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* Dedicated to all those who took part in World War II *

Maritime Disasters of World War II - page 1 of 3 - which occurred during 1939, 1940, 1941.

To all those interested in the Naval War of 1939-1945, this list details the fate of some 180 major ships of all nations: the Battleships, Cruisers, Aircraft Carriers, Destroyers and the civilian luxury passenger liners, some pressed into service as troop transports.

I dedicate this page to all those unfortunate souls who perished in the cold waters of the world's oceans.

This 3 page series focuses on stories of the losses of some of the "Big Ships":

  1. during 1939, 1940, 1941
  2. during 1942, 1943, and
  3. during 1944, 1945.


ATHENIA (September 3, 1939)

The first civilian casualty of World War II, the Cunard passenger liner Athenia of 13,581 tons, (chartered from the Anchor Donaldson Line) was sunk without warning west of Scotland by the German submarine U-30 (Oblt. Fritz-Julius Lemp) on the opening day of the Second World War, the captain believing it to be an armed merchant cruiser. The ship was carrying evacuees from Liverpool to Canada. There were 1,103 passengers not including crewmembers. Survivors were rescued by the British destroyers Electra, Escort and Fame and the freighters City of Flint the yacht Southern Cross and the Norwegian tanker Knute Nelson which brought its survivors to Galway. In all, 118 passengers were drowned. Also on board were 316 Americans of whom 28 were lost. Oblt. Lemp was never court-martialled for this error but next day Hitler ordered that under no circumstances were attacks to be made on passenger ships. The City of Flint (4,963 tons) was later torpedoed (on January 25, 1943) with the loss of seven lives. On May 9, 1941, Oblt. Fritz Lemp and fifteen of his crew were lost when the U-boat he then commanded, the U-110, was captured. This was the most important prize of the war as she was carrying the much sought-after Enigma machine which helped Britain to break the top secret German military codes.

The Cunard passenger liner Athenia, the first civilian shipping casualty of WWII.

HMS COURAGEOUS (September 17, 1939)

The 22,500 ton light cruiser, later converted to an escort carrier, commanded by Capt. W.T. Makeig-Jones, and accompanied by HMS Ark Royal and HMS Hermes, was sunk by German submarine U-29 (Kptlt. Otto Schuhart) while on anti-submarine duty 150 nautical miles west-south-west of Mizen Head, Ireland. A total of 576 men died in this tragedy, the first Royal Navy ship sunk in the war. Lost were 514 navy men, 26 Fleet Air Arm men and 36 RAF servicing crew. The carrier sank in about fifteen minutes after being hit by two torpedoes from a salvo of three fired from the U-boat. Captain Makeig-Jones stayed on the bridge and saluted the flag as the ship turned over and sank. All such patrols by aircraft carriers were stopped from then on. The entire crew of the U-29 was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class, when the boat made it safely back to Wilhelmshaven, the first time this decoration was awarded to members of the U-boat service. The U-29 survived the war and was scuttled on May 4, 1945.

HMS ROYAL OAK (October 14, 1939)

The first British capital ship to be lost in the war, the 31,200 ton battleship was sunk at her moorings at the British Home Fleet Naval Base in Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, by the U-47, commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Gunther Prien. The Royal Oak went down with the loss of 833 men including 24 officers from her wartime crew of 1,234. Her commander, Rear Admiral H.F.C. Blagrove also died. At 1.16 am, three torpedoes were fired from the U-47, all three struck and within 15-minutes the battleship rolled over and sank. A total of 391 lives were saved from the stricken ship. Being anchored in the comparatively 'safe' waters of Scapa Flow, many doors, ventilators and hatches, were left open. If these had been closed at the time of the attack, the Royal Oak would have taken longer to sink, thus perhaps saving many more lives. The U-47 made its way back to Germany and a hero's welcome for the crew. Gunther Prien and the U-47 were lost while attacking convoy OB-293 on the night of March 7/8, 1941. The Royal Oak lies in 25 metres of water, 1000 metres from the shore. Every year, on the 14th of October, a White Ensign is placed on the hull by Royal Navy divers. (A gift of 7,500 pounds Stirling was given by the Maharaja of Gondal for the benefit of the dependants of those killed.)

A NEAR DISASTER (October 30,1939)

The German submarine U-56, commanded by Lieutenant Wilhelm Zahn, found itself bang in the middle of a contingent of the British Home Fleet sailing just west of the Orkney Islands. Leading the contingent was the battleship HMS Rodney followed by the HMS Nelson and HMS Hood all surrounded by a protective screen of destroyers. Here was the U-56, sitting at periscope depth in an ideal firing position and straight ahead was the Flagship of the Fleet, HMS Nelson. Elated, Zahn fired three torpedoes at the target which was impossible to miss. Two of the torpedoes actually hit the Nelson but did not explode! The U-56 made a quick getaway. Had the torpedoes exploded, the V.I.P.s on board the Nelson would have been in great danger. They had gathered for a conference to determine what action had to be taken after the sinking of the Royal Oak at Scapa flow. The illustrious guests included the C-in-C Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Dudley Pound, and Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. Winston Churchill! This heaven sent opportunity caused Admiral Karl Donetz, the German U-boat supremo, to write in his war diary "Without doubt, the torpedo inspectors have fallen down on their job ... at least 30% of our torpedoes are duds!" Gunther Prien, hero of Scapa Flow, remarked "How the hell do they expect us to fight with dummy rifles". Without doubt this was a great embarrassment to the German Navy - 31 U-boat attacks from favourable positions, 4 attacks on the Warspite, 12 attacks on various cruisers, 10 attacks on destroyers and 5 attacks on troop transports - without a single hit! All torpedoes failed to explode. How lucky we were!

