Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

When the White Star Line introduced it’s brand new Oceanic in 1899, the company broke the mould of traditional Atlantic voyaging in one spectacular respect.

It was not so much in terms of size- the Oceanic represented natural evolution rather than a seismic advance. It was not even in terms of her beautiful, elegant interiors that the new ship really made a splash.

With Oceanic, White Star instead went against the single prime tenet that had governed Atlantic steamships for decades. For here was a ship that, almost uniquely, was designed to steam at a slightly more economical speed than her British and German rivals.

The unspoken rule had always been that liners should be ever swifter, with the in built possibility of making record speed crossings. But with Oceanic, White Star formally opted out of the speed race, never to return.


Firstly, fuel was very expensive. Each additional knot over the first twenty attained cost as much as that original twenty. And the potential wear and tear on hulls pushed at flank speed could be considerable.

Instead, White Star chose to concentrate on building larger, more economical ships that would emphasize comfort and luxury over bone shattering speed. And it was a policy that worked admirably right up to the outbreak of the Great War.

And I think that it is worth remembering that this comfort-before-speed policy was enshrined in the White Star playbook before the formal takeover of the line by J.P.Morgan’s IMM. And the fact that Morgan allowed this mindset to stand shows that he was in agreement with that direction of travel.

I think by that stage that White Star was not so much keeping an eye on it’s age old rival, Cunard, as watching developments across the channel, in Germany.

Here- just like in Britain- two great shipping lines fought tooth and nail for the lion’s share of the travelling trade.

North German Lloyd dominated the turn of the century era, with a quartet of long, lean four funneled racers. Each in succession took the Blue Ribband (except for the Kronprinzessen Cecile) on their Atlantic debuts.

Their main German rival, Hamburg Amerika Line, replied with a speed record champion of their own, in the shape of the very similar Deutschland.

That ship almost shook herself to pieces in her ambitious grab for the crown. And she proved to be a profligate, hideously expensive fuel guzzler right throughout her career.

In Germany, company chairman Albert Ballinn looked at the new White Star liner Oceanic, and decided that the British company was on to something. He, too, decided to go down the ‘comfort is more, speed is less’ route.

Their first toe in the water came in the stunning form of the Amerika of 1905, a ship so opulent and luxurious that she immediately became the most successful ship on the Atlantic. Slower but steady, and complete with marvellous cabins and a hugely popular, separate a la carte restaurant in first class, the Amerika drew passengers in droves. In many ways, she was just as epochal a ship as the Oceanic, if subsequently a much less well remembered one.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star, found himself confronted with the imminent, looming reality of a pair of record breaking new vessels from the rival Cunard Line. Lusitania and Mauretania would be half as large again as any other ships afloat and, inevitably, they would be far faster, too. These two liners would reduce the time on the Liverpool to New York run by several hours.

But Ismay’s eyes were not just on Cunard; they were also on the continent of Europe. And, even as Cunard contemplated it’s new pair of crown jewels, the White Star chairman acted.

In 1907, White Star took the unprecedented strep of transferring it’s first run transatlantic liners- the so-called ‘Big Four’- from Liverpool round to Southampton.

The Hampshire port had a far superior harbour to the Mersey in many ways, but it was convenient access to continental ports that was the key factor behind Ismay’s decision.

In a chilling echo of current times, Europe was awash with a human tidal wave of people on the move; streams of refugees fleeing war, poverty, and prejudice trekked the length of the continent to board transatlantic liners, hoping to find a new life in the promised land of Canada and, more especially, the USA.

This trade was so vast that tapping into it made simple, logical sense. From Southampton, a White Star liner could reach Cherbourg in six hours to embark passengers from the continent. Steaming overnight along the English Channel, that same liner could arrive in Queenstown to pick up Irish emigrants- just as their Cunard rivals did- before beginning the westbound crossing proper to the new world.

Thus, White Star ships could fill up their empty cabins at two ports rather than just one, as well as picking up passengers almost directly from London via the better rail links that existed to the Hampshire port. Once achieved, their ships could then steam westward at a more stately, fuel conservative speed that made them slower, yet more comfortable, than their Cunard rivals.

And, in planning it’s response to the Cunard wonder ships, White Star refused to be pushed back into an arms race in terms of speed. Instead, they opted for a pair of colossal ocean liners, later to be followed by a third. Each would be half as big again as the new Cunarders. From the start, these giants were intended to be ‘Southampton ships’ and, as a result, massive infrastructure upgrades were initiated across that port. Upgrades that Cunard, ironically, would benefit from significantly after the Great War.

While the design of the new ships was in theory a response to Cunard, White Star still kept it’s other eye locked on the progress of Hamburg Amerika and it’s chairman, the savvy, fastidious Albert Ballinn. It was, incidentally, a compliment that Ballinn himself duly reciprocated.

These new White Star ships would offer stunning, expansive luxury and largesse in first class, while also offering a wealth of cheap, utilitarian but extremely practical accommodation for the desperate hordes of migrants flooding into European ports. While they were intended to take a full day longer to cross the Atlantic than the speedy Cunarders- six days as opposed to five- they would be jam packed with a wealth of time killing amusements and diversions for the wealthy, moneyed travelling elite.

Of course, those two ships were the Olympic and the Titanic. But, as this article hopefully attests, their eventual genesis owed as much to the opulent German vessels of Ballinn as to their fabled Cunard rivals.


When you think of disasters at sea, what are the first names that trip off your tongue?

I’m betting that, almost without exception, it is the same two ships; Titanic and Lusitania.

