Passenger Ship Disasters - Part 6

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U-155, one of the largest surrendered U-boats


This series of articles provides a listing of all major passenger ships that have been lost in service. For comparison, there are also articles covering some the most significant losses of smaller passenger vessels and ferries. The articles also provide commentary on some of the most significant incidents.

For practical and technical reasons, the Articles are presented in the following parts: -

  • Part 1. Definitions and the Development of International Passenger Ship Regulations
  • Part 2. Fire
  • Part 3. Collision,
  • Part 4. Other Navigational Error
  • Part 5. Structural Failure and Foundered
  • Part 6. Hostilities – World War 1 and the Spanish Civil War
  • Part 7. Hostilities – World War 2
  • Part 8. Ship Safety Analysis – Passenger vessels over 10,000 GRT
  • Part 9. Some smaller passenger vessel losses
  • Part 10. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in European Waters
  • Part 11. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in USA, Canada & Australasia
  • Part 12. Some losses of ferries below 10,000 GRT in South East Asia & Africa

Hostilities – World War 1 and the Spanish Civil War[edit]

This category includes all large passenger ships that have been lost as a result of hostilities during the First World War and the Spanish Civil War. It excludes passenger ships that were lost during these wars from causes other than hostilities. It also excludes passenger ships that were lost after they had been converted into armed merchant cruisers or other types of vessel. It does however include passenger ships acting as troop ships and hospital ships.

World War 1[edit]

The First World War was the first major industrialised war, with mass-produced slaughter. As in previous wars, Britain and its allies used naval strength to blockade their European enemies. During the first year of the war Britain eliminated the German naval units that had been overseas at the outbreak of war, although auxiliary commerce raiders continued to have a nuisance value. During that year, considerable uncertainty existed over the true potential of the new weapon; the submarine. The implications in international law of waging unrestricted war on merchantmen proved to be both controversial and complex.

The German submarine campaign was a stop-start affair: -

  • February 1915: Germany declared British waters to be a war zone and began a submarine campaign against merchant ships.
  • June 1915: U-boats began operations from the Adriatic, attacking merchantmen in the Mediterranean.
  • September 1915: As a result of US protests, unrestricted German submarine warfare was called off in the Atlantic War Zone, although continuing in the Mediterranean. In the Atlantic, ships were stopped and searched before being sunk.
  • February 1916: Resumption of unlimited U-boat attacks in the war zone around the British Isles.
  • April 1916: USA protested again following the sinking of the cross-channel ferry Sussex and the U-boat war was again abandoned.
  • During 1916, Germany greatly increased its U-boat construction programme
  • January 1917: Germany again announced resumption of unlimited U-boat warfare
  • April 1917: USA declared war on Germany
  • June 1917: Germany began U-boat operations off the US east coast.
  • Summer 1917: German U-boat successes brought Britain to the verge of defeat
  • September 1917: Britain adopted the convoy system and German dominance began to wane
  • Britain and America laid huge minefields between Scotland and Norway, in the English Channel and the Straits of Otranto to hinder U-boat operations.

During the war U-boats directly sank passenger vessels using torpedoes and remotely by laying mines. Smaller vessels were often sunk by gunfire. The Central Powers sank a total of 12,467,626 GRT of Allied Shipping. Germany placed 343 U-boats in commission during the war, of which 134 were lost. The Austro-Hungarian Navy commissioned 27 submarines, some of which were transferred German U-boats.

Large Passenger Ships sunk in World War 1

Lost Name when Lost Name when Built Owner when Lost Built GRT Casualties
1914 Vandyke Vandyke Lamport & Holt 1911 10,328 0
1915 Lusitania Lusitania Cunard 1907 31,550 1,198
1915 Royal Edward Cairo Canadian Northern 1908 10,864 935
1915 Arabic Arabic White Star 1903 15,801 44
1915 Hisperian Hisperian Allen 1908 10,920 32
1915 Yasaka Maru Yasaka Maru NYK 1914 10,392 0
1916 Cymric Cymric White Star 1898 12,552 5
1916 Provence II La Provence CGT 1906 13,763 930
1916 Minneapolis Minneapolis Atlantic Transport 1900 13,401 12
1916 Minnewaska Minnewaska Atlantic Transport 1900 14,317 44
1916 Maloja Maloja P&O 1910 12,431 122
1916 Franconia Franconia Cunard 1911 18,150 12
1916 Alaunia Alaunia Cunard 1913 13,402 2
1916 Gallia Gallia Cia Sudatlantique 1913 14,966 600
1916 Turbantia Turbantia Royal Holland Lloyd 1914 13,911 0
1916 Britannic Britannic White Star 1915 48,158 30
1917 Ultonia Ultonia Cunard 1898 10,402 1
1917 Afric Afric White Star 1899 11,948 22
1917 Devonian Devonian Leyland 1900 10,418 2
1917 Ivernia Ivernia Cunard 1900 14,278 36
1917 Minnehaha Minnehaha Atlantic Transport 1900 31,403 43
1917 Southland Vaderland White Star 1900 12,108 4
1917 Laurentic Laurentic White Star 1909 14,892 354
1917 Rotorua Rotorua NZSN 1910 11,130 1
1917 Medina Medina P&O 1911 12,350 6
1917 Cameronia Cameronia Anchor 1911 10,963 210
1917 Ballarat Ballarat P&O 1911 11,120 0
1917 Port Adelaide Indrapura Port Line 1911 10,286 0
1917 Port Nicholson Makarini Port Line 1912 10,624 2
1917 Laconia Laconia Cunard 1912 18,099 12
1917 Drina Drina RMSP 1913 11,483 15
1917 Transylvania Transylvania Anchor 1914 14,315 413
1917 Athos Athos Messageries Maritimes 1915 12,692 754
1918 Minnetonka Minnetonka Atlantic Transport 1902 13,398 4
1918 Carpathia Carpathia Cunard 1903 13,564 5
1918 Marmora Marmora P&O 1903 10,509 10
1918 President Lincoln Scotian USN 1903 18,168 26
1918 Amazon Amazon RMSP 1906 10,037 0
1918 Covington Cincinnati USN 1909 16,339 9
1918 Andania Andania Cunard 1913 13,405 7
1918 Calgarian Calgarian Allen 1914 17,521 49
1918 Llandovery Castle Llandovery Castle Union-Castle 1914 11,423 234
1918 Missababie Missababie Canadian Pacific 1914 12,469 45
1918 Tuscania Tuscania Anchor 1915 14,318 166
1918 Justica Statendam White Star 1917 32,324 10
1918 Aurania Aurania Cunard 1917 13,936 8

