraltar–Suez–Aden–Colombo–Singapore–Hong Kong route.  On 21 January 1947 she was renamed HMT Empire Windrush.

In 1948, the ship was en-route from Australia to England via the Atlantic and docked in Kingston, Jamaica, to pick up servicemen who were on leave. The 1948 British Nationality Act, which would give the status of citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies to all British subjects connected with the United Kingdom or a British colony, was going through parliament, and some Caribbean migrants decided to embark ‘ahead of the game’.

The Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, on 21 June 1948, and the 1,027 passengers began disembarking the next day.  802 of them gave their last place of residence as a country in the Caribbean. Of the other passengers, 119 were from England and 40 from other parts of the world. The disembarkation of Empire Windrush’s passengers was a notable news event; was covered by newspaper reporters and by Pathé News newsreel cameras.

As a result, ‘Windrush’ came to be used as shorthand for West Indian migration, and in more recent times the ‘Windrush generation’ scandal saw Commonwealth citizens threatened with deportation due to a change in immigration laws.

In February 1954, HMT Empire Windrush set off from Yokohama, Japan, in February 1954 on what proved to be her final voyage. She called at Kure, Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo, Aden and Port Said. Her passengers included recovering wounded United Nations veterans of the Korean War, including some soldiers from the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. Whilst in the Mediterranean, at around 6.15am on Sunday 28 March, there was an explosion and fire in the engine room which killed four crew. The ship was abandoned and an attempt to tow her to Gibraltar the next day failed.  She sank off the coast of Algeria in the early hours of the following morning, Tuesday, 30th March 1954.