For a brief moment in 1941, the attention of the Western world was transfixed by the unknown fate of the Zamzam, an aging cargo and passenger ship en route from the United States to Cape Town, South Africa. Built in 1909 as a British luxury liner and christened Leicestershire, the vessel was requisitioned to carry British troops during World War I. In peacetime, the steamer was purchased by an Egyptian company and renamed in honor of the Zamzam Well in Mecca, a holy site for Muslim pilgrims. Over the next decade, the Zamzam served primarily as a passenger ship ferrying pilgrims to the holy city of Mecca, but by 1940, its owners broadened services to transatlantic travelers and cargo. On March 20, 1941, the Zamzam sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey for Alexandria, Egypt, with planned stops at Baltimore, Trinidad, Recife, Cape Town, and Mombasa. Between passengers and crew, the Zamzam featured a truly international cast of characters—the Scottish captain and chief engineer, Greek stewards, Egyptian and Sudanese crew, and passengers from around the globe. The Zamzam’s passenger list featured 202 names, including twenty-four members of the British-American Ambulance Corps, traveling to North Africa to serve as noncombatants with the Allied forces. But the largest passenger contingent by far was American and British missionaries bound for Africa. Over 140 Christian workers, including 17 Roman Catholics and members of twenty-one Protestant denominational and independent faith missions, boarded the Zamzam, eager to begin Christian service across the African continent. But the aging steamer never reached its home port in Alexandria. In the early hours of April 17, 1941, the unarmed civilian vessel was shelled and sunk by the German surface raider, Atlantis, off the coast of southwestern Africa. This April, the Archives highlights the voices of missionaries who survived the final voyage of the Zamzam, a straightforward transatlantic crossing turned international event, eighty years ago this month.
The steamer Zamzam began the last leg of its final voyage on April 9, pulling away from Recife, Brazil and cruising toward Cape Town, South Africa across the warm south Atlantic. In a 1983 oral history interview, AIM missionary Doris Young recalled the atmosphere on board the ship:
“We were in the cabin of our friends, and were playing the game Battleship. And we laugh about it now, but it wasn’t really so funny. It turned out that my battleship was sunk in the game. As we were walking back to our cabin along the moonlit deck, Fred [her husband] noticed and said, ‘My, what a peaceful scene. It is hard to realize there is a war anywhere on this earth when it is so peaceful.’ The moon was shining on the water. It was just beautiful.”Collection 624: Ephemera of the Zamzam Incident, V3
On the morning of April 17, the Zamzam was at 27 degrees 41 minutes south and 8 degrees, 8 minutes west. Just before six o’clock, when most passengers were still sleeping, the shelling began. The Zamzam crew immediately attempted to send out an SOS radio message, but the first shells had destroyed the radio antenna, along with the ship’s signaling lamp. Stranded without communication, Captain Smith ordered the Zamzam to turn broadside to the attacking Atlantis, a naval signal of submission. After this frantic maneuver, Smith signaled to the Atlantis via a flashlight and the shelling halted. In all, the attack lasted only ten minutes. Dozens of shells were leveled at the Zamzam, and nine made contact. The Zamzam was listing badly and its engine room was flooding. Doris Young recalled what happened after the shelling stopped:
“As we moved around the ship, we could hardly stand up, it was at such an angle…. There was a lot of fires that some of the crew were putting out. It was an exciting time. People were running around. There were a few people who were hurt. Not panic, really, but disorder. Then we saw that people getting into lifeboats…. Some of the crew members were sliding down ropes, some of the passengers were sliding ropes which were holding the lifeboats to the side…. We finally climbed over and were on our way down when somebody said, “It’s pulling away, it’s pulling away!” And true enough, all I saw below me was water. The lifeboat had pulled away. It was already loaded. So Fred [her husband] said, “Let’s climb back up.” Well, what else was there to do? So climb up we did.”Collection 624: Ephemera of the Zamzam Incident, V3
Fred Young, with the help of some other passengers, used his pen knife to cut the ropes that held several rafts to the ship and dropped them in the water. Some life boats were obviously destroyed by shells. Worse still, others began sinking as soon as they hit the water
AIM missionary Alice Schellenberg recalls her mad scramble to the lifeboats with other women passengers, only to discover their lifeboat was damaged and taking on water:
