5th May 1935 – trials begin for CGT’s Normandie

with minotaure at joubertOn Sunday 5th May 1935 Normandie was ready for sea. In the afternoon the engineers started up the engines: at 5.00pm she eased away from the quay, and with the assist­ance of harbour tugs moved out into the Atlantic. Speed trials were per­formed over a measured course at Les Glénans, off the south coast of Brittany, on Monday and Tuesday. This was followed by handling trials. Normandie reached 30·156, 32·125 and 31·925 knots over three consecutive runs, without some of the boilers being fired up.

aerial on trialsTests included 8 hours continuous sailing in the Atlantic, during which she reached an average speed of 30·894 knots. There were three days of manœuvering and emergency hand­ling trials, and equipment testing. Fuel con­sumption was even lower than expected. As soon as the trials were completed,  Normandie headed for Le Havre, arriving on 11th May, where Captain Pugnet docked the massive liner without needing tugs, which were only used to swing the liner round as she entered the harbour.

4th May 1938 – CGT’s
Lafayette catches fire

lafayette fire docksideIn 1938 tragedy again hit CGT. Lafayette, the largest motor-ship in the French Line’s fleet, was undergoing a refit at Le Havre, and was due to re-enter service on 17th May. Around 9.30pm on 4th May 1938, Lafayette caught fire and burned out at the quayside at Le Havre.

lafayette fire aerialThe fire broke out when a furnace was lit, igniting oil and spreading to the adjacent oil tanks. By midnight the First Class area was well ablaze, followed by a series of explosions in the early hours of the morning. During the night the fire was so intense the town was illuminated. At one point the fire trapped fifty firemen and crew, who had to be rescued using emergency ladders.

lafayette burnt outLater that morning, once the fire was under control, it was clear that the vessel had been completely gutted. She was later declared a total loss and sold for scrapping in Rotterdam. She had to be towed to the scrapyard.

4th May 1897, launch of Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse

KWDG launchingIn 1896 Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL) ordered a new liner from Vulcan’s at Stettin, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. This was to be the wonder ship of the age, designed inside and outside to be a record-breaker. Designed by Robert Zimmerman, she was the world’s first four-funnelled liner, and when completed would be the largest ship in the world. During construction the plans were adapted so that she could be quickly adapted to become an armed merchant cruiser or a naval auxiliary, with the upper deck strengthened to take gun mountings. There were 16 transverse bulkheads extending to the upper deck, plus a longitudinal bulkhead in the engine-room, and the double bottom had 22 sub-divisions. Safety was paramount!

KWDG sliding down waysOn 4th May 1897 the Kaiser arrived at the shipyard by special train from Berlin, to witness the launch of Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. The hull was christened by Mrs George Pate, wife of the President of Vulcan’s, and the Imperial party then watched the hull slide into the River Oder. It was then collected and taken to the fitting-out wharf, where she was completed. NDL was determined that the liner was to be the most luxurious possible for the passengers as well as the fastest. Every convenience was included for their comfort.

KWDG at Plymouth June 1906Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was immediately popular, with passengers and crew. Overall the design was so successful that in the following years a further three liners were built at Stettin based on this outline, with the distinctive grouping of four funnels in two pairs. Later that year she gained the coveted Blue Riband from Cunard, crossing in 5 days 17 hours 8 minutes at an average 22.35 knots.

30th April 1881 – White Star’s Asiatic launched at Belfast

Coptic at Port ChalmersWhite Star’s Asiatic was launched at Harland & Wolff’s yard in Belfast on 30th April 1881 as Yard No. 141. Her sister ship Coptic was launched a few months later. She was the first steel-hulled vessel in the company’s service, and originally carried four masts with yards and sails: shecould accommodate 75 passengers in First Class and 1,000 in Steerage. Before she was completed, Asiatic was renamed Arabic. She was handed over to White Star on 12th August 1881, and sailed on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York on 10th September that year. Completing several Atlantic crossings, on 4th February 1882 Arabic joined the Pacific service for the next five years. She then returned to the UK and was given a refit, which included adding at least fifty more cabins.

SPAARNDAMIn an early refit the yards were removed from three of the masts. After a year on the north Atlantic service, Arabic returned to the Pacific route in August 1888.
In December 1889 Arabic returned to the UK, and in February 1890 she was sold to Holland America and renamed Spaarndam. She was very popular for several years, but in February 1901 she was laid up, and in August was broken up at Ward’s in Lancashire.

28th April 1918 – PSN’s
Oronsa torpedoed

Ortega-01Built by Harland & Wolff, Belfast as Yard Number 377, for Pacific Steam Navigation, Oronsa was launched on 24th May 1906 and delivered on 16th August that year. Her maiden voyage was on 13th September 1906. Designed as a cargo ship, she was 465 feet long, 7,907grt.