RAWALPINDI (November 23, 1939)

P&O liner on the London, Bombay and Far East routes. At the outbreak of World War II the ship was taken over and converted to an armed merchant cruiser. While on patrol between Iceland and the Faroes she was attacked by the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Hopelessly outmatched she attempted to escape into a nearby fog bank. With her bridge and wireless-room destroyed and completely at the mercy of the enemy ships it was decided to abandon the vessel. The casualties on board the Rawalpindi amounted to 275 dead including her commander Captain Kennedy and 39 other officers. Twenty-two crewmembers were taken prisoner by the German warships. The blazing Rawalpindi drifted for three hours before sinking.

ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE (December 13-17, 1939)

The German 16,200 ton battleship, was named after World War I hero Graf Maximilian von Spee (1861-1914). It was damaged during the Battle of the River Plate off the coast of Uruguay, in which the British cruisers Exeter, Ajax and the New Zealand manned light cruiser Achilles took part. The ship was forced to take refuge in the neutral port of Montevideo where she was granted only a temporary stay. During the battle, the first naval engagement in World War II, 72 British sailors were killed and 36 men killed from the Graf Spee. During her war cruise of 77 days, theGraf Spee had sunk nine merchant ships totalling 50,000 tons. The battleship was scuttled by her crew on the 17th, soon after she left port. The ship was blown up by her own torpedoes which were rigged to explode after her crew had been taken off. Rather than see the ship humiliated in defeat, Hitler had ordered her destruction. Her commander, Captain Hans Langsdorff, who never willingly gave the Nazi salute, committed suicide three days later. (He is buried in the German Cemetery in Buenos Aires) During her short career the Graf Spee had sunk nine ships totalling 50,089 tons. These were the steamships Clement, Newton Beach, Ashlea, Huntsman, Trevanion, Africa Shell, Doric Star, Tairoa, and Streonshalh.


SS DOMALA (March 2, 1940)

British India passenger liner of 8441 tons, launched in 1921. Bombed by the German Luftwaffe, badly damaged, set on fire and had to be beached off the Isle of Wight. This was the first naval action in the English Channel in World War II. (Some sources say that around 100 people were killed) Later, the ship was salvaged and rebuilt under her new name, Empire Attendant. It was while part of Convoy OS-33 that the ship was torpedoed in 1942 by the U-582 south of the Canary Islands. The ships captain, forty-nine crewmembers and nine gunners were lost. In the U-Boat's log she is entered under her former name, 'Domala'.

RIO DE JANEIRO (April 8, 1940)

Built in 1914, the 5,261 ton German passenger liner was transporting troops and horses to the invasion of Norway. While off Lillesand in southern Norway, the ship was torpedoed by the Polish submarine Orzel, which had made a dramatic escape from the Estonian sea port town of Tallin, seventeen days after the war with Poland started. The first torpedo missed, the second scored a hit but failed to sink the Rio de Janeiro. With smoke pouring from the stricken liner, the order was given to "abandon ship". A third torpedo struck the ship amidships, breaking its back and sending it slowly to the bottom. About 150 men including 97 Luftwaffe Flak troops and 80 horses were drowned. There were 183 survivors. This was one of the first actions by a Polish submarine in the Second World War. Within 48 hours all the main ports of Norway were in German hands. In June of that year, the Orzel, commanded by Lt. Cdr. Grudzinski, fell victim to a mine in the Skagerrak and sank with its entire crew of 5 officers and 49 men.

For more on the history of the Orzel, go to http://www.dutchsubmarines.com/.

BLÜCHER (April 9, 1940)

German heavy cruiser launched in 1937, sunk by shells and two torpedoes from the Oscarborg Fortress at the entrance to Oslo harbour while participating in the invasion of Norway (Operation Weserubung) After receiving many hits from the 280-mm guns and two torpedoes from the Kaholmen Fortress at the other side of the Oslo Fjord, the Blucher, which was carrying 882 military staff, the 163rd Infantry Division, and a team of Gestapo agents whose mission was to occupy Oslo and arrest the King of Norway and members of his government, turned turtle and sank at 7.30am. (Ironically these guns were made by Krupps of Essen in 1892) A total of 125 sailors and 195 soldiers and civilians lost their lives but her Commander, Vice Admiral Oskar Kummetz, survived. (Some sources say around 600 went down with the ship) The ships namesake in World War I was sunk by British heavy cruisers at the Battle of Dogger Bank on January 23, 1915. The death toll on that occasion was just over 900.

HMS GLORIOUS (June 8, 1940)

Sister ship of the Courageous, sunk by the German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau while aiding in the evacuation of British troops from Narvik in Norway (Operation Alphabet). En route to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, the Glorious, (22,200 tons) commanded by Captain D'Oyly-Hughes, encountered the German cruisers which scored direct hits on the carrier at a range of 20,000 yards putting her flight deck out of action. A total of 1,207 men, including 41 RAF ground personnel and 18 RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots, died. There were 39 survivors rescued by the Norwegian ship 'Borgund'. Two escort destroyers, the Acasta (Cdr. Glasford) and Ardent (Lt-Cdr. Barker) were also sunk during the attack. The Acasta had fired a torpedo at the Scharnhorst causing damage to her quarterdeck and killing 48 men and two German officers. The total death toll from the three British vessels amounted to 1,519. There were only 63 survivors but 25 of these died from exposure before being picked up two and a half days later. (Acasta 164 and Ardent 152) Only 38 men survived the sinking of the three ships (only one survivor from the Ardent, Able Seaman Rodger Hooke and only one survivor from the Acasta, Leading Seaman Cyril 'Nick' Carter) The British Admiralty now accepts that it was the torpedo fired from the Accasta that finally sunk the Scharnhorst and that Leading Seaman Carter was the man who pulled the lever that sent the torpedo on its way. One hundred miles away was the cruiser HMS Devonshire which picked up the garbled SOS from the Glorious but dared not repeat it. At that moment she was on a secret mission, transporting King Håkon of Norway, the Crown Prince, 56 staff members and Government officials and the national gold reserves, from Tromsó to the safety of the British Isles, there to spend the next five years in exile. The Glorious (22,200 tons) was the first aircraft carrier to be sunk by surface ships. On June 8, Hurricanes of 46 Squadron RAF landed safely without arrester hooks on the ship, the first time this had been attempted on a carrier. Most experts had dismissed this as impossible. Tragically, only two of the Hurricane pilots survived the sinking of the Glorious.

