The Author William John Coxhead.

My Story ~ News of the disaster, 1st April 1958

I arrived in Melbourne Oct 1951. My two brothers on Oct 1954. From that point on, I started making preparations to bring over my mother and three sisters plus my brother in law and his two young children. Took about three years before all preparations for their departure were completed.

During 1957 a few problems surfaced and they missed out on three occasions to get booked on a ship that was leaving Malta for Australia. This is not uncommon when a family of seven are leaving their home. There's always some other thing that one had forgot to do.

Finally, in early 1958 it seemed that all was ready for their departure and they were booked to leave Malta on the M.S. Skaubryn departing from Malta on the 24th of March.

I was very pleased and relieved when my eldest sister wrote to me telling me that everything was fixed and the family set to leave for Australia.

At that time I was working at the Fosters Brewery in Melbourne. I was a shift worker. In the Electrical workshop where I worked I had told all my mates that my family was about to leave Malta to join me in Melbourne. So from week to week they were asking me about their progress and arrival date. I told them they are travelling on the Norwegian liner M.S. Skaubryn and expected to arrive about the 20th of April.

In the Electrical Workshop we were a team of 38 sparkies. Six of these were shift workers and the other 32 were day workers. During our lunch-break (3/4 of an hour) we used to gather in the workshop to eat lunch, listen to the midday news service and have a chat.

On the 1st of April I was doing a day shift 7am to 3pm. That morning I was helping one of the day workers who was building a large switchboard in the Brewery Engine Room. His name was Ron Cameron. We were good mates. When it got close to noon, being time to go to the workshop and have lunch one of my other mates came in the engine room and asked me if I could help him fix a small electrical fault on his old car which was parked in the street just outside the Brewery.

So instead of walking to the workshop to eat lunch I went out in street to work on this car. Spent all the lunch break time fixing this fault, so instead of going to eat my lunch in the workshop, I just returned to the Engine Room to carry on the job and then eat my lunch at 3pm.

As I walked in the new switchboard room my mate Ron said to me "Bill did you hear the midday news" I said "No, I was working in the street" With a very serious look on his face Ron said "Bill, the ship that your family are travelling on, caught fire and sank in the Indian Ocean, we just heard it on the news" I said to Ron "Are you sure it's the Skaubryn" He replied saying he was absolutely sure. Then Ron said "Why don't you make a phone call to the Radio Station"

Inside the Engine Room there was a phone that you could ring straight out of the Brewery. This phone was in a small booth that was totally sound proof. The engine Room is a very noisy place.

You always have to ask permission to use this phone. So the foreman said OK and I went in the booth. Started dialling then suddenly stopped and walked out and went straight to my mate Ron.
I was laughing, I said to him "You bugger, its April's Fool Day" and gave him a light punch on his shoulder. Ron said "Bill its no joke, I'm deadly serious, it was on the News"

So I walked back to the phone and called the Radio Station. They confirmed the news that the ship caught fire and sank, but no news at all about the passengers. I ran out of the Engine Room. By this time it was nearly 2pm. I went and found my boss and told him I was clocking off.

Jumped in my old car and headed towards the Sun Herald newspaper office in the heart of Melbourne. Don't ask me where I parked the car, have no idea. Ran into the Foyer of Newspaper House which was totally chocked with people. These were relatives and friends of the passengers.

Everyone seemed agitated and yelling, asking for information. I spent close to an hour there. Finally we were told that the BBC news from London has confirmed that all passengers were placed in lifeboats. I took off and drove five miles to pick up my wife from her workplace and told her the bad news. We went home. My two brothers who lived with us arrived home from work just after 5pm. I gave them the bad news. We then started making phone calls, one every ten minutes. No further news was available. That went on till 11.45 pm when it was confirmed that all passengers had been picked up, taken off the lifeboats and safe on an oil tanker.<> That was one April Fools Day that I shall never forget.

The ship caught fire at 9am 1st of April, two days out of the Suez Canal in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The fire was out of control deep in the ship. At about 9.30pm, that is 12 hours later the passengers were ordered to go and stand by the lifeboats. Some were already in bed. Everyone thought it was a boat drill. My mother told me that they spent over two hours standing by the boats. At about midnight they were ordered to go in the boats. Some time later the boats were lowered in the Ocean. My brother in law Tony told me that the steel plates at the side of the ship were red hot.