OronsaUnder Captain Hobson, Oronsa left New York on 13th April 1918, as the lead ship in a convoy of 13 freighters heading for Liverpool, with a mixed cargo of sugar, nitrates and various metals. On 28th April 1918, she was torpedoed by German submarine U-91, Captain von Glasenapp, while some 12 miles off Bardsey Island, Wales. Three crew were lost in the explosion and sinking.

28th April 1917 – ex-Royal yacht Medina sunk

Medina sunkbyUB31RMS Medina was built for P&O by Caird’s of Greenock, for their service from London to Australia. She was the last of ten sister ships, the M Class, and was 625 feet long, 12,350grt. Launched on 14th March 1911, she was completed in October that year, designed to carry 450 passengers in a very sumptuous First Class, plus 220 in Second Class. Her maiden voyage, on 11th November 1911, was momentous as she had been chosen to act as the Royal Yacht, carrying King George V and Queen Mary to India for the Delhi Durbar. For this one trip she was commissioned into the Royal Navy, and technically became HMS Medina with the crew mainly from the Royal Navy: she was briefly fitted with an extra mast, to maintain Royal flag etiquette, and her hull was repainted in white with bands of blue and gold, and buff funnels. She was back in the UK by February 1912, when she returned to Cairds for refitting for her commercial service, and was finally delivered to P&O in June 1912.

SSMedinaWith the outbreak of the Great War, she was requisitioned and provided with defensive armament, but continued on the service between Sydney and London. She was returning to London in early 1917, carrying large quantities of meat and butter, plus tons of copper, tin and gold ingots. She called at Plymouth, where fortunately most of her passengers debarked, then sailed for London, but on 28th April 1917 she was torpedoed by the German submarine UB-31. Six of the engine-room personnel were killed in the explosion, but the rest of the crew escaped, as the liner began to sink. The wreck, some 4 miles off Start Point in south Devon, is around 64 metres deep, and is a popular site for skilled divers, as she is virtually upright. There have been a number of salvage attempts, and in 1988 a quantity of items from her were auctioned at Sotheby’s. However the wreck is now collapsing and no further salvage is expected.

27th April 1941 – 983 die
in SS Slamat disaster

SS_Slamat_during_World_War_IIThere were three related shipwrecks on 27th April 1941, during Operation Demon, the evacuation of British and Allied troops from Greece, resulting in an estimated loss of 983 people. Initially the Dutch troopship Slamat was attacked by Junkers Ju-87 dive-bombers, off the east coast of the Peloponnese. Slamat was owned by Koninklijke Rotterdamsche Lloyd (Royal Dutch Lloyd), and had been converted to a troopship. In April 1941 she joined Operation Demon, as part of Convoy AG14. En route to Nauplia (Navplion) to embark troops, Slamat was attacked by German aircraft: several bombs caused heavy damage, but she continued. Arriving at Nauplia, landing craft and local caïques has to be used to tender troops out to the waiting troopships and warships. At 03.00 hours on 27th April the convoy commander on HMS Calcutta ordered all ships to sail, to get away before likely dawn attacks. Slamat ignored the command and continued boarding troops, and didn’t sail until 04.15 hours.

Heading down the Argholic Gulf, Slamat steamed at her maximum 16 knots to catch up with the rest of the convoy and the protection of the warships. However, around 7.00am the German aircraft attacked. Initially Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters, then Ju-87, Ju-88 and Dornier Do-17 bombers arrived in concentrated waves. In spite of fierce defence from the warships, at 7.10am a 550b bomb hit Slamat between the bridge and the forward funnel, and a major fire broke out. A second bomb hit soon after, and she quickly developed a list to starboard. The Captain gave the order to abandon ship – several of her lifeboats and life-rafts had been destroyed, and the Stukas continued to press home their attack as the remaining bots were launched. At least another four bombs hit the stricken vessel.

HMS Diamond-500 kopie 2HMS Diamond moved in and started rescuing survivors, initially along with HMS Wryneck, HMS Calcutta assisting, but they then returned to the convoy, which headed for Souda Bay. HMS Wryneck was then despatched back to assist HMS Diamond, arriving around 11.00am. They found a few more survivors: by now Slamat was afire from stem to stern, and Diamond was ordered to sink her with a torpedo. By now HMS Diamond had about 600 survivors aboard from the Dutch vessel. She was then caught by a surprise attack from more German aircraft, and a number of bombs hit her: she sank within eight minutes.

