In 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.
Only 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.
In 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.
Mendi 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.
At 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.
The 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.
On 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.
The 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.
Zealandia 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.
Requisitioned 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.
On 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.
One 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.