“And we pushed away from the boat because we didn’t what to get caught [in the undertow] .when it went down. Then it was just filling up so rapidly that…and so we single girls decided we would swim for the raft…. And we thought they could maybe bail out and keep it afloat. Of course, we didn’t know for how long. We were sitting on the raft, and that beautiful rainbow appeared…. Isaiah 41:10 came to mind, “Fear thou not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed; for I am your God: I will help you” And that was such a comfort. And…and I never thought I wasn’t going to get out of the situation, I didn’t know how or when, but I didn’t think that was the end. But the ship [Atlantis] came even closer to us, and we thought, well, they’re just coming to put the finishing touches, and go…. I never dreamed they’d pick us up…. Well, the older women and children were taken up in baskets, but we climbed up the rope ladder along the side of the ship. We were a motley crew.”Collection 624: Ephemera of the Zamzam Incident, Oral History Interview with Alice Schellenberg
People in the boats quickly discovered that there was almost no provisions, certainly not enough for a voyage to Africa or South America. The sea around the lifeboats were filled with passengers who had been in capsized boats or who had just jumped into the water. Some passengers later wrote that they had completely forgotten about the German ship when suddenly they saw it approaching. Passenger Isabel Russell Guernsey wrote, “The German raider hove into view. In a few minutes we could see marines lining the rails, rifles in hand pointing at those bobbing heads. Good God! They are going to shoot them, was my first thought. Later we heard that rifles were ready as a protective measure against possible sharks…. And that, I think, was the first moment in which I registered horror at our situation. As my foot touched the rope ladder leading up to the [Atlantis] deck, my heart did a complete flop with the thought ‘We are in German hands’” [Collection 624, Folder 1-14].
The Germans, along with commandeered Zamzam crew members, also boarded the badly listing Zamzam several times and gathered up the remaining people onboard, a good portion of the passenger’s luggage, and anything they thought was useful. (Later passengers were allowed to sort through the luggage that had been saved and use what of their own they could find.) At about 2:00 o’clock, the Zamzam passengers watched from the deck of the Atlantis as the Germans placed time bombs on the water-logged Zamzam and sunk the damaged ship. From the first shelling until the Zamzam disappeared completely below the warm waters of the mid-Atlantic, less than nine hours had passed.
The next day, the Atlantis met the German supply ship, Dresden, and transferred the Zamzam passengers, where they lived as prisoners for the next four weeks. After a circuitous journey to avoid the British blockade, the Dresden reached the port city of of St.-Jean-De-Luc on May 20, a resort town in southern France, where the Americans, as neutral citizens, were eventually released to representatives from the US embassy in Spain. Funneled through France, past the Spanish/Portuguese border, and on to Lisbon, the American survivors again set sail, this time for home. Over the next two months —June and July 1941—Zamzam passengers steamed into New York harbor aboard various vessels, arriving safely in the United States without ever glimpsing the coast of Africa.
Other Zamzam survivors were not as fortunate as their American counterparts. The passengers and crew from countries at war with Germany were taken by sea to Bordeaux, where they were separated into groups of men and women and sent to different internment camps in France, Germany, and Bulgaria, including Tost, Giromagny, Westertimke, Marlag und Milag Nord, and Liebenau. British women survivors of the Zamzam were exchanged, but many men remained interned for the duration of the war.
For weeks following the sinking, while the rescued Zamzamers waited aboard the Dresden, no information about the vanished steamer or its passengers and crew could be learned. But the incident became a front page story when the British admiralty released news that the steamer was overdue and presumed sunk in the mid-Atlantic.
In April 1941, the United States still remained a bystander in the global conflict, though debate raged in the American press over the nation’s neutral status. The sinking of the Zamzam, a neutral passenger ship carrying primarily American citizens, could have been just the spark to ignite public opinion in favor of war, as the sinking of the Lusitania did in World War I. The German propaganda ministry, realizing the danger, two days later released a statement claiming that all passengers and crew had been rescued by the German warship Atlantis, captained by Bernhard Rogge, a devout Lutheran, and had reached safety in Europe.
