Monday, 16 April 2012

Maritime Disasters

After a full weekend of "Titanic" one could be forgiven for wanting a break from matters marine and disaster at sea. One of the things which intrigues me about the Titanic story is how many people believe it was the "worst ever" disaster at sea. It wasn't by quite a large margin, though it was, in fact, one of the best documented and publicised. She was, at the time, certainly the largest ship to be lost in an accident and she was also one of the first in which radio telegraphy played a large part. The world knew what was happening as it happened, thanks to Mr. Marconi's "wireless" telegraph.

Several earlier disasters spring to mind as being as bad and some worse. One is the ss Republic, lost in a hurricane with all hands off the Atlantic coast of the US. Her wreck was not relocated until the 1980s. Fire took a heavy toll of ships as well and the number of lives lost through storm, fire and collision when you look back at them is horrendous. One of the most notable, barely remembered now, was the ss Volturno, in 1913. The fire aboard her killed 136 of the 679 passengers and one reason she isn't much remembered is she wasn't a 'fashionable' ship. She was employed on the 'immigrant' run across the Atlantic, not the 'society' run. Luck played a large part in the survival of so many of her passengers who were saved by other ships investigating the pall of smoke from the fire.

Then, if you really want to put the numbers into perspective, you must take into account some of the wartime losses. I shall leave out the loss of life on naval vessels, there is a long list on the webiste International Registry of Sunken Ships from which I offer the following examples -

Karl Gustloff - (1945) a German Cruise Liner carrying wounded and refugees from West Prussia (Now part of Poland). The official figures are given as 6,000 - 7,000 but a recent examination of the wreck, plus accounts given by survivors and those who saw her loading,  suggests the figure may be nearer 9,000. Essentially she left port packed with refugees in such a manner that there was standing room only even below decks. No one aboard stood much chance when she was torpedoed.

Kap Arcona - (1945) another German passenger liner, her death toll is given as 5,000 - 7,000 the vast bulk of them civilians but that includes 2,300 prisoners from an evacuated concentration camp. Again, torpedoed, no one stood much chance.

Kiangya - (1948) Chinese cargo ship fleeing the Communists in 1948. Hit a mine. It is thought as many as 4,000 refugees - all civilian - went down with her.

Dona Paz - Philippine ferry. In 1987 she collided with a tanker. 4,341 went down with her, many burned in the fire that engulfed the wreck.

Estonia - Ferry carrying 987 passengers. In 1994 her bow visor was ripped away in a storm in the Baltic and she sank when her loading doors were breached. There were only 137 survivors.

La Joola - Ferry operating from Gambia. In 2002, she was overloaded and capsized in a storm. She took 1,863 with her ...

When you look at these numbers, and I've deliberately left out of them ships sunk while carrying troops and PoWs - and there are plenty of those - it puts the Titanic into a slightly different perspective.

I am not saying the Titanic's sinking wasn't a tragedy, what I am saying is that she represents a small portion of a very long list of tragedies. A reason we should never take our own cleverness for granted or presume to think we have all the answers. Yes, three of the ships on my list were sunk deliberately - or at least as a result of some offensive intent - that does not make them any less a tragedy. From 1943 to 1946 the great Cunarder liners RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic carrying up to 13,000 troops on each voyage. That rendered them, under the 'rules of war,' legitimate targets - far more legitimate than any of the three at the top of my list above.

We should remember all those lost at sea in every age. Each one was a tragedy.


  1. It's only been recently that I've heard about the Gustloff, during the run-up to the centennial.

    I tended to find the story of the Lusitania to have more poignancy then the Titanic.

    1. Indeed, the Lusitania sank incredibly rapidly, largely because the initial torpedo hit touched off a coal dust explosion in her coal bunkers which literally tore her bottom out. She went down in about 15 minutes taking most of her people with her.