Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ship History 9

                                  HMHS BRITANNIC
                                               The forgotten sister.


                                                  Kevin Scott Bolinger

    Welcome aboard one and all to yet another look into Maritime history. Today, I will tackle the subject of the largest of the White Star Trio from the early 1900’s. A ship whose early design saw many vast changes due to the loss of her more famous sister. A ship who would sail proudly, yet never once carry a paying customer. A ship which would be ultimately sacrificed to the gods of war. So, join me now as I look at the last of the Olympic class ships, His Majesty’s Hospital Ship, Britannic.
Britannic nearing completion

    With the Olympic fast becoming a complete success in 1911, and with Titanic now launched and fast approaching her completion, it was time to lay the keel of the third and final ship. At the time, it was generally known that the ship would be named Gigantic, however, events in April of 1912 would see this name quickly changed to the more stately and patriotic, Britannic. White Star, to the bitter end, never would admit to the ships original name, although contemporary publications from the time, such as Shipbuilder magazine, had printed specification of the ship with the name Gigantic, as far back as just before her keel was laid. The connection with ancient mythology would give clues to the fates of the three sisters. The Olympians, after whom Olympic was named, were challenged by the Titans who enlisted the help of the Giants. The Olympians cast down both the Titans and the Giants, and remained triumphant. Even with her name changed, Britannic would not be able to escape this fate.

    The ship would share similar specifications to her two older sisters, however, minor changes would make her the largest. When completed, she would have a gross tonnage exceeding 48,000, though her original projected tonnage was 50,000. Her length was identical to the other ships, at 882ft 3/4in, but her width was greater, with her average width of 94ft 6in, and a maximum width of 96ft. Her engines were slightly more powerful that her sisters, owing to her greater size, and they would be the largest reciprocating marine engines ever produced. Her stern had numerous changes made to distinguish her from her sisters. The aft well deck was covered over to create a third class promenade, and on the poop deck, an extra deck house and deck had arisen. Her A deck promenade, like Titanic before her, was glass enclosed, the one feature the Olympic would forever lack.
Just prior to launch.

    Work on Britannic did not proceed as fast as her two sisters, owing to the fact that the shipyard was currently operating at full capacity, where as, when Olympic and Titanic were on the stocks, a far greater number of men could be put to work on them, since current ship orders were low. This ended up being fortuitous, for within days of the sinking of Titanic, all work on hull 433, her official number, was brought to a halt. Luckily, she was little more than a keel and double bottom at this point. Architects analyzed what design flaws had lead to Titanic's loss, and they tried to design the new ship to withstand the same sort of damage.

    One of the major flaws they needed to address was the fact that the watertight compartments on the previous two ships did not go higher than E deck in most places. The new design called for some to be brought as high as B deck, with the rest being brought to D deck. They also knew that water had spilled from full compartments in Titanic, into empty ones, like an ice tray. In the new ship, all bulkheads would be capped off by a watertight deck. The older ships only had a double bottom to protect them, mostly from groundings, yet the new ship would have a double hull that would extend above the waterline. So confident were the designers in these changes to make the ship more survivable in an accident, that the Olympic was brought in and had her bulkheads raised, and her double bottom extended up the sides as well.
Britannic's single turbine under construction.

    Another slight change to the design occurred in the area of the expansion joints. These joints, located on the boat deck, were designed to allow the ship to flex some during heavy weather, to keep the hull from cracking under stress. On the Olympic and Titanic, the joints were squared off, and it was thought Britannic's were identical. However, recent exploration of Britannic’s hull has shown that the expansion joints on her deck had a bulb shaped end, allowing for greater flexibility. The impotence of these joints in such long ships would be shown during the 1920’s, when ships such as Majestic and Aquitania suffered major cracks in their hulls. In the case of the Aquitania, her design, which was just a longer version of the Mauretania, only called for one expansion joint. The foresight of the Olympic class designers showed that the optimum number for hulls greater than 800ft, was two expansion joints. The Olympic never suffered cracking in her hull anywhere near as bad as her contemporaries, despite her hard life of service in both civilian and military service.

    As Britannic grew in the stocks, the world into which she would soon be born was changing rapidly. Tensions between Germany and Great Britain were coming to a boil. Also, new ships, far larger than the great trio White Star had created, would reach the waves long before she was finished. Yet still, work continued on here at a brisk pace. In a side note, in the slip next to her, the one that had at one time held Titanic, grew the hull of the SS Statendam,  which will feature briefly at the end of our tale in the name she was more famously known as, Justicia.

    It was not until February of 1914 that the ship was finally ready for launching. This was far behind the original estimates that would have had her in service by mid 1913. The morning of February 26th 1914 was bright. Huge crowds were on hand to watch the launching of yet another marvel from the Harland and Wolff shipyard. As was White Star tradition, no champagne was present, only signal flags spelling out success. One thing that was fairly new, however, was that perched near the bow was a man with a film camera, who would forever capture the launch of this giant. Soon the signal flare was launched, and with a push of a button, the hydraulic pressure holding the hull in place was released. Within seconds, she began her backwards slide into her natural element. Her hull, an empty shell, rode high and handsome. Tugs soon wrangled her to the fitting out basin, where more men would begin transforming her from an empty hull into an ocean liner, whose luxury would even surpass that of her sisters.
A rather unique angle of her launch.

    When Titanic sank, everyone finally woke up to the fact that all passenger ships of the day had one thing in common. They all lacked enough lifeboats to accommodate every living soul they could carry. The issue was becoming more and more noticeable as ships grew in size, and the number of people on board reach gargantuan proportions. Within days of the sinking, new laws went into effect, simply stating that all ships must carry enough lifeboats for its full capacity of crew and passengers. Why this was never the case to begin with just shows the pure arrogance of the age, for it was a time where men put so much faith that their technology would never fail them, that they did not, nor could they, conceive of a shipping accident that would claim so many, simply due to lack of life saving capacity. While Britannic was in the fitting out basin, another disaster resulting in large loss of life unfolded. The Empress of Ireland was sunk in the St. Lawrence seaway, due to a collision in fog, and despite having enough lifeboats, the list the ship took on meant that many of them could not be launched. This resulted in another change to Britannic. New lifeboat davits were devised, huge girder type, capable of offloading boat from either side of the ship in even a severe list. What they lacked in aesthetics, they made up for in ingenuity.
Fitting out, a boiler being loaded aboard.

