28th February 1885 –
Gaelic launched at Belfast

Gaelic 1885Gaelic, the second vessel of that name, was launched at Harland & Wolff’s Belfast yard on 28th February 1885. She was handed over to White Star on 18th July 1885, for use on the joint White Star/Occidental & Oriental trans-Pacific route. Under Captain Pearne, she sailed from Liverpool on 28th July, heading for Hong Kong, then Yokohama and on to San Francisco. She arrived at her destination on 30th October. She then settled into her regular commercial service from San Francisco to Yokohama, running alongside her sister ship, Belgic.

In August 1896, soon after leaving Nagasaki, Gaelic encountered a large fleet of sampans. In taking avoiding action, Gaelic went aground on a reef at Shimonoseki, and her bow and forward hold were badly damaged. After temporary repairs at Nagasaki, she returned to Hong Kong and was dry-docked. Here a number of plates had to be replaced, plus nine frames and three bulkheads. She had a number of incidents involving health and sanitary inspections, with frequent outbreaks of smallpox, bubonic plague and other serious issues, due to the large number of immigrants carried.

Gaelic1At this time the transport and sale of opium was legal, and Gaelic often carried large cargoes. On 10th January 1902 she arrived at San Francisco with over £1 million of opium aboard plus other valuable commodities. She made her final departure from San Francisco on 13th December 1904, heading for Hong Kong and then the UK. On her arrival, she was sent to Belfast for a refit, and was then sold on to Pacific Steam Navigation, who renamed her Callao, for their service from Liverpool to Callao in Peru. Her accommodation was now 83 First, 44 Second and 280 Third Class. Finally, in September 1907 Callao was broken up in South Wales.

P&O’s Pacific Dawn in drydock for refit

pdawn1-fill-800x600In a recent statement from P&O Cruises Australia, the cruiseship Pacific Dawn has now entered a Singapore drydock to begin a multi-million dollar rebuild. There will be a number of new features installed, including a waterpark and two waterslides. The traditional ship’s buffet is to be replaced by a group of fresh food outlets in an area to be called The Pantry. Other changes in the food offerings include a restaurant called Nic and Toni’s, which will specialise in Mediterranean-inspired dishes, a poolside Grill and a seafood restaurant to be known as Shell and Bones. The various theatres and entertainment areas are also being refurbished.

pdawn2-fill-800x600Pacific Dawn is expected to leave the drydock in early March and to be back at Brisbane by 16th March, with the first cruise leaving on 1st April. No announcement was made about bookings for her planned itinerary for early March. Pacific Dawn is based at Brisbane, Queensland, and was built at Fincantieri in 1991, as Regal Princess.

26th February 1914 –
Britannic launched

Britannic sternWhite Star’s Britannic was launched at Harland & Wolff, Belfast, as Yard No 433, on 26th February 1914. A large group of prominent guests and journalists had been brought over from Liverpool on Patriotic, chartered from Belfast Steamship. The day was cold, with a steady drizzle, but that didn’t dampen the celebrations. After the launch 12 tugs moved the hull round to the deep-water fitting out berth, where work immediately began on completing her.

britannic launch and tugsWork on the third liner in the trio had proceeded swiftly: framing had been complete by 27th February 1913, and the hull was fully plated by 20th September. However, with the outbreak of the Great War, work was halted as Admiralty contracts took precedence, and materials and skilled workers were needed on other vessels. Then in May 1915 the Admiralty, desperate for large troopships and hospital ships, enquired about Olympic and Britannic. White Star confirmed that it would take approximately 12 weeks to complete Britannic to a state where she could be used as a troopship, and that Olympic was available immediately. The Admiralty requisitioned Britannic on 13th November 1915, to be completed as a hospital ship. Many of the fittings already in place were removed and put in storage, and the missing gantry davits were replaced by six Welin davits. It was said that the cost of the conversion amounted to £90,000.

Britannic HMHT Soton WaterBritannic sailed for Liverpool on 11th December 1915, under Captain Ranson, where she was formally commissioned as HMHS Britannic. Olympic was in port, so this would be one of only a few times the two sisters would be together. For the next ten days, medical stores and equipment were loaded, and the medical staff arrived. Britannic finally sailed on 23rd December 1915, bound for Naples and Mudros.

25th February 1917 – silver cargo lost as Laconia sunk

LaconiaAtFullSteam-TransatlanticVoyage-500RMS Laconia was built for Cunard by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson at Newcastle.  She was a twin-funnelled, twin-propeller steamship, 625 feet long, 18,000grt. Laconia sailed on her maiden voyage on 20th January 1912, from Liverpool to New York, but was later on the Liverpool to Boston route. Primarily used as an emigrant ship, she could carry 300 in First Class, 350 in Second Class and 2,200 in Third Class. Requisitioned in October 1914, she was converted into an armed merchant cruiser, based at Simonstown in South Africa. Returned to Cunard in July 1916, she was converted back to her peacetime configuration and reverted to her commercial service by 9th September 1916.

