The Maidan By Ned Middleton
Note: Ned Middleton is a professional Underwater Photo-Journalist who has published a number of articles in recent years about Red Sea Wrecks. Please send corrections to Ned Middleton here.
This Ship has not yet been found!
The SS Maidan, pictured against the Liverpool Pier Head. From a painting by Jim Micklewright of Liverpool and reproduced by kind permission of the Liverpool Scottish Regimental Museum Trust
Built by W Hamilton & Co (Glasgow), the Maidan was launched in March 1902 and officially described as Steel Screw Steamer. A very large ship for her day, she displaced 8,205 gross registered tons and, in 1919, was fitted with a brand new 4 cylinder quadruple expansion steam engine capable of producing a top speed of 14 Knots - built by Messrs D. Rowan of Glasgow. She was 152.4m (500 feet!) long, 17.7m wide and had a draught of 10m.
The Maidan was owned and operated by T & J Brocklebank who were much respected throughout the world and something of a legend in Liverpool. Captain Nicholas Breen was one of their most experienced and trusted employees and when the previous Master of the Maidan retired in early 1921, command of this vessel should pass to him.
Breen was born in Dublin in 1872, gained his Masters certificate in Belfast in 1903 and was given his first command, the SS Harmodius, on 18th December of that year. He later commanded Gaekwar (re-named Carnarvonshire in 1906), Cardiganshire, in Maidan for a single journey, Matheran, Anchoria, Manar and Mahronda before being appointed to the Maidan as her permanent Master. By this time, Breen had completed a total of 34 lengthy overseas journeys making him one of the most experienced Masters afloat.
With only a break for War Duties, during which the vessel was commandeered by the Ministry of Transport for several years, the Maidan had been used exclusively on the Eastern Trade routes, operating between European Ports and India.
The Loss of the Maidan
By 1923, Breen had already completed five such journeys in the Maidan and there was no reason to suspect that this one would be any different. Indeed, it was an uneventful trip out and they duly arrived in Calcutta on 25th April where they were soon employed in replacing one cargo with another. The Maidan carried a crew of 100 of which 83 were Lascars. Breen was a man who made it his business to know every single detail of his ship and, if he had one fault, it was that he always knew best and would never take advice -no matter what the circumstances.
With the return cargo finally loaded and the hatches battened down for the long journey ahead, it was early on 21st May that Captain Breen finally gave the order to slip the mooring lines before ringing down for "slow ahead" as they edged out into the Ganges Delta heading for the Bay of Bengal.
On 27th May they docked in what was then called Ceylon and, almost entirely circumnavigating the Indian sub-continent, arrived in Bombay on June 5th. From here their journey took them almost due east to the Gulf of Aden and finally into the Red Sea. On June 7th, the Maidan arrived in Port Sudan for additional cargo and bunker coal and sailed from that port at 30 minutes past midnight on the morning of June 9th.
From this point it is almost as though Breen was suddenly deprived of all reasoning and he went on to make a numbers of errors. According to the resultant Board of Trade Enquiry, the weather was "fine, clear and moderate" and the Maidan was maintaining a speed of 10.5 knots. At 0845 hrs bearings were taken from Abington Reef Beacon and at 0945 the course was altered to "N. 25 W True." Morning sights for longitude were obtained and later that day latitude was also determined. At that time the ships log showed them to have travelled 118 miles from Port Sudan and at 1615 hrs the course was altered once again, with Breen later testifying his intention was to pass 5 miles east of St. Johns Island and use that island to obtain a definite fix.
At 1845 hrs, however, the First Mate took bearings from the Elba Mountains which showed the Maidan to have travelled 2 miles east of her intended route. This, of course would place the Maidan much closer to the island but Breen, never one to take advice!, insisted on leaving things as they were. In so doing, however, he failed to take into account the variable currents and other conditions peculiar to the Red Sea and his lack of action was not justified. In short, there was nothing to be gained and much to be lost in sailing so close to an un-lighted island in the dark. No further observations were then taken and at 2330 hrs Breen, who had been on deck all day, retired to his cabin, leaving orders to be called when St. Johns Island was sighted.
