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 Bismarck – a summary

Named after the 19th century German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, the Bismarck had been launched in February 1939 by the chancellor’s great granddaughter. The ship was an impressive sight – one sixth of a mile long and 120 feet wide. British writer and broadcaster, Ludovic Kennedy (1919-2009), wrote of the Bismarck: “There had never been a warship like her… No German saw her without pride, no neutral or enemy without admiration.” 

On 24 May 1941, the Bismarck, on its first operation, had helped sink the HMS Hood. But in return, it had been damaged and had set a course for northern France to attend to its wounds and repair the leaking fuel tanks. “The Hood was the pride of England,” said the German Fleet Commander, Admiral Günter Lutjens (pictured), over the ship’s loudspeakers, “the enemy will now attempt to concentrate his forces against us. The German nation is with you.”

The crew was nervous but for now at least the ship had slipped away from battle and had managed to remain at large, undetected by the British.

But then Lutjens made a fatal error – he broke radio silence. He radioed back to Germany announcing his intentions. The signal was picked up by the British, and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park did their work and roughly located the Bismarck’s position. Then, a RAF reconnaissance plane spotted the trailing oil leak.

Swordfish

26 May 1941 – the British closed in. The aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, launched 15 bombers, known as Swordfish planes, to attack the Bismarck, swooping in low, firing torpedoes. To their annoyance every torpedo missed and, equally, to their surprise the Bismarck failed to fire back. They soon learnt why – it was not the Bismarck they were attacking, but one of their own fleet, the HMS Sheffield.  Fortunately for the commanders responsible, there were no casualties.

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The Sinking of HMS Hood – a summary

On 24 May 1941 two mighty ships engaged in battle – the respective pride of the German and British navies: the Bismarck and HMS Hood.

It started six days before when, on the evening of Sunday 18 May 1941, the Bismarck, accompanied by the Prinz Eugene, set sail from the Polish port of Gdynia. It was the Bismarck’s first mission.

“There had never been a warship like her”

Named after the 19th century German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, the Bismarck had been launched just two years earlier, in February 1939, by the chancellor’s great granddaughter. The ship was an impressive sight – one sixth of a mile long and 120 feet wide. British writer and broadcaster, Ludovic Kennedy (1909-2009), wrote of the Bismarck: “There had never been a warship like her… No German saw her without pride, no neutral or enemy without admiration.”

The mission set for the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugene was to head for the Atlantic and cause as much damage and disruption as possible to the British convoys shipping vital supplies across the Atlantic into Britain. On board the Bismarck were two of Hitler’s most senior and able seamen – its captain, 45-year-old Ernst Lindemann, referred to by his crew as ‘our father’, and Fleet Commander, 51-year-old Admiral Gunther Lutjens.

From Poland, the two ships passed Norway where their presence was picked up by the British. British aircraft and ships, keeping a safe distance, monitored their progress as the German ships skirted north of Iceland and then south down the Denmark Straits between Iceland and Greenland.

It was here, in the Denmark Straits, that the British fleet, led by the HMS Hood and Prince of Wales, was ordered to intercept.

“The embodiment of British sea-power”

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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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Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire – book review

‘It was one of those enterprises which could be attempted only because in the eyes of the enemy it was absolutely impossible.’ Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, describing the Second World War raid on Saint-Nazaire.

Into the Jaws of Death - coverOn 28 March 1942, 621 men of the Royal navy and British Commandos attacked the port of Saint-Nazaire in occupied France. The mission has been dubbed ‘the greatest raid of all time.’ It was certainly daring, audacious in the extreme and terribly dangerous – less than half the men returned alive. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded, two of them posthumously. As the title of this new book on the raid states, the men went Into the Jaws of Death.

Historian, Robert Lyman, has written much about specific aspects of the Second World War, with books about the Cockleshell Heroes, the Siege of Tobruk, Kohima, the Middle East during the war, and a biography on General Bill Slim. Now, Lyman has turned his attention to the Saint-Nazaire raid. Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire is a detailed book on the raid: the reasons that lay behind it, the preparation, the training, the raid itself and its aftermath.