    On June 28th, 1914, the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Serbian student in Sarajevo. Within a month, Austria-Hungary would declare war on Serbia, followed shortly thereafter with the Russian Empire mobilizing its troops. Soon, Germany began to get involved, which caused France to take up arms against Germany. Finally, Great Britain became embroiled, and the Great War was soon upon the world. The United States remained neutral for the first few years of the conflict, but eventually, she too would join the fight. At the Harland and Wolff shipyard, men and equipment were quickly moved to provide service to warships. Passenger ships like Britannic were abandoned where they lay. The priorities of war superseded all else. Many of the liners of the day were soon pressed into military service. It was thought, at first, that they could be converted into auxiliary cruisers, but the high cost of fuel for this ships prohibited this. As casualties began to rise, many were pressed into service as Hospital ships. Still others, like Olympic, would become troop ships, ferrying large quantities of men and supplies to the war zone. Eventually, the Admiralty decided it needed a larger Hospital ship. White Star pointed out to them that the Britannic could be made ready for service fairly quickly if men could be moved onto her completion. Her engines and boilers were already in place, as was most of her navigating equipment. The ship was mainly lacking her luxurious appointments, and those would not be needed in the guise of a Hospital ship. The Admiralty agreed to move the men, and work on converting Britannic for service quickly began.

    By May of 1915, the ship had completed mooring trials of her engines. Sadly, that same month, the true horrors of the German war machine were shown to the world. On May 7th, 1915, the German submarine, U-20, sank the RMS Lusitania by firing a single torpedo into her hull. She was not being used for military service, and was still a civilian ship, carrying innocent men, women, and children, some of whom were Americans. Her sinking showed that no vessel, under any guise, was truly safe in this conflict. Work on Britannic was hurried, with a projection to have her service ready within four weeks of her mooring trials. As the work progressed, her hull was painted white, her funnels a uniform buff color. A great green stripe, broken by three huge red crosses, played its way along the length of her hull. On her boat deck, more red crosses, able to be lit at night, were erected. Her A deck promenade was strung with green lights, also for identification at night. From her foremast flew the white and red cross flag of a hospital ship. In the rush to get her ready, only five of the new girder davits were installed, and traditional davits were quickly loaded on board to meet with lifeboat requirements.
Nearing completion,Olympic's funnels can be seen behind her.

    Despite assurances to the contrary, the ship was not readied until December of 1915. This was mainly due to other, completed ships, such as Olympic, being given priority as they were converted to troop transports. When she was complete, she was put under the command of White Star’s Marine Superintendent, Captain Charles Bartlett. Bartlett had always prided himself on being a cautious captain with any vessel under his command, earning the nickname “Iceberg Charlie.” He would guide the Britannic for the rest of her days.

    Britannic was moved from Belfast to Liverpool, where she was briefly reunited with the Olympic. Sadly, the two sisters would only meet one more time, in February of 1916, in the port of Southampton. On December 23rd, 1915, Britannic left Liverpool for her maiden voyage, but unlike most ships of the day, it was not a gala event. Her destination would be Mudros, on the island of Lemnos in the Aegean sea. The island was the original base of operations for the Dardanelles campaign, but, it was soon realized that it made a better loading place for the massive numbers of wounded. Christmas was celebrated on board the ship, and she arrived at her destination on December 31st, 1915. The normal routine was soon set, with the ship picking up wounded in Mudros and transporting them back to Southampton, England. 
Coaling in Southampton.

    So went most of 1916. Voyage after voyage, the wounded and the dying were brought back to their homeland for treatment, or burial. The nursing staff had gotten into their own routine, part of which had them opening all the portholes on D and E decks to air out the wards as they approached Mudros, usually a day out. Drills were always held, to keep the crew at the readiness for anything, for the U-boats were always on the prowl, and Britannic would be one of the largest prizes a U-boat commander could claim.

    On November 12, 1916, Britannic left Southampton on her sixth voyage to Mudros. By the 17th she had reached Naples, and had her customary 48 hour layover for coaling and water allocation. When she headed back into the Mediterranean, she was met by heavy weather, yet, owing to her design, she rode through it well, just like her older sister Olympic. Unknown to those on board, the German U-boat, U-73, a mine laying vessel, had been busy in the Kea Channel , laying two barriers of mines close to the island of Kea where her commander had observed most ships traveling.
A nice view of her stern, showing the added decking.

    The morning of November 21st, 1916, was bright and clear. The Britannic found herself approaching the Kea Channel, and the island could be seen a few miles away. Breakfast was being served in the galley, the nurses had the portholes open as per usual when getting close to the end of this leg of the voyage, and down in the boiler rooms, the watertight doors had been opened to allow for the 8am shift change. Usually, in hostile waters, the doors were kept closed, shift change was the only exception. Some of the crew on deck had thought they had seen barrel like object floating near the surface.

    Suddenly, at 8:12am, the ship was rocked by a huge explosion to starboard.  Captain Bartlett immediately ordered the engines stopped, and sounded the muster alarm for everyone to get to the lifeboats. The one saving grace was that the explosion happened while inbound to pick up wounded, which meant the number of people on board was low, consisting of just the crew and the medical staff., yet still well over 1000 on board. The explosion had reached as high as G deck, and the double bottom between holds 2 and 3 had been demolished. The watertight doors were closed from the bridge, but a few near the explosion had been damaged, and they would not close properly. The ship was already beginning to list to starboard.

    Given her new design, the explosion should not have been enough to bring her down, yet, with the watertight doors open because of shift change, it added a new problem into the mix. However, all the damage, even with the malfunctioning doors, was not enough to sink her. She did settle some at the head, but within a few minutes, it seemed she had stabilized. Distress calls were sent, and numerous ships in the area responded, they would be arriving within the hour. 
An artist's conception of the sinking.