At 0126 hrs on June 10th the Second Officer was in charge of the Watch and suddenly sighted St Johns, almost dead ahead, and estimated the distance as 8-10 miles. He immediately altered course one point to Starboard and called the Captain, informing him of both the sighting and the action he had taken. Incredibly, at this crucial time, Breen appears to have been more intent on demonstrating how he was "right all along" than in taking any appropriate action at all even though it was now patently obvious that the Maidan was nowhere near her allotted course. With Breen having considerable experience of the Red Sea, his lack of action was wholly unsupportable.
Furthermore, whilst his course, so close to St. Johns, was sufficient for his ship to clear that island with ease, it meant that the low-lying "Rocky Island" was now dead ahead. With only the open Red Sea off to his starboard side, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to head in that direction. But this was not to happen.
Suddenly, discoloured water was seen off the port Bows and the helm was immediately put hard-to-port and the engines full astern. According to the testimony of other officers on board, the vessel remained like this for a full 4 minutes before striking Rocky Island at 0139 hrs, although with very little speed at that time. Soundings were taken and every attempt was made to back the vessel off the Reef, but to no avail. By daylight different measures were being employed to stop the vessels bottom from "Working the Reef" and these continued throughout the day. The Maidan was carrying a cargo of approximately 10,000 tons and 7 passengers in addition to her crew of 100. By 1100 hrs the Lascars and the passengers were landed on the island and later that afternoon the SS Warwickshire came up and took them all on board. Only after the Maidan was clearly in a dangerous condition was Breen and the few remaining crew members tranferred to the Warwickshire.. At 1910 hrs the Maidan slipped off the reef and sank in what was described as "deep water."
Finding the Maidan
Anyone reading the Board of Trade report into the loss of the Maidan and comparing their detailed comments to the appropriate Admiralty Chart, might be forgiven for becoming confused. In the southern Egyptian Red Sea (immediately north of Sudanese waters) and close to the mainland, is a large Coral Plateau called St. Johns Reef. If this was the same "St. Johns Island" mentioned in the report, there are three immediate anomalies: Firstly, St. Johns Reef is 14 miles southwest of Rocky Island and too far away from the events of June 10th 1923. Secondly, there is no actual "Island" at St. Johns Reef on which to land almost 100 people. Finally, Zabargad Island, which is adjacent to Rocky Island, is not mentioned at all.
It was only when I studied the "Sailing Pilot" for the Red Sea that I realised that Zabargad Island is (or at least was!) also called St Johns Island and in 1923 was the commonly used name.
At 8,205 gross registered tons, the SS Maidan is worth a search and if anybody finds her, perhaps they will let me know.
In August 1923, the Board of Trade Enquiry found Captain Breen to have made serious errors of judgement on two counts: Firstly, not having sufficient regard to the variable currents in the Red Sea and not altering course so as to give the unlighted islands of St Johns and Rocky Island a wider berth. Secondly, on being summoned to the bridge by the Second Officer, he did not immediately alter course considerably more to starboard than it had already been altered by the Second Officer.
For these serious errors of judgement the Court severely censured Captain Breen and, at the age of 51 years, he never went to sea again.
At the start of World War One, two of the very first Territorial infantry battalions to be sent to France were "The Liverpool Scottish Regiment" and the "Queen's Westminster Rifles." They sailed together from Southampton on 1st November 1914 on board the SS Maidan and disembarked at Le Havre on November 3rd. By early 1918 only 65 of the original 1,000 men of the Liverpool Scottish were still serving with the Regiment in France - all the remainder having been either killed or wounded. These men were known as "The Maidaners" and in 1964 there was a reunion at which time - a silver salver called the Maidan Plate was presented to the Regiment to commemorate that historic journey. Harold Anderson - who had been awarded the Legion of Honour by France, was the last surviving "Maidaner" and he died in November 1998. Most appropriately, his funeral was at 11am on 11th November 1998 - exactly 80 years to the minute from the end of World War One. The Liverpool Scottish Museum website is at www.liverpoolscottish.org.uk
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Last Updated: May 29th, 2011