The German censor even released photographs to Life magazine, taken by a professional photographer traveling on the ship. The photographs were no doubt intended to alleviate Allied and American concerns over the condition of the Zamzam survivors and living conditions aboard the German ship. The Life article, however, failed to allay any fears since it appeared in the magazine on December 15, 1941, eight days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and four days following Hitler’s declaration of war against the United States.
The Zamzam incident quickly faded in the public imagination, replaced in the news cycle by the ongoing horrors of World War II. But it remained a central event in lives of the people who experienced it. To the missionaries on board, it was a sign of God’s providence that every person on board the Zamzam were picked up by the German raider Atlantis. (One passenger did eventually die in the Atlantis’ infirmary from wounds received in the shelling.) For hundreds of missionaries bound for service in schools, churches, orphanages, and medical clinics across the African continent, the trauma of the Zamzam‘s sinking and subsequent months of internment remained a defining event for the rest of their lives. In the Archives, Collection 624: Ephemera of the Zamzam Incident documents the fears, joys, and faith of the ship’s survivors in letters, testimonials, oral history interviews, and more.
In his oral history interview, Arthur Barnett, an Africa Inland Mission worker traveling with his new wife, recalled seeing a rainbow in front of the Atlantis, a sign that comforted him and many other passengers: “When the firing ceased after about ten minutes, and we stepped out on the deck, there across the sky was the most beautiful rainbow we had ever seen. In Genesis God told us, ‘I do set my bow in the clouds that the waters will no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.’ We praised God for this sign of His covenant. When we left [Brazil] the last sight of the city was framed in a rainbow. When we up on board the raider another bow shown across the sky. Every time we were in danger, a bow appeared, once there was a double rainbow, and one night a moon-bow appeared. Thank God for the rainbow! There is a rainbow every time there is a storm; if you only look for it, it is there.”
Other AIM workers, Walter Guilding (1889-1981) and Clara Wight Guilding (1886-1974) traveled to Africa as single missionaries with Africa Inland Mission (Walter in 1913 and Clara in 1907). Both married AIM missionaries and then suffered the loss of their spouses. Walter was married less than a year and Clara for about ten years. In 1922 Clara, a mother of three young children, married Walter in Kijabe, Kenya. Together they worked at Machakos (Kenya) among the Akamba people. The couple were passengers aboard the Zamzam, returning from a sabbatical alongside with many other missionaries to Africa, when they were taken prisoner and held in several prison camps. Clara was released the following year, but Walter was held until the end of the war in Europe in 1945. After the couple was reunited, the Guildings returned to Africa and continued their missionary services until their retirement in 1966.
Like many survivors of a traumatic and life changing event, the Zamzam survivors stayed in contact throughout the decades following the sinking. For more than seven decades, the Zamzam survivors and their families around the world have exchanged letters, e-mails, and personal visits. Between 1991 and 2016, they held eight reunions. In the immediate aftermath of the event, many Zamzam survivors also described their harrowing experience and its impact on their faith in lectures, articles, and published memoirs. Collection 624 holds a number of these accounts in Boxes 1 and 2.
The development and change of this community over eighty years is as much a part of the story as the twenty-seven day voyage, the eight hour sinking, the thirty-three day sail of the Dresden to Europe, or the up to four years that the British, Canadians and Egyptians spent in German internment camps.
The Archives staff first became aware of the Zamzam story in 1979 when processing the records of Collection 81: Records of Africa Inland Mission. Among the hundreds of thousands of documents in that collection were the postcards of passenger William Mundy. An AIM missionary en route to Nyakack, Kenya with his wife Lila to serve the Luo people, Mundy spent the duration of the war in a German internment camp until it was liberated in 1945. His postcards document these four long years of imprisonment. The AIM records also contain affidavits and other documents from the lawsuit Africa Inland Mission and other agencies filed against the shipping company that owned the Zamzam to recoup the lost cargo. In addition to these treasures preserved in Collection 81, the Archives has collected materials from a variety of sources, including oral history interviews, written testimonies, and other ephemera from survivors, now held in Collection 624. These stories scattered throughout the Zamzam ephemera and AIM records tell only a small piece of the intersecting historical tapestry of missionary endeavor, World War II, and Christianity in Africa.