    Captain Bartlett had only ordered the lifeboats to be made ready for lowering, but some of the crew, in the panic caused by the list, began to lower them, unbeknownst to the bridge. This would come back to haunt them in a very short time. Captain Bartlett reckoned the ship was some four miles from Kea island. He decided the best course of action was to start the engines and try to beach the ship, keeping her from sinking. He ordered best speed forward, and slowly, Britannic began to limp towards land. Owing to the list, her rudder was not as effective as was hoped, and she would end up slowly moving away from the island after a short time.

    The forward movement of the ship is probably one of the major factors to play into her demise. All the portholes on D and E decks were open, and with the list, those on the starboard E deck had been brought to the waterline. As the ship began to surge forward, water began to pour into them, flooding once dry watertight compartments.  As her bow dug in deeper, the portholes acted like a sieve, allowing tons more water to enter the ship. If she did not reach land soon, she was doomed.

    On the bridge, Captain Bartlett was receiving additional reports of flooding below, he ordered the engines stopped, but did not reverse them, hoping the ships momentum would carry her towards land. He was also hoping to avoid issues with the lifeboats that had been launched without his authorization. All this was in vain, for the portholes had done their work, the ship was now doomed to sink. As the list grew worse, and her bow began to sink lower, her port propeller began to lift free from the sea, still spinning. Into this death trap, two lifeboats had been drawn, to be chopped to pieces. Most of those killed during the sinking had lost their lives at this point.
So close to land, yet so far away...

    The final evacuation order was given, as it was clear the ship could not be saved. The list would soon lead to the ship capsizing. Once everyone was clear, Captain Bartlett finally left his command, the last person to do so. Her bow was now underwater, her hull hanging at such a sharp angle that three of her four funnels collapsed into the sea and sank. Only her forward funnel remained. With a heavy sigh, the ship rolled over to her side, and quickly sank, the waters of the Aegean closing over her stern as 9:07 am. The ship built to survive the same trauma that claimed her sister, had been beaten by the weapons of war, and bad luck. 

    Thirty-five lifeboats bobbed in waters now strewn with debris. In total, 1,036 had survived, with only the loss of 30 men, mostly due to the two lifeboats destroyed by the port propeller. The rescue ships were soon at hand, and soon everyone was back on dry land. The disaster could have been so much worse if she had struck the mine on the return leg. There would have been thousands of wounded, many of whom would not be able to evacuate the ship on their own. Despite the ship sinking, at least some luck had been on their side. An inquiry was held, as is customary for all sinking, yet Captain Bartlett was exonerated from blame. It was determined that most likely the ship had struck a mine, though even to this day, it is hotly debated as to whether or not it was a torpedo. As for the crew, they were now out of a job, their pay ending as soon as the sea had claimed Britannic. However, the Admiralty had another ship that would soon be ready for them, the former Statendam. The ship had been renamed Justicia, using the IA suffix traditional to Cunard ships, in the hope the surviving crew from the Lusitania would be brought aboard her. That crew had already been dispersed, so, the ship was handed over to White Star, and Britannic’s crew would soon sail in her. She too met with disaster, when on July 19th, 1918, she was torpedoed some 23 miles off the coast of Scotland. U-boat UB-64 managed to fire four torpedoes into her hull, yet the ship still remained afloat. The next day, after the crew had been rescued, the UB-124 fired two more torpedoes into her, and she too was claimed by the sea.
Justicia, succumbing to her wounds.

    Britannic’s loss would have consequences for the future of White Star. Of the three giants they had built for the three ship express service, only one was still afloat. The Olympic would not have any running mates until the early 1920’s,  the Homeric and the Majestic, both former German liners given to White Star as war reparations. The Majestic was, at the time, the largest ship in the world, being 56,000 tons, and over 950ft in length.  In 1929, White Star would have another ship named Britannic built, the first diesel powered vessel built for them. That ship would be the very last White Star ship to remain in service, lasting until 1960. As for the largest of the Olympic trio, she slept peacefully 395ft below the Kea Channel.  She would be destined to be forgotten, unknown by most, due to her more famous sister and the disaster that befell her. 

    In 1975, famous explorer Jacques Cousteau was getting ready to head to the Kea Channel area to do some research into the lost city of Atlantis, aboard his famous ship, the Calypso. The head of the American Titanic Historical Society, William Tantum IV , asked Cousteau if, since he was in the area, he could verify the position of the wreck of the Britannic, to see if it was where Admiralty records said it was. Cousteau said he would be happy to take a look. When they arrived at the Admiralty position, the ship was not there. They deployed a new technology, side scanning sonar, and after three days, they located the wreck, on December 3rd, 1975. They quickly realized that the ship was some 8 nautical miles from where the official position put her. Normally, this would not out of the ordinary, in the days of early navigation, errors were easily made. The Titanic herself was found some 14 miles from her historically recorded position. The problem with Britannic was, she was within sight of land, with known landmarks and distances at the time. It seems almost as if the Admiralty was trying to keep the wrecks location a secret, for reasons unknown.
Divers exploring Britannic's wreck.

    Given that the Kea Channel was and still is a busy major shipping lane, Cousteau had to get permission from the Greek government to dive the wreck. It was not until September of 1976, that he and his team, with Bill Tantum in tow, were allowed to return to the site. Using the latest diving technology, his men were able to freely explore the wreck. He also brought a small submersible, and took Tantum down in it on the first dive. He gently landed on the ships side, and upon turning on the lights, said to Bill Tantum, “There is your Britannic.” Tantum was breathless. The wreck was almost in pristine condition, with only a light layer of coral coating much of the hull. The bow of the ship was a tangled mess, crushed and bent upwards, with a huge tear in the area of the forward well deck. Cousteau theorized that , given the ships near 900ft length, the bow had plowed into the bottom while the rest of the ship was still at the surface, moving forward by momentum. What this meant is that the damage that sank the ship was forever hidden from view.