(The two 15cm twin turrets from the Gneisenau are still active on a NATO coastal battery at Stevensfort, south of Copenhagen in Denmark. The battery is now open to the public. A triple 280 mm turret from the scuttled Gneisenau is located at the entrance to Trondheimfjord. Named 'Batterie Orlandet' it was built by P.O.W.s and after the war it was taken over by the Norwegian Army. Shut down in 1974 it was then opened in the early 90s as a museum under the name 'Turret Caesar'.

LANCASTRIA (June 17, 1940)

The Cunard/White Star passenger liner Lancastria, the former Tyrrhenia (16,243 tons), is bombed and sunk off St. Nazaire, France. While lying at anchor in the Charpentier Roads on the estuary of the River Loire, five enemy planes dive bombed the ship which sank in twenty minutes taking the lives of around 2,000 troops and over 1,000 civilians. The Lancastria had been converted into a troopship and set sail from Liverpool on June 14th to assist in the evacuation of British troops, approximately 140,000 men) and refugees from France (Operation Aerial) Her captain, Rudolf Sharpe, took on board as many troops and refugees as possible. She was about to sail to England after loading on board soldiers and RAF personnel from 73 and 98 Squadrons of the British Expeditionary Force, plus about a thousand of civilian refugees. One bomb exploded in the Number 2 hold where around 800 RAF personnel had been placed. About 1,400 tons of fuel oil spilled from the stricken vessel as the Dorniers dropped incendiaries in an attempt to set the oil on fire. The 2,477 survivors, including her captain, were picked up by HMS Havelock and other ships. The bomb which actually sank the Lancastria went straight down the funnel. The site of the sinking is now an official War Grave protected by The Protection of Military Remains Act of 1986. The loss of the Lancastria was the fourth largest maritime disaster of the war. Captain Rudolf Sharpe later lost his life when the ship he commanded, the Laconia, was sunk. Under the Official Secrets Act, the report on the Lancastria cannot be published until the year 2040. If it is proved that Captain Sharpe ignored the Ministry of Defence instructions not to exceed the maximum loading capacity of 3000 persons, grounds for compensation claims could be enormous. (A remembrance service is held in June each year in the St Catharine Cree Church in Leadenhall Street, London.)

The Cunard / White Star passenger liner, Lancastria.


During 'Operation Aerial' 28,145 British and 4,439 French, Polish and Canadian troops were evacuated from Brest. Among the French contingent were many German and Italian nationals, all members of the French Foreign Legion. At Lorient, the trawler La Tenche, was sunk with the loss of 218 lives. At Saint Nazaire, 57,235 troops and civilians were evacuated. From St. Malo, 21,475, from Cherbourg, 30,630 and from La Pallice, 2,303. Thousands of others were picked up from smaller ports, in total, 163,225 persons. (During the Dunkirk evacuation, 'Operation Dynamo' 338,226 troops were saved.)

MV PAGANINI (June 28, 1940)

The passenger Motor Vessel Paganini, built in 1928 (2427 tons) was in convoy bound for Durres (Albania) when at 11.00 hrs. a fire occurred in the engine room. A subsequent explosion caused the loss of the vessel in position 41°27'N 19°11'E. A total of 147 men were drowned.

ARANDORA STAR (July 2, 1940)

One of four ships placed at the disposal of the War Office for the transportation of enemy aliens to Canada. The Arandora Star sailed from Liverpool, without escort, to St. John's, Newfoundland, carrying 473 German male civilians interned when war broke out in 1939, and 717 Italian male civilians interned after Mussolini declared war on June 10, 1940. The vessel carried a crew of 176 and a military guard of some 200 men. Also on board were some Italian internees from internment camps on the Isle of Man, many of whom were genuine refugees mistakenly selected for deportation. The 15,501 ton Arandora Star (Blue Star Line) was torpedoed and sunk by the German U-boat U-47, (Korvkpt. Günther Prien, 1908-1941) seventy five miles off Ireland, at 7.05am. A second explosion, apparently a boiler, broke the ship in two before she finally sank at 7.40am. At about 2.30pm, the Canadian destroyer, HMCS St. Laurent, found the lifeboats and started to take the survivors on board. They reached Greenock in Scotland on Wednesday, July 3, at 8.45am. where the sick and injured were taken to Mearnskirk Hospital in Newton Mearns by a fleet of ambulances. The 813 survivors were later put on another ship, the Dunera, and transported to Australia. A total of 743 persons lost their lives on the Arandora Star: 146 Germans, 453 Italians, and 144 crew and soldiers. (The U-47 went missing on March 7, 1941) In Bardi, a village in northern Italy, a chapel has been built to commemorate the victims of the Arandora Star. This disaster changed British internment policy. From then on, all internees were interned in British camps only. (On a remote cliff on the island of Colansay a memorial was unveiled to commemorate all those who perished and in particular to a Giusseppe Delgrosso whose body was washed ashore near this spot. Near the memorial plaque is a cairn of stones. All visitors are requested to bring a stone and add it to the cairn so that it will continue to grow.)


