Belfast Wren’s fatal voyage from South Africa to Sri Lanka

Nineteen year old Ethel Margaret Hunter was aboard SS Khedive Ismail in February 1944.

She had been posted to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The sinking of the vessel by a Japanese submarine was to become Britain’s third worst mercantile disaster in the Second World War and the worst ever involving British service women, seventy-seven of whom were lost.

Ethel had served at HMS Assegai, a WWII naval shore base near Durban, South Africa. It was used as a Combined Operations training establishment, transit pool and General Drafting Office for the Eastern and Mediterranean Fleets and the South Atlantic Station. It was opened on 01/10/1942 and closed on 15/05/1944.

On 12/02/1944 the troopship SS Khedive Ismail was in convoy KR8 on its way to Colombo, Ceylon from Kilindini, Kenya with a large contingent of African troops as well as British military personnel, including eighty-three women.

Early in the afternoon she was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-27 – she broke in two and sank quickly. Few who were below decks managed to make an escape. Of the 1511 people on board only 208 men and 6 women survived.

The destroyers HMS Petard and Paladin went on the hunt for the submarine and eventually sank her, although it is believed that the depth charging caused some further casualties amongst people in the water. It was an incident that Nicholas Monserrat used in his novel The Cruel Sea, later memorably filmed.

+Ethel Margaret Hunter 

WRNS. Wren. 43624. HMS Assegai. Died 12/02/1944 aboard SS Khedive Ismail. Age 19. Daughter of Frederick and Sara Hunter, Belfast

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