    In 1995, oceanographer, Doctor Robert Ballard, the man who, in 1985, had discovered the wreck of the Titanic, lead his own expedition to the Britannic. He too was marveled at how well preserved she was, in sharp contrast to the rusticle covered Titanic. It seemed that the Titanic had sunk in an area of the North Atlantic with a higher than average salinity, which promoted the growth of iron eating bacteria, but more on that in April, when I discuss Titanic in full detail. Britannic had sunk in relatively warm waters, and so she has become one of the most preserved wrecks ever filmed. Ballard also spent time looking for evidence of whether a mine or torpedo had sunk the great ship. He was attempting to locate the anchor chains from the mines that had been laid in the channel a few days before Britannic had entered the area. Unfortunately, he did not find them, and the debate still rages to this day over whether it was a mine or torpedo.
The wreck, as seen by Maritime artist, Ken Marschall.

    Ballard was in the process of setting up a new learning center for children in Mystic, Connecticut. One of his ideas that he was hoping to bring to fruition, was setting up the Britannic as the world’s first underwater virtual museum. He was hoping to use the current state of underwater robotics technology to install a permanent presence at the wreck site, controlled by GPS satellites. The wrecks current owner, Simon Mills, was all for this plan. Sadly, to date, it has not come to pass.

    In 2000, there was a made for television movie adaptation of the sinking, starring John Rhys-Davies as Captain Bartlett, though the credits list him as Captain Barrett. The movie was extremely inaccurate from a historical standpoint, showing the explosion to have be caused by a German spy on board the vessel. The film also had the ship sinking at sunset, when in reality, she sank in the early morning. It seems that the producers were more interested in cashing in on the popularity of Titanic, rather than showing a good representation of the actual events as they played out. It should be avoided by any seeking factual information about the ship and her loss.

    There have been numerous theories as to why the explosion from the mine was so powerful, tearing apart the forward end of the starboard hull. One theory suggests a a coal bunker explosion, ignited by the initial blast. The problem with this is that the conditions were not right for a coal dust blast. The ship was in relatively warm waters, which would keep the humidity in the bunkers high, which keeps the dust from becoming airborne. Another theory suggest she was carrying contraband weapons supplies. This is of course untrue, and no evidence has ever been found at the wreck, considering her port side bow is gaping open at the exact place such items would be stored. Another theory,  yet one that also has little evidence, takes into account that, as a Hospital ship, she was carrying large quantities of ether, which was, at the time, used as an anesthetic. It is thought that the blast might have ignited the ether, given its highly flammable nature. Again, if this was the case, there would be evidence at the wreck site, and none is present. All this, of course leads to questions of how the ship sank so much faster than her sister, given that her hull was designed to withstand damage far exceeding that of her older sisters. As was stated above, however, it all came down to bad timing. If the blast had occurred ten minutes earlier or later, the flooding would have been contained to the forward three watertight compartments, and she would have had a slight list, and been down about three feet at the head, with no danger of foundering. Sometimes, it all comes down to luck, and hers had simply run out.

    The wreck itself was, for the longest time, the largest passenger liner to remain on the ocean floor. She has lost this title from time to time, most famously to the original Queen Elizabeth, which had caught fire and sunk in Honk Kong harbor, in 1972, however, she was scrapped where she sank, and so no longer remains on the sea floor. Recently, the sunken Costa Concordia, near Italy, hold the record for largest passenger ship on the sea floor, however, plans are that she is to be either raised, or scrapped in situ. Whatever her fate, eventually, the Britannic will once again be the largest sunken liner.  Even to this day, some 37 years after her wreck had been discovered, she still shows very little signs of collapse, despite laying on her starboard side for nearly 100 years. She is a testament to the men who constructed her to be one of the strongest vessels afloat. There are no plans to raise her, or even bring up artifacts from the wreck. Since her discovery, very little has been removed, though Cousteau’s team in 1976 did bring up the bell from the ships crows nest.

    I think it is fitting that she is less famous than Titanic, it allows her to rest far more peacefully than her sister. Dives to her wreck have been few, and she remains a great example of how the White Star trio was perceived. Time will tell how well known she becomes, as it seems interest in Titanic has lead many to research her two sisters. I hope that she continues to be treated with the dignity all lost ships should be treated with. If that is her final fate, I will be glad. I think this will do it for my look at this magnificent ship, the greatest of the Olympic class. Hopefully I have educated some, and entertained others. Next up, a ship who was launched under one name, but became infamous under another. A ship who seemed to be plagued with bad luck from the day her keel was laid. Till then, may the wind be at your backs, bon voyage!

HMHS Britannic 1914-1916


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ship History 8

                                              MV WILHELM GUSTLOFF

                                             The happy ship with a tragic end.


                                                       Kevin Scott Bolinger


    Welcome aboard one and all. Our tale today takes us into the final year of World War II. The ship in question is one that most have never even heard of, yet she holds the dubious distinction of having the single greatest loss of life in all of Maritime history. A ship built for the loyal members of the Nazi party at the height of the Third Reich, only to be destroyed on a final mission of mercy. Join me now as I take a look at the Fuehrer’s wonder ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff
May 5, 1937, launch day.

    As Adolph Hitler rose to power in Germany, in the early 1930’s, he struck upon the idea of awarding those loyal to his Nazi party. His idea was to have a grand cruise ship, a novelty in that time period, one designed to take the common folk of the party on wondrous vacations. It was hoped that this would cause better relations between the party leaders and the rest of the German citizenry. Soon, the great shipyard of Blohm and Voss, famous for building such ships as the SS Bismarck, later to be known as the RMS Majestic for the White Star line, as well as many years later of building the great France for the French line, that would later become one of the first true cruise ships of the new era, the SS Norway, prepared itself for the honor of building this great ship.
Early days of construction.

