Great Bitter Lake Association

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
When Eric Carlson retired, he dove headfirst into an old hobby, philately.

Eric Carlson:
Philately is basically the love of stamps and it involves all aspects of stamp collecting from beginners to experts.

Vivian Le:
Aside from being my new favorite word, philately is a tragically underappreciated field of study. A stamp can give you a perfect snapshot of the past in a single square inch of paper.

Roman Mars:
Producer Vivian Le.

Vivian Le:
Of course, you’ve got the basic forever stamp with the flag-waving on it. Then there are maritime stamps, commemorative stamps, architectural stamps, or my favorite – Cinderellas, which resemble real stamps but can’t be used for mail since they aren’t issued by a postal authority. They’re kind of like fan art.

Roman Mars:
Eric Carlson finds his stamps at the world’s great supermarket for obscure collectibles: eBay. And one day he found this really odd looking stamp, a Cinderella actually.

Eric Carlson:
It’s a very cumbersome looking red bird in the middle with a yellow background.

Vivian Le:
Most official stamps are neat and tidy with clean lines, but not this one. This stamp was kind of rough looking. The lettering was hand-drawn and the bird in the center was beautiful, but also a bit inelegant. Eric bought two.

Eric Carlson:
They’re very charming just in their simplicity, in their crudeness there. They’re a joy to look at.

Roman Mars:
He also didn’t recognize the letters across the top. G-B-L-A.

Eric Carlson:
At first, I thought it was an acronym for some nation that had escaped my attention.

Roman Mars:
But the GBLA wasn’t a nation or a postal authority or any type of government body. It stood for the Great Bitter Lake Association. Eric had stumbled upon the remnants of a forgotten bit of world history leftover from a ragtag group of sailors stranded at the center of a war.

Peter Flack:
“All my life has been attached to the sea. I’m more suited to a sea life. I don’t think I’d be any good in an office scenario. I wouldn’t fit in there, Vivian.”

Vivian Le:
As much as I want to tell you this is Michael Caine. It is not.

Peter Flack:
“My name is Peter Flack. I’m now 77 years of age. Quite a senior citizen as you can imagine at 77.”

Vivian Le:
Flack is retired now, but at the age of 16 he started a long career in the Merchant Navy working on commercial cargo ships, mostly in the Atlantic, and by his early twenties he was ready to see something new.

Peter Flack:
“I thought I wanted to see another part of the world and I thought, oh, the far east is … I’d like to see the far east.”

Roman Mars:
In the mid-1960s, Flack was assigned on trade routes that took them from the UK to Asia. They’d haul everything from rubber to timber to toys.

Peter Flack:
“Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore. That’s where we’ve discharged and then loaded up again. Then on our way back to the UK via the Suez Canal, which was our normal route.”

Vivian Le:
The Suez Canal is one of the busiest and most important shipping routes in the world. It connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, allowing quick passage from Asia to Europe through the Middle East.

Roman Mars:
While Flack’s ship was busy delivering commercial goods from Singapore to the UK, tensions were escalating all around the canal. There had been border disputes and skirmishes for years between Israel and its neighboring countries – Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. On June 5th, 1967 things reached a breaking point and the Six-Day War began.

Vivian Le:
Unfortunately for Peter Flack, he and his ship, the Agapenor, were on their way home via the Suez Canal, which was right at the heart of the conflict.

Peter Flack:
“We’re in the line of ships. Our ship was the last but one.”

Vivian Le:
It was common for ships from different countries to pass through in a convoy together because it was easier to control traffic that way. The Agapenor was one of 14 cargo ships and two tankers grouped together.

Roman Mars:
Not long into the journey the convoy intersection of the Suez called the Great Bitter Lake. It’s a hundred square mile body of saltwater in the canal. Normally a ship like the Agapenor would anchor in the Great Bitter Lake for a few hours until the traffic cleared. But this time, this ship would be staying much longer.

Peter Flack:
“I relieved the chief officer at eight o’clock, 0800. The captain was in his cabin and we were proceeding northbound through the southern part of the Suez Canal.”

Vivian Le:
It was early morning and Flack had just taken up his post on the bridge of the ship.

Peter Flack:
“Shortly after I came on the bridge, the captain blew up to me. When I say blew up to me, we didn’t have this modern communication. There’s like a pipe so you put your ear to it. Anyway, he said, ‘Peter, I’ve just heard on the BBC world service that war has broken out.’ He said, ‘If you see anything, let me know.'”

Roman Mars:
Flack’s first instinct was to grab his camera. At 8:45 A.M. Israeli warplanes cut through the quiet morning and shot in fast and low from the east, directly over his head into Egypt.

Peter Flack:
“In the previous wars they always used to say of the planes, if an attack would happen, it would be advantageous if they came out of the sun because then you couldn’t see them arriving. This is what exactly did happen. They came out of the sun from the east.”

Vivian Le:
Around 200 Israeli fighter pilots used the low position of the rising sun and the convoy of ships to mask a surprise blitz on Egypt. The planes were headed westward over the Suez Canal and straight for an Egyptian airbase near the convoy’s position.

Peter Flack:
“We were caught up in, as far as we were concerned, in a war zone.”

Roman Mars:
Flack and the rest of the crew suddenly had front row seats to the first wave of the Six-Day War. The convoy of ships watched from their anchored positions as Israeli jets unleashed gunfire and missiles on grounded Egyptian planes.

Peter Flack:
“After that first bombing raid, there’s AK-AK fire going on and as they departed, the Israelis departed off that first wave, they came back over the convoy and using this convey once again as a shield so that all the AK-AK fire was coming towards us. We all ducked.”

News Reporter:
“Israeli planes have destroyed the bulk of the Arab forces in the air and on the ground in less than three hours. The might of Egypt’s Russian-equipped army appears to have been completely shattered.”

Roman Mars:
Amazingly, no one in the convoy was hurt, but the Egyptian air force had been destroyed.

Vivian Le:
After the attack, the Suez Canal became the dividing line between Egyptian forces on the west side and Israeli forces on the east with the Great Bitter Lake right in the middle. The convoy was sandwiched between two warring armies. This is Cath Senker, author of ‘Stranded in the Six-Day War’.

Cath Senker:
With a war going on, I mean, they were ordered over the radio, you know, to stop where they were and to await further instructions.

Roman Mars:
The convoy was made up of commercial ships and had no choice but to comply with the Egyptian authorities. A ceasefire was reached in less than a week, but the diplomatic conflict dragged on. Egypt ordered a complete standstill of the Suez Canal.

Cath Senker:
It was a defensive mechanism. Firstly, they did not want Israel to have access to the canal. It was something that they could do because they were in control of it and they could control the traffic and that way nobody could use it and no hostile power could get in there.

Vivian Le:
Even if the 14 ships wanted to go rogue and leave against orders, they physically couldn’t. The Egyptian government figured the best way to prevent Israel from using the canal was to block it entirely. A few days after the conflict started, they dumped debris, threw in landmines and scuttled old ships to make the canal impassable. The convoy was completely trapped.

Peter Flack:
“After a few days when we thought, well, we’re not going anywhere here. It’s just a case of waiting.”

Roman Mars:
The 14 trapped ships came from eight different countries, the UK, West Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, France, Bulgaria, and the United States. In the beginning, the crews didn’t know what was going on.

Peter Flack:
“The only information we got was through the World Service and the merchant Navy program. There was no mail. I’ve still got a letter to my parents so they knew when I’d be arriving home.”

Vivian Le:
Despite the lack of communication, the shipping companies were working in the background to get their crews home while the United Nations tried to work out a deal to reopen the canal.

News Anchor:
“A six-day Middle East war echoes along a second front, a diplomatic struggle at the United Nations security council. A series of emotionally charged meetings…”

Vivian Le:
Months dragged on and the boats still hadn’t been released. They were stranded for so long the convoy earned the nickname, the Yellow Fleet because the sandstorms in the region stained the holes of the ships.

