The mission to raise the anchor from a shipwreck – as a monument to the generation it brought to Britain

Carrying migrants to Britain for a new life, the Empire Windrush gave its name to a generation – and later, a scandal. This is the story of a ship, the people it carried, and a new plan to make a monument from its most iconic symbol.

Monday, June 22, 2020,
By Dominic Bliss
HMT Empire Windrush arrives at the Port of Tilbury on the River Thames on 22 June, 1948. ...

HMT Empire Windrush arrives at the Port of Tilbury on the River Thames on 22 June, 1948. Visible just right of centre is the anchor a team of campaigners and scientists hope to raise from the ship – which sank in 1954 – as a monument to the generation it helped establish in Britain.

Photograph by Alamy / Contraband Collection

WHEN the passenger liner HMT Empire Windrush docked at Port of Tilbury on the River Thames in June 1948 with hundreds of Caribbean immigrants aboard, it was a key moment in the establishment of multicultural Britain. The vessel later came to symbolise the scandalous way in which the government treated many of the so-called Windrush generation – who celebrate a day of recognition on June 22. 

The ship itself now lies 2,800 metres down at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, 23 nautical miles off the coast of Algeria. In 1954 it caught fire while en route to the UK, and – after all but four of those aboard had been rescued – it sank. Now a piece of it may be about to return to the surface in a bid to symbolise the winds of change the ship ushered to British shores over 70 years ago.  

Empire Windrush passengers inbound from Commonwealth territories in the Caribbean included those answering calls for work, ex-servicemen and women, and children – many of whom travelled on their parents' passports. Despite their right to remain, due to immigration law tightening and the government destroying the landing cards of passengers in 2010 many who arrived as part of the first wave were unable to prove legitimate UK citizenship in later life. This became known as the Windrush scandal.

Photograph by Alamy

The story of a ship

When it comes to symbols of migration, few conveyances have been quite so mythologised as the Empire Windrush – a remarkable turn of fortune given the ship's former duties. 

Built in 1930 by builders Blohm & Voss, it was originally a German liner named the M.V. Monte Rosa. As part of Germany's Hamburg Sud line, its first years saw it give many Germans trans-Atlantic passage to a new life in South America, escaping the economic depression in their homeland.

As National Socialism began to take root in Germany, it was recruited as a propaganda vessel to showcase the ideology of Nazism, with cruises to Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. Then, as the Second World War began to rock Europe, its festive colours were repainted grey, and the Monte Rosa became a ship of war.

According to Paul Arnott in his book Windrush: A Ship Through Time, the vessel's trajectory turned into darker waters during the war years. Used as a troop carrier, it brought German ground forces to Scandinavia, at one point supporting and resupplying the infamous battleship Tirpitz Hitler's ‘beast’  as it strafed the Norwegian coast to deter Allied attacks. 

Then in October 1942, the ship that would become the Empire Windrush was one of two carrying Jews deported from Nazi-occupied Norway to Hamburg – from where they were transported to the gates of Auschwitz, and murdered.

Video: The Empire Windrush arrives at Tilbury, 1948


By the end of the war the Monte Rosa had become a hospital ship, and was seized by the Royal Navy at Kiel on the north German coast. Sailed to the shipyards of Glasgow, it was re-fitted as a British troop transport – and given the name that would resonate through history.

The first wave

Between 1945 and 1948 the Empire Windrush was used as a Navy transport, repatriating British soldiers home from former theatres of war such as India and Greece.

Then in May 1948, it sailed to the Caribbean – calling at Trinidad, Jamaica, Tampico, Cuba and Bermuda before returning to Tilbury, in Essex on June 22. Aboard was what would become known as the 'first wave' of Windrush migrants – some 500 mostly Jamaican and Trinidadian workers and their families who, as part of the Commonwealth, were entitled to live in Britain. Also on board were some 66 Polish migrants who had spent much of the war in Mexico. These too were bound for a new life in Britain under Churchill's Polish Resettlement Act, which acknowledged the contribution of Polish soldiers and intelligence to the Allied war effort. 