    Her keel was laid on August 1, 1936. An army of workmen built her from the ground up, and by May, 1937, she was ready for her launching. With many dignitaries in attendance, her name was finally revealed to the public, Wilhelm Gustloff, after the recently assassinated head of the Nazi party in Switzerland. Up until this point, it was common knowledge that the ship was to be named after the Fuehrer himself. Hitler was among those on the podium for her launch on May 5, 1937.  She was not a particularly large ship, at only 684ft long and 77ft wide, with a projected tonnage of 25,000. She was also not a very swift vessel, her four diesel engines only powerful enough to push her at slightly over 15 knots. Yet, that was not her charm. She was built to support the German Labour Front, as a subsidiary of the Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy). Her normal crew consignment consisted of 417, with a nominal passenger capacity of 1,465.

    By March of 1938, she was complete, and after sea trials, she was handed over on the 15th of that month. Soon she was taking loyal German citizens on vacations to some of the worlds most beautiful vacation spots. It was here she was nicknamed “The Happy Ship” for those on board were usually very happy, being treated in a manner most had never seen before. Sadly, for the Happy Ship, the terror of war loomed. She was removed from civilian service in the summer of 1939. Her first mission was to bring home the Condor Legion from Spain, after the Spanish Civil War. Soon after, she was converted to the guise of a hospital ship, designated Lazarettschiff D, where she would serve until November of 1940.
Nearing completion.

    On November 20, 1940, the Gustloff was docked in the occupied Polish port of  Gdynia, renamed by the Nazis as Gotenhafen. Here she would serve the next four years as a barracks ship, mostly for U-boat trainees. Sadly, she would only have one more voyage, and it would be over almost as soon as it had begin.

    By January of 1945, the war had begun to go badly for Germany. She was slowly being closed in on all sides. The Soviet Army was fast approaching Poland, and it was decided to enact Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of German military and civilian populations in the Polish Corridor region, to escape the advancing troops from Russia. One of the first ships used for this was the Gustloff. The exact numbers of those who boarded her might never be known. Official records indicate only 6050, but many more boarded her in the panic without being accounted for. Through painstaking research, it is now known that there were at least 10,582 passengers and crew members on board as she left the port on January 20, 1945. That number is staggering, and for a ship designed to carry not even 2,000 during peace time, it means that there was literally no place to move, the men, women and children being packed in like sardines.
Hitler among others preparing to launch the ship.

     The Wilhelm Gustloff proceeded into the Baltic along with the passenger liner Hansa and two torpedo boats. Shortly after leaving port, the Hansa and one of the smaller boats developed engine troubles and had to return, leaving the Gustloff with very little protection. To add to this, she was no longer painted as a hospital ship, but in standard military grey. Also, she had a number of anti-aircraft guns installed upon her decks from her time as a barracks ship. Sadly, what this meant was that she was a legitimate target for any lurking enemy submarines.

    The ship was under the command of four captains,  three of which were civilians. The lone military commander, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn, argued that the best course of action to avoid submarines was to keep close to the shallows, with all lights extinguished. His recommendation was ignored, and the senior most civilian captain, Friedrich Petersen, decided to take the ship into deeper water. To add to this misjudgment,  a mysterious radio message about an oncoming German minesweeper convoy, caused Captain Petersen to turn on the navigation lights. The Gustloff was now a very easy to see sitting duck, and soon her luck would run out.
The GUSTLOFF with CAP ARCONA, both war victims.

     At around 9 pm ship time, the Soviet submarine, S-13, spotted the rather large passenger ship. Her commander, Captain Alexander Marinesko, fired three torpedoes at the port hull of the ship. Each torpedo had a small plaque placed upon it, the first reading “For Motherland” ,the second “ For Soviet people “, and the third “ For Leningrad”. There was a fourth torpedo that was disarmed with a plaque that read “For Stalin”. The first torpedo struck the Gustloff near her port bow, the second closer to amidships, and the third stuck her engine room, plunging the ship into darkness. She soon took on a slight port list, and was quickly settling by the head.
As a hospital ship

    We now come to the true tragedy in this tale. With the ships electrical power out, there was a panic. Hundreds were trampled to death in the stampede for the lifeboats. The water was even colder than it was on the night the Titanic sunk, with an air temperature of nearly 14 degrees. Small ice floes dotted the surface. Even if there had been enough boats for the over ten thousand on board, there would have been no way to get them all loaded and launched. The ship was sinking fast, and there was nothing anyone could do. Most tried to jump into the sea, but were quickly claimed by exposure. Within 40 minutes of the torpedo strikes, the icy waters of the Baltic had closed over the hull of the Wilhelm Gustloff, taking thousands upon thousands with her, entombed forever.

    The rescue of any survivors was quickly mounted, and soon various ships arrived to pluck those they could out of the lifeboats and the chilly waters. Torpedo boat T-36 rescued 564, the torpedo boat Lowe rescued another 472. Three minesweepers managed to add to the totals, with 98, 43, and 37 rescued respectively. The steamer Gottingen saved 28, a torpedo recovery boat managed 7, with the freighter Gotland pulling two more out of the sea. Finally Patrol boat V1703 managed to save one baby. A grand total of  1,252 had been saved out of the 10,582 on board. If the numbers hold true, that means that the Gustloff took 9,330 to the bottom of the Baltic sea with her. When many people think of loss at life at sea, they immediately begin talking about how the Titanic has the greatest loss of life of any one ship lost at sea. Sadly, the Titanic is much farther down the list, currently holding the 8th spot. The only event in Maritime history to even come close to this tragedy was the sinking of the ferry Dona Paz in the Philippines in 1987, where she collided with a tanker, and the resulting fire and sinking killed an estimated 4,341. That is not even half as many as the Wilhelm Gustloff took with her. 
A rare color picture of the GUSTLOFF.