A fast Italian light cruiser of 5,069 tons, launched in 1930, was said to be capable of 40 knots. She was completely taken by surprise in the misty light of dawn by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney

 and four destroyers north-west of the island of Crete. Captain J. Collins of HMAS Sydney was concerned that they may be heavy 8-inch cruisers, but he decided to attack and opened fire first on the Bartolomeo Colleoni's sister ship, the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere at 20,000 yards. The Australian cruiser then fired salvoes at Bartolomeo Colleoni and the destroyers fired their torpedoes. Both the Italian ships made smoke turned away believing that the destroyers were also cruisers. HMAS Sydney and the destroyers chased both Italian ships for about one hour with the Sydney concentrating her gunfire on the Colleoni. Hit repeatedly by shells, Colleoni soon became a blazing wreck and was "bow down" and had to be abandoned by her crew. The destroyers moved in for the final kill as the Sydney went after the Giovanni Nere. After the torpedoes struck, the cruiser capsized and sank six miles off of Cape Spada, taking 125 crewmembers to the depths. British destroyers rescued a total of 525 survivers from the sea including her commander, Captain Umbarto Novaro, who unfortunately died two days later from his injuries and was buried in Alexandria. (He was posthumously awarded the Italian Golden Medal)

German propaganda broadcaster and ex-British patriot, Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) gave the German account of the Battle of Cape Spada: "Two British heavy armed cruisers and a large force of destroyers attacked two Italian light cruisers off the coast of Crete and in the ensuing battle the two British cruisers were heavily damaged. Slight damage was inflicted on one of the Italian cruisers.

MEKNES (July 25, 1940)

French passenger liner of 6,127 tons left Southampton carrying 1,277 French naval personnel who were being repatriated to France to continue the fight. At 10.30 pm the ship was hit by a torpedo from the German motor torpedo boat S27 off the coast of Brittany. Some 383 French sailors were lost. (Fifty-nine French ships, which had sought refuge in the harbours of Plymouth and Portsmouth were seized by the British Royal Navy on July 3, 1940.)

BRETAGNE (July 3, 1940)

In one of the saddest episodes of the war, the French battleship Bretagne was sunk by British warships, which included the Hood, Ark Royal and Valiant. The refusal by Vichy France to hand over their battleships to Britain, rather than fall into the hands of the German Navy, resulted in the attack at the French naval bases at Mers-el-Kabir, and Oran, North Africa. Hit by 15-inch salvoes from a range of 14,000 yards, the Bretagne exploded and capsized with the loss of 977 men. Many died clinging to the life-saving nets as the ship rolled over. Another ship, the Provence, (23,250 tons) was badly damaged and suffered the loss of 135 men. The battle-cruiser Dunkerque (26,500 tons) lost 210 men. The British attack on Mers-el-Kabir took the lives of 47 officers, 190 petty officers and 1,054 ratings, a total of 1,282 men. This action caused great bitterness in France, many French pilots volunteering to bomb Gibraltar, which they did on the night of 24/25 September, 1940, dropping 200 tons of bombs on the British fortress.

CITY OF BENARES (September 17, 1940)

City Lines passenger liner of 11,000 tons (Captain Landles Nicoll) carrying some 400 passengers and 99 evacuee children on their way to a new life in Canada. Part of convoy OB-213, the ship was torpedoed by the U-48 (Heinrich Bleichrodt) when 600 miles and five days out from Liverpool, its starting point. A total of 325 souls were drowned including seventy seven of the ninety children on board. Many survivors were picked up by the destroyer HMS Hurricane. This tragedy ended the British Government's Children's Overseas Resettlement Scheme in which 1,530 children were sent to Canada, 577 to Australia, 353 to South Africa, 202 to New Zealand and another 838 children sent to the United States by the American Committee in London. In August, 1940, the Dutch liner Vollendam was torpedoed and sunk off Ireland but the 321 children on board were all saved. (HMS Hurricane was later lost on December 24, 1943 to the U-415). The U-48 survived the war and was scuttled on May 3, 1945.

City Of Benares.

EMPRESS OF BRITAIN (October 26, 1940)

Built at Clydebank, Scotland, for the Canadian Pacific Line, the 42,348 ton passenger liner was requisitioned by the government after her 100th voyage in 1939 and began work as a troopship. On October 26 she was sailing northwest of Ireland when attacked by a Condor aircraft of the German Luftwaffe and set on fire by incendiary bombs. The abandon ship order was given and 598 persons were transferred to naval escort vessels. The Empress was then taken in tow by the Polish destroyer Bursa but two days later was torpedoed by the U-32 (Hans Jenisch) and sunk. Although casualties were not heavy (49) it deserves a mention here as the largest civilian liner to be sunk in World War II. (The U-32 was later sunk by the British destroyer HMS Harvester.)

JERVIS BAY (November 5, 1940)

Originally built to carry emigrants to Australia, the Aberdeen and Commonwealth Line 14,164 ton liner was taken over by the Admiralty in 1939 and converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser (MAC Ship) with a crew of 254 men. On the 5th of November the Jervis Bay was the sole escort for convoy HX-84 from Halifax to Britain and consisting of 37 freighters. When the convoy was attacked by the German battleship Admiral Scheer, the Jervis Bay engaged the Admiral Scheer in a desperate attempt to enable the convoy to escape.

In a twenty two minute battle the Jervis Bay's commander, Captain Fogarty Fegan, and most of his officers were killed. In all, 187 officers and crew were lost when the blazing ship sank 755 nautical miles (1,398 kilometres) south-southwest of Reykjavic, Iceland. Fifty six survivors were rescued by the Swedish freighter Stureholm (Capt. Sven Olander) but three died before reaching the port of Halifax. Captain Fogarty Fegan was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. On December 11, 1940, the Stureholm was sunk with all hands by the U-96. The Admiral Scheer went on to sink six other ships in the convoy which took the lives of another 251 men. On April 9, 1945, she was bombed and sunk by the RAF while at her anchorage in Kiel.

HMS Jervis Bay (F 40), Armed Merchant Cruiser, before its encounter with the Admiral Scheer.