On paper, they were both welcome and needed: a personnel gap created by the war had created a vacuum of skilled workers needed to rebuild the country's industry and economy. But for many of the arrivals on the Empire Windrush that June – and the tens of thousands who arrived from Commonwealth territories all over the world by other means between 1948 and 1973 – the environment they arrived into wasn't the welcome they had hoped for.

Many were victims of racist attitudes and discrimination in employment, forced to accept jobs well below the entitlement of their qualifications or that occupied unsociable shifts.  

As the migrants' contribution to the economy began to become evident, attitudes began to change – with some employers, including the NHS, recruiting proactively and directly from the Caribbean. Some even paid for the migrants' fares, usually recouped through wages. The communities born from this wave of migrants, and their influence on the arts, education and culture has in the years since been unanimously hailed as a watershed moment in the diversification of British culture. 

Scandal and betrayal

The so-called Windrush scandal began to emerge in late 2017. Under a 2012 policy employers, landlords and financial institutions had been encouraged to create what then-Home Secretary Theresa May described as a 'hostile environment' for those attempting to live in the UK illegally. 

A government ruling in 1971 had entitled any Commonwealth citizen currently living in Britain indefinite leave to remain – in short granting rightful citizenship to those who had arrived and settled as part of the Windrush generation. But the 2012 policy – an attempt to reduce annual net migration to 100,000 – potentially affected anyone who couldn't provide documentation stating right-of-residency. This meant Windrush children who had travelled to the UK under the passports of their parents – some of whom who had lived in Britain for upwards of 50 years – were challenged to prove their immigration status was legal. 

And not all of these mostly elderly people could. The situation was worsened when it emerged the disembarkation cards of thousands of migrants from the 1950s and 1960s – potential evidence of arrival – were destroyed by the Home Office in 2010. 

The consequences wrecked lives. Citizens unable to prove legitimate citizenship found their rights eroded. These privations included access to healthcare, legal representation, or housing. Some who had lived in Britain legally for most of their lives lost jobs, their homes – or faced deportation back to countries they had no memory of.   

Theresa May, as Prime Minister in 2018, apologised for the treatment of Windrush migrants – but many remain aggrieved by the government's betrayal of their citizenship. A 2020 independent report into the scandal spanning 275 pages revealed the cause lay in 'profound institutional failure' – and that people of the Windrush generation ‘who had lived in the UK lawfully for decades were made to feel like criminals.’ 

The Evening Standard of June 21 1948 carried a story and image relating to the Empire Windrush's arrival in Britain under the headline 'Welcome Home.' Not all branches of the media were as welcoming, and many immigrants faced hardship and discrimination on arrival.

Photograph by John Frost Newspapers / Alamy

‘Added poignancy’

Now there’s a new chapter in the Windrush story. A group of campaigners plans to locate the wreck, recover the ship’s stern anchor, and return it to the UK as “a fitting monument to multicultural Britain”. Among them is Patrick Vernon, who was a child of the Windrush generation, maritime archaeologist Jessica Berry, and shipwreck hunter David Mearns. Provided funding is secured, it’s the latter who will lead the search, locate the wreck and bring the anchor to the surface.

“We’ve had all the negative aspects of the Windrush scandal, and now this could become a positive one.” Mearns tells National Geographic. “If the anchor was a centrepiece of a monument somewhere in the UK, it would be a touchstone for people to visit and literally touch, connecting themselves to that ship and the symbolism of the first wave of Windrush immigrants.” 

In an era when Britons are re-examining their public monuments and statues, it would have added poignancy. Mearns, who runs a Sussex-based shipwreck recovery service called Blue Water Recoveries, is confident he has narrowed down the position of the wreck to a search area of just 36 square nautical miles. He has analysed the original mayday signals, and the reports from rescue vessels, and from the Royal Navy destroyer that had been towing her when she finally slipped beneath the waves.