    Why is this event not known? Many feel that the Soviet Union tried to cover it up during the Cold War, and there are even reports that her hull was blasted to try and erase her presence on the bottom of the Baltic. Indeed, the current condition of her wreck seems to support this notion. Yet, why cover it up? As sad as it was, it was an event that was the result of war. The ship was unmarked, armed, and was not announced as being on a mercy mission. The blame lies as much with the Germans as it does the Soviets. To the eyes of the S-13 commander, she was a legitimate target in hostile waters. The real issue was how could they let a ship so clearly overloaded leave port to begin with? Was there that much panic at the docks? If so, it was unfounded. The Red Army would not even reach that area until May of 1945. Why the sudden urgency to remove so many civilians, 4,000 of which were children. Many of these questions may never be answered.
The wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

    The wreck of the Gustloff lies about 16 miles offshore, in about 144ft of water. She has been designated a war grave, and on Polish navigation charts, she is listed simply as “Obstacle No.73.” Her bow and stern are nearly intact, yet her entire middle hull looks as if it has been pounded flat by a giant’s fist. Side scan sonar images reveal this easily, and give credence to the theory of the Soviets trying to cover up the sinking by blowing up the hull. There have been several dives on the ship, despite her war grave status. The last of these occurred in 2006, where her bell was recovered, only to be used in a Polish fish restaurant. The Museum ship Albatross, in Damp, houses one of her portholes, recovered from the wreck in 1998. 
Side scan sonar image of the wreck.

       The once Happy Ship has long since been forgotten by most. It is my hope that this small article will help her be remembered once more. She truly is one of the greatest tragedies in all of Maritime history, despite her sinking occurring during war. Let those who went down with her, so many years ago, find peace in knowing that their story will continue to be told.
Artist's rendition of the wreck.

    That will do it for this look at the Wilhelm Gustloff. Before the end of this month, I hope to bring you another ship that has only in recent years moved out of the shadows of her more famous sisters. Till then, as always, may the wind be at your backs. Bon Voyage.

The GUSTLOFF  in happier days.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

An Overview of Maritime History

                            Maritime History and It’s Significance to Modern Society.


                                                     Kevin Scott Bolinger

   Welcome aboard one and all. I know it has been some time since I last posted anything here, but sometimes, even for me, real life beckons. I also realize that I have mostly shifted to doing articles on ships, yet is it a great passion for me, and I love sharing, even if very few share that love. I decided, since I noticed that many of the terms and descriptions I use can confuse those not well versed in nautical lore, to, instead of working on another ship history, instead concentrate on giving a brief overview of Maritime history as a whole. So please, bare with me as I try and bring the importance of our past into the eyes of the present.

    To our modern society, ships and shipping are sometimes rarely taken notice of unless something goes wrong. Yet, one hundred years ago, things were far different. Many of the celebrities that clogged newspaper headlines back then were not people, but passenger ships, ocean liners. These ships were regarded as being so important, that even the slightest mishap was headline news. They were, after all, as John Maxtone-Graham so eloquently put as the title of his book on the subject, “The Only Way To Cross.”

    Ships are perhaps one of the most important developments mankind ever produced. I know many look at them and feel there really is nothing special about them, yet think where you would be without a ship somewhere in your ancestry. Humanities roots can be traced to the plains of Africa, yet if someone had not figured out a safe way to cross the vast quantities of water our world possesses, we would all still be there, and it is doubtful civilization as we know it would have risen to this level. Face it, our world is 75% water. If it was not for the advent of the airplane, I feel that ships today would still be in the public consciousness as much as they were in the 1800’s. Do not get what I mean? Simply pick up a piece of period literature, and look for all the nautical references. Even a farmer in the middle of the United States had the basic concepts of nautical lore as part of his knowledge base. Today, if you ask someone what a knot is, they tell you it is what you tie into string.

    Anyway, let me get off the lectern for a moment, and try to give as brief a rundown as I can on the history of shipping. I will not bore you with tales of drunken sailors, or pirates. Most of that stuff is still common knowledge. I will focus mainly on the one truly important aspect of ships in the last few centuries, the movement of people from one continent to another. Everyone knows the tales of famous explorers like Columbus, Cook, Magellan, ect. Many also know how the Pilgrims’ crossed from England and helped start what is now the United States. I think, for this lesson, we will start a bit closer to our own time, and the advent of the Trans-Atlantic ocean liner.
SS SAVANNAH, a true innovator.

    As technology in the world started to become more and more mechanized, and simple steam engines were being created for the first time, many began to try and figure a way to use this new tech to make travel across the ocean more predictable. Under sail power, passengers could be expected to be aboard a ship for months at a time. The prospect of this was so dire that only the very brave would undertake such a voyage. Attempts were made to try and keep a schedule with sail powered vessels, the most famous being the Black Ball Line, yet even they could be waylaid by a freak storm, or if the prevailing winds died down. The first ship to ever cross the Atlantic under full steam power was the SS Savannah in 1819. Before that, steamships were relegated mainly to rivers and lakes, because the amount of fuel needed for a crossing was enormous.

    To many, crossing under steam power was still a novelty, and the accommodations on most early steamships were Spartan at best. Ships were side-wheelers, and while that is good for a river or lake, where the waters are relatively calm and flat, on the open ocean, the rolling of the ship would sometimes bring the paddles out of the water, causing engines to run too fast, and lead to mechanical failure. For this very reason, early ocean going steamships were really hybrids, using a mixture of steam and sail to make a crossing. Then in walked a man with a vision, that man, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
The first true ocean liner, GREAT WESTERN

     I know many of you will not recognize his name, yet he really is the father of the modern ocean liner. In fact, he was a bit too far ahead of his time, and his third vessel became such an abject failure that is seems that is all he is remembered for. Monuments to his genius are found all over modern day England, from the Thames Tunnel in London, to hundreds of famous railway bridges, and even some of the first suspension bridges ever built out of steel. In the early 1830’s , he struck upon the idea of making ocean steamship voyages a simple extension of railway travel. The train brings you to a dock, you board a ship, cross the ocean, and board a train there to your final destination. He knew that to overcome some of the inherent problems of steamship travel, a purpose built ocean going passenger ship needed to be created. The result, the SS Great Western
The GREAT BRITAIN as she is today.

