On July 25, 1944, German submarine U-862 torpedoed and sunk the S.S. Robin Goodfellow, a U.S. freighter en route from Cape Town, South Africa to New York. A nearby British motor merchant received the distress signal, but was unable to intervene. None of the eight officers, thirty-three crewmen, or twenty-eight armed guards on board survived.
The Robin Goodfellow sank in the middle of the Atlantic, almost midway through its journey. The ship carried 8,602 tons of chromite ore, mined in South Africa and purchased by military contractors in the United States. As the only mineral ore of chromium metal, chromite is integral to the strengthening and coating of steel. In warfare, chromium is used in the production of almost all armaments, from tanks to U-boats, and in virtually all varieties of small shells and ammunition. For obvious reasons, chromite trade was highly contentious throughout the mid-twentieth century while much of the world was embroiled in warfare.
Reports from the ongoing Battle of Normandy and the Allied invasion of German-occupied Western Europe dominated the news cycle in July 1944. The sinking of the Robin Goodfellow, despite the tragic loss of human life, barely warranted a mention in most major newspapers. The Harvard Crimson published one of the few reports on the lost ship in March 1945, almost eight months after the fact. The chromite was of little interest to the unnamed Harvard journalist. Instead, the article informed readers of “a major astronomical loss” suffered “by the Harvard Observatory.” On board the Robin Goodfellow was roughly “one-fifth of a year’s photographic plates” taken at the southern station in Bloemfontein, South Africa. This failed attempt was the first shipment of plates to leave South Africa in more than two years.
In his 1941 annual report, H.C.O. Director Harlow Shapley praised the ongoing efficiency of his employees at the Bloemfontein station. By his estimation, “In some months of the past year more plates have been made with the southern telescopes than at any time in the past,” but the war was already complicating the return journey. “The weather has been satisfactory, and although at times there has been difficulty in transporting plates to South Africa, because of the prior demands on shipping space for munitions destined from America to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, photographic work has not yet been interrupted. While there have been delays in making shipments from South Africa to Cambridge, no losses at sea have been incurred.” Two years later, Shapley’s 1943 report highlighted further complications. Procuring the plates was challenging enough, but with the majority of the observatory’s staff preoccupied with the war effort, storage challenges in Bloemfontein created the most urgency. In Shapley’s own words, “We are not attempting to get more plates sent home at the present time…The current South African plates are being piled up in storage awaiting two events—safe passage home, and the return of the workers who could use them.”
At some point in the following year, the situation changed, and Shapley felt comfortable enough with the projected safety of the journey to attempt a shipment back to Cambridge. The plates, much like the sailors who transported them, never made land, though the two losses weren’t equal. Shapley’s next annual report records the disaster:
“I regret to record a disaster at sea – the loss of the S.S. Robin Goodfellow with its crew and its cargo of important materials for war industries. Apparently there had been engine trouble before the ship left port, and possibly a subsequent dropping-out of a convoy. A relatively small item in the Robin Goodfellow’s cargo, but large in the eyes of the Harvard Observatory, was a shipment of astronomical photographs on the war to Cambridge from the Observatory station at Bloemfontein, South Africa. The loss was totally unexpected. The insurance rates of trans-Atlantic shipments had dropped to a very low figure, and our shipping advisors in South Africa and in America had assured us of the relatively high safety of shipments by sea. During the past several years we have made shipments once or twice annually from America to South Africa – shipments of photographic plates and of other materials necessary for the operation of the station; we have had very high insurance costs, but no losses whatsoever. For the past two years we had attempted to return shipments from South Africa. Large quantities of photographic negative are accumulating in our southern storehouse.”
Despite the backlog, the H.C.O. didn’t attempt another shipment from South Africa to Cambridge for two years. Finally in 1946, Shapley organized monthly shipments across the Atlantic to empty the overcrowded storehouses.
Today, Harvard’s stellar glass plate collection contains close to twenty-five percent of the world’s total astronomical photographic plates, weighing in at 165 tons of physical materials. The number of individual plates is close to half a million. As was the case eighty years ago, manpower presents one of the largest challenges to use, and despite more recent successes in digitization, the vast majority of the plates remain relatively unstudied.
“Astronomical Plates Lost as Ship is Sunk: News: The Harvard Crimson.” News | The Harvard Crimson, March 13, 1945. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1945/3/13/astronomical-plates-lost-as-ship-is/.
Clabby, Catherine. “A New Looking Glass: Historic Harvard Plates,” September 6, 2018. https://www.americanscientist.org/article/a-new-looking-glass-historic-harvard-plates.
Shapley, Harlow. “Ninety-Sixth Annual Report of the Director of The Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College for the Year Ending September 30, 1941.” Cambridge, MA” Harvard University Press, 1942.
Shapley, Harlow. “Ninety-Eighth Annual Report of the Director of The Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College for the Year Ending September 30, 1943.” Cambridge, MA” Harvard University Press, 1944.
Shapley, Harlow. “Ninety-Ninth Annual Report of the Director of The Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College for the Year Ending September 30, 1944.” Cambridge, MA” Harvard University Press, 1945.
Shapley, Harlow. “One Hundredth Annual Report of the Director of The Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College for the Year Ending September 30, 1945.” Cambridge, MA” Harvard University Press, 1946.