The "Umbria"

When the 10,000-tonne ship, christened with the illustrious name Bahia Blanca, was festively launched in Hamburg on 30 December 1911, nobody could have predicted that after a century it would become the world’s finest wreck. This modern miracle of German engineering genius of the time, built in the Rieherst Schiffswerks shipyard, was designed to carry 2,000 passengers and 9,000 tonnes of cargo at a speed of over 12 knots, powered by five boilers, feeding steam to two engines with a total 4,300 hp. The beginning of the ship’s service seems somehow trivial compared to the romantic aura it enjoys today. The Bahia Blanca plied a regular route between Germany and Argentina up to the outbreak of World War I, when it was interned in Buenos Aires until 1918 and then acquired by the Argentine governmentThe saga continued in 1935 when the Italians, in turn, purchased the ship. They renamed it after one of their most romantic provinces - Umbria. The seas changed too. The ship travelled to the Italian colonies in East Africa, ferrying troops and equipment. It was run by Lloyd Triestino which, incidentally, also owned another vessel with a memorable name -  the Campidoglio. In turn, this ship ran aground in Bulgarian waters, when on 23 February 1931, running the Trieste–Odessa line, it hit the underwater reefs at Cape Akin near the village of Chernomores after a navigation error. Throughout 1931 unsuccessful attempts were made to salvage the vessel and cargo, until the heavy storms in early December finally destroyed it. Black Sea, other story. But let’s return to the hero of the present one, the Umbria.



Resplendent in its full 158-metre length, the vessel now lies at the bottom of the Red Sea, a stone’s throw away from the only port of the biggest African state, Sudan. I will refrain from writing about this country, for if I were to voice my honest opinion, it would deprive me of the chance to ever visit it again. Yet I want to go back there for the sole reason of being able to again descend into the warm waters, enveloping my favourite ship, sparkling with dazzling colours and abounding in underwater life.



On the fatal morning of 10 June 1940 for the Umbria, her captain Lorenzo Muiesan, while shaving and listening to Radio Addis Ababa, heard that Italy would join the war at 19 hours that same day and that military operations would start at midnight. His ship was carrying 360,000 individual aircraft bombs, ammunition, aircraft tyres, perfumes, empty wine bottles and three Fiat 1100 Colonial motorcars for the Italian colony of Ethiopia. Clearly, this would not be to the liking of the British Naval Forces, which controlled the Suez Canal and the approaches to the Indian Ocean in those turbulent times. The proof of this soon appeared in the shape of HMS Grimsby and her captain, Lieutenant Stevens, who asked to come on board together with 22 seamen. The captain of the Umbria did not think twice about it – he threw anchor leeward of Wingate Reef under the very noses of the British, sabotaged his ship and cargo, opening the Kingston valves* and scuttling it without batting an eye, after evacuating the crew. The motives for his action are still subject to discussion. Some enthuse over his valour, others scorn his despair. One thing is sure though, the sinking of the Umbria was Italy’s first heroic act in the dramatic maelstrom of World War II. To Steven’s question of “Why?”, the Italian quietly replied: “We are enemies.” The British captain was greatly impressed by the man’s action and said nobly: “You are my friend.” Still, this did not keep the good captain Muiesan and his crew from spending the next four years in prison, locked up in a number of Indian jails. History was just as cruel to them after the end of the war – under the pretext that they had scuttled the ship before the formal start of the war, Italian bureaucracy refused a compensation to the long-suffering crew of the Umbria.

So much for the past. To reach Wingate today is something akin to a continuation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Stas and Nel, but worth every bit of the effort. The reef protects it against the currents, which in time cover the sunken ships with silt. The varied life of the Red Sea, known for the diversity of its soft coloured corals and multitude of underwater inhabitants, have gently turned this man-made creation into a majestic underwater reef. Its upper part is near the surface, where the bright shades have not yet dissolved into the monochrome colour of the greater depths, where the womb of the ship still jealously guards its deadly cargo. The photos you will see are from this sad place where the colours resemble the hues of a Dutch master painter.



* Kingston valves help to cool the engines with sea water but are sometimes used to scuttle or sink a ship