Peter Flack:
“It’s surprising now the days did pass, though. There were others who didn’t accept it, biting at the bit. But I thought, well, this is our lot.”

Roman Mars:
After three months of the crews trying to maintain their ships and their sanity, the shipping companies and the Egyptian government finally reached a compromise. The people trapped on board were released and Peter Flack and the rest of the stranded crew finally went home.

Peter Flack:
“I got back home, I carried on as normal. I was single, as I say. I’d be going to a dance, meet a girl for three weeks, and have a good time and then go back to sea. That’s how it was, Vivian.”

Vivian Le:
But Egypt wouldn’t reopen the canal so while the sailors could go home, the ships had to stay and the shipping companies didn’t want to completely abandon their vessels.

Cath Senker:
So, the logical thing to do was to keep people there to protect the valuable cargo and the investment that they’ve made in the ships.

Roman Mars:
Every shipping company decided to recruit new crew members to keep the vessels in working condition with the understanding that they would set sail the moment the passage reopened. While Peter Flack was busy dancing with the ladies back home in Liverpool, a fresh batch of seafarers were sent to take his place.

George Wharton:
“We couldn’t wait to go, of course. It was a new adventure for us and we just took it up from there.”

Vivian Le:
This is George Wharton, one of the members of that first relief crew. At the time, he was just 24-years-old with a new wife and a baby on the way.

Roman Mars:
Even with the risk of being in a conflict zone, going to the Great Bitter Lake was considered a pretty good gig. Unlike the first wave of sailors caught in the Six-Day War, the replacement crews knew exactly what they were getting into and they were offered double pay because of the ever-present threat of war.

George Wharton:
“It was classed as a good job and when I was offered and word got around saying, ‘Oh, aren’t you lucky?’, you know?”

Roman Mars:
The work was like being on any other ship. There was a lot of cleaning and running the engines and checking the cargo to make sure it kept fresh in the hot climate, but since they were in the middle of a lake in the middle of a desert in the middle of a war zone, Wharton says it was hard to get supplies.

George Wharton:
“We started to run out of stores. You weren’t going hungry or anything, but you were limited to the variety, if you like.”

Vivian Le:
The crews quickly realized that between the 14 ships they actually had plenty. If they pooled their resources and traded with one another, they’d have enough of everything to go around.

Cath Senker:
They wanted to swap, you know, sugar or tea or eggs and they realized that between all the different ships, that they had a wide variety of supplies.

Vivian Le:
One German ship had a ton of frozen meat, another had way too much canned fruit, so they started trading. Wharton took a lifeboat from ship to ship, at first trading food, then swapping movie reels and bartering cigarettes.

George Wharton:
“There was one ship, a Czechoslovakian ship, and if you went over to that ship, what a welcome they would give you. They would open a bottle of whiskey, throw the cork away, you could not leave the ship until that whiskey was gone.”

Roman Mars:
Soon they started hanging out a lot and because they were a bunch of twenty-something-year-old sailors, they started partying – a lot.

Cath Senker:
Some of the captains, they were a little bit concerned because clearly in the early days, you know, there was a kind of lot of drinking and just sort of hanging out and sleeping and they were kind of thinking, ‘Well, you know, it would be good to kind of get together and organize some social activities.’ There were worried that boredom would set in and then people there would be … You know, people would get irritated.

Roman Mars:
The captains figured a little structure would curb the worst behavior of their sailors so in October of 1967, five months after the start of the Six-Day War, they made a plan. Wharton remembers seeing a notice on the bulletin board addressed to all of the seafarers on the lake.

George Wharton:
“Dear all, at a recent meeting attended by personnel from all the ships at present in the Bitter Lake, it was decided to form an association to be called the Great Bitter Lake Association. The main aim of the association is to maintain and foster the many friendships that we have and no doubt you have formed with the people of the other ships and other nationalities while here.”

