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SS Ceramic loss of DEMS crew

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

Unit/ Formation: Memorial

Location: Atlantic Ocean

Period/ Conflict: World War II

Year: 1942

Date/s: 6th December 1942

On 3 November 1942 Ceramic left Liverpool for Australia via Saint Helena and South Africa. She was carrying 377 passengers, 264 crew, 14 DEMS gunners and 12,362 tons of cargo. 244 of the passengers were military or naval, including at least 145 British Army, 30 Royal Navy, 14 Royal Australian Navy and 12 Royal Marines. 30 of her British Army passengers were QAIMNS nursing sisters.

The other 133 passengers were fare-paying civilians. 12 were children, the youngest being a one-year-old baby girl. Six were doctors, five of whom were South African. One passenger was Rudolph Dolmetsch (1906–42), classical musician and composer, then serving as Regimental Bandmaster with the Royal Artillery.

SS Ceramic Lost SS Ceramic lost with her DEMS crew 6th December 1942

Ceramic sailed with Convoy ON 149 until it dispersed as scheduled in the North Atlantic. She then continued unescorted as planned. As on her previous departure in January, she first headed west because of the threat of enemy attack. At midnight on 6–7 December, in cold weather and rough seas in mid-Atlantic, U-515 hit Ceramic with a single torpedo. These were followed two or three minutes later by two more that hit Ceramic's engine room, stopping her engines and her electric lighting. The liner radioed a distress signal, which was received by the Emerald-class cruiser HMS Enterprise. The crippled liner stayed afloat and her complement abandoned ship in good order, launching about eight lifeboats all full of survivors.

Cruiser HMS Enterprise at Anchor in November 1943 IWM FL 5389

The light cruiser HMS Enterprise received Ceramic's distress signal.

About three hours later U-515 fired two more torpedoes, which broke the ship's back and sank her immediately. By now it was very stormy and raining. The heavy sea capsized some of the lifeboats and left many people struggling in the water. Those boats that were not capsized stayed afloat only by constant baling. Next morning the BdU ordered U-515 to return to the position of the sinking to find out the ship's destination. About noon the U-boat commander, Kapitänleutnant Werner Henke, decided to rescue the Ceramic's skipper.

BL 4 inch Mk VII low-angle gun on a DEMS in 1943, an obsolete WWI gun typical of WWII DEMS armament

In heavy seas, he sighted one of the lifeboats and its occupants waved to him. The storm was now almost Force 10 and almost swamping U-515's conning tower, so Henke ordered his crew to make do with the first survivor they could find. This turned out to be Sapper Eric Munday of the Royal Engineers, whom they rescued from the water and took prisoner aboard the submarine.

No other occupants of the lifeboats survived. The storm was too severe for neutral rescue ships from São Miguel Island in the Azores to put to sea. On 9 December the Portuguese Douro-class destroyer NRP Dão was sent to search for survivors, but found none. Munday was kept prisoner aboard U-515 for a month, including Christmas and New Year, until she completed her patrol. When she returned to Lorient, Brittany on 6 January 1943 he was landed at Lorient U-boat base and sent to Stalag VIII-B in Upper Silesia, where he remained a prisoner of war until 1945. [1]

On April 9, 1944, off Madiera Island, Portugal, rockets fired by TBM "Avenger" and FM "Wildcat" aircraft from Composite Squadron Fifty Eight (VC-58), along with depth charges from USS Pope (DE-134), USS Pillsbury (DE-133), USS Chatelain (DE-149, and USS Flaherty (DE-135) sank German (Type IXC) U-boat, U-515. The German submarine was successful on her war patrols against Allied merchant vessels and warships by sinking 25 and damaging two.

The 12 Royal Marines on board and lost at sea were DEMs (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship) Gunners.

[1] Wikipedia

Related 'dits'

Search for these casualties on the Royal Marines Roll of Honour database

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