SS Aquila (1940)

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Name: SS Aquila (1951–58)
SS Duke of Sparta (1940–51)[1]
Namesake: eagle (bird) (1951–58)
Duke of Sparta, Crown Prince of Greece (1940–51)
Owner: Grimaldi Brothers, Italy (1951–58);[1]
Trent Maritime Co, Ltd. (1940–51)[2]
Operator: S. Livanos (1940–51)
Port of registry: ItalyNaples (1951–58)
United Kingdom London (1940–51)
Builder: Wm. Gray & Co, West Hartlepool, UK[2]
Yard number: 1104[1]
Launched: July 1940[1]
Completed: October 1940[1]
Out of service: 28 April or 2 May 1958
Identification: Code Letters MLFN[2]
ICS Mike.svgICS Lima.svgICS Foxtrot.svgICS November.svg (1940–51)
Fate: Bombed by CIA aircraft 28 April or 2 May 1958; sank 27 May 1958
Status: Wreck in Ambon Bay, Indonesia
General characteristics
Type: cargo ship[2]
Tonnage: 5,397 GRT; 3,161 NRT
tonnage under deck 4896[2]
Length: 441.1 ft (134.4 m)[2]
Beam: 57.8 ft (17.6 m)[2]
Draught: 25.4 ft (7.7 m)[2]
Installed power: 492 NHP[2]
Propulsion: 3-cylinder triple-expansion steam engine[2]
Sensors and
processing systems:
direction finding equipment
echo sounding device[2]
Notes: sister ship: Duke of Athens

SS Aquila, originally SS Duke of Sparta, was one of a pair of cargo ships built in Britain in 1940 for S. Livanos' Trent Maritime Co Ltd.[2] She and her sister ship SS Duke of Athens were built by William Gray & Company in North East England. In 1951 Duke of Sparta was sold to Grimaldi Brothers of Naples, Italy, who renamed her Aquila.[1]

As Duke of Sparta in 1947–48 the ship was involved in allegations about the treatment of stowaways from Nigeria. As Aquila in April 1958 she was in the Moluccas in eastern Indonesia when a CIA aircraft bombed and damaged her. As a result of the damage she sank a month later. Her wreck off Ambon City is now a popular scuba diving site.


William Gray & Company built Duke of Sparta in their yard at West Hartlepool on Tees-side.[2] They launched Duke of Sparta in July 1940[1] and completed her that October.[2]

The ship had nine corrugated furnaces with a combined grate area of 145 square feet (13 m2) that heating three single-ended boilers with a combined heating surface of 7,020 square feet (652 m2).[2] These fed steam at 225 lbf/in2 to a three-cylinder triple-expansion steam engine that developed 492 nominal horsepower.[2] The engine was built by the Central Marine Engineering Works, which was part of Wm Gray & Co.[2]

The ship's navigation equipment included direction finding apparatus and an echo sounding device[2]

Stowaways from Nigeria[edit]

On 24 or 25 December 1947 Duke of Sparta sailed from Apapa on a voyage via Las Palmas to Kingston upon Hull, England.[3] Before she sailed, five stowaways were found aboard and were handed over to the police.[3] After two days' sailing, when she was off the Gold Coast, two more stowaways were found.[3] Duke of Sparta summoned the assistance of fishing canoes in the vicinity, and the stowaways were transferred to the canoes to be put ashore.[3] Some days later Duke of Sparta called at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands.[3] Some days after she left Las Palmas a further five stowaways were found aboard, and these were kept aboard until Duke of Sparta docked at Hull.[3]

Early in 1948 a controversy was raised in Nigeria over the treatment of some of Duke of Sparta's stowaways.[3] A Mr Eusebius Tunde George of Lagos, Nigeria alleged that six stowaways were found aboard off Gold Coast, that the crew threw them all into the sea, and that only he and one other stowaway survived.[3] Mr George's allegations were widely published in Nigerian newspapers on 13 February 1948 and subsequently repeated in the newspapers of other British colonies.[3]

On 28 April 1948 the British Communist MP Willie Gallacher raised Mr George's allegations in the UK House of Commons.[3] The Labour Government's Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Christopher Mayhew MP, replied refuting the allegations in detail.[3] Mayhew's Labour colleague Will Nally MP added that on 17 February the Nigerian Review had published an article headlined "Fantastic story about stowaways is proved false", that also had refuted Mr George's claims.[3]

Bombed and sunk by the CIA[edit]

At the end of April 1958 Aquila was in ballast and anchored off Ambon City in Indonesia[1] when a Douglas B-26 Invader bomber aircraft, operated by the CIA and painted black and with no markings,[4] bombed and damaged her.[5] The date of the bombing is 28 April according to one source[5] but 1 or 2 May according to another.[6] Aquila stayed afloat for a month but sank on 27 May 1958.[1]

The attack was part of a CIA covert operation to support right-wing Permesta rebels in North Sulawesi to destabilise President Sukarno's government of Indonesia. The CIA pilots had orders to target foreign merchant ships in order to drive foreign trade away from Indonesian waters, thereby weakening the Indonesian economy in the belief that this would undermine Sukarno.[7]

The pilot was the CIA and former USAF pilot Allen Pope, who in the same sortie also bombed the merchant ships SS Armonia and SS Flying Lark.[5] On 18 May the Indonesian Navy and Air Force shot down Pope's aircraft and captured him,[8] after which the USA rapidly aborted the CIA mission and radically revised its policy towards Indonesia.


SS Aquila (1940) is located in Indonesia
SS Aquila (1940)
Ambon, Indonesia, the position of the wreck identified as Aquila

For many years the position of Aquila's wreck was unknown.[1] One source published in 1999 asserted that Pope had sunk her off the port of Donggala, near Palu in Central Sulawesi.[5] This now seems to be incorrect.

For some years recreational scuba divers knew the wreck of a cargo ship in Ambon Bay without knowing her name.[1] In October 2009 divers penetrated the mystery wreck's engine room and recovered a maker's plate from one of her water heaters.[1] This gave the maker as a company in West Hartlepool where SS Aquila had been built, which at last gave a clue to the wreck's identity.[1] Aquila is on a slope on the seabed off Ambon, with her stern about 15 metres (8 fathoms) below the surface and her bow about 35 metres (19 fathoms) below the surface.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Wreck Diving Ambon Secret Wreck Diving". Maluku Divers. 2011. Retrieved 10 August 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Lloyd's Register, Steamers & Motorships. London: Lloyd's Register. 1941. Retrieved 10 July 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "28 April 1948". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) (House of Commons). col. 383–385. 
  4. ^ Conboy & Morrison 1999, p. 88.
  5. ^ a b c d Conboy & Morrison 1999, p. 115.
  6. ^ Kahin & Kahin 1999, p. 173.
  7. ^ Conboy & Morrison 1999, p. 116.
  8. ^ Conboy & Morrison 1999, pp. 138, 139, 141.