I would also guess that the names Dona Paz, Wilhelm Gustloff and even perhaps the Empress Of Ireland mean little to most.

And that is quite incredible; because the Dona Paz remains, quite simply, the biggest peacetime maritime disaster ever. The total loss of life was some 4,386 people. There were just 24 survivors.

So, why have so few people heard of this tragedy, with it’s death toll almost three times as great as that of the Titanic? A lot of it has to do with perceptions of how we view shipwrecks, and the stature of the ship itself.

The Dona Paz was a simple, working ferry that sailed around the islands of the Philippines. She was criminally overloaded by an appalling two thousand passengers when she was rammed by an oil tanker, the Vector, on December 20th, 1987.

Her passenger list consisted entirely of local working people, commuting to and from their daily jobs, or perhaps just intent on visiting family and friends.

It had none of the platinum chip drama of the floodlit Titanic, sagging helplessly into the starlit Atlantic as Wallace Hartley and his bandsmen sawed desperately away at dance music.

There were no millionaires, film stars or railroad owners lining the decks of the Dona Paz. In fact, the story- ghastly, horrifying and absolutely beyond belief- created hardly even a ripple in the international press. It was something that happened a long way away, in a strange land.

By contrast, when the car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise had capsized and sank off Zeebrugge that same March, with the loss of 188 lives, the story made headlines right around the world. In media speak, some lives obviously have much more value than others.

As for the other ship mentioned, the Wilhelm Gustloff took perhaps as many as 9,000 people down with her in January, 1945. She was a commandeered German liner carrying civilians, wounded troops and Red Cross personnel away from the advancing Russian army, when a Soviet submarine slammed a trio of torpedoes into her on the night of January 30th.

Again, the ship was massively overloaded with terrified people. And yet, her destruction and horrific death toll has raised none of the righteous horror and indignation that the torpedoing of the Lusitania by a U boat did in May, 1915. 1,201 men. women and children went to the bottom with the famous Cunarder. That story garnered a tidal wave of horror and infamy so vast that it eventually played a huge part in bringing America into the Great War on the Allied side.

So why one, and not the other?

Perhaps part of it is down to the fact that the Wilhlem Gustloff was packed to the gills with wartime Germans, fleeing potential revenge for the string of unspeakable atrocities initiated in their name by Hitler and his SS. Even the most innocent of nurses and children were irredeemably tainted by association with such an evil regime. Besides which, the Gustloff was carrying wounded personnel from the German armed forces. In the Russian view, that made her a perfectly legitimate target. In that war, there were few real civilians- a view shared by both sides.

And what about the Empress Of Ireland? She capsized in the freezing Saint Lawrence on a foggy May evening in 1914 and sank in just fourteen minutes, leaving over 1,000 of her passengers and crew to expire within screaming distance of land. It caused horror and outrage that was as brief lived as the ship itself.

Again, the Empress Of Ireland was full of mostly ordinary, blue collar workers and their families, heading over to Europe and beyond. The ship, while comfortable, was a modest and unassuming liner, rather than a floating palace like the Titanic.

When the Titanic ship sank, she dragged half of the New York stock exchange down with her. Most of her famous first class passengers were names known the world over, and most of them went down with her. It triggered a media tsunami without equal perhaps to this day.

As for the Empress Of Ireland, she sank just three months before a global conflict of unimaginable horror erupted right across Europe and beyond. Soon, the daily death tolls coming in from the Western Front made the loss of a thousand souls, thrashing and gasping for breath in an icy Canadian waterway, seem almost quaint.

In received wisdom, the deliberate targeting of the Lusitania seems somehow more ghastly and unacceptable than that of the Wilhelm Gustloff, though each sinking was undeniably as carefully targeted and ruthlessly carried through as the other.

Awful beyond words, the Dona Paz disaster will never be immortalised in film. The story, like so many others, has been allowed to founder with indecent haste, and very scant recognition and remembrance.

Are some lives really perceived to be more or less valuable than others? Viewed through the skewed lens of our current historical prism, it certainly seems so. Nothing else explains the lurid acres of grisly coverage accorded to the Herald of Free Enterprise, while news of a ship that killed more than twenty times as many just nine moths later, created nary a ripple.

The ocean remains an equal opportunities killer; she will take her victims regardless of colour, age, wealth or any self assumed notions of social status. And, at the end of the day, every single soul lost across that infamous glut of maritime tragedies- passengers and crew alike- was a simple, terrified person. Most had families; all were loved, mourned and missed to a lesser or greater degree. No doubt they all prayed to the same idea of what we call ‘God’ for a salvation that, ultimately, never came.

I think that the least we can do is to acknowledge that sad fact.

The Lusitania.

The Lusitania.


The Queen Mary 2 will celebrate yet another historic milestone this year when she sails on what will be her 250th crossing of the Atlantic in November.

The giant Cunarder- the largest ocean liner ever built- will sail from New York on November 25th on an eight night, eastbound voyage, scheduled to arrive in Southampton on December 3rd.

Fares for an inside stateroom start at £999.

It’s been something of a banner headline year for Cunard.Tthe company celebrated it’s 175th anniversary this year and, on a more sombre note, there was a pretty emotional voyage of remembrance to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania off the south coast of Ireland in May.

Having just completed her first, full decade of service, the Queen Mary 2 is also slated for a major refit, which will see the replacement of the mid ship, centrally located Kings’ Court buffet area among other things. The Kings’ Court has been a bone of contention for many QM2 regulars ever since the ship made her debut, back in 2004.

While it is heart warming to see the great liner passing yet another service milestone, I can’t help but point out that the original Queen Mary – half the size of the current one- used to make the same Atlantic crossing in half as many days.

