Disasters at Sea


Ninety years ago, on April 15th, 1912, the Titanic was holed by an iceberg. It was Thomas Andrews, the ship's draughtsman and nephew of Harland and Wolff chairman James Pirrie, who explained to Captain Edward Smith the mathematical certainty that the Titanic would sink. The boatswain shouted into the crew's quarters: 'Turn out, you fellows. You haven't half an hour to live. That is from Mister Andrews. Keep it to yourselves and let no one know.'

The thought of it, the terror, the panic, the fear, below cold stars on that heartless night still sends a chill down one's spine.

Last week, Belfast City Council hosted a week-long festival to commemorate the launch and to remember the dead. Events included a recreation of the launch, using actors in the role of the main figures involved; a boat tour around the Queen's island; a tour of the yard itself and the old slipway; various films and plays; and an exhibition in the City Hall.

The only event I could attend was the exhibition. So, last Sunday we took along our ninety-year-old friend, Billy McCulloch, who was born in East Belfast and whose father and brother worked as moulders on the ill-fated ship. It was disappointing. There were blown-up photographs of the stages of construction on display; copies of Andrews' plans; tools used in the ship's construction; a reproduction of the captain's dining table, including cutlery and delf of the period.

There were charts showing you how to tie knots or navigate using the stars and a Morse key that certainly was not original but looked like something out of a 1960s Dan Dare set (my Dan Dare set). Bizarrely, there was an armchair, about which it was explained that it had been intended for the ship and had Captain Smith taken this with him he would have sat on it! One film partly showed the building of the Titanic's sister ship, the Olympia, and commented that if the cameraman had panned a little to his left we would see the Titanic.

I know I sound churlish but it had a sense that it was organised in great haste. Perhaps there were legal or financial difficulties with temporarily acquiring some of the original recovered artefacts that could have given us a sense of the magnitude of the enterprise.

Nevertheless, the most stunning item on display was a simple list of the dead, ship's crew and passengers, all one thousand, five hundred and twelve souls.

The sinking of the Titanic is mistakenly remembered as the greatest loss of life in maritime history, yet there were other disasters before and since. Shortly after the ending of the American Civil War in 1865, the Sultana, a Mississippi steamship was returning with Union soldiers who had been held prisoner. Most were walking skeletons and had to be carried on board. The ship was outfitted to carry only 376, but the Army insisted she take on more solders eager to get back to their families. This ship was carrying 2,200 people, plus 60 horses and mules.

On April 27, 1865, the Sultana was paddling upriver just above Memphis when it was suddenly rocked by a gigantic explosion. One of the boilers had exploded, spreading fire that soon engulfed the entire vessel. Most of the former POWs were weak and diseased and not fit for swimming. One thousand, five hundred and forty seven were either killed in the explosion and fire or drowned in the river. It was the worst marine disaster in US history, yet few people heard about the catastrophe: it was relegated to a few paragraphs on the back pages because still dominating the front pages was reaction to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14th.

But the scale of even the Sultana disaster is dwarfed by the little-known sinkings of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the General Steuben and the Goya - converted German liners that were sunk by Soviet submarines during the final months of the Second World War. Wilhelm Gustloff, carrying almost 8,000 women, children and wounded soldiers, was hit by three torpedoes on the night of January 30th, 1945. It sank after 70 minutes, taking with it at least 5,700 lives, and perhaps as many as 7,000. Only about 900 could be rescued from the sub-freezing waters of the Baltic by convoy vessels. The ship had emergency lifeboats and rafts sufficient for only 5,060. Moreover, the machinery that lowered the life boats into the water had frozen solid in the bitter cold, rendering the life boats virtually useless.

Eleven days later, shortly after midnight on February 10th, the General Steuben, crammed with 5,000 wounded soldiers and refugees, sank in just seven minutes with a loss of 3,500 lives. The same Soviet submarine that had attacked the Gustloff, and in almost the same location, sank the Steuben with two torpedoes. The Goya was carrying 7,000 refugees and wounded soldiers when hit by torpedo on April 16, 1945, just three weeks before the end of the war in Europe. It sank in just four minutes, resulting in the loss of almost 7,000 lives.

But what must rank as the greatest maritime disaster in history, and about which I could find only the slightest references was on the Soviet steamer Dzhurma. In 1941, 12,000 captives froze to death in their cells as the ship was docked near Wrangel Island, in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, eighty seven miles off the Siberian mainland.

We rightly remember the victims of the Titanic, some of whose stories have been immortalised in books, films and exhibitions, yet I cannot find the name of even one of the souls - who may have been political prisoners or Polish POWs - who froze to death in the Dzhurma. Why is that?

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison