On November 27, 1942, HMS Birmingham arrived in Bombay’s Ballard Pier, bringing 678 grateful people to India. They were traumatised and exhausted after surviving a horrific tragedy in the Indian Ocean that had claimed the lives of 280 innocents and nearly killed them too.

Just a week earlier, these souls, most of whom were Indian, had set sail from the very spot to pursue their dreams in Africa. A total of 732 passengers boarded SS Tilawa, which had planned to call on Mombasa and Maputo before sailing to Durban. Although belonging to different faiths and castes, they were united in their hope to build a better life in a strange and unknown continent at a time when the world was at war and Indian independence was not a given.

There was a high demand for a ticket on the Tilawa since the war had forced the British India Steam Navigation Company to curtail the fortnightly service to once in six or eight weeks. “South African residents were becoming frantic as they had to return home within three years or lose their rights to enter South Africa,” Chunilal Navsaria, a passenger on the ship told South Africa’s Cii Radio in a 2007 interview. “There was a long waiting list and the demand for passage was so great, the sub-agents were bribed to secure passage tickets. Many people were stranded in Bombay hoping that their name would come up on the waiting list.”

Some passengers who were bound for Africa, such as Navsaria, had arrived at the (now non-existent) Ballard Pier Mole railway station the previous day from Gujarat on board the Flying Ranee express. Among others from Gujarat who boarded the Tilawa in Bombay on November 20, 1942, was Ismail Ali (Dhansay), a native of Morba village in Bhavnagar district.

As was the case with all ships operated by the British India Steam Navigation, Tilawa took care of the dietary needs of its diverse passengers. The lower decks had Hindu vegetarian and Muslim non-vegetarian kitchens and dining areas, while the first class section’s food and beverage services catered exclusively to Europeans.

SS Tilawa left Bombay with 732 passengers who hoped to build a better life in a strange and unknown continent. Credit: tilawa1942.com. Courtesy: The Solanki family.

At 5 pm, the Tilawa left Bombay with 222 crew members, 732 passengers, 4 gunners and 6,472 tonnes of cargo, including 60 tonnes of silver bullion. Accounts of survivors such as Navsaria suggest the passengers were aware of the potential risks of sailing on the Indian Ocean at the time of the Second World War.

“Once at sea, a boat drill was carried out and we were told not to light matches or torches on the upper deck,” Navsaria said. “There was a blackout on the ship. The portholes were painted black and kept shut at night. There was a constant fear amongst passengers and crew of an enemy submarine attack. I made sure that I kept a life jacket close at hand.”

Nothing eventful happened over the first couple of days of the voyage as the ship travelled at a maximum speed of 12 knots.

Night of attack

On November 23, the Tilawa was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy’s I-29 submarine near the Seychelles. “Late at night the people on board were awoken by a loud bang,” Goolam Dhansay, grandson of Ismail Ali Dhansay, said in an interview published by Tilawa1942.com, a website set up to preserve the memory of the tragedy.

Goolam Dhansay learned of the events of that night from his aunt. “This was the sound of a torpedo being shot at the ship by a Japanese submarine,” he said. “A SOS was sent by the First Officer. Everybody panicked. Realising that the ship was sinking, all the people on board rushed to the lifeboats. However, there was not enough space. Many were unfortunate and fell into the sea and drowned. The remaining few who were still alive managed to stay afloat by holding onto wreckage of the ship.”

Navsaria clearly remembered what happened: “There was chaos and panic among the passengers and Indian Crews (Khalasis) as they all headed to the upper boat saloon decks. Everyone was scrambling and stamping about as they tried to climb up the stairs, I was pushed and jolted from one end to the other. Before I knew it, I was hurling down the stairs and injured myself. The ship’s Indian crew and deck passengers were all panic strickened. The chaos, hysteria and panic were causing the rescue operation to be hampered.”

Navsaria managed to get into a half-full lifeboat, injuring himself in the process. His boat, which had both passengers and crewmembers, drifted away.