Still, this really is a cause for celebration, and no doubt the event will be marked on board in suitable style. It should be quite a memorable crossing.

The great QM2 will embark on her 250th Atlantic crossing in November this year

The great QM2 will embark on her 250th Atlantic crossing in November this year


It was the original ‘shot that was heard around the world’…

When the stately bulk of RMS Lusitania loomed against the cross hairs of U-20’s periscope on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915, Walther Schweiger did not hesitate for one second. He slammed his last available torpedo into the glistening black flank of the liner. The rest is history, and no more relevant than today, the centenary of the sinking.

She went down in just eighteen minutes, leaving almost two thousand people gasping and thrashing for their lives in the frigid, sunlit waters off the coast of southern Ireland. 1,201 men, women and children were lost altogether. Bodies were still being found draped across Irish beaches some three weeks later.

The story was a sensation across the world. How could anyone torpedo an unarmed passenger liner, full of women and children, and leave them to such a ghastly fate? The media hyped the sinking into the ultimate act of barbarism; the despicable work of a dastardly enemy that would sink to any depths- in this case quite literally- to impose his cruel world view on humanity.

But, truth be told, the gloves were off from the first days of World War One. Any notion that the contest would be fought in a gentlemanly style between two rival power blocs, one that would do it’s utmost to spare civilians, was shot to pieces when the German army trampled all over the neutral status of petrified little Belgium.

That was followed by the British blockade of German ports, which soon resulted in severe rationing for women and children across Germany proper. In return, Germany introduced unrestricted submarine warfare against British merchant shipping, and announced that foreign nationals should not travel on passenger ships sailing under the British flag, which would now be liable to attack.

By this time, the German navy had already carried out coastal bombardments of towns such as Hartlepool and Scarborough, inflicting civilian casualties in all of them. And in towns across both France and Belgium, hordes of terrified civilians had already discovered for themselves that this would be anything but a ‘gentleman’s war’. No, the cat was out of the bag long before the Lusitania swung clear of New York’s Pier 54 for the last time on May 1st, 1915. It was total war in all but title.

And the Lusitania herself was no innocent party in all this. She was carrying a large amount of small arms munitions and stores, bound for the British army on the western front. The carriage of such stores in a liner loaded with passengers was blatantly illegal, and both the British and the Germans knew it. And it was also true that both sides knew that supposedly impartial US customs officials were turning a blind eye to these illegal shipments. For a nation fighting on two fronts, this was all like a red rag to an already enraged and careless bull.

For this last, fateful crossing, the Lusitania had 1,266 passengers embarked, plus a crew of 696. The biggest passenger load she had carried since the outbreak of hostilities. And, although the weather was fine and sunny as the liner romped across the springtime Atlantic towards Europe, everything else was actually working slowly, yet inexorably, against her.

Not long before the liner reached the coast of Ireland, her intended escort, the old, armoured cruiser Juno, was ordered back into port in Queenstown- for fear of submarines known to be lurking in the area. And, despite this laudable care for navy lives, no message ordering the Lusitania into Queenstown was ever sent. And, by now, the liner was looming massively into the danger zone.

I suspect someone at the Admiralty dropped the ball here; with the disastrous onset of the Gallipoli campaign just two weeks earlier, the navy was now adrift in a nightmare situation of it’s own making, and perhaps more effort was being concentrated there than elsewhere. But it is strange that the Lusitania was deemed safe to proceed where a ship of war like the Juno patently was not.

In the ghastly aftermath, the navy did what any huge public body under adverse public scrutiny does; it kicked the blame down the field, and attempted to make a villain of Captain Turner, the man in command of the lost liner. He had, they said, blatantly disobeyed Admiralty standing instructions about sailing in a war zone.

These stated that ships such as the Lusitania were to steer well clear of headlands, and zig zag at maximum speed, so as to throw any submarine off a good aiming point.

But Turner and the Lusitania spent most of the fateful morning of May 7th, 1915, enveloped in a fog so thick that visibility was almost nil. Lusitania was coming up to the coast of Ireland at a smart clip and, in these pre radar days, Turner was effectively blind in the fog. So, when the weather did mercifully clear, he did what seemed perfectly sensible to him and many others; he brought the Lusitania closer in to the now visible shore in order to get an exact bearing on his position. And this put him on a course towards the lurking U-20.

But Turner did not zig zag, and kept the Lusitania romping along at a steady eighteen knots. Even with one of his four boiler rooms closed down as an economy measure, he could still have powered the Lusitania up to twenty-one. Perhaps he planned to do just that once he was satisfied with his bearings. We will never, ever know.

Once Walther Schweiger fired his torpedo into the path of the oncoming Lusitania, the die was effectively cast. The young U-boat captain knew exactly what he was doing, and he followed his orders with ruthless, tenacious efficiency.

He would have known that he was about to torpedo a very large passenger liner, one carrying many, many, women and children. But he also knew that the same ship was carrying arms and munitions to the British army on the western front, at a time when the British blockade was bringing hardship and even starvation to the streets of Germany. That knowledge probably steeled his determination to hit such a prize target.

Not that he expected this one puny, unreliable torpedo to sink such a huge ship; one built with all the strength and watertight sub division of a Royal Navy cruiser. Ships less than half the size of Lusitania had survived torpedo strikes before. At most, he expected to cripple and delay the liner.

Of course, that’s not how things played out.

Despite his determination to hurt this prestige enemy target, Schweiger was unable to watch the horrific events that unfolded as a result of his strike. It was simply too ghastly, too overwhelming, for any man to actually watch, let alone enjoy.