The Admiral Scheer combined a decent speed (26 knots), produced by 8 powerful diesel engines, with massive firepower, provided by six 280mm main guns, eight 150mm guns and six 105mm guns, as well as 8 torpedo launchers, and could cover 18000 miles without refuelling. The idea behind the design of Admiral Scheer and other “pocket battleships” was to ensure that they would be able to outrun enemy battleships and outgun enemy cruisers of the era, while raiding the world’s most important ocean routes.

SS PATRIA (November 25, 1940)

In September, 1940, around 3,000 Jewish refugees from Vienna, Prague and Danzig were attempting to reach Palestine. In a convoy of four river steamers, they set sail down the Danube and reached the Romanian port of Tulcea where they transferred to three Greek cargo ships named Atlantic, Pacific and Milos. Conditions on board these three ships were horrendous, reminiscent of Japanese hell-ships later in the war. Eventually the ships reached Palestinian waters, but the British Colonial Office refused them permission to land. It was finally decided to deport the refugees to the island of Mauritius where a special camp was to be built. The three ships were then brought into Haifa harbour where the liner Patria was berthed. The refugees were then embarked on the Patria and as the last passengers from the Atlantic were coming on board, a tremendous explosion ripped the liner apart. The death toll amounted to 267 refugees killed. The explosion was the work of the Jewish underground army, the Haganah, who had meant only to damage the ship to prevent it sailing but had miscalculated the amount of explosives needed to disable the ship.

HMS FORFAR (December 1, 1940)

Auxiliary cruiser of 16,402 tons, formerly the liner SS Montrose which was requisitioned as an Armed Merchant Cruiser in 1939 and renamed Forfar. Commanded by Capt. N. Hardy, the Forfar was on her way to escort an incoming convoy when torpedoed 623 kilometres west-northwest of Galway, Eire, by Kretschmer's U-99. Badly damaged after four torpedo hits over a period of one hour, the Forfar finally sank at 4.50am the following day, taking the lives of 36 officers and 136 ratings. There were eighteen survivors. The previous month the U-99 had sunk two other AMCs, the Laurentic and Patroclus. Lt. Cmdr. Otto Kretschmer, Germany's top U-boat ace with 44 ships to his credit, was captured after his U-99 was sunk while attacking convoy HX-112 in March, 1941. He survived the war and attained the rank of admiral in Germany's post war Navy.

SS CALABRIA (December 8, 1940)

Passenger ship (9,515 tons) of the British India S. N. Co. formerly an Italian ship captured by the British, was sunk by a torpedo from a German submarine while en route from Freetown to Glasgow. Her entire crew of 130 men and 230 Indian passengers went down with the ship.


SS OROPESA (January 16, 1941)

Passenger liner of 14,118 tons (Capt. H. Croft) built in 1920 at the Cammel Laird shipyard at Birkenhead for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company. In 1921 she was chartered to the Royal Mail for the Hamburg-Southampton-New York service. In 1931 she carried the Prince of Wales and Prince George to South America. In September, 1939, the ship was taken over and converted to a troopship and on January 16, 1941 while en route from Mombasa, East Africa, to the UK, was sunk by three torpedoes from the U-96 (Kptlt. Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock) about 100 miles off County Donegal, Ireland. Of the 249 crew and passengers on board, 113 were killed. The same day, another U-boat, the U-106, sank the cargo-liner Zealandic (10,578 tons) of the Shaw Savill & Albion Co. All 73 crew and passengers were lost. The U-96 was sunk by US bombers on March 30, 1945 at Wilhelmshaven. The U-106 was sunk by depth-charges dropped from a Sunderland aircraft on August 2,1943, there were 36 survivors but 22 of the crew were killed.

SS ALMEDA STAR (January 17, 1941)

The 14,935 ton Blue Star Line passenger liner (Captain H.C. Howard) was sunk by the U-96 (Kptlt. Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock) while en route from Liverpool to the River Platte. The attack occurred about 250 miles west of the Island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. There were no survivors. A total of 166 crew and 194 passengers lost their lives. The U-96 was later bombed and sunk by US aircraft at Wilhelmshaven.

FIUME, POLA and ZARA (March 28, 1941)

Italian cruisers of the 1st Naval Division, each of 10,000 tons, together with two escorting destroyers, the Alfieri and Carducci were sunk at the Battle of Cape Matapan off the southern tip of Greece. In this night action the Italian ships were engaged by the British battleships, HMS Warspite, Valiant and Barham. Caught completely by surprise in searchlights from the destroyer Greyhound, the Fiume (13,260 tons) was hit by five 15-inch shells from Warspite, the Zara (13,580 tons) by a broadside of 15-inch shells from Valiant and Barham. The Pola (13,531 tons) crippled and on fire, lay dead on the water and after her crew were taken off she was sunk by torpedoes. The Italian force suffered a crushing defeat, 2,303 men from the five ships were killed. Thirteen officers and 147 ratings were picked up by the Italian hospital ship Gradisca sent in response to a radio message transmitted to the Italian Admiralty from the Royal Navy ships. Another 110 were rescued by Greek destroyers, and the rest, numbering around 700, were picked up by the British destroyers. (During World War II, around 33,000 Italian sailors lost their lives)

SLAMAT (April 27, 1941)

The 11,636 ton Dutch passenger liner was taken over for service as a troop transport and while engaged in the evacuation of British and New Zealand troops from Crete, she was attacked for the second time by German aircraft of Luftwaffe JG-77 and sank with the loss of 193 men. Of the troops on board, around 700 were rescued by the destroyers HMS Diamond and HMS Wryneck, both of which were later bombed and sunk, drowning most of the survivors of the Slamat. There was one officer, 41 seamen and 8 soldiers saved from this triple disaster, leaving a death toll of 843 men.

For more, see http://home.kabelfoon.nl/~popta/slamat/index.htm.

