The Sinking of Hospital ship Armenia

On the 7 November 1941, the Soviet hospital ship, the Armenia, was torpedoed and sunk by the Nazis. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in history. All but eight of the 7,000 passengers perished on a ship designed for not more than a thousand. A comparatively modest 1,514 died on the Titanic (1912) and 1,198 on the Lusitania (1915) yet the sinking of the Armenia on 7 November 1941 is all but lost to history.

Armenia shipSunk in the Black Sea, the exact location of the wreck is still a mystery and for years, the question remained – was a hospital ship, identified by a Red Cross, a legitimate target?

A stricken city

Designed for 980 passengers and crew, over seven times that number had surged onto the ship in the Crimean port of Yalta that fateful night of 7 November 1941. The reason was blind panic. The Nazi war machine, which had invaded the Soviet Union less than five months before, had overrun the Crimean peninsula and was bearing down on Yalta. People expected the city to fall within a matter of hours. The only possible means of escape for its stricken population was by sea – the roads outside the city having been sealed off by the Germans.

Built in Leningrad in 1928, the double-decker Armenia began its career as a passenger ship. In August 1941, following the outbreak of war, it was pressed into military service as a hospital ship. The day before its sinking, the Armenia had left the port of Sevastopol having taken civilian evacuees and the occupants of several military hospitals. Crammed with up to 5,000 passengers, the ship made for Tuapse, a town on the northeast coast of the Black Sea, about 250 miles east. But the captain, Captain Vladimir Plaushevsky, received orders to pick up extra people from nearby Yalta.

More civilians and wounded soldiers, some severely, crammed onto the ship amid scenes of chaos and utter panic. No register was taken, no names recorded of these additional two thousand passengers. Captain Plaushevsky then received orders to remain in port until escort vessels were at hand to chaperon him out. The delay frustrated the captain, he had to get going, they were cutting it too fine.

Torpedoed

The next morning, seven o’clock, the Armenia finally set sail, escorted by two armed boats and two fighter planes.

The escorts were unable to prevent a German torpedo bomber, a Heinkel He-111, swooping-in low and firing two torpedoes at the ship. It was 11.29 am, the ship was 25 miles into its journey. The first torpedo missed but the second one scored a direct hit, splitting the ship into two. The Armenia sunk within just four minutes. All but eight of the 7,000 passengers died, the survivors being picked up by a patrol boat.

The tragedy lay in the postponement of its departure. If Captain Plaushevsky had not lost those precious hours, the ship may well have arrived at its intended destination.

Lying at a depth of about 480 metres, the location of the Armenia wreck remains unknown despite the efforts of oceanic explorer, Robert Ballard, discoverer of several historical wrecks including the aforementioned Titanic and Lusitania.

A legitimate target?

Was the Armenia a legitimate target? As a hospital ship, it was clearly marked with the Red Cross, both on its sides and, clearly visible to the German pilots, on the deck. But it had a military escort, and it had two of its own anti-aircraft guns, so under the rules of war, it was a perfectly acceptable target.

But this doesn’t detract from the catastrophe of its sinking and today we should remember, if only momentarily, the forgotten tragedy of the Armenia.

Women on the TrainRupert Colley.

Rupert Colley’s novella, set during World War Two and Paris in 1968, The Woman on the Train, is now available in paperback and ebook formats.

Also, gathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century.

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The Sinking of the Lusitania – a brief summary

On the 7 May 1915, a German U-boat sunk the British luxury liner, the RMS Lusitania. 1,198 people lost their lives, including 128 Americans. Its sinking caused moral outrage both in Britain and in the US and led, ultimately, to the USA declaring war against Germany.

LusitaniaThe ‘Great War’ was still less than a year old. On 18 February 1915, in response to Great Britain’s blockade of Germany, the Germans announced that it would, in future, be operating a policy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’. In other words, German U-boats would actively seek out and attack enemy shipping within the war zone of British waters. Even ships displaying a neutral flag, they announced, would be at risk – the Germans being aware of the British habit of sailing under a neutral flag.

The Lusitania was certainly not the first victim of Germany’s new policy – on 28 March 1915, the British ship RMS Falaba was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat off the coast of southern Ireland. 104 people were killed, including one American.

Liable to destructionLusitania warning

Wealthy passengers boarding the Lusitania, a 32,000-ton luxury Cunard liner, in New York saw an advertisement issued by the US German embassy warning them of the risk:

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 ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk. 

Yet any concern passengers may have harboured were brushed aside in the belief that the Germans would surely not target a civilian cruise liner. And also, with a top speed of 21 knots-per-hour, far higher than any other ship at the time, the Lusitania could easily outpace a German U-boat with a top speed of a paltry 13 knots.