Note: Ships are grouped in the above table by the year of their loss; they are not arranged in chronological order of sinking within each year.

Some Large Passenger Ships sunk in World War 1[edit]


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Photo 1: The Lamport & Holt liner Vandyck was a sister of Vestris, details of which are provided in Part 5 of these articles

The Lamport & Holt liner Vandyke was the only large passenger ship to succumb to the German Navy’s surface ships that were at sea at the outbreak of war. Vandyke was on passage on her regular service from Buenos Aires to New York, when she was intercepted near St Paul’s Rocks, off the Brazilian coast, by the light cruiser SMS Karlsrühe on 26 October 1914.

Karlsrühe was completed in January 1914 and her first posting was to the Caribbean, where she was due to represent Germany at the opening of the Panama Canal. She evaded British warships and linked up with coaling ships to begin operations off the Brazilian coast.

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Photo 2: SMS Karlsrühe was built by Krupp’s Germania shipyard in Kiel. She had a design displacement of 4,900 tons, 6,191 tons deep load; was 466 feet 6 inches LOA, with a beam of 45 feet. Twin screw, powered by Navy steam turbines producing 26,000 shp, providing a maximum speed of 27 knots. Armament consisted of twelve 4.1 inch guns, two 19.7 inch submerged torpedo tubes and 120 mines. Her complement was 373.

The capture of Vandyke presented the small German force with considerable logistical problems, as the liner was carrying 410 passengers and crew. These were all transferred to the 4,600 ton supply ship Asuncion (Hamburg Sud-Amerika), which already had 51 crew members from previously captured ships aboard, plus her own crew of 50. Food and other supplies were transferred from Vandyke, before the British liner was sunk on 27 October 1914, using explosive charges. Asuncion then sailed to Para to land all of the captives. The German crew were as hospitable as possible, giving up their cabins for use by the female passengers.

Karlsrühe sailed towards Barbados, but on 4 November she suffered a massive internal explosion, which blew the bow off the ship and she sank within half an hour. The German supply ships Rio Negro and Indrani-Hoffnung arrived on the scene and rescued 129 survivors. All were transferred to Rio Negro, which succeeded in evading the British blockade and returned to Germany.


The early years of the Twentieth Century was a period of considerable financial turmoil in the transatlantic passenger trade. For the first time, Germany introduced a series of speed record winners and the American railroad owner J Pierpont Morgan decided to acquire control of as many as possible of the major transatlantic shipping lines, through his International Mercantile Marine Company (IMMC), in an attempt to control the pricing of transatlantic emigrant travel to the USA. To this day very little is known about the details of the formation of IMMC, but by 1901 Lord Pirrie of the shipbuilders Harland & Wolff was Morgan’s authorised negotiator and the main contractual arrangements were signed on 4 February 1902. The major wholly owned companies were American, Atlantic Transport, Dominion, Leyland, Red Star and White Star. Hamburg Amerika and Norddeutscher Lloyd were independent partners and Holland America was jointly controlled. The final and essential participant for the success of the venture was Cunard, but it refused to join the party. Pirrie felt that Cunard would be obliged to join the scheme in order to survive. He totally failed to foresee the outraged reaction of the British public to the scheme. There were wild fears that the British merchant marine was being taken over by American/international finance/Imperial German/Jewish interests. Lord Inverclyde of Cunard was able to exploit the public reaction to make the British Government finance two new express liners – Lusitania and Mauretania.

Lusitania departed Liverpool for her maiden voyage on 7 September 1907. At the time she was the largest ocean liner in service and would continue to be so until the introduction of the Mauretania in November that year. During her eight-year service, she made a total of 202 crossings on the Cunard Line's Liverpool-New York route.

In October 1907 Lusitania took the Blue Riband for eastbound crossing from Kaiser Wilhelm II of North German Lloyd, ending Germany's ten-year dominance of the Atlantic. Lusitania averaged 23.99 knots westbound and 23.61 knots eastbound. With the introduction of Mauretania in November 1907, Lusitania and Mauretania continued to swap the Blue Riband. Lusitania made her fastest westbound crossing in 1909, averaging 25.85 knots. In September of that same year, she lost it permanently to Mauretania.