The ocean was extremely calm. Every boat was full up. No one was allowed to take any belongings with them. My brother in law told me that they spent close to three in hours in the boats which were drifting away from each other. Water was finding its way into the boats. At about 4am an oil tanker showed up. This tanker was fully loaded meaning the deck was very close to the waterline. In a way that made it easy for the 1130 passengers and the 230 crew to climb onto the ship.

Later on at at 10am the cruise liner SS Roma arrived. The ocean was still calm. The ships got close to each other. They lowered nets from the liner and all children were thrown in the nets and lifted up from the tanker on to the liner. Some other passengers were also transferred this way but Tony told me that many women and men had to make up their way by the nets that were hanging down from the liner. My mother was 61 in 1958 and she had to crawl up the nets to get on the liner.

Amazingly only one passenger died of a heart attack. It was some sort of a miracle. The liner SS Roma took all the survivors back to Aden, near the Suez Canal. At that time, the British were building a brand new hospital and it was close to being completed. All the 1300+ survivors were placed there. Some days later many of them were flown to Australia. The rest including my family were picked by by the British liner SS Orsova and they arrived in Melbourne on April 23rd. Every passenger lost all his /her belongings. They arrived here wearing clothes given to them by the Red Cross. All our old family photos that my mother had with her are at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. It was a great feeling to see them all safe and well. Being a keen Genealogist I really miss those photos that my father had of his family.

I think you all agree with this final comment. Many people who had been through some disaster or tragedy seem to prefer not to talk about it. That's how it was with my family. We had to push them to make them tell us what they've been through. To this very day, none of them could gather enough courage to travel anywhere, whether by air or by sea.

Other Stories told by survivors and relatives

Photo taken at Aden showing a small group of Maltese Survivors with Father S. Tabone of Kalkara Malta

A group of Maltese survivors from the the ill fated SKAUBRYN. This photo was taken shortly after their arrival in Aden. Many with a smile on their face even though they lost all their possesions but so glad to be safe on land

Passengers coming down from the Skaubryn pre 1958


Emily and her family migrated to Melbourne

Emily Calleja of Birzebbuga Malta was on the Skaubryn with her husband Tony Calleja and her two children, Joseph was 9 in 1958 and Carmen was 4 yrs of age. With them was Emily's mother Louisa and her two daughters. Theresa was 22 in 1958 and Pauline was 19 yrs of age.

When final preparations were about completed she was informed that they would be travelling on the Norwegian migrant ship Skaubryn that was calling at Malta on the 24th of March 1958. This news was not welcomed by her and the family. The reason being, her husband's mother Mrs. Carmela Calleja of Birzebbuga together with her married daughter Mrs. Marija Gafa and children left Malta on the Skaubryn three years earlier in 1955 bound for Melbourne Australia.

On that journey the Skaubryn met some very rough weather and lost a propeller. The ship was in difficulties for four days and this piece of news reached Malta. Many relatives were alarmed by the news.

On the morning of their departure, the family hired two taxis to take them from Birzebbuga to Valletta. While they were travelling through Casa Paola, going downhill in Strada Palma towards the Addolorata Cemetery, Emily noticed that one of their luggage must had fallen off the back of their taxi. They told the driver to turn back and look for it. He did so. Luckily it was found on the road all in one piece.

Going back made them loose time so they were worried about not being on time to board the ship. As they arrived by the jetty near the Customs House, the last ferry was about to leave with the last batch of migrants for the Skaubryn. They just made it !.

Emily, her husband and their 2 children were given a cabin on side of the ship and her mother and her two sisters were on the other side of the ship. She remembers Father Tabone being seasick and he was given a cabin in the central part of the ship were he would be less effected.

That fateful evening at about 9.30pm, Emily recalls how they were suddenly informed to leave their cabin and go up on deck. As she walked out of the cabin she noticed crewmen running along the passages in some panic and smoke already moving along the passageway.

When they reached the deck they were told to go by the lifeboats. They did so and waited. Emily remembers seeing two crewmen arriving on deck from below with their faces dirty and blackened and their clothes partly on fire and smoking. These two men jumped overboard in the sea to stop their burning clothes. Both were immediately lifted back on deck by their shipmates.