SS NERISSA (April 30, 1941)

Canadian 5,583 ton passenger vessel built in Scotland in 1926 for the Warren Line. Engaged on the New York-Bermuda run before the war, she was pressed into service as a troop carrier and was sunk during her 40th wartime crossing of the Atlantic by the U-552 (Erich Topp) while en route from Nova Scotia to Liverpool, England. Carrying 175 passengers, mostly Canadian Army personnel and a class of newly graduated RAF pilots, the Nerissa, under the command of Captain Gilbert Watson, sank in less than four minutes with the loss of 124 passengers and 83 crewmembers including Captain Watson who stood on the bow of his ship as it went down and yelling to his men in the water 'Good luck boys'. The 84 Survivors were picked up by the destroyer HMS Veteran and eventually landed at Londonderry in Northern Ireland 200 miles away. (Erich Topp, who sank the American destroyer Reuben James on October 31, 1941, survived the war and died in Germany on December 26, 2005, at age 91)

The Canadian passenger ship, SS Nerissa

The Canadian passenger ship SS Nerissa.

PINGUIN (May 8, 1941)

German cruiser, commanded by Capt. Krüder, sunk in the Indian ocean by the British heavy cruiser HMS Cornwall near the Seychelles. The Pinguin, on a mission as a raider, had sunk or captured a total of 32 ships. Casualties on board the Pinguin were 3 officers and 341 crewmembers as well as around 200 prisoners. Twenty two prisoners and 60 crewmembers were rescued from the sea by the Cornwall (Capt. Manwaring)

HMS GLOUCESTER (May 22, 1941)

British cruiser of the Mediterranean Fleet (Force C) sunk by bombs from German JU87s during Operation Merkur, the German airborne attack on the island of Crete. The crippled ship lay dead in the water, on fire and listing to port. The "Abandon Ship" order was given and she sank at 5.15pm. The Gloucester's commander, Captain Rowley, 45 officers and 648 crewmembers were lost.

HMS FIJI (May 22, 1941)

British cruiser of 8,000 tons (Captain P.William- Powlett) sunk by bombs from German and Italian aircraft during the Battle of Crete. She sank forty nautical miles south-west of Crete near the island of Antikithera. In September, 1940, the Fiji was torpedoed off the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, while escorting troop transports heading for the port of Dakar (Operation Menace). After repairs which lasted almost six months, she returned to duties in the Mediterranean. The Fiji had survived about twenty bomb attacks during the four hour engagement off Crete but later another three direct hits proved fatal. Casualties were 17 officers and 224 ratings killed. A total of 523 survivors were picked up by the destroyers Kingston and Kandahar which had earlier rescued survivors from the sunk destroyer Greyhound. The Fiji's place was taken by the Australian cruiser HMAS Australia.

CONTE ROSSO...OCEANIA (May 24, 1941)

Italian passenger liner of 17,879 tons, built in 1921 and converted to a troopship in 1940, and now belonging to the Italian Merchant Marine, was sunk by the British submarine HMS Upholder (Lt-Cdr. Malcolm Wanklyn) about 80 miles off Tripoli, North Africa. The Conte Rosso was carrying 2,729 Italian troops on their way to Tripoli when attacked. A total of 1,209 lives were lost. Lt-Cdr. Wanklyn was awarded the Victoria Cross in recognition of this. Also sunk by the Upholder were the two 19,475 ton motor vessels Neptunia and Oceania part of a convoy bound for the Axis occupied part of Libya. On September 18, 1941 the Italian passenger liner Neptunia, taken over for service as a troop transport, was torpedoed fifty-eight miles from Tripoli. The same day, the Upholder sank her sister ship Oceania, also converted to a troop carrier. The death toll from both ships was 384 men, some 6,500 being rescued. On April 14, 1942, the Upholder and its entire crew were lost when depth-charged while on its 23rd patrol.

HMS HOOD (May 24, 1941)

Britain's largest battle cruiser, (44,600 tons) commissioned in May, 1920, was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck commanded by Admiral Lütjens and captained by Captain Ernest Lindemann. In an early morning action in the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland, the Bismarck, accompanied by the cruiser Prince Eugen (Captain Helmuth Brinkmann), were en route from Bergen in Norway to the Atlantic when they intercepted the Hood, the Prince of Wales and six escorting destroyers. From 26,000 yards, the Bismarck opened fire and at 16,500 yards scored a direct hit on the Hood's magazine causing the 112 tons of explosives to blow up. The battleship, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Lancelot Holland, went down in about four minutes. Of a crew of 1,417 (94 officers and 1,323 ratings and Royal Marines) there were only three survivors, a death toll of 1,414. (Ted Briggs, one of the three survivors, died in October, 2008, aged 85) The mighty battleship had only fired its guns once in anger, at Mers El Kebir in 1940. The day the Hood sailed from Scapa Flow repairs were attempted on a defect in the magazines hydraulic system which failed to lift the cartridge into the loading position. In the heat of battle, could this defect have caused the cartridge and the whole magazine to explode? Did the Hood in fact, self destruct? For the Bismarck to score a direct hit on the magazine at this distance must be the luckiest shot of the war. The second question is why did the German battleships break off the engagement instead of pursuing and engaging the Prince of Wales?

For more, see the excellent Battle Cruiser Hood website at http://www.H.M.S.hood.com/.

Britain's largest battle cruiser of WWII, HMS Hood

Britain's largest battle cruiser of WWII, HMS Hood.

BISMARK (May 27, 1941)

Hitler’s greatest warship commissioned in August, 1940. Fully loaded she weighed 52,600 tons. After her encounter with HMS Hood (20 years older than the Bismarck) she headed for St. Nazaire, the only port on the coast of France with a dry dock big enough to hold her. An order was given by Churchill to "Get the Bismarck". The hunt for the battleship dominated the world’s press, the chase lasting four days and covering 1,750 sea miles. Spotted by a Coastal Command Catalina flying boat, her position was reported to the Royal Navy ships. Finally, on May 27, the mighty battleship met her end after 277 days of war service. Severely damaged by salvos from the battleships HMS King George V, HMS Rodney, and by torpedoes from the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, she was finally scuttled by her crew. Casualties amounted to 2,097 officers, men and cadets lost including Admiral Lutjens and Captain Lindemann. There were 115 survivors, picked up by the Dorsetshire and the destroyer Maori. In 1989, the wreck of the Bismarck was found. She lies intact and upright at 4,763 metres about 602 miles off the coast of Brittany.


