SS Ceramic was a White Star Line passenger and cargo ship that sailed between Britain and Australia. She was the first ship White Star Line ship launched after the sinking of Titanic in April 1912, and at the time of her maiden voyage was the largest ship sailing to Australia. She was lost during the Second World War as a result of enemy action, with horrific loss of life, with only one person surviving.
Ceramic (shipyard number 432) was launched at Harland and Wolff, Belfast on 11th December 1912. Upon her completion she was a rather modern and comfortable looking ship. She had was 18,495 tons, had 4 masts and 1 funnel. For her single class of passenger accommodation, it could be boasted that she had a comfortable dining room, reading and writing room, a general room, smoking room and even a gymnasium and two swimming baths, one for men, the other for women. With regards to safety, with her being built in the days after the Titanic disaster, in addition to lifeboat space being provided to all, she was fitted with a double bottom and was divided up by 12 watertight bulkheads extending all the way up to the upper deck, with controls on the bridge to close them in addition to floatation devices which would do so automatically. Built in an environment with what would end up being the First Wold War approaching, she, despite it being peace time, was fitted with two 4.7 in. QF guns installed on her stern.
Ceramic departed Belfast for Liverpool, described as a trial trip, on 5th July 1913 - arriving there on 7th July. During the trip her guns were tested. The trip was reported in varies newspapers as being a success.
On 11th July 1913 King George V and his wife Queen Mary visited Liverpool to officially open the new Gladstone Graving Dock. As part of the occasion, Ceramic was part of a display of ships showcasing the ships of Liverpool.
Commanded by Captain John Stivey, Ceramic began her maiden voyage on 24th July from Liverpool, United Kingdom to Australia. As part of preparations for Ceramic’s arrival on the other side of the world, dredging took place where Cedric was to berth in Sydney so as not to take any chances concerning the size of the ship. She crossed the Equator on 3rd August, arrived at Cape Town, South Africa on 12th August, arrived at Albany, her first Australian port, where her officers attended a civic reception hosted by the Mayor; arrived at Adelaide on 29th August, where she was opened up for public inspection raising £62 10/ which was donated to the Mission to Seamen, Sailors' Rest, Prince Alfred Sailors’ Home and Adelaide Hospital and the Children's Hospital; then arrived at Melbourne on 2nd September and then ended a successful voyage when she arrived at Sydney on 9th September 1913. She began the journey home from Sydney back to Britain on 24th September 1913. Calling at London on the way back to Liverpool, she became the largest liner to have ever arrived there.
It was reported in various Australian newspapers that overnight on 4th September 1913, while Ceramic had been in Melbourne, it had been attempted to steal a hawser(the rope used when mooring or towing a ship) which was 120 fathoms long an 8in. in circumference, and was worth £50. It was believed the thief’s had let the hawser slide down into the water thinking it would float ashore, but it instead soon sank. The hawser was found by the police, who searched the sea bed looking for it. Who tried to steal the hawser remained a mystery.
Ceramic arrived at Capetown on a voyage that started from Liverpool on 19th September 1914, shortly after the British Empire had joined the First World War, with a passenger under arrest and landed at Capetown, accused of being a German spy. She arrived at Sydney on 9th November 1914. This was her last normal voyage before being employed by the Australian Government as a troopship, transporting Australian and New Zealand soldiers. She was known as troopship A40 and as HMAT (His Majesties Australian Transport) Ceramic.
When in May 1915 Ceramic arrived back in Australia, returning home around 400 soldiers, eleven of her coal Trimmers were charged and put before a court for disobeying the lawful orders of the Captain, on 13th May, while Ceramic was in the Indian Ocean; the trouble having started when one was refused an extra allowance of tobacco, so then refused to work, and so was imprisoned aboard the ship, causing a further ten trimmers to refuse duty. They were sentenced to prison for five weeks, with hard labour – the matter seemingly being taken very seriously due to the war and Ceramic’s role in it.
In May 1916 an enemy U boat attempted to hit Ceramic with a torpedo while she was in the Mediterranean with around 2,500 soldiers aboard. Fortunately the attack on Ceramic was unsuccessful. She was again attacked by a U boat on 9th June 1917, this time at the entrance to the English Channel, but again the torpedo missed, and then, on 9th July 1917, she was chased by a U boat but again fortunately escaped.