    Brunel’s first foray into the world of ocean crossing was met with mild success, yet he saw that the paddle wheel was really the Achilles heal of modern ships. His next vessel, the Great Britain, was one of the first large ships fitted with a screw propeller, while also being one of the first passenger ships built of iron. She would go on to great success, though by her time, competition had arose, mainly in the form of a savvy businessman from Nova Scotia, Canada, but more on him soon enough.  The Great Britain enjoyed a long life, but sadly, she was eventually wrecked in 1846, when she was grounded due to poor navigation. She was salvaged and repaired, but eventually her life would lead her to the Falkland Islands, where she would be used as a warehouse, then a coal hulk, before finally being scuttled. In 1970, her hull was raised and returned to England, where she was fully restored to her glory in a permanent dry dock, where she still rests to this day, a popular attraction for tourists.

    Brunel really wanted to out-do everyone in the shipping world. He drew up plans for a giant of a ship, a ship so massive it had five funnels, and would run on both screw propulsion and paddle wheels, as well as sails. Her coal bunkers would hold enough fuel to go nonstop from England to Australia, by way of rounding Africa. Unfortunately, she was never used for the purpose she was designed for. The Great Eastern would go down in history as one of the greatest blunder to sail the seas. Even her launch was plagued with problems. Back in those days, ships were launched sideways, into local rivers where the shipyards were based. As ships grew larger and longer, it was necessary to launch them stern first, to help distribute the weight. At 690 ft, and nearly 20,000 gross tons, the Great Eastern was the largest ship in the world, by a very large margin in 1858 when she was launched. To demonstrate this, her length was not surpassed until 1899 with the launching of the Oceanic for the White Star line, and her tonnage was not beaten until 1901 with the launching of the RMS Celtic, also of the White Star line. Brunel decided to launch her sideways, and sadly, she got stuck.

OCEANIC of 1899.
Brunel in front of the hull of the GREAT EASTERN

                It took months to get the Great Eastern into her natural element. Eventually she would be completed, yet, the company that owned her decided to put her on the North Atlantic run, instead of the Australian run she was designed for. The ship quickly became a financial disaster. She would spend more time tied up than actually being used. Her one major highlight was that her great size allowed her to carry enough cable to help lay the worlds first Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. The stress of what had become of his great ship was too much for Isambard, and he died in 1859 at the age of 53. As for his Great Eastern, she ended her days as a hulk used for advertising billboards until she was eventually scrapped.
A model of the GREAT EASTERN.

    While Isambard was busy formulating his schemes for oceanic domination, a quiet but highly intelligent businessman named Samuel Cunard stepped in to start a new shipping line. He knew, that besides passengers, countries were also looking to have mail transported safely and with regularity across the waves. He travels to England, and convinced parliament to grant him the first mail subsidy, which he used to help fund and maintain his ships. His first passenger ship, the RMS Britannia became a success, and the rest, as they say, is history. Cunard is one of the very few shipping lines still in existence today, though sadly she is a shell of her former glory, being owned now by parent company Carnival. Her ships, though, have many names which are famous, even to those not versed in Maritime lore. Vessels like the Mauretania, Lusitania, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, the list can go on and on. I will not delve too much more into the history of Cunard, if you want a real good read on the line, track down the book "Age of Cunard," by Daniel Allen Butler, it is a fascinating read.
BRITANNIA, the first Cunard liner

    In the early days of Trans-Atlantic travel, speed became the name of the game in the one-upsmanship the various lines played with each other. An unofficial award for the fastest crossing, called the Blue Ribband was “handed out” and companies would use that in their advertising. One of the lines with the fastest ships in those early days was the Collins Line. Sadly, for Collins, all that speed came at the cost of many lives lost, including his own wife, daughter, and youngest son.

    Collins had four of the fastest ships in the early 1850’s with two more being built for the line. However, disaster would befall his ship, the Arctic, after it was struck amidships in fog. She would take most of her passengers to the bottom with her. The following year, Collins’ ship, the Pacific would be lost with all hands, though her fate would remain a mystery for most of the next century. Many speculated she had struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, the truth was, she had sunk not far off the coast of England, and her wreck was discovered accidentally when fishermen kept getting their nets caught in her. With these disasters, the Collins Line soon fell into bankruptcy and eventually vanished. Soon after, safety became paramount, at least for a while.
Sinking of the Collins liner, ARCTIC

    Cunard dominated passenger travel, even boasting that “The Cunard has never lost a life.”  This was a true statement at the time, and though her ships were not free from disasters, none had resulted in a single death. They were regarded as one of the safest lines around, and they soon set their sights on being the fastest as well. Cunard would hold the Blue Ribband for a significant amount of time. However, she was soon faced with a new rival, The White Star line, who would go for comfort over speed, luring passengers with luxury. White Star would attract the cream of the Trans-Atlantic crop, but even they would have a few record breakers in their history, the first being the very fast and beautiful RMS Teutonic.
The fast and beautiful TEUTONIC

    So, you are all now very confused. Why have I put down some of this history of passenger ships? Well, it goes back to what I said earlier, where would you be today, if at some point in your ancestry, someone did not board a ship. These various lines, like Cunard, White Star, and the rest, did not build their large fast ships for the First Class trade, far from it. These lines may have decorated the ships to the tastes of First Class clientele, but the bread and butter of their operations were the Third Class immigrant trades. That is right, these ships were designed primarily as immigrant ships, even ones as luxurious as the Titanic. For every First Class passenger a ship carried, they also carried three to four Third Class passengers. This is why many of the lines went into financial ruin in the time period leading to the Great Depression, the United States put a cap on incoming immigrants, choking off the main source of income to the lines.

    Now, perhaps I should throw in a little education of some of the nautical terms I use from time to time. Let us start with the obvious ones. First up, knot. A knot is one nautical mile or 6076ft. It is used to measure the ships speed over the bottom. To put it in modern terms, a ship going about 22 knots is doing about 25mph. That may not seem like much, but think of how big a ship is, and how fast a car going 25 seems to be when you are standing still. Knots are also used in air travel, the measurement is the same, though there are slight variations on the theme that I will not go into, because I am not an aviation expert.