Germany's greatest warshipGermany's greatest warship, the battleship Bismarck the battleship Bismarck.

SS ANSELM (July 5, 1941)

Built at Dumbarton in 1935 at a cost of 158,876 English Pounds, the Anselm (5,954 tons, Captain D. Elliot) was converted to a troop carrier in 1940. While transporting 98 crew and 1,210 troops, including 175 Royal Air Force personnel who were heading for the Gold Coast, now Ghana, from Gourock, Scotland, to Freetown, West Africa, (Convoy WS-9B) the ship was struck on the port side by a torpedo from the U-96 (Willenbrock). The ship sank in twenty-two minutes about 300 miles north of the Azores. In the panic and chaos which followed, a total of 254 men, including a large number of the RAF men, were lost. One of the escorts,HMS Challenger,  positioned herself alongside the sinking ship and managed to rescue 60 men.

SS DONAU and SS BAHIA LAURA (August 30, 1941)

Two German transports of 2,931 tons and 8,561 tons respectively, and part of a troop carrying convoy, were sunk by torpedoes from a British submarine west of Seloen Island, Norway. Casualties from the two ships amounted to 468 dead. A total of 1,196 men were rescued.

MV ANDREA GRITTI (September 3, 1941)

Italian vessel of 6,338 tons and part of a convoy heading from Naples to Tripoli was torpedoed by British torpedo-carrying aircraft about 25 miles from Capo Spartivento in position 37º33'N  19º26'E. The ship blew up and sank with the loss of 347 men.

IIMARINEN (September 13, 1941)

Flagship of the Finnish Navy, the Ilmarinen (3,900 tons) along with her sister ship the Vaninamoinen, were built as armoured cruisers/coastal defence vessels. Their main function was to act as movable gun batteries to support defence in areas where shore artillery was not available. For this reason their armament was to be as heavy as possible including 254/45mm guns firing a shell weighing 225 kgs. These two ships, while anchored at Turku, provided an effective AA barrage that saved the city during its sixty-one air attacks from Soviet aircraft. The Ilmarinen was sunk at 20.30hrs during the deception operation 'Nordwind' after the ship struck two mines south of the Finnish island of Uto. The Iimarinen sank in seven minutes, sadly taking 271 Finnish sailors to their deaths. There were 132 survivors picked up by other ships.

ARMENIA (November 7, 1941)

Russian hospital ship sunk at 11.29am by German torpedo-carrying planes while evacuating wounded soldiers and sailors from the Crimean Peninsula. As well as the wounded servicemen from Sevastopol and Yalta, the ship also carried around 2,000 unregistered civilians and medical personnel. The Armenia was a two deck passenger/cargo vessel launched at Leningrad in November, 1928. After the torpedoes struck, the ship took only four minutes to sink to the bottom of the Black Sea at a depth of 472 meters. The Red Crosses painted on both sides were ignored by the pilots during the attack. It is estimated that over 5,000 people died in the sinking. There were only eight survivors who were picked up by an escort vessel. (The latest Russian sources put the death toll at 7,000)

HMAS SYDNEY (November 19, 1941)

Commissioned at Portsmouth in 1935 under the name HMS Phaeton. Transferred to the Australian Navy under her new name HMAS Sydney. The cruiser of 7,000 tons, captained by Captain John Burnett, set sail from Fremantle in Western Australia on November 11 to act as escort for the troopship 'Zealandia' to Sunda Strait. Returning to Fremantle she became engaged in a fire fight off the coast of Western Australia with the German raider Kormoran. Disguised as a Dutch merchantman, and commanded by Theodor Detmers. TheKormoran was one of the ten armed merchantmen employed by the German Navy during the war. Badly damaged and on fire, the Sydney disappeared into the night, never to be seen again. All of her 42 officers and 603 men were lost in this, Australia's worst World War II sea tragedy. The Kormoran also sank with the loss of 85 men but 315 of her crew made it to the West Australian shore, many were rescued by the Australian hospital ship 'Centaur' to spend the rest of the war at the Dhurringile P.O.W. camp in Victoria. Controversy raged for decades as to whether there was a cover up by the Australian Government as to the circumstances of the ships disappearance. Will the truth ever be known? The only piece of wreckage found was a life-raft which can be seen in the Australian National War Memorial in Canberra.

In a search lasting almost sixty-seven years the wreck of HMAS Sydney was finally found on March 16, 2008, by the search vessel 'Geosounder'. The wreck sits upright on the sea floor at 2,560 metres, nearly two and a half kilometres below the surface. Part of her bow is missing. Twenty-four hours earlier the wreck of the German raider 'Kormoran' was also found twelve and a half kilometres away. Around the wreck was a large field of debris that would suggest the ship had suffered a catastrophic explosion. It is known that the Kormoran carried 320 sea mines.

(Theodor Detmers survived the war and died in Hamburg on November 4, 1976)

HMS DUNEDIN (November 24, 1941)

British light cruiser of 4,850 tons commanded by Captain R. S. Lovat, was sunk by two torpedoes from the German submarine U-124 (Kapt. Lt. Johann Mohr) in the South Atlantic, the ship sinking by the stern in seventeen minutes. The German radio announced that HMS Dragon had been sunk, mistaking the name. It was not until four officers and 63 ratings had been picked up from the Carley floats by the US merchant ship Nishmaha on the 27th that the British Admiralty announced the sinking of the Dunedin. The tragedy took the lives of 26 officers including the captain, and 392 ratings. The U-124 was later sunk by depth charges from HMS Stonecorp and HMS BlackSwan on April 2, 1943, off Oporto, Portugal. Her entire crew of 53 died.