In another interview published by Tilawa1942.com, Pravin Jivan, whose father Morar was on the voyage, said there was pandemonium on the ship. “[As] my father started wandering from deck to deck, he noticed that passengers on [the] upper deck with cabins were locked in their cabins as the locks got jammed due to [the] torpedo,” Jivan said. “My father took the fire axe and tried to smash the doors; it took him [a] long time to open [a] couple of cabins. In panic, he left to search for his escape. Then he saw a crew member pushing a raft out.” His father jumped into the ocean. “At first, he went straight in but floated back up as he was wearing a life jacket,” Jivan added. “Luckily the raft was at arm’s length. With great struggle he managed to climb on it.”

An hour after launching the first torpedo, the Japanese submarine fired again. This was enough to sink the Tilawa.

A life boat from SS Tilawa sank because of overcrowding. Credit: tilawa1942.com. Courtesy: The Solanki family.

The real motives of the Japanese Imperial Navy remain unclear to this day. Some survivors have speculated that it was after the bullion on the ship, but that would not explain why the Japanese sank the Tilawa, instead of commandeering it.

Two hundred and eighty people perished in the tragedy, meeting a watery grave in the depths of the Indian Ocean. Among them was EB Duncan, the first radio officer of the ship, who went down with the Tilawa while transmitting SOS messages.

Adrift at sea

Survivors have narrated harrowing tales about the two days they were adrift in the Indian Ocean. Ismail Ali Dhansay held on to a wooden beam. His grandson said, “It was discovered that his legs had been bitten by barracudas. These are predatory fish with sharp teeth.”

Many survivors went without food and water until they were rescued by HMS Birmingham in the early hours of November 25. Navsaria was fortunate that the boat he was on had a barrel of drinking water and some biscuits. “Arguments arose between the crew as to which direction to follow,” he recounted. “The tension among all of us was rising. We drifted for an entire day and night. The sea was choppy and a cold wind was blowing. All I had to keep me warm was the pajamas I was wearing. During the day, rain came and the sea developed a considerable swell, tossing our life boat perilously.”

HMS Birmingham was alerted about the sinking of the Tilawa and altered its course to rescue the survivors. The ship managed to save 674 souls. Four others had been rescued a day earlier by RMS SS Carthage. On November 27, HMS Birmingham reached Ballard Pier, where anxious relatives were waiting to see if their family members were alive.

RMS SS Carthage saved four souls who escaped the sinking SS Tilawa. Credit: tilawa1942.com. Courtesy: The Solanki family.

Information about the Tilawa is hard to come by. Almost all that is known is thanks to the efforts of Leicester-based Kash Kumar (Mukesh) Solanki and his son Emile, who have dedicated the last 15 years to preserving the memory of the victims and collecting testimonies of the survivors. Kash Kumar’s grandfather Nichhabhai Chibabhai passed away in the tragedy.

Preserving memories

On November 23, 2022, the Grand Hotel in Mumbai’s Ballard Estate hosted a commemoration event on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the Tilawa. The programme was organised by the Solanki family and the Maritime Mumbai Museum Society.

In the audience was survivor Arvindbhai Jani. Jani was just three when the ship was sunk and so has no memory of the incident, but he says he remembers his mother talking about how she “wrapped him in her sari and jumped into a lifeboat”. Their family in Gujarat had assumed they died and were performing traditional rites that are conducted on the 14th day after a death when mother and son returned to the village.

Until very recently, Jani was believed to be the last survivor of the SS Tilawa tragedy, but thanks to the reach of social media, 90-year old Tejparkash Kaur, who lives in Cincinnati, managed to get in touch with the Solankis. Kaur was on board the ship with her family that fateful night. She survived with her father Pritam Singh. But her mother and three brothers passed away.

There are still many unanswered questions about the sinking of the SS Tilawa, but it is no longer forgotten. Efforts to commemorate the incident have helped bring together people from India, Africa, Britain and North America who are united by their common grief and the desire to preserve the memory of those who perished in an incident that has not found mention in history books.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.