Vivian Le:
The Great Bitter Lake Association was a way to regulate the unofficial marketplace that had sprung up between the ships and bring some order to their makeshift community. It was also a social committee. Membership in the GBLA included events hosted each week by a different vessel. Ships modified their lifeboats into sailboats and took turns hosting regattas. One ship built a functional soccer pitch on its deck and held tournaments. The Polish ship had a doctor and became the de facto medical center. The Swedish ship had a gym.

Roman Mars:
Even though the Great Bitter Lake Association was originally formed to curb drinking, a lot of alcohol was still consumed on the Great Bitter Lake. One ship captain estimated that perhaps 1.5 million empty beer bottles may have been dumped into the lake writing, “One wonders what future archeologists in a few thousand years time will think of this?”

George Wharton:
“I think he’s underestimated. I think half of those ships were aground on bottles.”

Vivian Le:
But even though it may sound like the GBLA devolved into a fleet of party boats, the association was actually there to create a sense of stability in an incredibly unstable place. The sailors weren’t just individuals on a ship, but members of a society. Everybody in the GBLA was given a specially designed Bitter Lake-themed neck tie and badge.

Roman Mars:
The badge itself was in the shape of a shield with a large anchor across the center. At the top were the letters, GBLA and the bottom was the number 14 for the 14 ships in the lake. Running diagonally behind the anchor was a thin blue strip to represent the Suez Canal.

Cath Senker:
What was interesting was that you have those from Western nations, from West Germany as it then was, France, Britain, and the USA on the other side you had from the Eastern block countries, the Bulgarian ship, the Polish ships, and the Czech ship. You kind of had the kind of microcosm of the Cold War going on right there in the Great Bitter Lake. The first decision of that organization was that everybody would be equal wherever they were from.

Vivian Le:
No matter where the crews came from, they left the politics of their home countries aside. This was especially true when the crews came together to celebrate their first big holiday as a group.

George Wharton:
“The first Christmas, that really was a night to remember.”

Vivian Le:
Wharton has spent more than his fair share of Christmases at sea, but this one was unlike any he had ever experienced.

George Wharton:
“The Polish seamen made this huge Christmas tree and mounted it on a raft and anchored it in the middle of all the ships. On Christmas night, all the boats were invited over to the tree and we all tied up around the tree. We had a carol service. One of the boats actually had an organ and so we had music and all sang carols. To listen to the Germans singing ‘Silent Night’ in their language, you imagine in the middle of the desert, like a million stars just above your head. It was just incredible to listen to them.”

Roman Mars:
Wharton happily returned home after the holidays to his wife and brand new daughter. He figured his time in the lake was a once in a lifetime experience, but to his surprise, a year later, the UN hadn’t figured out a solution. The ships were still in the canal and he was given a chance to go back.

George Wharton:
“The boss called me again and said, well, as you know, the ships are still there. Do you want to go back there? And I said, yes, definitely.”

Vivian Le:
When he got back to the Lake, Wharton realized the association had become more important than when he left, between the brotherhood, the sports and the official badges, the Great Bitter Lake Association started feeling like something bigger than just a club.

Cath Senker:
There was also an idea that the ships in the middle of the Great Bitter Lake formed their own little autonomous community.

Roman Mars:
The GBLA didn’t feel like a convoy of international ships. It felt more like its own nation.

Cath Senker:
And therefore as a little nation, they should have their own postage stamp.

Vivian Le:
Each stamp was handcrafted and designed by members of the association and required a lot of resourcefulness.

Cath Senker:
I think the extraordinary thing is the level of craftsmanship that went into creating these sort of tiny, tiny works of arts using whatever materials they could find. You know, coffee grounds might be used to create sand or anything that they could find really.

Vivian Le:
They also used crayons, potato skins and some were even carved or etched out of brass. The stamps were copied using a Hectograph, which is kind of like a crude copier and distributed to the rest of the members.

Roman Mars:
Technically these stamps were Cinderella stamps with no postal value and were made mostly for their own amusement, but some actually made it through as official postage.