Lusitania and Mauretania were smaller and significantly faster than the White Star Line’s Olympic-class vessels. Both vessels had been launched and had been in service for several years before the Olympic-class ships were ready for the North Atlantic. Unlike the White Star vessels, Cunard's Lusitania had longitudinal bulkheads running along the ship, outboard of the entire length of the boiler and engine rooms, with her coal bunkers on the outside of the vessel. In this area the ship’s transverse bulkheads were only fitted between the longitudinal bulkheads. The British commission investigating the Titanic disaster in 1912, heard testimony on the possible consequences of flooding of coal bunkers lying outside longitudinal bulkheads. Being of considerable length, when flooded these could increase the ship's list and "make the lowering of the boats on the other side impracticable.”

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Photo 3: Lusitania measured 31,550 GRT; 790 feet LOA, 762 feet 3 inches BP, with a beam of 87 feet 10 inches. Quadruple screw, powered by four Parson’s direct acting steam turbines (two high pressure and two low pressure), producing 68,000 SHP, providing a service speed of 25 knots. She had accommodation for 563 first class, 464 second class and 1,138 third class passengers, plus 802 crew.

When the Lusitania was built, her construction and operating expenses were subsidised by the British government, on the basis that she could, if needed, be converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser. At the outbreak of World War I, the British Admiralty considered her for requisition and she was put on the official list of AMCs. The Admiralty then cancelled their earlier decision, after deciding not to use any very large liners as an AMC because of their heavy coal requirements. They were also very distinctive; smaller liners were more practical and were used instead. Lusitania remained on the official AMC list however and was shown in the 1914 edition of Jane's All the World's Fighting Ships, along with all the liners in the world that were capable of a speed of 18 knots or over.

Many of the large liners were used as troop transports, or as hospital ships, in connection with the Dardanelles campaign. Lusitania continued in her Cunard service as a luxury liner operating between Great Britain and the United States. To reduce operating costs, Lusitania's transatlantic crossings were reduced to monthly voyages and boiler room Number 4 was shut down. Maximum speed was now reduced to 21 knots, but even so, Lusitania was the fastest passenger liner in transatlantic commercial service and she was 10 knots faster than submarines.

On 4 February 1915 Germany declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone: from 18 February Allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning. A group of German–Americans, hoping to avoid controversy if passenger ships were attacked by a U-boat, discussed their concerns with a representative of the German embassy. The Imperial German embassy decided to warn passengers by placing the following advertisement in 50 American newspapers, including those in New York: -

TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.

This warning was printed next to a Cunard sailing dates notice that included Lusitania's return voyage. The warning led to some agitation in the press and worried the ship's passengers and crew.

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Photo 4: Lusitania at the Cunard pier in New York

Lusitania departed Pier 54 in New York on 1st May 1915. She carried 1,959 people on her last voyage; 1,257 passengers (including 440 women and 129 children) and 702 crew. Her cargo included an estimated 4,200,000 rounds of rifle cartridges, 1,250 empty shell cases, and 18 cases of non-explosive fuses, all of which were listed in her manifest. However, these munitions were classed as small-arms ammunition, were non-explosive in bulk, and were clearly marked as such. It was perfectly legal under American shipping regulations for her to carry these.

As the liner steamed across the Atlantic, the British Admiralty was using wireless intercepts to track the movements of U-20, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger. She had been operating along the west coast of Ireland, but was now moving south.

On 5 and 6 May U-20 sank three vessels in the area of Fastnet Rock, Lusitania’s intended landfall. The Royal Navy sent a warning to all British ships: "Submarines active off the south coast of Ireland". Captain Turner of Lusitania was given the message twice on the evening of 6 February. He closed watertight doors, posted double lookouts, ordered a black-out, and had the lifeboats swung out on their davits so that they could be launched quickly if necessary. At about 11:00 on 7 May, the Admiralty radioed another warning. Turner adjusted his heading northeast; thinking submarines would be more likely to keep to the open sea and that Lusitania would be safer close to land.

U-20 was low on fuel, with only one torpedo left when Schwieger decided to return to base. The submarine was moving at top speed on the surface at 13:00 when a lookout spotted a vessel on the horizon not more than 800 metres away. Schweiger ordered U-20 to dive and to take battle stations. Lusitania was approximately 30 miles from Cape Clear Island when she encountered fog and reduced speed to 18 knots. She was making for Queenstown, Ireland, 43 miles from the Old Head of Kinsale when the liner crossed the bows of U-20 at 14:10 and the submarine fired her single torpedo. In Schweiger's own words, recorded in the log of U-20:

Torpedo hits starboard side right behind the bridge. An unusually heavy explosion takes place with a very strong explosive cloud. The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one [boiler or coal or powder?]... The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard very quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow...

The second explosion led the British to believe that Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes. This is almost certainly untrue. Lusitania's wireless operator sent out an immediate SOS and Captain Turner gave the order to abandon ship. Water flooded the ship's starboard longitudinal compartments, causing a 15-degree list to starboard. Captain Turner tried turning the ship toward the Irish coast in the hope of beaching her, but the helm would not respond as the torpedo had knocked out the steam lines to the steering motor. Meanwhile, the ship's propellers continued to drive the ship at 18 knots, forcing more water into her hull.

Within six minutes, Lusitania's forecastle began to submerge. Lusitania's severe starboard list complicated the launch of her lifeboats. Ten minutes after being torpedoed, it was thought that she had slowed enough to start putting boats in the water, but the lifeboats on the starboard side had swung out too far to board safely. While it was still possible to board the lifeboats on the port side, when they were were lowered they dragged on the hull plating’s rivet heads, often seriously damaging the boats before they landed in the sea. Many lifeboats overturned while loading or lowering, spilling passengers into the sea; others were overturned by the ship's continuing forward motion when they hit the water. Crewmen lost their grip on the falls while trying to lower the boats from the wildly sloping deck, spilling passengers into the sea. Lusitania had 48 lifeboats, more than enough for all the crew and passengers, but in the chaos on board the liner only six were successfully lowered, all from the starboard side. A few of her collapsible lifeboats washed off her decks as she sank and provided refuge for some of those in the water.