Everyone got in the lifeboats and the boats were lowered. Emily's husband Tony recalls that when he touched the steel plates of the side of the ship as the boat was being lowered these were already red hot.

Emily's family, the seven of them were in the same boat. It was night and dark. The sea was very calm. After a short while seawater started coming in the boat. It reached up to their knees. They found buckets in the lifeboat and started baling out the seawater. There was no panic but they were praying.

The lifeboat was fitted with a manually operated propeller, so the men in the boat were operating this winch type apparatus to turn the propeller and get the boat moving away from the burning ship.

After about three hours drifting in this calm sea the tanker City of Sydney arrived on the scene. The lifeboats were scattered about but slowly they started making their way towards the tanker. The tanker lowered some of its own lifeboats so to help the Skaubryn boats get close by the tanker. Many did. The boats were grouped one next to each other and passengers had to climb from one boat to another so to reach the City of Sydney.

First to go on the tanker were the young children. These were placed in a net, like a huge basket and lifted from the lifeboats onto the tanker. The other grown up survivors had to make their way up the side of the tanker by climbing, on the huge net that was swung over the side of the tanker. Young and old they just had to do that. My mother (Emily Calleja's mother) Louisa was 61 yrs of age then and quite a heavy person. She was finding it hard to climb up the net, so two men who were below her on the net helped her by pushing her up the net. This action most likely helped her and many other elderly persons to make their way up the deck of the tanker.

While all this life saving activity was going on, someone noticed that one boat was missing. Of course it was still dark. Two boats from the tanker set out to find the missing lifeboat. They found it and brought to the tanker. Inside the boat was the body of a German passenger that seemed to have died from a heart attack. His body was lifted up on the deck of the tanker. It was placed in a wooden box and draped with an English flag. Prayers were said for the soul of this unfortunate migrant and then he was buried in the sea.

The empty lifeboats of the ill-fated Skaubryn were left to drift away in the Ocean

As it was said the Ocean was calm and the night was warm. After all the 1300 survivors were on the tanker, parents started looking for their children. The children were all in one group and finally each one was back with his / her parent. As morning and daylight arrived it was already a hot day. By early afternoon it was very hot. Many of the survivors were in pygamas. One Maltese lady did not have proper clothing to cover her breasts and the hot sun was effecting her. A crewman from the City of Sydney did notice her in distress and shortly after he went to her and gave a towel to cover her breasts.

Some time in the afternoon the survivors were told that the Italian liner ROMA was coming to pick them up from the tanker. When the Roma arrived the sea was still calm. The two ships sailed in a parallel line only about 300 feet apart. The Roma lowered its own lifeboats and the transfer of survivors from the tanker to the liner began. Everything went well and there was no drama or injuries. All survivors thanked the crew of the City of Sydney for their help.

The liner Roma then turned around and headed back to Aden. That was a three-day journey. On board the Roma every effort was made to help and look after the survivors. Many were given some clothing and shoes.

On arrival at Aden the 1300 survivors were taken to a newly built hospital that was not yet in use. All men were located in one section of the hospital and women and children in a separate section. On the 3rd day some were taken on a bus ride in the countryside. Some refused to go as they were still shocked by the recent experience.

On the same day they were informed that some of the migrants would be flown by air to Australia. Another group was picked up by the Dutch liner Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt. This huge migrant ship was on its way to Australia. The ship's Captain was informed while he was in Rome that arrangements had been made for the ship to pick up some of the survivors of the Skaubryn who were at Aden.

The group of 170 Maltese migrants were told that the Maltese and English Governments had made arrangement for the British liner SS Orsova that was heading from England to Australia to call at Aden and pick up all the Maltese group. With the Maltese group were added about 40 German elderly persons and some pregnant women.

The three-week journey from Aden to Australia on the Orsova was a time to look back and thank The Lord for saving them from a much crueler fate. If the ocean had not been not calm most of them would have drowned or killed by sharks. The three weeks on the Orsova was enjoyed by most of them. They were all well looked after and many passengers / tourists on the Orsova were kind to them by offering them some badly needed clothes. It was an unforgetable day for Emily, her mother and the rest of the family to be greeted and hugged by their family and relatives on arrival in Melbourne.