George Wharton:
“We started to put them on our envelopes and some of them were accepted by the Egyptian government and they counted them as posts and the letters got back home.”

Eric Carlson:
I have a couple of the stamps that have birds. They did birds to symbolize freedom. Basically, freedom from being stranded in the Suez and I know some of these depictions show the birds tied to an anchor.

Vivian Le:
This is Eric Carlson, the philatelist from earlier. The stamps often featured nautical imagery like ships and anchors, and occasionally they had pictures of ladies because, you know, sailors.

Eric Carlson:
A lot of these stamps do have a kind of a tattoo quality to them in their straightforwardness of the design.

Roman Mars:
The artwork on each stamp acted like a tiny time capsule of their experiences. They documented Christmases, anniversaries, soccer tournaments, even a Great Bitter Lake Olympics that they held in honor of the 1968 Mexico City games.

Vivian Le:
But the heyday of the Great Bitter Lake Association couldn’t last forever. In 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, a stray missile hit and sank an American vessel called the African Glenn. Thankfully no one was killed.

Roman Mars:
Over time, the shipping companies reduced their personnel to skeleton crews. All the while their ships were slowly decaying. By 1974 when a deal was brokered to reopen the canal, most of the ships were no longer seaworthy. After the agreement, it took a full year to remove the debris blocking the passage. There were a hundred bridge sections, 20 trucks, eight tanks, a hundred vessels and 750,000 explosive devices thrown into the waters of the Suez. Finally in 1975, eight years after the start of the Six-Day War, the ships were towed out and said their final goodbyes to the Great Bitter Lake.

News Achor:
“A clear passage has been made up the Suez Canal from the El Ferdan Bridge to portside and 13 marooned merchant ships have at last been able to pull up their hooks and head towards the open Mediterranean.”

Roman Mars:
They even commemorated the moment with one last set of stamps that said ‘GBLA Farewell’.

Vivian Le:
Peter Flack, who was on board at the start of the Six-Day War says that it’s pretty rare for seafarers form such a strong bond. You go out, you try your best to get along with your crew, and then you move onto the next job. He says there’s even a term for people who serve in the Merchant Navy, the board of trade acquaintances.

Peter Flack:
“You know, we’d just stick to our ships and that was it. It’s very rare did shipmates keep in touch.”

Roman Mars:
But from 1967 to 1975 over 3,000 men, and one woman actually, served alongside each other on the Great Bitter Lake. In 2017, they held a 50-year reunion in Liverpool and members in Germany and Slovakia still meet up annually. It remains a quiet tradition over 50 years later.

Vivian Le:
The GBLA is mostly a footnote in the complicated history of the Six-Day War. But there are little pieces here and there of that remind the rest of the world that this makeshift nation once existed. You could find them in a well-designed badge, a custom necktie or a stamp that you stumble across on eBay.

Credits

Production

Producer Vivian Le spoke with Cath Senker, author of Stranded in the Six-Day War, Peter Flack, former Merchant Navy Member, George Wharton, a former member of the Great Bitter Lake Association, and Eric Carlson, stamp hobbyist.

Special thanks to the Gurt Lush Choir and Peter Valdner.

Comments (8)

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  1. Steve Kilpatrick

    SUCH a cool episode! The camaraderie between these 14 ships was such fun to imagine whilst listening on my way to work. I had never heard of this story, and enjoyed every minute.

  2. Jody K Geitz

    Another wonderful podcast from 99% Invisible. But, I would like to question Roman’s support for the Panamanian flag. Ok, from a purely design point of view it is lovely, but how does it really reflect the country? The Panama flag seems more to be just another red/white/blue with two stars that reflects the US government’s desire to take control of an important piece of geography. I would say Maria de la Ossa and friends were more interested in pleasing the US than concern about the future prosperity and independence of their new little country. Panama’s successful control of the canal for the last 20 years is finally allowing the country to develop. Their future is bright and I hope someone will design them a new flag.

  3. Yael

    Thank you Vivian for a great episode! This story would make a great movie, don’t you think?

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