A Bleak Time

Early 1942, as Lyman reminds us, was a bleak time for the Western Allies during the Second World War – British forces had just surrendered their garrison at Singapore; Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic; and wartime austerity was beginning to bite. In Europe, following the fall of France eighteen months earlier, Nazi occupation had been firmly established; and the first deportations of Jews residing in France had just begun.

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Admiral Byng – the Execution of a Scapegoat

John Byng was born on 29 October 1704 in Bedfordshire, England. One of fifteen children, John, like his father, Rear-Admiral Sir George Byng, joined the Royal Navy and by the age of 23 had reached the rank of captain.  

Admiral ByngUntil 1739, Byng was stationed around an uneventful Mediterranean. Then, perhaps due to his father’s influence, John experienced a rapid rise up the promotional ladder. In 1742, he was given the governorship of the colony of Newfoundland. In 1745 he was appointed Rear Admiral, followed by Vice-Admiral in 1747, all of which he obtained without having seen any military action.  His father, George, had been victorious in a number of naval battles, but when his son was finally to be tested it resulted in disaster.

Minorca

Admiral John Byng is mostly famous for his notorious execution by the British authorities in 1757 following the loss of the Mediterranean island of Minorca to the French at the start of the Seven Years War. Hostilities began in Europe only two days after the declaration of war in 1756 with a French attack on Minorca on 20 May. After a fierce yet inconclusive naval battle with the French fleet, the cautious Admiral Byng, charged with relieving the garrison at Minorca, decided to move his fleet to the safety of Gibraltar and from there recoup. But by 28 June, the French had captured the island.

A combination of factors had hampered Byng, factors that he brought to the attention of his superiors: lack of men, unrepaired ships, failed communications, delays of orders, and problems with reinforcements, which, together with Byng’s overly cautious and pessimistic assessment, all led to the British failure at Minorca.

“Not Doing His Utmost”

Nevertheless, the outrage focused on Byng, who was court-marshalled and accused of ‘not doing his utmost’ and sentenced to execution. Politicians and public, whom at first demanded Byng’s head, realised that Byng had become a mere scapegoat for the inadequacies of the Admiralty. Now they called for leniency: ‘for our own consciences’ sake, as well as in justice to the prisoner, we pray your lordships, in the most earnest manner, to recommend him to his majesty’s clemency.’

Prime Minister, William Pitt (the Elder), pressed King George II to use his royal prerogative of mercy and overturn the verdict. The king declined.

On 14 March 1757, Admiral Byng was taken on board the HMS Monarch, shipped near Portsmouth, and executed by firing-squad. An eyewitness describes the scene:

About noon, the Admiral having taken leave of a clergyman, and two friends who accompanied him, walked out of the great cabin to the quarter-deck, where two files of marines were ready to execute the sentence. He advanced with a firm deliberate step, a composed and resolute countenance, and resolved to suffer with his face uncovered, until his friends, representing that his looks would possibly intimidate the soldiers, and prevent their taking aim properly, he submitted to their request, threw his hat on the deck, kneeled on a cushion, tied one white handkerchief over his eyes, and dropped the other as a signal for his executioners, who fired a volley so decisive, that five balls passed through his body, and he dropped down dead in an instant. The time in which this tragedy was acted, from his walking out of the cabin to his being deposited in the coffin, did not exceed three minutes.’

He was the first and last British admiral to be executed.

“To encourage the others”

Byng’s execution became a cause célèbre in Britain, and philosopher Voltaire would later jeer in his Candid, ‘Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres’ (‘In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others’). It certainly did. Naval historian, N A M Roger, wrote, ‘The execution of Byng … taught officers that even the most powerful friends might not save an officer who failed to fight … Byng’s death revived a culture of determination which set British officers apart from their foreign contemporaries’.

Posthumous Pardon

To this day, Admiral Byng’s family continues to petition for a posthumous pardon, which so far, has been denied them. On the 250th anniversary of Byng’s execution, in 2007, members of the current-day Byng family were interviewed by The Guardian, in which they said, “The Byngs won’t take the refusal of a pardon lying down. We’re going to take this further.”

 

Unforgiving SeaRupert Colley’s gripping new novel, set during World War Two, The Unforgiving Sea, is now available.

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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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