Lusitania sank in 18 minutes, 8 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale. In total 1,198 people died with her, including almost a hundred children. Afterwards, the Cunard line offered local fishermen and sea merchants a cash reward for the bodies floating throughout the Irish Sea, some floating as far away as the Welsh coast. In all, only 289 bodies were recovered, 65 of which were never identified.

On 8 May the German government issued an official communication on the sinking in which it said that the Cunard liner Lusitania "was yesterday torpedoed by a German submarine and sank", that the Lusitania "was naturally armed with guns, as were recently most of the English mercantile steamers" and that "as is well known here, she had large quantities of war material in her cargo". Dudley Field Malone, Collector of the Port of New York, issued an official denial to the German charges, saying that Lusitania had been inspected before her departure and no guns were found, mounted or unmounted. Malone stated that no merchant ship would have been allowed to arm itself in the Port and leave the harbour. Assistant Manager of the Cunard Line, Herman Winter, denied the charge that she carried munitions.

The sinking of Lusitania had world-wide repercussions. Of the 139 US citizens aboard the Lusitania, 128 lost their lives, and there was massive outrage in Britain and America, however US President Woodrow Wilson refused to over-react. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan urged compromise and restraint. The US, he believed, should try to persuade the British to abandon their naval blockade of foodstuffs and limit their mine-laying operations at the same time as the Germans were persuaded to curtail their submarine campaign. He also suggested that the US government issue an explicit warning against US citizens travelling on any belligerent ships. Despite being sympathetic to Bryan's antiwar feelings, Wilson insisted that the German government must apologise for the sinking, compensate US victims, and promise to avoid any similar occurrence in the future. He made his position clear in three notes to the German government issued on 13 May, 9 June, and 21 July.

The first note affirmed the right of Americans to travel as passengers on merchant ships and called for the Germans to abandon submarine warfare against commercial vessels, whatever flag they sailed under. In the second note Wilson rejected the German arguments that the British blockade was illegal, that the blockade was a cruel and deadly attack on innocent civilians and also the German charge that the Lusitania had been carrying munitions. William Jennings Bryan considered Wilson's second note too provocative and resigned in protest after failing to moderate it, to be replaced by his second-in-command, Robert Lansing. The third note, of 21 July, issued an ultimatum that the US would regard any subsequent sinkings as "deliberately unfriendly".

While the American public and leadership were not ready for war, the path to an eventual declaration of war was set by the sinking of Lusitania. On 19 August U-24 sank the White Star liner Arabic, with the loss of 44 passengers and crew, three of whom were American. (See below) The German government, while insisting on the legitimacy of its campaign against Allied shipping, disapproved of the sinking of Arabic; it offered an indemnity and pledged to order submarine commanders to abandon unannounced attacks on merchant and passenger vessels.

The German public was shocked by the news of the sinking of Lusitania and only a minority believed that it was a proper action. When it was revealed that passengers had been warned not to travel on the ship, this information removed any doubt in their minds that the Lusitania had been singled out for attack and caused a loss of public confidence in the German government. The sinking was severely criticized by Germany's allies, Austria and Hungary, and met with disapproval in Turkey, while the sinking was deplored in some of the German press.

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg persuaded the Kaiser to forbid action against ships flying neutral flags and the U-boat war was postponed once again on 27 August, as it was realised that British ships could easily fly neutral flags. There was disagreement over this move between the navy's admirals (headed by Alfred von Tirpitz) and Bethman-Hollweg. The Kaiser decided in favour of the Chancellor, backed by Army Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn. Tirpitz and the head of the admiralty backed down. The German restriction order of 9 September 1915 stated that attacks were only allowed on ships that were definitely British, while neutral ships were to be treated under the Prize Law rules, and no attacks on passenger liners were to be permitted at all. The war situation demanded that there could be no possibility of orders being misinterpreted and on 18 September Henning von Holtzendorff, the new head of the German Admiralty, issued a secret order: all U-boats operating in the English Channel and off the west coast of the United Kingdom were recalled and the U-boat war would continue only in the North sea, where it would be conducted under the Prize Law rules.

The formal Board of Trade investigation into the sinking was presided over by Wreck Commissioner, Lord Mersey. Some of its sessions were public, but two of the hearings took place behind closed doors. The full report has never been made available to the public, and it is thought that the only surviving copy is in Lord Mersey's private papers.

It was during the closed hearings that the Admiralty tried to lay the blame on Captain Turner, their intended line being that Turner had been negligent. Lord Mersey realised that evidence had been falsified by the Admiralty and refused to proceed. The inquiry was adjourned, and Lord Mersey asked all the assessors to give him their separate opinions in sealed envelopes, only Admiral Sir Frederick Inglefield returning a guilty verdict against Captain Turner. Inglefield had previously been briefed by the Board of the Admiralty and instructed to find Turner guilty of "treasonable behaviour".

Captain Turner, the Cunard Company, and the Royal Navy were absolved of any negligence, and all blame was placed on the German government. Lord Mersey found that Turner "exercised his judgement for the best" and that the blame for the disaster "must rest solely with those who plotted and with those who committed the crime". Two days after he closed the inquiry, Lord Mersey waived his fees for the case and formally resigned. His last words on the subject were: "The Lusitania case was a damned, dirty business!"