RMS_Laconia_1912On 25th February 1917, heading to the UK from New York, Laconia was torpedoed by the German submarine U-50, six miles off Fastnet. Twelve aboard were killed, six crew and six passengers, including two Americans. There was a great deal of publicity across the USA about German atrocities, and the sinking was said to have had a major effect on bringing America into the Great War. The wreck of Laconia was found in 1986, and recovery efforts were instituted to recover her cargo. Reports vary, but she was carrying between 800 and 1000 bars of silver, 1,232 boxes of silver coins, and over 4.5 million brass shell cases. Other cargo included 3,000 tons of steel and nearly 3,000 bales of cotton. A salvage company, Deep6, commenced recovery in 2008, and later agreed a contract with the UK Department of Transport to establish salvage rights. Another salvage company, Odyssey, later attempted to establish title in the courts but had to withdraw their claim later. Captain Irvine remained with Cunard and went on to command a number of other vessels, including the second Laconia in the 1920s.

24th February 1912 – Olympic loses propeller blade

olympic lost propeller bladeOn 21st February 1912, Olympic sailed from New York, heading for Plymouth, Cherbourg and Southampton. At 4.26pm on 24th February, about 750 miles off the Newfoundland coast, she hit what the officers later reported was probably a submerged derelict, not uncommon at that time with so many old wooden-hulled vessels still around. Wooden wrecks would often float for a long time just under the surface, and were notoriously difficult to see in time to take avoiding action. When she hit the derelict, Olympic lost a blade on the port propeller. The engine was immediately stopped and the propeller disengaged to prevent damage to the engine and shafting. Once the damage had been checked, she continued her journey, at a reduced speed, and arrived at Southampton a day late. Once passengers and cargo had debarked, she returned to Belfast, for repairs.

oly l into drydock, t rt at wharfArriving at Carrickfergus Roads on 1st March, Olympic missed the tide by just 30 minutes and had to anchor overnight. Titanic had been withdrawn from the drydock on 29th February, in readiness for the arrival of Olympic. As soon as the damaged liner was docked, workers were transferred from Titanic to complete the repairs. The opportunity was also taken to clean and repaint the lower hull.

T in drydock, O in fitting out, 1.3.12Once complete, Olympic left the drydock on 4th March. However weather conditions were bad, and she was unable to head for the Victoria Channel. It was decided to return her to the drydock until the gales eased, as room in the yard was very restricted. The next day Harland & Wolff achieved a novel, very tricky manœuvre: they moved Olympic out of the drydock, eased Titanic into the drydock and then moved Olympic to the fitting-out wharf, all on the one high tide. The next day, 7th March, weather conditions had improved sufficiently for Olympic to leave Belfast and head for Southampton. On leaving, she briefly went aground near West Twin island, but was cleared to sail after divers had checked the hull. However, work on Titanic had been delayed and this was to have an impact on the later disaster.

23rd February 1916 –
Olympic and U35

Olympic dazzle - largeIn the early hours of 23rd February 1916, heading back to the UK after carrying more troops to Mudros in the Gallipoli Campaign, Olympic was sighted by the German submarine U35. The Officer of the Watch ordered the liner to alter course, and the fo’castle gun fired several shots, none of which came close to the submarine. Some reports claim an attack was carried out by the submarine but was unsuccessful. The submarine captain’s log, however, claimed conditions were bad and he didn’t press home an attack.

olympic - ww1 camoOnly a few days earlier, while at Mudros, Olympic had been attacked by an enemy aircraft, believed to have taken off from an aerodrome in Bulgaria. This attack was beaten off by escorting warships, and the aircraft was later downed by British fighters from Imbros. Olympic arrived back at Liverpool on 13th March, having carried over 25,000 troops to Gallipoli in just four trips.

Normandie’s waiters train before maiden crossing

steward service trainingIn the weeks preceding Normandie’s maiden departure, CGT assembled the most experienced crew members from their other vessels. They wanted the best possible experience for the passengers. In order to ensure this, waiters, stewards, bell boys, liftiers and others were given regular training. A daily calisthenics regime was instituted to ensure they were all as fit as possible.

This photograph shows some of the waiters being trained to give the finest possible service in the First Class Dining room. Here they were given final instructions in silver service, menus, selection of glassware and all the other finer points needed for a truly First Class experience.