    Two of the more famous terms are Port and Starboard. These simply are the sides of the ship, literally left and right. The best way to remember which is which, port has four letters and so does left. Bow is another well used term, simply, the nose of the ship. Stern, respectively, is the end of the ship. Sometimes you might see me use the term abaft, this simply means behind a certain location, as in the stern of a ship is located abaft of its bridge. One term I do not think I have ever used yet is leeward. This one confuses me as well at time, though from my understanding, it is usually the side of the ship facing away from weather, hence it is calmer. There are more terms, but for the most part, I will usually only use the ones easier for folks to remember.

    One thing that I feel needs to be cleared up is the concept of tonnage. The tonnage of a ship is not the actual weight of the hull, instead it is a measurement of the square footage within the ship. It was derived from the early days of wooden cargo ships carrying barrels known as tunnes. A ships size was said to be how many tunnes she could carry in her hold. When discussing a ships actual weight, the term displacement is used. For a ship to float, it must displace an equal amount of water to its own weight. So, to put it into practical terms, we shall use the Titanic. Her gross registered tonnage was 46,000, however, her displacement, her true weight, was 66,000 tons of water. Both figures are impressive, yet pale in comparison to the tonnage and displacement figures of modern ships.
A stoker at work.

    The propulsion systems of early steamships were quite simple, being no more complicated than the average locomotive on land. I have sometimes referred to triple expansion engines or steam turbines. I will get to turbines next, but for now, let us concentrate on the reciprocating marine engine. It worked by steam being fed into a piston, forcing it down to turn a crank attached to a shaft that lead to the propeller. As ships grew larger and more efficiency was needed, the steam began to be reused, leading to more cylinder, usually with each successive cylinder head being larger that the one before it, due to the steam losing pressure as it went from piston to piston. This would ensure that the ship would get the most out of its boilers and coal. The reciprocating marine engine came to its culmination in the quadruple expansion engines built for the Olympic class lines of White Star, still to this day the largest steam engines ever put aboard a ship. Unfortunately, they were outdated when installed, as a newer and better technology had come into it’s own.
A diagram of the engines of the OLYMPIC class

    Enter Charles Parsons. I will not go into detail on him, as I already did in my Lusitania article, but, I will say, the man changed the way ships were run.  His invention of the marine steam turbine was a stroke of genius. The problem most companies were facing in the very early 1900’s was the cost of coal, and, for every knot over 20, it cost you double the amount of coal to maintain that seed. Turbines allowed for a more direct use of high pressure steam to directly act upon the propeller shafts. Higher speeds were possible, yet the problem with coal consumption still remained. A steam turbine works almost like any other turbine. Tiny fan blades are hit by the steam, turning the shaft Thousands of blades made up a turbine, usually in circles of descending size within the housing. The main advantage of the turbine, besides speed, was size. It was far smaller than the larger reciprocating engines, which allowed for a smaller engine space, so that more space could be relegated to passengers. For example, the Olympic class engines were four stories tall, yet the engines of the Mauretania and Lusitania, being turbines, only were as high as two decks, a huge space savings.
A look at the inner workings of a Parson's steam turbine

    The problem with coal consumption was not solved until ships stopped using coal and converted to oil. The oil could be better regulated, gave far more energy for its size, and also reduced greatly the number of crew members on a ship, saving companies money. On average, a ship would have 300 men in engineering, mostly those feeding the coal into the boiler furnaces, these men being known as stokers. Along side them worked the trimmers, men responsible for keeping the coal in the bunkers level, to keep the ship on an even keel. Then there were the passers, the men that would take wheelbarrows of coal from the bunkers to the stokers. All of those were removed from a ship once it converted to oil, engineering going from 300 men to 60. Now, that was bad news for those men, sadly, yet it did make the lines more profitable, spending less on wages.

    Sadly, when all this technology was being developed to make ships faster, more efficient, and more profitable, another invention was taking shape, one that would kill the passenger ship as we know it. That was, of course, the airplane. At first, there was no competition, planes did not have the range of ships, and were prone to crash in the early days. However, as the 1950’s came around, things began to change. Jet engines were introduced, and soon travelers realized that they could spend a few hours on a plane rather then a few days on a ship, and at a fraction of the cost. The Cunard line tried to play against this with there famous slogan, “Getting there is half the fun!”  It was a good try, but even they quickly went into decline in the mid to late 1960’s.

    So, where does that leave us in today’s world? Well, most consumer goods still travel by ship when coming overseas, mainly in cargo containers made to be quickly put on tractor trailers. Ships of sizes never dreamed of before now sail the oceans of the world, yet are hardy noticed. As for passenger travel, only one true ocean liner plies the seas, and that is the giant Queen Mary 2. What sets her apart from other cruise ships, her bow is reinforced to take whatever the North Atlantic can throw at her, and despite regulations to the contrary, a special compensation was made for her to have her lifeboats higher up on the ship, to keep them safe from waves during heavy storms. A normal cruise ship, though massive, is really very fragile, as was shown in the recent Coasta Concordia disaster. Without a reinforced bow, a cruise ship cannot cross an area as volatile as the North Atlantic, a few have tried and suffered great damage. Modern cruise ships are still very impressive machines, yet they are the destination in and of themselves, where as ships of old took you to a destination.
The imposing bow of the QUEEN MARY 2.

      So, are ships still important? Yes, but not for the same reason they were a hundred years ago. Today, they are a means of bringing large quantities of good to consumers, such as cars, electronics, clothing, food, and most importantly, oil. The largest ship in the world is not a passenger ship, nor a bulk container ship. It is an oil tanker, the Seawise Giant. At over 1,500ft in length, a breadth of 500 ft, a tonnage of over 650,000, no other ship in history comes close, yet you have probably never heard of her. She is so large, she cannot use the English Channel, nor the Suez Canal. Yet her importance to the global economy cannot be understated. So, next time you fill up your car, just think of what it took to get that fuel to you. Also think of what it took to get that car to you. Ships are still very important, though, because they are relegated to less glamorous tasks than they were in the past, they are slipping out of public consciousness. I hope I have given you a little more appreciation for these very important pieces of our history. Next time, I will look at what is the worlds deadliest ship disaster, and I guarantee that most of you have never even heard of this ships name. Till then, may the wind be at your backs.

The SEAWISE GIANT under one of her earlier names.