The rifle cartridges carried by Lusitania were mentioned during the case, Lord Mersey stating that "the 5,000 cases of ammunition on board were 50 yards away from where the torpedo struck the ship".

The tragedy has of course given rise to many unsubstantiated theories, most of which suggest that the second explosion was caused by Lusitania secretly carrying high explosives. More recently, marine forensic investigators have become convinced an explosion in the ship's steam-generating plant is a far more plausible explanation for the second explosion. The original torpedo damage alone, striking the ship on the starboard coal bunker of boiler room No. 1, would probably have sunk the ship without a second explosion. This first blast was enough to cause, serious off-centre flooding, although the sinking would possibly have been slower. The deficiencies of the ship's original watertight bulkhead design exacerbated the situation, as did the many portholes which had been left open for ventilation.


Arabic was originally ordered by Atlantic Transport Line from Harland & Wolff as Minnewaska , but following the incorporation of International Mercantile Marine Company, she was transferred before completion to the White Star Line as the Arabic. She was extensively modified to provide additional accommodation before entering service in 1903. She spent most of her working life on the Liverpool, Queenstown and New York route, occasionally sailing on the Liverpool to Boston service.

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Photo 5: Arabic measured 15,801 GRT; 616 feet LOA; 65 feet 6 inches beam. Twin screw, powered by 2 four-cylinder quadruple expansion steam engines, producing 10,000 IHP, providing a service speed of 16 knots. She had accommodation for 200 first class, 20 second class and 1,000 third class passengers.

On 19 August 1915 Arabic, was outward bound for America when she arrived into the patrol area of U-24, 50 miles south of Kinsale. Arabic was zigzagging at the time, and the commander of U-24 said that he thought she was trying to ram his submarine. He fired a single torpedo which struck the liner aft, and she sank within 10 minutes, with the loss of 44 passengers and crew, including 3 American passengers. On 22 August US President Wilson's press officer announced that the White House staff was considering the US Government’s reaction, if the Arabic investigation indicated that there had been a deliberate German attack. If true, there was speculation that the US would sever relations with Germany, while if it was untrue, negotiations were possible.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Lansing approved Assistant Secretary Chandler Anderson's suggestion for a meeting with German Ambassador to explain informally that if Germany abandoned submarine warfare, Britain would be the only violator of American neutral shipping rights. Anderson met the Ambassador, who immediately recognized the advantage of making Britain’s blockade of Germany illegal under American law.

Following the Arabic incident, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow decided to disclose to the Americans the secret orders of 1 June and 5 June, which instructed submarine commanders not to torpedo passenger ships without notice and to allow provisions for the safety of passengers and crew. On 25 August Bethmann-Hollweg informed US Ambassador accordingly.

As mentioned above in the Lusitania history, Bethmann-Hollweg and von Jagow also sought the Kaiser's approval to spare all passenger ships from submarine attack. This proposal angered the German admiralty and Alfred von Tirpitz offered his resignation as Naval Secretary. The Kaiser rejected Tirpitz's offer, but he supported Bethmann and on 28 August the Chancellor issued new orders to submarine commanders and relayed them to Washington. These new orders stated that until further notice, passenger ships in the Atlantic could only be sunk after warning and the saving the passengers and crew.

Passenger ships sunk in the Mediterranean[edit]

The German orders issued as a result of the American losses suffered in the sinking of Lusitania and Arabia produced a lull in passenger ship sinkings in the Atlantic and around the British Isles, until the U-boat campaign was resumed in 1917. There were still some losses in these areas; Arabia was sunk contrary to the initial orders, but most of the other ships became victims of mines. There was no respite in the Mediterranean however, where the unrestricted U-boat campaign continued unabated, using both torpedoes and mines. Of the ships listed in the main World War 1 losses table above, the following ships were sunk in the Mediterranean: -

  • Royal Edward
  • Yasaka Maru
  • Provence II
  • Minneapolis
  • Franconia
  • Gallia
  • Britannic
  • Ivernia
  • Cameronia
  • Transylvania
  • Athos
  • Minnetonka

In total, over 3,927 lives were lost when these were ships were sunk. There is some uncertainty as to the total lives lost in the sinking of the French troopship Gallia.

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Photo 6: The Canadian Northern’s Royal Edward was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine UB-14 on 14 August 1915 with the loss of 935 lives.

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Photo 7: The Cia Sudatlantique liner Gallia was packed with Italian troops when she was torpedoed and sunk off Sardinia by the German submarine U35, with the loss of over 600 lives

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Photo 8: Anchor Line’s Transylvania was torpedoed and sunk in the Gulf of Genoa, by the German submarine U63 on 4 May 1917, with the loss of 413 lives.


White Star’s Britannic is one of the ships on the above list of Mediterranean war losses. She was the third and largest of the Olympic Class of transatlantic liners. Following the loss of the Titanic and the subsequent inquiries, several design changes were made during the building of Britannic. The main alterations included the introduction of a double hull along the engine and boiler rooms and raising six out of the 15 watertight bulkheads up to 'B' Deck. A more obvious external change was the fitting of large crane-like davits, each capable of holding six lifeboats. Additional lifeboats could be stored on the deckhouse roof, within reach of the davits and in an emergency the davits could even reach lifeboats on the other side of the vessel. The aim of this feature was to enable all the lifeboats to be launched, even if the ship developed a list that would normally prevent lifeboats being launched on the side opposite to the list. Britannic's hull was also 2 feet (0.61 m) wider than her predecessors, helping to raise her tonnage to 48,158 GRT and she was provided with a more powerful exhaust turbine to maintain a 21 knot service speed.