HMS WryneckThe aircraft then turned their attention to HMS Wryneck, and she sank a few minutes later. With the loss of all three ships, around 983 people died. Only 19 survived from Slamat: from the three ships only 66 survived. HMS Diamond was a D-Class destroyer completed on 3rd November 1933, and was equipped with four 45-calibre 4.7-in guns in single mounts plus several anti-aircraft guns and two torpedo tubes. She served on the China Station before the war, and by 1940 was operating in the Mediterranean. HMS Wryneck was a W-Class destroyed completed on 11th November 1918. Reduced to a reserve vessel and laid up in the 1930s, in 1938 she was recommissioned and converted to a fast escort, complete with four 4-in anti-aircraft guns.

19th April 1939 – Paris fire traps Normandie in dock


 on FireOn 19th April 1939, fire hit the French Line (CGT). SS Paris was docked at Le Havre, loading French works of art for the World Fair in New York. Fire broke out in several places, the largest conflagration being in the bakery. When firemen tried to gain access, they found the door lock had been jammed. Fireboats arrived, but added to the problem, pump­ing too much water on board.

Fire-Ravaged Liner Sinks in Le HavreBy the next day Paris had heeled over and capsized. Treason and sabo­tage was sus­pected, but could never be proved. Normandie, which was in the drydock just astern of her, finishing her winter refit, was now blocked. Because of the distur­bances caused by Paris, Normandie’s overhaul was interrupted, and the latest set of propellers was never fitted. A few months later the outbreak of World War II interrupted any further plans for Normandie to make another speed attempt.

paris rolled overBefore they were able to get Normandie out of the drydock, divers had to cut the masts off Paris, although the rest was left to lie – a decision that would come back to haunt CGT just a few years later, when Liberté (ex-Europa), being refitted in Le Havre, broke free of her moorings during a storm in December 1946 and drifted on to the hulk, causing her to sink. Liberté settled quickly, but in an upright position. Six months later she was refloated and the refit was completed. The wreck of Paris remained until 1947, when she finally was scrapped in situ.

18th April 1942 – another fire breaks out on Normandie

march 18 1942Once the fire on Normandie had been totally extinguished, and she was stable although lying on her side, plans began to be considered for salvaging her. The risk of further fires was taken very seriously, and comprehensive precautions were quickly put in place. With fuel oil floating around from the main fuel tanks, tons of cork insulation everywhere, collapsed partitions, plywood, upholstery and carpets, the risks were manifold. An ex-battalion chief was appointed to organise a fire watch: he recruited thee assistant chiefs and 21 firemen, all ex-New York City firemen each with at least 20 years’ experience. The group was organised into three sections each standing an 8-hour each every day.

There were numerous small fires on Normandie during the months of salvage, but only three were moderately serious. One was on 13th March 1942 but was quickly extinguished by another worker. Then on 18th April 1942 a worker using an acetylene torch ignited the cork insulation in a refrigeration compartment. This was potentially serious: three separate fire alarms were raised as the fire burned for over four hours. In the end firefighters had to cut holes in the hull to reach the fire and put it out. Another notable fire broke out in May 1942.

There were many barges moored alongside the wreck. One was fitted with a bank of carbon dioxide tanks, linked to a system of one-inch piping running around the ship, for immediate use in another major fire. There was also an eight-inch fire main, connected to the City water main. This was divided into two four-inch pipes, with numerous outlets for firefighting hoses to be connected. For a while three fireboats were stationed locally, and there was also a barge holding emergency breathing apparatus and resuscitation equipment. No further risks were to be taken!

17th April 1917 – hospital ship Lanfranc torpedoed

Lanfranc_hospital_shipOn 17th April 1917, HMHS Lanfranc left Le Havre for Southampton, carrying 234 wounded British soldiers, 167 wounded German PoWs, 52 medical staff and a crew of 123. She was clearly marked in the internationally-accepted markings of a hospital ship, and was fully illuminated. She was escorted by a destroyer, HMS Badger, and the patrol boat P37. About 7.40pm, without warning, she was torpedoed by the German submarine UB-40, under Captain Hans Howaldt. The captain of Lanfranc immediately ordered the engines stopped, and as the ship listed to port and began to settle by the stern, he ordered abandon ship. The crew and the walking wounded struggled to get the more seriously injured up on deck and into the lifeboats, as the two escorts moved in and came alongside to assist. Lanfranc sank in just over an hour; only 34 aboard lost their lives.

HMHS_LanfrancLanfranc had been built for the Booth Line by Caledon Shipbuilding in Dundee, and had been launched on 18th October 1906. She was 418 feet long, 6,28grt, and had become popular on their services from Liverpool to Le Havre and then Manaus on the Amazon. Her maiden voyage had been on 18th February 1907. She could accommodate 200 in First Class and 350 in Third Class when built. She was requisitioned soon after the outbreak of the Great War and was converted for use as a hospital ship.