An article written by Brigitte Sanden a crew member of the Skaubryn April 1958

The emigration stream of the past century has been a true people migration. Over at Bremerhaven more than seven millions humans abandoned Europe. Some went to America, others to Australia or to Canada. They all were dependent with their far away journeys on the emigration ships and the personnel on board. In our series about emigration we present today a woman, whom one the Ocean liners made itself on the way to Australia. But the ship never arrived.

It prevailed on board the Norwegian emigrant ship "Skaubryn", when the steamer sailed out in March 1958 off the Bremerhaven's Columbus Wharf. On the ship were approximately 1300 emigrants and crew members. The course: direction to Australia, also on board is baby sister Brigitte Sanden (name of the editorship changed). It is her third journey as a crew member on that 9786 tons large ship. A routine travel, which finds however a tragic end.

Brigitte Sanden remembers "it was in the night from 31 March on 1 April", still today clearly in her mind, "we drove straight by the Red Sea toward the Indian ocean, when there was a sudden alarm. In the ships passageways it smelled strangely. Then the announcement came over loudspeakers: "The ship is burning."

All passengers and the crew were ordered to meet outside on deck with life jackets put on. Meanwhile, the crew tried to put out the fire in the engine room. "no panic was shown", says Brigitte Sanden. All passengers were completely calm and waiting, what would happen. But the flames could not be stopped and continued to spread over the ship.

In the engine room the fire had caused a strong explosion. The captain of the Skaubryn, Alf Haakon Faeste, had transmitted long SOS, when he gave the instruction for lowering the life boats.

The passengers and crew had luck in this misfortune. "the sea was completely calm. It was the full moon, the night seemed warm and even ", describes Brigitte Sanden.

The rescue was not long in coming. In the proximity was a British freighter / tanker. It was as the first on the scene, in order to save humans from the life rafts approximately around the burning "Skaubryn". One after the other one climbed the Jacobsladder at the steep side of the hull. Tells Brigitte Sanden. "most spent the night on deck. In the morning someone made hot tea and was distributed in small doses and cups to the people."

With comfort lacking, none of the ship survivors felt the pain but all were glad that their lives were had been saved. The few belongings, suit-case and packages of the emigrants were left on board the burning Skaubryn.

Even on the next morning, when the Italian passenger liner "Roma" came alongside, in order to get the survivors from on board the British freighter, they could still see their ship the Skaubryn totally engulfed in flames.

Brigitte the former baby sitter tells, "we were brought all into a hospital at Aden in Yemen". There an envoy of the Australian government already waited. Everything was organized promptly. It nevertheless gave a large donation for the 1300 survivors.

Meanwhile, the Skaubryn was dragged still burning, by a British warship toward Aden. But the fire had been too violent and totally ravaged the ship. Finally the eight years old ship broke apart and sank in the Red Sea.

The emigrants without means were provided passage free of charge on two passenger liners. Some were flown by airplanes to Australia. The crew of the "Skaubryn" was flown back to Germany. By the quick assistance to the passengers and the disciplined behavior of crew of the ship the disaster on the Skaubryn claimed only one victim: A German emigrant suffered a heart attack.

Brigitte Sanden carried on as a baby sister on the "Seven Seas" - a passenger liner, which brought emigrants to Canada in large numbers during the mid 1960's.

(copied from The Sunday Journal of 29th October 2000)

Story sent by Julie Schembri of Australia

When the Skaubryn caught on fire I was aged 13 with my Mum and Dad and 2 sisters aged 10 and 15 . Mum and Dad are now deceased. When we were getting into the lifeboats we saw 2 crew members putting babies into pillow-cases to throw them to the crewmen in the lifeboats.

When were drifting away we discovered we were taking water and the crewman used their hats to bail the water out. They were helped by passengers using their shoes; one man's wife fainted and he went to wet his handkerchief over the side and a white shark took the handkerchief just missing his hand !! Then the crewman shouted to everyone not to put their hands in the water because there was a white shark around the boat. The next thing I knew we were being picked up by The City Of Sydney. We thanked The Lord we were saved. JULIE SCHEMBRI

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This Skaubryn Site created by William John of Melbourne - ex Birzebbuga Malta