Merchant Shipping and the Demands of War – C B A Behrens
The principle ports concerned – Alexandria and Port Said at the Northern end of the Suez Canal, and Suez at its southern entrance – were not only the terminal points of the convoy routes that converged on the Middle East, and the sources of supply of the battle area; they also had to handle the civilian imports and exports of Egypt, and much of the imports of Syria, Cyprus, Turkey and Palestine which were delivered to Port Said for transhipment. Alexandria, much the largest and best equipped of the three, handled in peace, a volume of dry-cargo tonnage that must it seems, have been considerably smaller than that handled by Glasgow, and it was now the base of the Mediterranean Fleet and its use by merchant ships restricted. Port Said was less than half its size, while in Suez, it was estimated in the Spring of 1941. even with efficient management, only about 40 ships could be discharged a month. None of these ports were equipped to deal with the kind of military cargoes that now began to arrive, and all of them for this and other reasons, contracted much more serious forms of the war-time diseases from which the UK ports had suffered a little while before. For the cargoes were awkward cargoes, weighing up to seventy tonnes and despatched before the days when it became established principle that the ships destined for outlandish parts must be provided with derricks capable of getting the contents out of the holds or else service by crane-ship on arrival. The cargoes were stowed un inconvenient ways, or in ways that did not suit the needs of the military authorities, who had often experienced many unforeseen vicissitudes between the dates of despatch and arrival and wanted in a hurry things which were at the bottom of the holds. The battle areas were a long way off and the roads and railways connecting them with the ports inadequate, so that here as elsewhere the most intractable of the difficulties was inland clearance.
‘I believe’ (said a visiting ship owner at Suez), ‘I am right in stating that in one instance, to obtain 3,500 to 4,000 tons (half the capacity of a single ship) discharge took place on 61 ships at the same time’. The cargo discharged during this process was then hurled into lighters (for most of the ships in Suez had to be discharged overside) ‘to the detriment of the cargo and the waste of lighter capacity’. From the lighters it was ‘thrown out onto the quay’ without any attempt at proper stacking, until the moment came when all the quay space was filled with objects impossible to remove (for apart from all the confusion, there was not the transport to clear such an accumulation), all the lighters were full, and 117 ships were waiting outside Suez through which only about half a shipload could be moved a day.