Such was the loss of the Lusitania, one of the ‘unholy trinity’ of great maritime tragedies on the Atlantic. It is sobering to reflect that the Titanic, the Empress Of Ireland and the Lusitania were all lost in the four years, between 1912 and 1915.

But those first two tragedies were accidents; the sinking of the Lusitania was a deliberate act of war. And it is that stark, simple fact that lends it the particularly grisly cachet that it still has to this day.

And, of course, other Cunarders would sink in the service of their country. In 1940, the Lancastria would take more than six thousand British soldiers down with her when she was dive bombed off the port of Saint Nazaire- a death total that exceeds all three of the above named liners by a mile. But, by then, we had become so immured by the concept of ‘total war’ that the loss of yet another troopship would not have registered so resoundingly as, say, the sinking of a ship that took down half of the New York stock exchange with her in mid Atlantic. Blood has always been a currency of wildly fluctuating value when the fate of nations is at stake.

Still, it is totally apt that, today of all days, we remember the Lusitania and her human cargo of sad, lost souls. They did not ask to be pitched, shuddering and terrified, into the freezing Atlantic on a fine spring afternoon. Certainly, they did not expect it.

They deserved much better, of course. As did the Tommies, the Poilous and the Landsers, cringeing and terrified as they cowered in the trenches of Flanders. You can say the same for the shell shocked civilians of Amiens, Ypres and Brussels and yes, even the scared, twitchy crew of U-20, crouching fearfully in their claustrophobic little tin bolt hole as it beetled along under a sea dominated by its foes.

The Lusitania. Lost 100 years ago today, May 7th, 1915. RIP.

The Lusitania. Lost 100 years ago today, May 7th, 1915. RIP.


On the morning of May 5th, 1915, the Lusitania was more than half way across the Atlantic on her crossing from New York to Liverpool, the sea was calm and the weather clear and sunny. Any of the drama associated with her sailing on May 1st had largely dissipated like ocean fret.

Proud and aristocratic, the great liner surged purposefully across the sparkling briny. Trails of smoke from her quartet of tall, black funnels spread back in the direction of the new world. Families with babies and small children in tow strolled the long expanses of the boat deck. Bouillion was served to people lounging in steamer chairs, half asleep against a backdrop of clacking shuffeloard disks. With the crossing more than half over, thoughts had already begun to turn to arrival in Liverpool for many passengers.

Crossing the Atlantic by sea has always had the effect of gradually lulling a shipload of passengers into what I have always defined as a kind of dreamy, pampered stupour. Think about it; for a week or so, the only real concerns you have are about what to order for dinner, and making sure that you avoid the odd unsettling person or two. Everything else is done behind the scenes for you. And, as it is now, so it was back on that fateful springtime crossing.

Yes, the ship was heading into the area of the war zone, and it was also known that German U-boats were active in the waters off the south coast of Ireland. But what U-boat could match the cracking pace of the speedy Lusy? Even the idea seemed absurd to many.

Still, there were precautions to be taken. Next day would see the swinging out of all of the ship’s lifeboats, and the darkening of the entire ship at night. And that might have concentrated minds quite wonderfully…

But that was tomorrow, and not today. No, for this one last day, the great Cunarder could go about her business pretty much as she had always done. One last sunny day in the life of a spectacular, legendary ship. Contentment was in the air on that sunny, mid ocean day.

None of those laughing strolling passengers or silently grumbling stewards could have guessed at the horror that was to follow. For the Lusitania, May 5th, 1915 was one last hurrah on an eastbound appointment with eternity.

The Lusitania. Eastbound to eternity....

The Lusitania. Eastbound to eternity….


When Walther Schweiger slammed his last remaining, famously unreliable torpedo into the glistening black flank of RMS Lusitania on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915, he could never have foreseen what would follow.

One relatively tiny ‘fish’ was not expected to fell such a graceful, gigantic beast. Ships half her size- and much less well constructed- had survived torpedo strikes in the past.

But the torpedo exploded in the middle of a volatile brew of low grade American coal dust that hovered in the liner’s depleted fuel bunkers like a poisonous cloud. And, for the world famous Cunard liner, the result was catastrophic.

It was this second, far bigger explosion that sank the Lusitania in just eighteen minutes. Passengers were literally trapped in elevators between decks. Lifeboats splintered like matchwood. Almost two thousand people found themselves thrashing, gasping and flailing for their lives on the sun dappled waters off the coast of southern Ireland.

The horror of the scene was indescribable; some 1,201 passengers and crew were lost that day. Bodies were still being washed up on Irish beaches a full three weeks later.

Almost inevitably, the Lusitania became wrapped in the same kind of rosy, grisly aura of dreadful fascination as the Titanic before her. And there they remain to this day; the two most famous pieces on the chess board of maritime tragedies.

Of the two, it was the Titanic that had the greater death toll, by a little over three hundred. And yet, in so many ways, the sinking of the Lusitania seems infinitely more horrific, at least to my mind.

At the end of the day, what happened to the Titanic was an accident. A ghastly one to be sure, but an accident all the same.

The sinking of the Lusitania, and the death of the helpless souls lost with her, was deliberate. Cool, pre-meditated, and carried through with single minded determination by a master submariner who knew exactly what he was attempting to do.

Consider the sheer violence of her brief, bloody end. Walther Schweiger no doubt believed that the Lusitania was carrying a certain amount of contraband war munitions. And, from examination of the shattered wreck, we now know that assumption to be correct. And we can also safely assume that he thought it unlikely that his last torpedo would bring down such a giant prize as the Lusitania– a ship he knew full well to have all the built in safeguards and watertight subdivision of a Royal Navy cruiser.