21st February 1917 –
SS Mendi and 700 lost

SS_MendiMendi was built by Alexander Stephen, Glasgow, in 1905, for the British &  African Steam Navigation Co., part of the Elder Dempster Group. She was 370 feet long, 4,222grt, and operated on the Liverpool to West Africa service. She was chartered in 1916 for use as a troopship, and was sent to Lagos, Nigeria to be adapted. The three cargo holds were converted for troop accommodation; officers used the existing passenger accommodation. On 16th January 1917 SS Mendi sailed from Cape Town en route to Le Havre, in a convoy of four troopships with an escort led by the cruiser HMS Cornwall. Mendi was commanded by Captain Yardley, a very experienced master. The vessel carried a large contingent of the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) – some 805 black privates, with 22 white officers and 17 NCOs. There were also 56 military passengers aboard, as well as a crew of 89. Large numbers of the SANLC served in the battlefields of Europe, mainly on  tree felling, land clearing, trench digging, etc. as well working at the docks unloading and loading ships and trains. They were all volunteers.

darro-largeAt 5.00am on 21st February 1917, off the Isle of Wight in the English Channel, Mendi was rammed by Royal Mail’s Darro, 11,484grt, travelling in ballast at high speed through dense fog with no alarms sounding. The impact was so severe that Mendi immediately took on a severe list to starboard, preventing many lifeboats from being launched: she sank some 20 minutes later. In all, some 607 black SANLC privates drowned in the icy waters, as well as nine of the officers and 33 crew. [Records vary on the numbers aboard and of the numbers lost – figures given here are combined from several sources] Darro made no attempt to help in the rescue of the survivors, most of whom were saved by boats launched from HMS Brisk, the escorting destroyer. There are several oral records of the the bravery and dignity of the African men, as they realised they would die. The disaster was one of the worst South African tragedies of the Great War, and was also one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century. The master of Darro, Henry Stump, was later censured for the disaster. In 2003 South Africa created its highest civilian honour for bravery, the Order of Mendi.

20th February 1944 –
Hydro sunk in Norway

1943_rjukan8771The hydrogen plant at Vemork in Norway, some 50 miles west of Oslo, was a mass producer of heavy water (deuterium oxide), an essential component in the creation of plutonium for early atomic weapons. With the German invasion and occupation of Norway, the British authorities were concerned the Nazis would increase production and transport the heavy water to Germany to step up their development of a nuclear bomb. Several bombing raids and commando attacks were carried out, delaying production and destroying much of the water already produced. Eventually the Germans decided to move the remaining stocks of potassium hydroxide, used to produce the heavy water, to Germany and to continue production there. The only way to transport heavy items from this area of Norway was using the local ferry service, which operated three steam-powered ferries: Hydro, which had been built in 1914, Rjukanfos and Ammonia. The Norwegian resistance and the British authorities  decided to wait until the barrels containing the remaining heavy water and potassium hydroxide were aboard the ferry, and sink it in deep water in Lake Tinnsjø.

3949527132On Sunday, 20th February 1944 the railway wagons and material were shunted to the ferry station at Mæl and loaded aboard the ferry Hydro. The resistance had been informed by directors from the Norsk Hydro plant of the transport arrangements. Saturday night three agents boarded the ferry and placed charges on the keel, before leaving again. The charge – eighteen pounds of plastic explosive and two fuses made from alarm clocks –was placed near the bow. Although the weather was good on the day, the water temperature was –9°C, so the resistance wanted the sinking to happen as close to shore as possible to give any Norwegian survivors at least some hope of being rescued before freezing.

DF_Hydro_at_MælThe bomb exploded at 10.30am: the ferry listed and then sank quickly. At this point the lake was 1,410 feet deep – too much for the Germans to attempt to salvage the barrels. Despite the preparations of the resistance, 14 Norwegian crew and passengers died, as well as a number of German soldiers, although 29 Norwegians were saved. Around 20 years ago using modern salvage techniques, some of the barrels were recovered, and were found to have contained high quality heavy water that would have been crucial to the Nazi atomic bomb project. After the war the action at Vemork was considered to be one of the most successful sabotage acts of World War II: it formed the basis for a very successful film, The Heroes of Telemark, and a later TV series, The Heavy Water War.

19th February 1942 – Zealandia sunk in Darwin

38f8853d-0ef0-43ec-8ee9-bd9b1c75ffc3-A20410_141Zealandia was a single-funnelled, twin-propeller steamship built in 1909 by John Brown’s Clydebank yard. She was completed in 1910 for the trans-Tasman service of Huddart Parker, Melbourne, and was 410 feet long, 6,683grt. Initially she was chartered to Union Steam Ship Co. for their service to Tasmania and Vancouver, after which she was based at Fremantle.

zealandia-awmRequisitioned in the Great War, she transported Australian troops to the European battlefields, and later American troops from New York to France. In December 1919 she was returned to commercial service, operating between Sydney and Western Australia, and later on the Sydney to Hobart route.

28142.JPG.previewOn the outbreak of World War II she was again taken up for trooping duties, this time staying in Australian waters. In June 1940 Zealandia transported part of the Australian 8th Division  from Sydney to Darwin, to support the defence against the expected Japanese invasion. She then took more troops to Raboul, before taking Australian troops and their equipment to Singapore. After several more trooping voyages, she was anchored in Darwin harbour on 19th February 1942 when Japanese aircraft made a devastating attack.

zealandia on fire, darwinOne bomb fell through a hatch and exploded in the ship’s hold, and she quickly caught fire. Other planes then attacked with machine guns. The ammunition aboard started to explode: the fire was impossible to contain and the captain gave the order to abandon ship. Zealandia quickly settled on the bottom of the harbour: two crewmen later died of their wounds.