After completing her last voyage as an Australian troopship in around May 1917, Ceramic served as part the United Kingdom’s Liner Requisition Scheme, serving as a freighter. During this time, for the only time in her long career, she made some voyages to New York.
After the end of the war Ceramic was returned to her United Kingdom to Australia service, being kept busy returning Australian soldiers home, some retuning home with their wives.
In 1920, following her First World War services, Ceramic was given a complete overhaul at Harland and Wolff Belfast, including the remodelling of her passenger accommodation. Under the command of Captain George Robert Metcalfe, the newly refurbished Ceramic departed Liverpool for Sydney on 18th November 1920, arriving in Sydney on 10th January 1921.
It was reported in October 1921 that, in actual sailing time, Ceramic had sailed from London, United Kingdom to Albany, Australia in the record time of 28 days 17 hours and 31 minutes.
The following report appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15th January 1925: "According to a cablegram received by the Marine Underwriter's and Salvage Association, Sydney, yesterday, […] Ceramic touched ground [...while in the river Clyde in Scotland, United Kingdom], and may have to go to dry dock." Cedric had been sailing to Glasgow, Scotland to deliver cargo she had brought back from Australia.
In October 1929 various Australian newspapers reported that Dalgety & Co., Ltd, White Star Line's Australian agents, had been informed by the White Star Line that "important improvements" had been made to Ceramic. It was reported that the Smoking room had been remodelled and refurbished throughout, a spacious children’s play room had been added to the ship and the passenger cabins aboard the ship had been rearranged and were now all mostly single and two berth cabins, except of a few larger rooms, which were said to have been suitable for families and parties. It was also reported that the standard of the food aboard the ship had been raised to the high level found on White Star's Atlantic cabin service.
On 31st of October 1932 The Argus newspaper of Melbourne, Australia reported that, shortly before 10pm on 29th October, two of Ceramic’s stewards, while the ship was docked in Melbourne, heard a splash beneath the stern of the ship – they looked over railing and saw a women struggling in the water. The stewards then through two lifebuoys into the water, one of which she got hold of, and then they made their way down the ladder on the side of the pier and rescued her. She received initial treatment aboard the Ceramic before being taken to hospital.
The West Australian newspaper reported on 27th April 1934 that a stowaway held in a locked cabin aboard Ceramic had managed to escape from Ceramic while she at Table Bay in Capetown, swim half a mile in the dark to an Italian ship and climbed up her anchor chain; but was arrested upon reaching her deck, and ended up being sentenced to three weeks imprisonment with hard labour, pending deportation.
Following the merger between the Cunard Line and the White Star Line in May 1934, White Star Line’s service to Australia was abandoned, and Ceramic and White Star’s other remaining assets connected to its Australian service were acquired by the Shaw Savill and Albion Line.
Soon after Ceramic went to Harland and Wolff’s shipyard at Govan, Scotland, where she was refurbished and modernised. After her refurbishment it could be boasted that her passenger cabins, most of which had portholes and which now included a good number single cabins, all had hot and cold running water, proper beds, spacious wardrobes, reading lights and electric bells. In addition she also now had a veranda café, dance floor, cinema and a new gymnasium. The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper noted that: "At a time when many ships which have been engaged in the
Australian trade for many years are being replaced by newer vessels, ship lovers will derive a certain amount of sentimental satisfaction from the knowledge that a ship with such rich historical associations has been given a new lease of life."
During the Second World War Ceramic transported Australian soldiers but also continued transporting passengers. On 23rd November 1942 she left Liverpool for Australia on what turned out to be her last voyage, with both military and civilian passengers aboard. On the night of 6th December 1942, while off the Azores, she was torpedoed and sunk by U 515. In the stormy winter weather of a night and beyond during the Second World War, the lifeboats were ultimately useless. There were 656 people aboard Ceramic that night, all but one died. The sole survivor was a sapper of the Royal Engineers, Eric Munday. He had been rescued from the sea in the morning by the U 515, which had returned to the scene with the intension of gathering information and to attempt to take the Captain as a prisoner. He spent the remainder of the Second World War in a Prisoner of War camp.