But- those points made- when the young captain of U20 fired at the Lusitania, he must have known that, without doubt, some civilians would be killed. And it was the fact that a submarine could target what was essentially an unarmed passenger liner that lent the Lusitania disaster an immediate air of world wide outrage; a loss of innocence. After all, what kind of barbarian would deliberately target a large passenger liner, simply going about its usual business?

And there is no doubt that those on board the Cunarder on her last, fateful crossing had been lulled into something of a pampered stupour by their stately, six day progress across a calm, sunny ocean. At a time when most of war torn Europe existed on starvation rations or worse, the Lusitania was provisioned like the Ritz.

Those passengers also knew that the Lusitania was faster than any German warship, and much more so than any U-boat. It never seemed to occur to them that she could not outrun a torpedo.

When Schweiger made his strike on that sunny May afternoon, that fondly imagined pretty balloon exploded with an almighty bang. Quite literally. And nobody on board was in any doubt about the impending catastrophe from that first, awful moment of impact.

By contrast, the Titanic was a ship that had come quietly to a halt on a beautifully lit, glass calm sea. Her side had been ripped open by a gigantic, half concealed salt water assassin with deceptive, gentle ease, and most people never even felt the impact. Most of the passengers were in bed, and had to be woken by stewards. There was no panic at the beginning because, quite simply, there was no awareness. And, faced with a nightmare situation that no amount of experience could parry, Captain Smith decided to try and keep it that way for as long as possible.

The ghastly black comedy that was the sinking of the Titanic unfolded slowly, but with awful certainty. But throughout it all there was a sense of stillness, of disbelief. Survivors later said that they felt as if they were witnessing some great, dramatic story unfold from a distance, rather than actually being part of it.

There was time to uncover and lower all the lifeboats, however ineptly it was done. Time, too, for Jack Phillips and Harold Bride to send out their desperate calls for assistance from the wireless room. Time for many people to absorb the enormity of what was happening, to take in the ghastly, mortal peril that they were suddenly in. Time, at least, to maybe say goodbye to loved ones.

Those on the Lusitania were denied most of these things. The jolt from U20’s torpedo was the first, warning shot that ushered in the age of ‘total war’. Nothing would ever be quite the same again afterwards.

The Lusitania.

The Lusitania.


The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

Ever since the first, grainy images of her shattered corpse slowly emerged from the depths of the Atlantic on September 1st, 1985, the Titanic has been photographed, video filmed and pored over like no other disaster site on the planet. Our level of fascination with almost every single detail of the ‘Floating Ritz’ has fuelled a series of increasingly more sophisticated descents to the wreck site.

And, as cameras have got more sophisticated and all seeing, mapping techniques have also moved on massively. We can now view the morass of wreckage on the ocean floor almost as perfectly as any town ashore seen via Google Earth. And, the more we see, the more we seem to want.

Think about it; the Titanic lies some four hundred miles from the nearest land, two and a half miles down in the most violent and unpredictable ocean on the planet. And yet she has been pored- and pawed-over far more extensively than either of her great tragic contemporaries, the Empress Of Ireland and the Lusitania. And yet both of those wrecks are less than a few miles from shore, lying in only a few hundred feet of water in both cases.

Of course, neither of those ships wiped out well over half of the New York social register in one spectacular exit. For sure, the Titanic exerts a dreadful compulsion, a kind of awe inspired level of fascination that makes her a true stand alone. Two and a half miles down in the freezing Atlantic, this faded, shattered diva quite literally has the floor to herself. She is a century long theatre show that is  still drawing the crowds.

And, as always with the Titanic, it is the things that we still cannot see for ourselves that exert the true pull. Things we expected to see, but did not.

There is no long, jagged gash from where the iceberg was presumed to have ripped open her hull like some salt water assassin, shrouded by darkness. And- what would have been the ultimate money shot- almost no sign of the elegant gilt letters that once spelt out her name, either on the bows or the ruptured carnage of the stern.

But my word, what we did see was haunting enough….

The sudden, startling reveal of that great knife like bow, with the anchor crane swung crazily round, must rank as one of the most iconic photographs ever taken. And the debris field, strewn between the two halves of the hulk, reveals human life at it’s most magnificent and mundane.

Here, tea cups and chamber pots from third class lie strewn among champagne bottles from the first class wine cellar, their corks still in place. The front of a doll’s head gazes with sightless eyes at the slowly rusting frames of deck benches. Shoes, bags, and boilers sit juxtaposed in a hellish, haphazard underwater viewing gallery, frozen in space and time. Once remote, we can now view them with almost microscopic clarity.

The grave site of Titanic combines the stunted , eerie majesty of Pompeii with the sense of awe and wonder that Howard Carter must have first felt when he stumbled upon the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. How bizarre to think that the innards of the RMS Titanic had already been strewn across the sea bed for a full decade by the time he made that epochal discovery.

And yet…..

For all of their great clarity, excellence and sheer, haunting quality, the modern, almost forensic quality photographs of RMS Titanic were easily, effortlessly eclipsed, many decades ago

Look at the famous photo, taken by Frank Beken, of the Titanic as she steamed majestically down Southampton Water towards the Isle of Wight. Proud, brand new and full of promise, the great ship was overflowing with life. excitement and hope. The pride and the poise of the ‘greatest of the works of man’ is palpable, and near perfect.

