Ever since the day of its opening way back in 1869, the Suez Canal has proved to be one of the most vital passageways in the world for international trade.
Prior to the canal’s construction, a ship travelling from London to India would have to sail down all the way across the Atlantic Ocean before looping around Africa and then come all the way back up the Indian ocean before finally arriving. Afterwards, a ship would only have to enter the Mediterranean, cut through the Suez Canal and enter the Red Sea before venturing across the Arabian sea over to India, which saved a distance of 8,900 KM (4805 NM) over the old route around Africa. It completely and forever changed the rules of the planet and unlocked the ability for Europe and Asia to trade with one another at speeds never before thought possible.
As you know, recently a giant mega containership blocked the Suez canal for 6 days, the consequences of which were catastrophic for the international trade. Imagine if the Suez canal is blocked or closed for 8-long years, what the consequences will be? Difficult to fathom, right? But this exact situation has actually already happened once before back in the 1960s.
You see, back then Egypt didn’t exactly get along very well with her next-door neighbor, Israel. Tensions between the two countries have been rising for some time and both sides were preparing themselves for war. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, on the morning of June 5, 1967, 15 cargo ships entered the Suez canal on the Mediterranean side to begin their 12 hour journey across to the other side in the Red sea. Unknown to any of them at the time though was that their journey through wouldn’t take 12 hours, it would take almost 8 years. This was the worst traffic jam ever caused in Human history, and this is the story of the men who suffered through it.
Roughly halfway through their journey across the canal, war suddenly exploded. The Israelis launched a surprise air attack against the Egyptians and the area around the canal was suddenly full of planes, bombs, fire, and death. Within hours of the attack, the Egyptian government ordered the Suez canal to be closed and forced the 15 ships inside to halt until further notice.
But after only 6 days of fighting, the Israelis had already won a decisive victory and conquered the entire Sinai Peninsula. The new border between Egypt and Israel was literally the Suez canal itself and unwilling to allow the Israelis to use it, the Egyptians decided instead to sabotage it to the point where nobody could use it. They sank ships on north and south ends to block both entrances and exits, destroyed bridges, and chocked what was left with nearly a million mines to guarantee that any attempt to use the canal would be a suicide mission, and so the 15 neutral cargo ships that had entered on the 5th June found themselves in a terrible predicament, trapped between the Egyptian army on the western side, the Israeli army on the eastern side and no hope of exit either the North or the South.
14 of the ships anchored down in Great Bitter Lake near the South exit, and the crews had no other choice than to be patient and wait it out. For the next eight years all ships were once again forced to take the old route between Europe and Asia by going around Africa, which was both longer and much more expensive and as a consequence, the cost of goods around the world was driven up and certain countries’ trading arrangements were thrown into absolute chaos, particularly nations located in Southeast Asia or East Africa.
While the outside world was struggling with the new logistical challenges, the 15 ships and their crews left behind in the canal were struggling with their own as well. Of the 14 trapped in Great Bitter Lake, there were 4 British, 2 West German, 2 Swedish, 2 Polish, 1 French, 1 Bulgarian, 1 Czechoslovakian, and 1 American.
When it became clear after months and months of being stranded in the no-man’s land between two hostile armies that they may be there for a while. The crews and the company of all 14 decided to group all the ships together into three groups. They sent most of the sailors home and left behind a small skeleton crew of 10 men for each of the three groups to provide maintenance duties on the ships in the hopes that one day they would be able to successfully leave. Obviously nobody wanted to waste away their lives forever on the ships, so the companies began rotating these 10 men skeleton crews out with a new fresh 10 men team every six months and despite coming from the opposite side of the Cold War, the crews of all 14 ships grew to become friends with one another over their 6-month long deployments bonded together by the sheer ridiculousness of their situation.
Church services were hosted every Sunday on the German ship, movie nights were regularly hosted by the Bulgarians, the Swedes hosted pool parties, the French crew a community garden, and the British hosted football games on their larger deck and lifeboat races across the canal they even celebrated their own bitter lake Olympics in 1968 to compete with the real world Olympics with the Poles winning the most events. Raiding parties from both Egypt and Israel would occasionally sneak through them to gather intelligence on the other side and over the years, the sand from the desert covered all of the ships in a deep thick layer, giving the whole fleet its nickname the “yellow fleet.”
Six years unto their isolation in 1973, an all out war exploded around them again. This time it was Egypt who launched a surprise attack against Israel combined with Syria in the North. The Egyptian army stormed across the canal and pushed deep into the Sinai before they were halted by the Israelis who then counter attacked and then pushed the Egyptians all the way back to the canal again. In all of the chaos, a stray Israeli rocket hit and sunk the stranded American ship.
A week of heavy fighting across the canal with heavy casualties on both sides was finally concluded with the ceasefire agreement that paved the way for a final peace between the two sides. After 6 long years of conflict and standstill, the Suez canal was a stagnant puddle, full of sunken ships, equipment, artillery, and mines. It took Egypt 2 years to clean the canal out of all the debris leftover from the conflict.
Finally on the June 5th, 1975, 8-years to the day after they first entered the canal, the day finally came for the yellow fleet to say goodbye to the canal once and for all and to the friends they made along the way. The Suez canal was finally reopened but the only ships that were capable of leaving after such a long time doing nothing were the two West German ships which both made it back home to their port in Hamburg, greeted by over 30,000 cheering spectators after their journey of 8 years, 3 months and 5 days after first leaving.
Here is an interesting video: