The Zamzam Story - April 17th

Early in the morning of April 17th, 1941, while most of the Zamzam's passengers and crew were still slumbering, the German raider Atlantis (also known as Tamesis) attacked.  From a distance of about three-and-a-half-miles, the raider fired fifty-five shells.  Surprisingly, only nine shells hit their target, but those nine shells did fatal damage to the Zamzam and injured several Zamzamers. Most critically injured was tobacconist Ned Laughinghouse, who bravely held a towel against his severely injured head as he climbed into his lifeboat.


The Zamzam 10 minutes after the initial shelling
Photo taken by Life magazine.

Leaving the Zamzam

Photo taken by Life magazine.

As pumps kept the Zamzam afloat, passengers donned life-jackets and scrambled into lifeboats.  Soon many passengers were floating in the ocean itself, their life-boats having capsized because of damage by shrapnel.  One boatload included a mother and her six young children, ages 1 to 10.  Holding her baby as her other children bobbed nearby, the mother called out, "Be brave, kiddies. Never forget that Jesus loves you." Other passengers had found their life-boats already over-loaded or launched, and so they had courageously and intentionally slipped into the ocean, hopefully waiting for help. For the most part, instead of panic there was a sense of calm, buoyed by an awareness of God's presence.

Before long the enemy raider, bearing a Nazi flag, motored toward the listing Zamzam and her passengers strewn about the ocean.  The Zamzamers looked cautiously at the German crew lining the deck, holding machine guns. What lay ahead? Was death near?  Just then, a most beautiful rainbow arched across the morning sky. For many, the rainbow was a gift from God, a sign of promise and hope.

New courage filled the Zamzamers.  One by one, they were pulled from the water and taken aboard the raider. German officers and crew, some with tears, warmly greeted the soaked and shaken survivors.  The machine guns were put away; they had been ready just in case of the likely scenario of sharks appearing.

After rescuing the Zamzam's passengers and crew, German sailors brought clothing and other supplies from the Zamzam to the raider.  Then three time bombs finished sinking the crippled Zamzam. In funereal silence, the Zamzam passengers watched as the Zamzam rolled over and slid from sight, eventually coming to rest on the deep ocean floor.

Apologies were given by the Germans, explaining that, because the Zamzam had been traveling in black-out, she was suspected of serving the Allies, maybe as a troop ship or a supply ship.  Instead, the Germans now had on their hands civilian men, anxious women, hungry children, and crying babies!  And 142 of them were Americans! With the United States not in the War, this was indeed a delicate international situation.

The sinking Zamzam

Photo taken by Life magazine.

There was the personal element, too.  Questions flooded the minds of the survivors: "When will our loved ones know about the sinking?  Will they know we are still alive?"  Furthermore, what was going to happen to the passengers and crew from the Zamzam?

Those were big questions for the Germans, too.  Because no lives had been lost on April 17th, it was claimed that it was not necessary to report the sinking of the Zamzam until the Germans wanted to do so, and that would be later, probably much later.  Loved ones would just have to wait without any news or contact.

It must be noted that the Zamzam had fallen into the hands of a very decent and respectable German captain, Bernhard Rogge.  It has even been reported that Captain Rogge led Sunday worship services for his crew.  He is quoted as having said "One exerts leadership with a Christian respect for the human qualities of others, and conviction and trust in oneself."  Captain Rogge's role in naval history is noteworthy. Unfortunately, the Zamzamers knew him only briefly and as their captor.  Because the raider was heavily involved in sinking ships and escaping from others, it was not wise to hold the Zamzamers on the raider any longer than absolutely necessary.  As soon as possible they would be transferred to another German ship.

With hearts overflowing with thanks for still being alive and with minds wondering what the future held, the Zamzamers finally fell asleep on April 17th.  It had been a most eventful day.

Please read "On the Prison Ship" to learn what happened next in the Zamzam story.

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