It was never bettered and, in the way of these things, it never can be. And, however many times that I gaze in awe and respect at the stilled, ghastly, strangely dignified mess crouching silently on the ocean floor, whenever I think of Titanic, I see her in the same awed, amazed way that Frank Beken must have done on the early afternoon of Wednesday, April 10th, 1912. And I always will.


The Lusitania

The Lusitania

In an apt and respectful nod to the most tragic incident in its commercial history, Cunard will offer a seven night, commemorative voyage to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania back on May 7th, 1915.

The giant 92,000 ton Queen Victoria will offer a seven night round trip from Southampton, calling at St. Peter Port (Guernsey), Le Havre, Dublin and, most pointedly, Cobh on May 7th itself. There will be a series of commemorative services on board, as well as a special, temporary display of Lusitania artifacts curated by renowned maritime author, Eric Sauder. The voyage will also mark the launch of a new book on Lusitania by Eric Sauder, who has himself been down to the mangled wreckage of the former Cunard speed queen, just off the coast of Southern Ireland.

Cobh is sure to be an emotional lightning rod for all on board; the Lusitania went down just ten miles off the coast, on a brilliantly sunny day, after being hit by a single torpedo fired by the U20, then under the command of Kapitanleutenant Walter Schweiger. The giant, 31,000 ton liner capsized and went down in eighteen minutes, taking 1,201 passengers and crew with her.

The desperate, improvised rescue effort was mounted from Cobh. A total of 764 survivors were brought to safety here in the aftermath of the sinking. Some 124 victims were buried in a series of heartbreaking interments in the local Clonmel cemetery, where they remain to this day. The dead were still being washed ashore on the beaches here a full three weeks later.

Prior to the outbreak of the war, the Lusitania and her twin sister, the Mauretania, had been the unchallenged speed queens on the Atlantic crossing. On her debut in September 1907, the Lusitania- then the largest and most opulent vessel afloat- had retaken the speed record, held for ten consecutive years by a succession of German liners. With their sharp, graceful lines, quartet of tall, raked smokestacks and sumptuous interiors, the two sisters played ping pong with the Blue Ribband for a full seven years. Sailing between Liverpool and New York, the two sisters continued to beat each other now and again by a fraction of a knot.

The story of the last voyage of the Lusitania has been replayed often, and will no doubt be dragged up for air again next year by a whole conga line of armchair theorists. The bare facts are that the liner sailed from New York on May 1st, 1915, bound once more for Liverpool,  after German warnings had appeared in the press. These advised prospective passengers not to travel on ships said to be illegally carrying munitions to aid the British war effort on the Western Front. Based on this belief, Schweiger slammed his torpedo into the starboard side of the Lusitania on the early afternoon of May 7th, 1915, and sank the ship.

This still buoyant controversy in  no way negates the impact of the tragic deaths of 1,201 people, passengers and crew alike. Nor does it tarnish the tremendous achievement and seven years of largely forgotten success that the Lusitania still represents. One hundred years after her ghastly demise off the Old Head of Kinsale, it is entirely right and fitting that the maritime community in general- and Cunard in particular- pays due respect to this lost, enduring legend.


Crossing the ageless Atlantic...

Crossing the ageless Atlantic…

The years preceding the Great War saw a pair of maritime disasters to British ocean liners that made headlines at the time. One shook the civilised world to it’s very core; yet the second caused nary a ripple.

Each took more than a thousand passengers and crew to the bottom. The first happened in the middle of the Atlantic, the second took place in the sheltered waters of the Saint Lawrence seaway, literally within screaming distance of land.

Of course, the first ship was the Titanic. With boats for just over half the people on board, she foundered in mid ocean, with the nearest rescue ships unable to reach her in time. Horrific as it was, the loss of life is at least understandable in the context of her lonely, isolated death.

The second ship was the Empress Of Ireland. In the early morning hours of May 29th, 1914, she capsized in the Saint Lawrence after being rammed in thick fog by a Norwegian collier, the Storstad. The 14,400 ton Canadian Pacific liner was close to shore, and carried far more than enough lifeboats for every soul on board. Despite this, she was gone in fourteen minutes, with a death toll in excess of 1,000. In the words of one contemporary commentator, the Empress Of Ireland rolled over ‘like a hog in a ditch.’

In many ways, the sinking of the Empress was even more ghastly than the loss of the Titanic, numbers lost notwithstanding. Inquiries in both Britain and America in the wake of the Titanic disaster mandated lifeboats for all, compulsory safety drills, and the creation of an international ice patrol (later to become the US Coastguard)

To be clear, this is not the story of that sinking, but more of an attempt to put her awful, near forgotten tragedy in context. The loss of the Empress occurred only months before the outbreak of the Great War, which saw another huge loss, in the sinking of the Lusitania. She, too, took more than a thousand passengers and crew to the bottom with her. But that is rather getting ahead of the story in hand.

The Empress Of Ireland was one of a pair of twin sister ships- the other one was the Empress Of Britain- built in Glasgow between 1905 and 1906. They were intended for the secondary, transatlantic liner service between Liverpool and Quebec City, from where passengers could join a Canadian Pacific train that could take them all the way to Vancouver. Ship and train were seen- and sold- as complementary parts of a through service; the greatest in the world at that time.

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City

The two sister ships were steady and comfortable, rather than spectacular. Both were graceful twin stackers, with knife edge bows and cruiser sterns. They could make the one way trip from England to Canada in a week, and offered good, solid comfort for around 1500 passengers, in three classes. The Saint Lawrence route certainly lacked the glamour of the more famous and popular New York run, but many people preferred this more economical journey. As a result, the twin ‘Empresses’ were popular and successful ships from the start.

