The Umbria

A popular stop-off for Egyptian Red Sea liveaboards heading south across the border to Sudan, the wreck of the Umbria provides a wealth of interests for visiting divers. John Kean explores the wreck and its explosive story.

On 6 December 1917 the French ship Mont Blanc collided with the Norwegian ship the SS Imo in Halifax Harbour in Nova Scotia, Canada. There was initial minor damage to the bow; however, a small fire broke out as a result of sparks igniting some of the benzol and picric acid barrels on the bow deck. The crew, unable to reach the fire-fighting equipment, abandoned ship under the orders of the skipper, Aime Le Medec, and within ten minutes had reached portside where they immediately ran for their lives.

Proceeding hurriedly along a main road they shouted their warnings to abandon the area immediately to anyone who could hear. The French crew’s warnings went largely unheard by the mainly English speaking community of Halifax. Twenty-five minutes later the fire aboard SS Mont Blanc ignited the cargo of 2,366 tons of picric acid, 250 tons of TNT, 62 tons of gun cotton and 246 tons of benzol.

Buildings covering nearly two square kilometres (500 acres) around the adjacent shore were wiped out, including those in the neighbouring communities. The massive explosion caused a tsunami in the harbour reaching 18m high and a pressure wave that snapped trees, bent iron rails, demolished buildings, grounded vessels and carried fragments of the Mont-Blanc for kilometres. Even the anchor,weighing over a ton, was blown two miles away. A total of 1,951 people were killed with over 9,000 injured. To this day, the Halifax Explosion caused by the Mont Blanc stands as the world record for the largest accidental manmade explosion in history. The force of the blast was nearly a quarter the size of a World War Two conventional nuclear bomb.

The Umbria shipwreck, which was scuttled in Port Sudan, Red Sea on 10 June 1940 was carrying more explosives than the SS Mont Blanc – 360,000 bombs, large calibre projectiles, bomb parts and 60 boxes of detonators contributing to a total cargo of 8,600 tons. All of the cargo is still on board.

Fancy a dive?

The Umbria, measuring 153m long, is a big ship in comparison to its Red Sea competitors, such as Thistlegorm at 126m and the Rosalie Moller at 108m. It was built in 1911 and could carry 2,000 passengers and 9,000 tons of cargo. The sinking was the result of the Umbria’s Italian skipper, Captain Lorenzo Muiesan, scuttling the ship to avoid it falling into the hands of the British who were stationed in Port Sudan. He had just learned that Italy had declared war and was keen to keep his deadly cargo from being taken and used against his country by the new enemy. On 10 June 1940 the crew sent the Umbria to the seabed outside Port Sudan by the Windgate Reef. She lies on her portside at depths ranging from 37m to 30m from bow to stern. The wreck rises to just a few meters from the surface around the bridge area giving it appeal to recreational and technical divers alike. You can snorkel it too.

Cargo holds are easily reached on the Umbria, where in addition to the munitions, divers can see storage jars, wooden boxes, cement bags (now set), Fiat cars and rolls of electrical cables. There are many cabins, companionways and rooms to explore. The engine room is home to two big engines but has very little light penetration. Much of the wood has rotted on this largely metal ship, which at least allows easier access to many areas now devoid of wooden decking. The Umbria also has more soft coral and detail than several other Red Sea wrecks and holds a great appeal for photography.

Bomb enthusiasts should head to the aft holds where the bulk of the aircraft bombs are stored in their thousands in neat, compact rows. The propellers are big, but the portside one is buried by sand, although you can see the rudder between the two.

The Umbria is accessible by daily boats leaving Port Sudan, however a growing number of safari operators are now incuding Sudan and the Umbria in their itineries.

It is because the Umbria is in a relatively remote position in relation to popular Red Sea destinations that it remains in such great condition. Many who have had the privilage of visiting it claim it is one of the best shipwrecks in the world.

They might also agree that it’s probably best not to touch anything.

FIRST PUBLISHED ON BLUE MAGAZINE Issue 5, Mar - Apr 2010 Written by John Kean.

Photos by Jane Morgan.