The ‘Gunpowder Ship’ M/S Gatun from Gatun
Marius Christiansen/Allan Christiansen
Until his death in the summer of 1993, Marius Christiansen, whom this little article is about, was for many years chairman for the Association of the Danish Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. 7. January 1937, at the age of 29, he traveled to Spain, where he was enrolled in the English speaking XVth International Brigade as an ambulance driver. 10. January 1938, after many dangerous and dramatic experiences – which we will return to in a later article – he left Spain, not for Denmark, but for Marseille, where he embarked the M/S Gatun as a stoker. On the good vessel of many names, he helped sail weapons and ammunition to the Spanish Republic.
Like many other volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, Marius Christiansen was arrested by the Danish police the 7. November 1941 and detained in the “Horserødlejren” (a concentration camp) 30 km north of Copenhagen. He shared the same fate as 150 other detainees, who were sent to the German concentration camp Stutthof near Danzig (today, Gedansk in Poland) 2. October 1943.
But let’s hear Marius tell about some of his experiences with the good vessel M/S Gatun.
From Muhammed II to M/S Gatun
In March 1938, I embarked on M/S Gatun – this is what I call the vessel, because it was her name when I embarked as stoker in Marseille, but a a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and one of the names was M/S Gatun. I don’t remember them all, but on the side of the bridge where they painted the flag that showed the country it belonged to, the layer of paint was almost one inch thick.
It was an old rebuild French auxiliary cruiser, and the name MUHAMMED II was painted on the ship’s bell. It loaded approximately 3,000 tonnes and we had almost as many bunkers, that means coal. It burned roughly 60 tonnes a day at its maximum speed of 21 knots, it was an extraordinary speed back then. As it later turned out, it could outsail all the other ships – especially the Italian warships when they pursued us.
The pursuit across the Mediterranean Sea
Our trips or routes usually came from Marseille or Séte, where we took in supplies and coal.
In the engine-room, as I recall it, we were more than 22 stokers and coal heavers. We were many, but we had to shovel coal into four huge boilers, each of them with three big furnaces.
After we had taken in supplies and coal, we left for Greece. We went straight to Africa, and it did not take long before the Italians wanted to ‘talk to us’, and the pursuit began crisscross the Mediterranean Sea, until we docked in Bizerte, Tunesia and anchored in the middle of the harbour for eight days.
The cement works at Piraeus
On our days off, we went snake hunting and many other things until the Italians lost interest in us.
Then we slowly steamed off to Piraeus, or more precisely 2.5 miles from Piraeus at a cement factory. Soon after we had anchored off the factory, some barges came with our cargo – weapons and ammunition. After having unloaded what we could load, we pulled anchor and slowly steamed off in the afternoon.
The Strait of Messina
Later in the afternoon, we got busy, real busy; an extra chimney was raised, which lay in the deckhouse. A forge was placed under the extra chimney, later it was fired and it smoked like crazy. Gatun had indeed become a very fine passenger ship.
When we passed the Strait of Messina, it was all hands on deck, and we walked around like tourists, up and down, while we admired the beautiful lights on shore, here at least there was peace and quiet. We sailed for half speed through the Strait and lots of smoke billowed from our extra chimney, but as soon as we had sailed through the Messina Strait, it was turned off and we sailed at full speed.
To Port Bou
The reserve chimney was taken down and stowed out of sight. Then with maximum speed straight towards Port Bou, a small port near the French border. Once there, the vessel was immediately unloaded. After the unloading, we went back to Séte or Marseille to take in supplies and bunkers. Sometimes a minor repair was necessary.
– and then it started all over again