The Empress Of Ireland was under the command of Captain Henry Kendall when she pulled away from the pier at Quebec on the afternoon of May 28th, 1914. Kendall had become famous a few years earlier, when he recognised the fugitive Doctor Crippen as a passenger on board his ship, the liner Montrose. The message he sent to Scotland Yard led to Crippen’s appointment with a Pentonville hangman just months later, and Kendall became a minor national figure as a result.

There were a total of 1,477 passengers and crew on board the Empress Of Ireland as she groped her way down river from Quebec, through an increasingly thick fog. In the early hours of May 29th, as she passed the small town of Rimouski, she briefly sighted the flickering lights of another ship in the murk.

Without the benefit of radar, and in appalling visibility, the two ships tried to pirouette past each other. But a series of hideous miscalculations resulted in a horrific collision.

The ice reinforced bow of the Norwegian collier, Storstad, sliced into the starboard side of the liner as neatly as a stiletto blade. She was fully laden with coal, and the impact was catastrophic.

What followed was ghastly beyond adequate description. As the damaged collier slid back into the murk with her bow crumpled like so much wet cardboard, the Empress Of Ireland rolled over onto her starboard side. Most of the passengers and crew were asleep below decks. They literally never had a chance. Most drowned in their beds.

The Canadian Pacific liners used to sail from this spot in Quebec; it looks much the same today

The Canadian Pacific liners used to sail from this spot in Quebec; it looks much the same today

Within fourteen minutes, the Empress Of Ireland was engulfed by the freezing, fog shrouded expanse of the Saint Lawrence seaway.

There was no time to close the watertight doors, or the serried ranks of open portholes that admitted torrents of freezing cold water as the Empress heeled over. There was no time for any kind of organised evacuation; all those extra lifeboats proved as ultimately useless as the bureaucrats that belatedly decreed them in the first place.

Something like 1,012 people- passengers and crew alike- went to the bottom with the Empress Of Ireland. The disaster was an eight minute wonder; it made huge headlines at the time, and yet it also faded with obscene, almost indecent haste.

Why was that?

Mainly, because most eyes were focused on Europe, and the sabre rattling antics of the increasingly unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II and his royal cousins, installed as the rulers of empires right across Europe and Russia. But it went deeper than even that.

The Empress Of Ireland was a solid, workmanlike ship, built to carry ordinary, hardworking people and hopeful emigrants. For the media, her loss had none of the ghastly fascination of the events of 1912, when the sinking of the Titanic wiped out half the entire New York social register at a stroke, and took  a huge chunk of the stock market down with her.

The Titanic also sank slowly that night, and she foundered on a glass calm sea. There was time that night for legends to be made, and stories to be remembered and recounted to a thrilled and horrified public. Time, in short, for a whole industry of burnished, barely credible stories to take hold, and be accepted as the true record. It was as fantastic and dramatic as it was unbelievable.

The Empress Of Ireland and her doomed human cargo had none of that. Her end was sudden, shocking initially, but ultimately soon overwhelmed by events on the ground in Sarajevo. It was thus the precursor to a horror without parallel, the appetiser for a particularly ghastly banquet.

All the same, there is something more than a little shameful and shocking in just how quickly and completely this horrific accident has been allowed to slip below the horizon. As the centenary approaches in May, it is to be hoped that, at last,. the story of the Empress Of Ireland is brought to light.

Those lost on that awful night back in May, 1914 deserve nothing less than that.


The Mauretania was a famous 'Child of the Mersey' in her early days

The Mauretania was a famous ‘Child of the Mersey’ in her early days

In the annals of legendary, long gone Atlantic liners, few names are as steeped in lore as those of Lusitania and Mauretania. Conceived as a unique combination of pace and grace, they were intended to be complementary but, inevitably, the two ships became engaged in a kind of friendly rivalry. Both also became caught in the cross hairs of German periscopes in time, in circumstances that no one could ever have envisaged. One was to survive by the skin of her teeth; the second would become the victim of one of the most ghastly and controversial disasters in maritime history.

They were built with government money, on a tidal wave of jingoistic pressure. Britain, the owner of the greatest empire that the world had ever seen, was in possession of the world’s largest merchant marine at the turn of the twentieth century. But in 1897, that long unchallenged maritime dominance was given a rude slap.

That year, a brand new German four stacker called the Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse went thundering across the Atlantic, and seized the speed record- the mythical Blue Ribband- on her maiden crossing. The British were thunderstruck. But even worse was to follow.

One after another, three more successive record breakers emerged from German yards, and each one took the speed record in its turn. The advent of that Teutonic triple play was a real smack across Britannia’s imperial face. The upstart Germans had thrown down a four fingered gauntlet, and it was picked up with something of a snarl.

At the same time, an American railroad magnate named J.P. Morgan began buying up transatlantic shipping lines, one after the other, with the intent of creating the world’s first transatlantic travel megalith, an organisation that would have been the equivalent to the Oneworld Alliance of its day. He named it the International Mercantile Marine (IMM). The jewel in the crown of IMM was none other than Cunard’s great British rival, the White Star Line.

The birth of this corporate beast launched a deep and unpleasant fear in the minds of the British government. The thinking went that, in times of war, it might be impossible for these American owned ships to be employed in the service of the Empire. And, with the real possibility that Cunard, too, might also fall into Morgan’s bottomless money pit, something clearly had to give.

In fact, Cunard had judged the entire situation very smartly, and it now proceeded to play the British government as deftly as a baby grand piano. A gigantic loan of £2,600,000 was secured, with which it was to build a pair of world beating new transatlantic liners. These would later become the Lusitania and the Mauretania.