Captain TurnerCarrying 1,959 people (1,257 passengers and 702 crew), the Lusitania left New York on its 202nd Atlantic crossing on 1 May 1915. The British, knowing of the potential danger as the ship approached the Ireland, gave the captain, William Thomas Turner (pictured), specific instructions. He was told that as he approached the coast he should sail at top speed and in a zigzag fashion, hence making it far more difficult for a U-boat to score a direct hit. But with thick fog and poor visibility, and wanting to save fuel, Captain Turner sailed at only 15 knots per hour and, fatefully, in a straight line. He was also told to avoid Ireland’s jutting coastline. Yet here he was, on the 7 May, within eleven miles off the coast of southern Ireland, within sight of the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse.

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The Hindenburg Disaster – a summary

On 6 May 1937, a tragedy took place that, caught on film, haunted the American consciousness for decades.

Hindenburg disaster

Built in Germany in 1935 the 800-foot long Zeppelin airship, the Hindenburg, was considered the height of sophisticated travel. It may only have travelled at 80 mph yet it still provided the fastest means of crossing the Atlantic – twice as fast as the speediest ship. It was akin to being on a luxury liner and had already made dozens of journeys across the Atlantic from Germany to Brazil or America and back. Of course, it wasn’t cheap – a one-way ticket across the Atlantic cost about US$400 (about US$7,000 / £4,500 in 2016).

With the Nazi swastika on its fins, it was named after the last president of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg, who had appointed Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933, and who died in August 1934. Joseph Goebbels had, apparently, wanted the airship to be named the Adolf Hitler but the owner of the Zeppelin Company, Hugo Eckener, a known anti-Nazi, refused.

But before it became a transatlantic airship, the Hindenburg began its life as a tool of the Nazi propaganda ministry, run by Goebbels. In March 1936, ahead of a German plebiscite to rally support ratifying the re-occupation of the Rhineland, the Hindenburg was used to drop propaganda leaflets while blaring out loud patriotic music and slogans from huge loudspeakers, and broadcasting political speeches from a temporary on-board radio studio. (The plebiscite returned a 99.8 per cent vote in favour). On 1 August 1936, the Hindenburg made a special appearance flying above the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics trailing an Olympic flag in its wake.

The Hindenburg‘s last journey

On its 63rd and last, fateful journey, the Hindenburg had departed from Frankfurt on May 3, 1937, and was due to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on the morning of May 6. But poor weather had delayed its landing by about twelve hours. The captain, Max Pruss, kept his passengers entertained by flying over New York City. The Hindenburg had a capacity for about 70 passengers but on this trip there were only 36 passengers plus 61 crew.

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Exercise Tiger – a brief outline

As D-Day approached, training intensified. Troops were told only what they needed to know; they certainly had no idea about when or where they’d be going into action. Troops trained embarking and disembarking from landing craft. (The flat-bottomed Landing Craft, Assault vessels (LCA) weighed ten tons each, could carry thirty-eight men and travel up to ten knots per hour, while the much larger Landing Ship, Tank, LST, carried three hundred men and sixty tanks. Both vessels could sail right onto a beach.)

Exercise TigerExercise Tiger

It was at one such training exercise, one that involved the use of live ammunition, that tragedy struck. 23,000 American troops, the entire invading force of Utah beach, and 300 vessels were rehearsing on Slapton Sands in South Devon on 27 and 28 April 1944 in an exercise codenamed Tiger designed to acclimatize troops as accurately as possible to what they could expect at Utah during the real thing, right down to a number of pretend dead bodies strewn around. Six villages in the area had seen the evacuation of their 3,000 inhabitants. They’d been told they would, one day, be allowed back. But when, no one knew. (Pictured: US troops in training for the Normandy Landings.)

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The Wilhelm Gustloff – the Worst Maritime Disaster In History

30 January 1945 – nine hours after leaving port and seventy minutes after being hit, the huge liner, the Wilhelm Gustloff, slipped under the waves and sunk.

The Wilhelm GustloffA small fleet of ships and boats arrived on the scene and managed to pluck a few survivors from the icy waters and rescued many of those on the lifeboats. Over a thousand were rescued but… an estimated 9,343 people died, half of them children – six times the 1,517 that died on the Titanic in 1912.

The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff remains the biggest maritime disaster in history.

We have all heard of the Titanic. A century after that fateful night, the disaster remains within our global consciousness. Even before James Cameron’s epic 1998 film, we knew of the iceberg, the “women and children first”, and the band that played on.

But how many of us have even heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff?

The Luxury Liner

Wilhelm Gustloff2The ship was named after the assassinated leader of the Swiss Nazi Party (yes, Switzerland in the 1930s had its own Nazi Party), murdered in his own home in February 1936 (Wilhelm Gustloff, pictured).

The ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, weighing 25,000 tons and almost 700 feet in length, was an impressive sight, and could carry almost 2,000 passengers and crew. Launched in 1937, it began its life as a luxury cruise liner for the German workers of Hitler’s Third Reich, and, until the outbreak of the Second World War, had sailed over fifty cruises.

Wartime

For the first year of the war the Wilhelm Gustloff served as a hospital ship before being held in dock in the port of Gotenhafen on the Baltic coast (modern-day Gdynia) where, until early 1945, it served as barracks for U-boat trainees.

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