Britannic was launched by Harland and Wolff, Belfast on 26 February 1914 and was still fitting out when World War I began. Immediately, those shipyards with Admiralty contracts were given top priority for available shipbuilding materials. All civil contracts were slowed down. White Star withdrew Olympic from service and she returned to Belfast on 3 November 1914, while work on her sister continued slowly.

In May 1915, Britannic completed mooring trials of her engines, and was laid-up at Belfast; the same month as Lusitania was torpedoed. (See above) The following month, the British Admiralty began to requisition passenger liners as troop transports for the Gallipoli campaign and Olympic began trooping duties in September. As the casualties mounted during the disastrous Gallipoli landings, the need for large hospital ships for treatment and evacuation of wounded became evident. On 13 November 1915, Britannic was requisitioned from lay-up as a hospital ship. Repainted white with large red crosses and a horizontal green stripe, she was became HMHS (His Majesty's Hospital Ship) Britannic and placed under the command of Captain Charles A. Bartlett.

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Photo 9: HMHS Britannic, the last of the White Star Olympic Class mega-liners

After completing five successful round voyages to the Middle Eastern theatre, transporting the sick and wounded back to the United Kingdom on the return leg, Britannic departed Southampton again on 12 November 1916 bound for Limnos. She arrived at Naples on the morning of 17 November for her usual coaling and water refuelling stop, completing the first stage of her mission.

After being delayed by a storm Britannic, left Naples and by next morning the storms died, allowing the ship to pass through the Strait of Messina without problems and Cape Mattapan was rounded during the early hours of 21 November. By the morning Britannic was steaming at full speed into the Kea Channel, between Cape Sounion and the island of Kea. At 08:12 a loud explosion shook the ship; Britannic had struck a mine laid by U-73. The mine exploded on the starboard side of the vessel between holds two and three, but its force also damaged the watertight bulkhead between hold one and the forepeak. As a result the first four watertight compartments were rapidly filling with water. To make things worse, the firemen's tunnel connecting the firemen's quarters in the bow with boiler room six and its protecting watertight doors had both been seriously damaged allowing water unrestricted access to that boiler room.

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Photo 10: A Harland & Wolff mechanically operated watertight door. The horizontal bar across the opening is a temporary strengthening piece, which was removed when the door was fitted in the ship.

Captain Bartlett and Chief Officer Hume were on the bridge at the time of the explosion and Bartlett ordered the closure of the watertight doors, the sending of a distress signal and the preparation of the lifeboats. Unfortunately in addition to the damaged watertight doors of the firemen's tunnel, the watertight door between boiler rooms six and five also failed to close properly for an unknown reason. Water was now flowing further aft into boiler room five. Britannic had reached her damage stability limit. She could stay afloat (motionless) with her first six watertight compartments flooded and had five watertight bulkheads rising all the way up to B-deck. Those measures were taken after the Titanic disaster (Titanic could float with her first four compartments flooded but the bulkheads only rose as high as E-deck). The next crucial bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four and its door were undamaged and should have ensured the survival of the ship, were it not for the fact that the nurses had opened most of the lower deck portholes to ventilate the wards. As the ship settled by the head and its list increased, water reached the level of the open portholes and began to enter the ship aft of the bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four. With more than six compartments flooded, Britannic could not stay afloat.

Captain Bartlett tried to save his vessel by running her ashore on Kea, about three miles away. The ship was only sluggishly responding to the helm, but by steering with the propellers Britannic slowly started to turn. Simultaneously, on the boat deck the crew were preparing the lifeboats. While most of the sailors remained at their posts until the last moment, other crew members, mostly stewards and stokers, behaved badly. A number of boats were seized by these panic stricken men and lowered without authority while the ship was moving. Two of these lifeboats were released too soon, dropped some 6 feet into the water and hit the water violently. The two lifeboats then drifted into the ship’s still-turning propellers, which were now only partially submerged. Both lifeboats, together with their occupants, were smashed to pieces by the propeller blades. When Captain Bartlett received word of the massacre he gave the order to stop the engines, realising that water was entering the ship more rapidly because Britannic was moving and knowing that there was a risk of more panic stricken victims.

The Captain officially ordered the crew to lower the boats and at 08:35 he gave the order to abandon ship. Working rapidly, with great skill and determination, the officers and men of Britannic succeeded in launching sufficient lifeboats, plus a motor launch to rescue almost all of those that were still on board. The forward set of port side davits soon became useless. By 08:45, the list to starboard was so great that no davits were operable. Nevertheless they still managed to throw collapsible boats into the water and even manhandled a final lifeboat off the deck at the very last moment. At 09:00, Bartlett sounded one last blast on the whistle then just walked into the water, which had already reached the bridge. He swam to a collapsible boat and began to co-ordinate the rescue operations. The whistle blast was the final signal for the ship's engineers (commanded by Chief Engineer Robert Fleming) who, like their heroic colleagues on the Titanic, had remained at their posts until the last possible moment. They escaped via a staircase into the ship’s fourth funnel, which was a dummy that ventilated the engine room. Britannic rolled over onto her starboard side and sank at 09:07, only fifty-five minutes after the explosion. She was the largest ship lost during World War I.