The search for the ship

“In the grand scheme of shipwrecks, the position is very good,” Mearns says. “Back in 1954, pre-GPS, you’re still relying on sextants, chronometers, and star and sun sightings. 36 square nautical miles is a small area. My confidence level is high.” 

With decades of experience in hunting for ships and aircraft on the ocean bed, Mearns has good reason to be confident. A marine scientist and sonar specialist by trade, he has discovered 25 shipwrecks and boasts a 90 per cent success rate. The more important wrecks include HMS Hood, the Royal Navy battlecruiser sunk by the German battleship Bismarck; Esmeralda, a Portuguese carrack that came to rest off the coast of Oman in 1503; and MV Lucona, a motor vessel sabotaged with a time bomb as part of an insurance fraud.

Mearns also helped locate the final resting places of Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic in 2009 – and the light aircraft that had been conveying Argentinean footballer Emiliano Sala across the English Channel in 2019.

David Mearns indicates the anchor on the cover of a book about the Empire Windrush. In this most famous image of the ship – at the top of this article – the anchor is clearly visible.

Photograph by Dominic Bliss

Although the circumstances of each wreck vary enormously, the methods Mearns uses to locate them share similarities. The bulk of his time is spent poring over maritime records, researching distress calls, eye-witness accounts from survivors and rescuers, and reports of floating debris. He is no stranger to government records offices such as the National Archives in London and the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. Personal records are also enormously helpful. While searching for HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran off the coast of Australia, for example, he decoded a dictionary that the captain of the latter had used while in prison to secretly document the original sea battle. “The stuff of World War II movies like The Great Escape,” is how Mearns describes it.

Using his training in oceanography, he hunts for clues in weather reports, ocean currents, and the positions, speeds and bearings of ships at the time they are damaged. A process called reverse drift analysis allows him to analyse the position of wreck debris or life-rafts, for example, and calculate where the ship actually sank beneath the waves.

Once he has a reasonable search area, it’s then time to mobilise a vessel and all the various equipment. This is when his job gets complicated and very expensive. He requires a sturdy ship, specialist team members, and acoustic searching devices such as side-scan sonars or multi-beam echo sounders. (“We use acoustics because sound propagates through water a long distance,” he explains.) Then, once the wreck has been located, he sets loose a remotely-operated underwater vehicle on a tether (ROV) to film it or recover items. On the ship’s deck, there must be a strong platform with cables and winches from which the sonar equipment and the ROVs can be launched and towed.

A small remotely operated vehicle (ROV) on a tether, similar to that used by Mearns in his underwater excavations.  

Photograph by Brian Skerry / National Geographic Image Collection

Ocean searches last days, weeks, even months, depending on the size of the search area. For HMS Hood, Mearns had 630 square nautical miles to cover; for HMAS Sydney it was over 1,750. The Windrush, with just 36 square nautical miles should be a cinch by comparison. However, Mearns is always prepared for long, sometimes queasy days at sea, staring at a sonar screen, his sleep severely rationed. 

Deep sea forensics

There is a science to covering an ocean search area. The ship normally cruises up and down in a straight line, towing the sonar device (or towfish, as it’s known) at the end of a long cable. Since every extra day spent at sea adds to the mission cost, Mearns needs to locate wrecks as swiftly as possible. Unlike mowing a garden lawn, for example, where you progress in orderly lanes, up and down and left to right, he first concentrates on the optimal lanes of highest probability, leaving the lanes of lowest probability until last. It’s a statistical process based on something called Bayesian search theory, and it can mean the difference between a few days or many weeks of searching.   

The vessels that Mearns operates nowadays are luxurious compared to those he endured at the start of his career, back in the 1980s. “I’ve been on some real dogs,” he says of his early outings. “It wasn’t uncommon to be at sea for 60 days living in a small, smelly space with five other blokes, sleeping on bunks three-high, with diesel fumes, low food quality, working 12 hours on and 12 hours off, without safety standards.”

