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British History/ships - UK-India 1910-1930


QUESTION: Dear Mark,

     I have seen two of your previous and very useful answers on ships between the UK and India.  I'm interested to find out more about the shipping opportunities for passengers between 1910 and 1925.  What routes and ports were used as origin and destination, how long did the trip take (vis Suez and via the Cape), and what shipping lines provided service?
     You will note that the period indicated includes World War I.  How did British travelers make the trip during the War?  By what route, and how long did it take?  How different was that from the pre-war and post-war periods?
     Were there any "tricks" to speed the journey during or after the War, for example taking a train to Marseille and maybe catching two separate ships, one to Alexandria and the other on to Bombay?
     Your expertise, and any recommended books, articles or websites will be much appreciated.

         Ray Bromley

ANSWER: Hello Ray.
"The Story of P&O" by David and Stephen Howarth is very good.
P&O carried most of the traffic between GB and India from WW I onwards, but there were other companies operating on a smaller scale.
During wartime the shipping lines continued to operate with little change in their route, once into Indian Ocean the threat from German U-Boats and surface ships was greatly reduced, the main dangers came in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The only defence they had was to plot a zig-zag course and travel as fast as possible. If they could they would form a convoy with other ships of all sizes but that meant a far slower journey.
It was possible to speed up your journey by joining the ship at any of the ports of call along the route, but many preferred to make it as stress-free as they could by simply sailing the whole route in one ship without the dangers of missing connections or losing luggage.
As an example, the P&O Liner SS China sailed from Tilbury on 5 June 1920, reached Gibraltar 9 June, Marsailles 12 June, Port Said 16 June, Suez and the Red Sea 17 June, Aden 21 June and docked at Bombay on 25 June, a journey time of 20 days.  

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QUESTION: Mark,  Many thanks for a speedy and informative answer.  I have ordered a copy of the Howarths book and hope to receive it within a week.
     Was going round the Cape of Good Hope a credible or necessary route at any time between 1910 and 1925 ... maybe focusing more on reaching Madras and Calcutta, rather than Bombay?  I'm wondering if the Ottoman Empire ever threatened the Suez Canal or navigation in the Eastern Mediterranean of Red Sea.  I know that the German warship SMS Emden
rampaged around the Indian Ocean between August and November 1914.

Hello again.
The Cape route was rarely used for voyages to India in the 20th century, it was still far quicker to go via the Suez Canal even for Colombo, Madras and Calcutta.
The Turks never really threatened the sea routes in WW I, Their navy was reluctant to fight the combined British and French (and later Italian) navies and pretty much stayed bottled up in the Black Sea. They did launch an attack across the desert against the Suez Canal early in 1915, but they never crossed it and were pushed back never to attempt it again. The Germans and the Austro-Hungarians were more of a threat at sea as of course were mines. As far as they could shipping lines continued as normal throughout the war years continuing to print sailing schedules and timetables in the national press.   

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Mark Smith


I have a good basic knowledge of British political history, but my speciality is the Kings and Queens of England and Scotland from 927 AD. Please no social history questions, it's not my strong point and I'm unlikely to answer them.


No professional experience, but a lifelong interest and access to a variety of sources of information.

"A" level in History.

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