Greek fishermen were first on the scene and began rescuing people from the water. At 10:00, HMS Scourge sighted the first lifeboats and ten minutes later stopped and picked up 339 survivors. HMS Heroic had arrived in the area some minutes earlier and picked up 494. Many survivors arrived at the small port of Korissia on Kea. The destroyer HMS Foxhound, the light cruiser HMS Foresight and the French tug Goliath all joined the rescue effort and as a result of their combined efforts 1,036 people were saved. Thirty men lost their lives in the disaster but only five were buried, the remainder were never found; most having died when their panic driven, blind rush to escape led them into the path of Britannic’s turning propeller.

Llandovery Castle[edit]

By 1918 the U-boat war was moving firmly in favour of the Allies and the Germans were becoming more and more desperate. Probably their greatest atrocity was the sinking of the Canadian Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle, by the German submarine U-86, on 27 June, 1918.

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Photo 11: Llandovery Castle measured 11,423 GRT; 517 feet LOA; 63 feet 4 inches beam. Twin screw, powered by 2 four-cylinder quadruple expansion steam engines, producing 6,500 IHP, providing a service speed of 14 knots. As built she had accommodation for 213 first class, 116 second class and 100 third class passengers, with a crew of 250.

Llandovery Castle was delivered by Barclay, Curle & Co, Glasgow, to Union-Castle in 1914 for their East African service, but was requisitioned as a hospital ship for use by the Canadian Government. The ship had brought Canadian casualties back to Halifax, Nova Scotia and was returning to England when she was attacked. She was clearly identified as a Hospital Ship, with a brightly illuminated Red Cross, was unarmed and running with full lights. On board were her wartime crew of one hundred and sixty-four men, eighty officers and men of the Canadian Medical Corps, and fourteen nurses, a total of two hundred and fifty-eight persons.

According to the Hague Convention, an enemy vessel had the right to stop and search a Hospital Ship, but not to sink it. U-86 made no attempt to search the ship, but instead torpedoed it without warning 116 miles south-west of Fastnet at about 21:30.

Although Llandovery Castle sank within ten minutes, a number of boats were lowered successfully and the ship was abandoned in a calm and efficient manner. Captain Sylvester and ten men were the last to leave the ship by lowering a boat from the stern of the still moving vessel. Although they were still only fifty feet from Llandovery Castle when her stern went under, her boilers blew, her bow stood up in the air and she went down, their boat survived the sinking of the vessel undamaged and proceeded to rescue survivors from the water. They were interrupted by the submarine, whose captain, Helmut Patzig, threatened to fire on them unless Captain Sylvester stopped his rescue work and came alongside the U-boat. Patzig started interrogating Sylvester accusing him of the misusing the hospital ship to transport American Pilot Officers. Sylvester denied this and explained that he had only members of the Canadian Medical Staff with him. One of these, Captain Lyon, was in the boat, and he was dragged on board the submarine with such brutality that his foot was broken. He was accused of being a Flight Officer and denied it. Captain Sylvester was then asked if he had used his wireless. He replied that he had been unable to do so. Then he and Captain Lyon were allowed to return to the boat, probably owing to the intervention of the German Second Officer, John Boldt, who seemed friendly. He assisted Captain Sylvester to get into the boat, and said to him, 'Get away quickly. It will be better for you.'

The U-boat then left the Captain's boat, but after moving about for a little time, returned and again hailed it. Although its occupants pointed out that they had already been examined, the captain's boat was again obliged to come alongside the U-boat. The second and fourth officers of Llandovery Castle were taken on board the U-boat and were subjected to a thorough interrogation. The special charge brought against them was that there must have been munitions on board the ship, as the explosion when the ship went down had been a particularly violent one. They disputed this and pointed out that the violent noise was caused by the explosion of the boilers. They were again released. The U-boat went away and disappeared from sight for a time.

When no proof could be obtained, Patzig gave the command to make clear for diving and ordered the crew below deck. Patzig, two officers (First Officer Ludwig Dithmar and Boldt) and the boatswain’s mate stayed on deck. The U-boat did not dive, but started firing at and sinking the life boats, to kill all witnesses and cover up what had happened. To conceal this event, Patzig extracted promises of secrecy from the crew, and faked the course of U-86 in the logbook, so that nothing would connect U-86 with the sinking of the Llandovery Castle. The German government was unaware of the incident when it received an official protest from the British.

Captain Sylvester’s boat was the only lifeboat that survived the attack. He raised the lifeboat’s sail and made off eastwards into the gathering darkness. Shells flew over the boat without causing damage. It was picked up by the destroyer HMS Lysander on the morning of 29 June, 36 hours after the attack, after sailing and rowing 70 miles. Twenty four survivors were in the lifeboat, including six members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps. A total of 234 persons, including all 14 Nursing Sisters lost their lives.

After the war, the British initiated a War Crimes trial against the officers of U-86. The commander, Helmut Patzig could not be found and was never brought to trial. The two other officers, Ludwig Dithmar and John Boldt were tried and convicted. The men were sentenced to 4 years of hard labour, but escaped while on their way to prison.

Spanish Civil War[edit]

The Spanish Civil War was a major conflict that devastated Spain from 17 July 1936 to 1 April 1939. It began after an attempted coup d'état by a group of Spanish Army generals against the extreme left-wing politicians who had seized control of the Second Spanish Republic. The nationalist insurgency was supported by the conservative Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas, or C.E.D.A), Carlist groups, and the Fascistic Falange (Falange Española de las J.O.N.S.). The war ended with the victory of the rebel forces, the overthrow of the Republican government, and the founding of a dictatorship led by General Francisco Franco.

Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union and Mexico, while the Nationalists followers of the rebellion received the support of Italy and Germany, as well as neighbouring Portugal. Although the United States was officially neutral, major American corporations such as Texaco, General Motors, Ford Motors and Firestone greatly assisted the Nationalist rebels with their constant supply of trucks, tires, machine tools and fuel.

The Soviet Union primarily provided material assistance to the Republican forces. In total USSR provided Spain with 806 planes, 362 tanks, and 1,555 artillery pieces. The Soviet Union ignored the League of Nations embargo and sold arms to the Republic, when few other nations would do so; thus it was the Republic's only important source of major weapons. Stalin had signed the Non-Intervention Agreement but decided to break the pact. However, unlike Hitler and Mussolini who openly violated the pact, Stalin tried to do so secretly. He created a Section X in the Soviet Union military to head the activity, coined Operation X. The Republic had to pay for Soviet arms with the official gold reserves of the Bank of Spain, in an affair that would become a frequent subject of Francoist propaganda afterwards.

The war increased international tensions in Europe in the lead-up to World War 2, and was largely seen as a proxy war between Communist Soviet Union and Fascist Italy & Nazi Germany. In particular, new tank warfare tactics and the terror bombing of cities from the air, were features of the Spanish war which played a significant part in the later general European war.

Cabo Santo Tomé[edit]

The transportation of Soviet weapons to the Republicans was a very complicated clandestine affair, with both the southern route from the Crimea and the northern route from the Baltic involving the delivery vessels passing through choke points where they could be identified and reported to Nationalist naval forces. The Italian navy also became involved, forcing the abandonment of the southern route after 1937. The ships usually changed names and flag at some stage during the voyage and often erected fake structures to disguise their appearance.

Not only was the vessel's appearance changed, but the crew itself was also often disguised. On one journey the effect sought was of a vessel emerging from the Indian subcontinent: the watch and sailors on deck were outfitted in tropical garb, including a typical Indian marine helmet. Other boats mimicked British leisure cruises; sailors donned fancy evening-wear and slowly strolled around the decks. In a report to Soviet naval command, V. A. Alafusov, the captain of Cabo Santo Tomé, described such a trip in early April 1937, during which well-dressed tourists conversed pleasantly on deck. "Who would imagine," he mused, "that this is the missing transport packed tight with bombers and missiles?"

Cabo Santo Tomé left Odessa on 5 October 1937, disguised as the P&O liner Corfu and flying a British flag. She was carrying a cargo of aeroplanes and munitions. This time the ruse failed and on 10 October she was intercepted by the Republican warships Eduardo Dato and Canovas del Castillo off the Algerian coast, shelled and set on fire. One member of the crew was killed by gunfire and six wounded. She attempted to reach Bône but failed to reach port and anchored 400 yards off shore, where the crew took to the boats. The vessel sank soon afterwards following an internal explosion.

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Photo 12:Cabo San Agustin, the identical sister ship of Cabo Santo Tomé. Both were built by Soc Española Construccion Naval, Bilbao and delivered in 1931 to Ybarra y Cia. As built they were 11,868 GRT; 500 feet long, with a beam of 63 feet 4 inches. Twin screw, powered by MAN diesel engines, producing 9,200 bhp, providing a service speed of 16 knots. They originally had accommodation for 12 second class and 500 third class passengers, with a crew of 250.

Cabo San Agustin was also engaged in Operation X deliveries and was in the Soviet Union in 1939 when the Republicans capitulated. Cabo San Agustin was seized by the Soviet authorities and became the Soviet ship Dnepr. She was in turn sunk in 1941 as recorded in Part 7.



In 1913 Compañía Trasatlántica Española took delivery of two British built passenger liners; Reina Victoria Eugenia built by Swan Hunter and Infanta Isabel de Borbon by Denny. Although the ships had identical dimensions and external appearance, the Swan Hunter ship was quadruple screw, while the Denny ship was triple screw. The two ships were mainly employed on the company’s Spain – Cuba – Mexico services; they also made occasional voyages to New York.

After World War 1 the two sister ships were generally used on the Spain – South America route. Following the abdication of King Alfonso XIII in 1931, the two ships were renamed Argentina and Uruguay respectively. After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936, the two ships were laid-up in Barcelona, but in January 1939 both were sunk in nationalist air raids on the port. They were subsequently raised, but neither returned to service and they were both scrapped. The liners Argentina and Uruguay have the unfortunate distinction of being the first large passenger vessels to be sunk by aircraft. Sadly many more liners soon met the same fate.

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Photo 13: Reina Victoria Eugenia carrying World War 1 neutrality hull markings


A complete Bibliography for all of these Articles is given at the end of Part 12.


Many of the photographs used to illustrate this article are from the Ships Nostalgia Galleries, which are available for use in the Directory. Others are from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain. The individual photographs used in Part 6 have been provided as follows: -

Frontispiece - Wikimedia

  1. Ships Nostalgia – linerrich
  2. Wikimedia
  3. Ships Nostalgia – Marconi Sahib
  4. Wikimedia
  5. Ships Nostalgia – Marconi Sahib
  6. Ships Nostalgia – linerrich
  7. Ships Nostalgia – linerrich
  8. Ships Nostalgia – BOBBY
  9. Ships Nostalgia – Marconi Sahib
  10. Ships Nostalgia – Tmac1720
  11. Ships Nostalgia – DICK SLOAN
  12. Ships Nostalgia – linerrich
  13. Ships Nostalgia – trenor

Article written and compiled by Fred Henderson

Passenger Ship Disasters
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