The Empire Windrush in dock at Southampton, 1954. The same year, the 500ft (152m) ship caught fire and sank off the coast of Algeria.

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy

Operating complex machinery, often miles out at sea, is always a risky business. As well as injured crew, Mearns has had to delay or abandon projects for reasons ranging from ship fires, engine failures, loss of sonar equipment and ROVs, “and in one instance literally running out of food, prompting an urgent return to port”.

But that moment of discovery, when all the research and hard work finally come to fruition, more than compensates for any hardship. “The moment you find a wreck is exhilarating,” he says. “You cannot help but react in a spontaneous way. There’s a lot of adrenalin involved. I describe it like an athlete winning a gold medal. You spend years training for it, and it’s all encapsulated in that split-second when you cross the finish tape. Just like seeing the sonar image of a shipwreck popping up on your screen.”

Muralising the Empire Windrush on a wall in Bristol. The ship has come to symbolise the arrival in Britain of a new wave of cultural diversity now generations old. The 'first wave' and subsequent arrivals up to 1971 became known as the Windrush generation. 

Honouring a generation 

Mearns is in his office in the Sussex town of Midhurst, riffling through a green lever-arch file containing all his research on the Empire Windrush. On his walls are paintings and photos of the more famous wrecks he has located, as well as industry awards and Guinness World Records certificates (deepest wreck found, deepest cargo salvage, deepest live internet broadcast, oldest astrolabe and oldest shipwreck bell discovered). On his shelves are artefacts and memorabilia he has collected over the years: a three-foot-high Roman amphora; part of a cannonball from the Portuguese carrack he located in Oman; an ancient compass housing; the hub of a ship’s wheel from a German blockader; a diving helmet. In between all these are dozens of research files and books on maritime history and ocean science. The room is an office-cum-library-cum-museum.

Originally from New Jersey, in the United States, Mearns came to Britain 25 years ago and took over ownership of Blue Water Recoveries in late 2008. Having spent much of his career on lucrative salvage projects and accident investigations, he’s now in a position where he can donate his services pro bono if, as is the case with the Empire Windrush, he feels it’s a worthwhile cause. “Passion as opposed to profit,” he says. In his 2017 book, The Shipwreck Hunter, he describes his motivation: “When deciding what shipwrecks are worth pursuing, I specifically look for… human stories hiding within the overall drama of the shipwreck itself.”

This partly explains why he favours historical wrecks over treasure-laden wrecks. (Sunken treasure is further complicated by UNESCO regulations and opposition from archaeologists.) Two historical ships he is very keen to search for are TSS Athenia (the passenger liner torpedoed by a German U-boat at the beginning of World War II, with 117 lives lost) and the Endurance (Ernest Shackleton’s ship which sank off the coast of Antarctica).

Mearns says he’s “99 per cent positive” he has located the final resting place of the Athenia. Any efforts to find the Endurance, however, would be severely hampered by the constantly moving pack ice above its last known location.

Before all that, however, he is directing his attention to the Empire Windrush. Although he’s sure of her location in the Mediterranean, and confident he can cut free and raise the anchor, he knows that funding for the estimated £1.5 to £2.5 million project will be a challenge. 

“I know I can find the ship, but if we reach out to the [Windrush] community and they say the project is inappropriate, we’re not going to do it.”

David Mearns

A 'solidarity with the Windrush generation' demonstration in London, 2018. A new report has revealed 'profound institutional failure' in the government's handling of the affair.

Photograph by Alamy

Most critical is the need for members and relatives of the Windrush generation to give their blessing. On June 24th there will be an online consultation, open to the public. “It’s the families who should decide. This is for their benefit, but they have to want it,” he says, aware of how sensitive the mission would be. “I know I can find the ship, but the moral authority rests with them. If we reach out to the [Windrush] community and they say the project is inappropriate, we’re not going to do it.”

Additional reporting by Simon Ingram

Read More