Naturally, there were strict conditions. Cunard had to guarantee to remain a British company. Plus, the two ships would be constructed to naval standards, with very extensive watertight compartments, and specially strengthened decks, capable of carrying six inch guns. For, in the event of a war, it was intended that the two ships would serve as auxiliary cruisers; cruisers much bigger than any bona fide battleship then in existence.

And, more importantly, the new ships would be expected to beat the speedy new German liners. And soundly, at that……

From the start, they were intended to be the biggest ships in the world. So big, in fact, that they had to be built in separate shipyards; the Lusitania on the Clyde, and the Mauretania on the Tyne. This in part explains the fierce but friendly rivalry that would exist between them, right up until the outbreak of the Great War.

At around 32,000 tons each, ‘Lusy’ and ‘Maurey’ had the inestimable advantage of being the recipients of the radical, reliable new steam turbine technology. It gave each of the two ships an unparalleled power plant, as would soon become obvious. For Cunard was aiming for an incredibly ambitious, average crossing time of five days for each ship.

The twins were breathtaking visions to behold; long, lean and graceful, with no nonsense, knife edge prows and a superstructure topped by a quartet of raked smokestacks, garlanded in the traditional Cunard colours of red and black. First to emerge was the Lusitania, in September of 1907. On her second round trip from Liverpool to New York, she set a new record for the Blue Ribband, restoring the coveted title to British care after a decade long hiatus.

Three months later, the Mauretania finally came on line. She had almost shaken herself to pieces on her first trial runs out of the Tyne, and some drastic internal stiffening had been in order before she could make a stormy November debut that same year. Once settled in, she also quickly beat the record just set by her sister. For the first time in ten years, a supremely dominant British duo was once again top dog on the lucrative New York run and, as the owners of that title, the two ships prospered mightily.

For the next seven years, the Lusy and Maurey would play ping pong with the Blue Ribband, beating each other now and again by a fraction of a knot. Both were sumptuously decorated in first class at least, with two story dining rooms, and salons more reminiscent of the Adlon than an ocean liner. Resplendent with deep, richly carved woods (Mauretania) or awash with gilt, Louis XVI furnishings and gold leaf (Lusitania), they were the absolute epitome of style, grace and grandeur on the often stormy Atlantic crossing.

That crossing was often a rocky road to be sure. With hull shapes dictated by naval architects, the two ships became famous for their pitching and rolling in bad weather. They had long, lean cruiser hulls, narrow in the beam, and not ideally suited for express service on the most unforgiving ocean in the world.

Yet they were instant, spectacular successes. So much so, in fact, that they ushered in a whole new age of rivalry on the Atlantic crossing, one that not even the most infamous disaster in maritime history could end.

For the White Star Line was not about to take this Cunard double sweep lying down. With J.P. Morgan’s almost limitless millions behind it, that company began plotting a giant triple response. First, there would be two new liners, built side by side, later to be followed by a third. Each of these ships would be half as large again as the pair of record breaking new Cunarders.

But the new White Star ships were not built to compete in terms of speed. Coal was expensive, and every knot over the first twenty used up as much coal as that original twenty did. These ships were designed to cross the Atlantic in six days, as opposed to the five day Cunard crossings. Each would be suffused with such a wealth of spectacular luxury and time killing diversions that the extra day at sea would be seen as a positive pleasure. Steadiness, safety, and splendid food and accommodations were the keynotes of the trio. As the first two ships took shape in Belfast, Cunard kept a wary eye on them, even as Lusy and Maurey continued to dominate the Atlantic crossing.

The first of these ships was, of course, the Olympic. As she made her first, triumphant entry into New York in the summer of 1911, the Lusitania was heading downstream, en route for the Coronation celebrations for King George V. Moving smartly down the Hudson, the Lusitania deigned to join in with the noisy salute being accorded to the new White Star liner.

The Olympic became the first of the mega liners to sail regularly from Southampton. Against better judgement, Cunard continued to favour Liverpool as i’s principal port; both Lusy and Maurey would continue to sail from there right up until the outbreak of war in 1914. More than once, they had broken loose from their moorings during severe Mersey stormssometimes suffering hull damage sufficiently bad enough to necessitate urgent dry docking. It was an anything but ideal situation.

As far as travel was concerned, the Olympic quickly creamed off the American travelling elite, though the British aristocracy in general continued to favour the faster Cunard duo. Part of this American fixation with White Star was that its ships called in regularly at Cherbourg, an ideal French port of call that put Paris and the French Riviera within easy reach by fast Pullman train. It was a lead that Cunard itself was to follow after the war.

Then, in the spring of 1912, the second of the White Star ships emerged. Five days into her maiden voyage, the hull of the Titanic glanced against the side of a capsized iceberg for around thirty seconds. She foundered less than three hours later, taking more than fifteen hundred people down with her, as well as a huge chunk of the New York Stock Exchange.

The shock effect was seismic. In the wake of a raft of investigations, both the Lusitania and Mauretania continued in service, albeit with strings of extra lifeboats now festooned along the whole length of their boat decks. Until then, the Cunarders- just like every other major ocean liner in service anywhere- had been just as woefully deficient in terms of lifeboat capacity as the ill fated Titanic.

This sudden, belatedly commendable obsession with boats for all would prove totally inadequate for the screaming thousands trapped on the sinking Lusitania as her shattered corpse sagged headlong into the Atlantic on May 7th, 1915, after her torpedoing just ten miles off the coast of Southern Ireland. But that is a story for another time; for now, this is where we leave the two sisters ships.