These days, the arrival of Empire Windrush at Tilbury on 22 June 1948 is seen as a positive moment in Britain’s history. If it hadn’t been so tarnished by the Windrush Scandal, the name might seem almost benign, evoking the start of a new multicultural era to the strains of Lord Kitchener’s London is the Place for Me. Few of the passengers walking down the gangplank that day could have had any idea about the ship’s appalling past life, however.
The Windrush was built to carry migrants – but definitely not from the Caribbean to England. It was launched in 1930 as German passenger ship Monte Rosa, built to be a symbol of national pride. In the early 1930s it carried migrants from Depression-era Germany to a better life in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The ship also had a more sinister purpose: spreading the racist and anti-Semitic ideology of Nazism throughout South America. Monte Rosa was a floating fascist state: Nazi rallies were held on board and crew members were all expected to be Nazi Party members. It even played a part in turning Argentina into a fascist nation that after the war welcomed Nazi war criminals with open arms.
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It then moved to Nordic waters, where Monte Rosa functioned as a cruise ship, taking groups of holidaymakers from Hamburg up the coast of Norway to the majestic fjords. Except that these were not ordinary leisure travellers: they had signed up to the ‘Strength Through Joy’ programme of Nazi indoctrination. On more than 20 occasions in the late 1930s, the fascist pleasure palace, proudly flying the swastika flag, sailed up the Thames to London.
When war broke out in 1939, it was converted into a troopship. Worse was to follow. In 1942, the Norwegian government of Vidkun Quisling agreed to Germany’s demand to round up the country’s small Jewish population. Monte Rosa was refitted with giant cages below deck so that it could serve as a slave ship, carrying men, women and children to German ports. From there they were transported in cattle trucks to the labour camps, to be worked until they were exterminated in the gas chambers.
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After this darkest of all the episodes in Monte Rosa/Windrush’s career, it was employed as a supply vessel for Hitler’s treasured battleship, Tirpitz, which spent most of the war skulking in Norwegian fjords trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid being attacked. Eventually, its luck ran out and Tirpitz was sunk by British bombers. Monte Rosa, meanwhile, had been damaged by torpedoes and then sabotaged with limpet mines by resistance fighter Max Manus. After being patched up, the ship’s final task under the Hitler regime was to evacuate German soldiers and their despised Norwegian girlfriends on their retreat from Norway. As the war ended in 1945 Monte Rosa was seized as enemy property, and in 1947 was refitted as a British troopship with the name Empire Windrush.
For years after the war ended, huge numbers of servicemen and their families needed to be moved around the world – those overseas needed to be brought home and others were to be sent out for new peacekeeping missions or conflicts, such as those in Palestine, Malaya and Korea. Empire Windrush was kept busy, but regularly struggled with defective engines – perhaps Max Manus’s sabotage had done more damage than was recognised at the time.
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After the May-June 1948 trip that made Windrush synonymous with emigration from the Caribbean, the ship continued its ocean-crossing voyages. Eventually, in March 1954 its mechanical failings caught up with it. Windrush had collected homeward-bound troops from Korea and was on its way back to Southampton when a fire broke out in the engine room. It wasn’t the first – but it was to be the last, and the ship sank in the Mediterranean with the loss of four lives; remarkably, 1,493 passengers and crew were rescued.
In the official accident inquiry, the ship’s condition was hushed up, but later it emerged that Empire Windrush was unseaworthy and should never have left port. Hushing up unpalatable truths has been something of a recurring theme in Windrush’s curious and mostly inglorious history…