HMS BARHAM (November 25, 1941)

The 31,100 ton British battleship, part of the British Mediterranean Fleet, blows up north of Sidi Barrani after being hit on the port side by three torpedoes from the German submarine U-331 commanded by Kptlt. von Tiesenhausen. About four minutes after the torpedoes struck the Barham's 15-inch magazine exploded which completely disintegrated the battleship and sending up an enormous cloud of black smoke which covered her sinking. A total of 862 crewmen perished including her commander, Captain G. C. Cooke. There were 449 men rescued from the water by the destroyers HMS Hotspur and HMAS Nizam. The U-331 was later sunk on November 17, 1942, by torpedo-carrying Swordfish from the carrier HMS Formidable. (32 men died, 15 were rescued). Kptlt. Hans-Diedrich Tiesenhausen was one of the rescued and survived the war. He died on August 17, 2000, in Vancouver, Canada, at the age of 85.

It was during a spiritual séance in Portsmouth that the apparition of a dead sailor appeared and told the gathering, which including his mother, that his ship had been sunk. The ship in question was the Barham.The gathering was presided over by Helen Duncan, a citizen of Edinburgh and one of Britain's most respected materialization mediums. The dead sailors mother then contacted the War Office asking for details of the sinking and explaining how she came to hear of it. As ship sinkings during wartime was classified 'Secret' an investigation was launched and Helen Duncan, a mother of seven, was arrested and charged under the Witchcraft Act of 1735. After her release from prison she continued to bring comfort to grieving wartime families. In 1951, the Witchcraft Act was repealed and four years later Spiritualism was formally recognised as a religion. Helen Duncan died in 1956 at age 59 after many attempts to clear her name.

JOSIF STALIN (December 3, 1941)

Russian troopship of 7,500 tons, severely damaged after hitting four mines during the evacuation of Soviet troops from the Hangö garrison in the Gulf of Finland. It is not known the exact number of soldiers lost but it is believed that around 4,000 troops were on board at the time. Rescue ships picked up 1,800 men from the sea but left about 2,000 still clinging to the floating wreck. Another vessel with a similar name, Josif Stalin, was sunk when crossing the Volga while evacuating civilians from the besieged city of Stalingrad. When midstream the ship was shelled by German guns and sank drowning over 1,000 people. A week before, a smaller steamer, the Borodino, met a similar fate and several hundred wounded soldiers and civilians were lost.

USS OKLAHOMA and USS ARIZONA (December 7, 1941)

US battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor during the sneak attack by Japanese naval planes. This cowardly attack triggered the American involvement in World War II. Death toll from both ships amounted to 1,592 men, 1177 from the 1,400 crew on board theArizona and 415 from the Oklahoma. Two other battleships, the West Virginia (429 dead) and the Tennessee were damaged and 196 Navy and 65 Army Air Force planes destroyed. All told, a total of 2,409 servicemen and 68 civilians were killed and 1,178 were wounded. Only 29 Japanese aircraft were shot down. That same afternoon the United States Chief of Naval Operations issued the following order "Execute unrestricted air and submarine warfare against Japan". During the Pearl Harbor attack, fifteen navy men earned the nation's highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Ten were awarded posthumously. (Rear Admiral Izaac C. Kidd was killed when the Arizona blew up. He was the highest ranking US naval officer to lose his life during the war.)

HMS REPULSE and HMS PRINCE OF WALES (December 10, 1941)

British warships sunk by Japanese naval aircraft off Kuantan, Malaya. The ships were spotted by the Japanese submarine I-58 just before dawn and attacked by a force of nine 'Betty' torpedo-carrying planes of the Japanese 22nd Naval Air Flotilla from the Japanese base at Saigon and led by Lieutenant Haruki Iki. The battleship Prince of Wales (36,727 tons) was hit by six torpedoes and sank at 1.23pm. The cruiser Repulse (26,500 tons) was hit by five torpedoes and sank at 12.33pm. The death toll from both ships was 840 men (Repulse 513, and the Prince Of Wales, 327). A total of 2,081 lives were saved by the escorting destroyers HMS Electra, Vampire and Express and taken back to Singapore. The day after the sinking, Lieutenant Iki flew over the grave site of the two ships and dropped a bouquet of flowers. The Far Eastern Fleet commander, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips went down with his ship. In this action, the Japanese lost only four planes. After this disaster, the dominant role of battleships in war came under grave doubt.

The wrecks of the two ships were found in July, 2001, and buoys were attached to the propeller shafts with Royal Navy flags attached to the lines. The sites are now protected as a War Grave. The ships bell from the Prince Of Wales was recovered in 2002 and is on display in the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England. The sinking of these two battleships gave the Japanese complete command of the sea and left the door to the 'impregnable fortress' of Singapore, wide open.

SEBASTIANO VENIER (December 9, 1941)

Italian motorship of 6,310 tons, built in Amsterdam in 1939 under the name Jason. Requisitioned by the Italian Navy and renamed Sebastiano Venier, the ship had left Benghazi harbour with around 2,000 British prisoners of war including black South African troops, New Zealanders and Australians, all captured by the Germans in North Africa. Five miles south of Navarino on the Greek Peloponnese, the ship was attacked by the British submarine HMS Porpoise. She was not flying a P.O.W. flag. Hit by a torpedo between the No.1 and No.2 hold on the starboard side, the force of the explosion hurled the heavy hatchway covers to mast height, the falling timbers killing dozens of men trying to escape from the hold. From the flooded No.1 hold only five men survived. Most of the panic stricken crew abandoned the ship taking all the lifeboats. The Italian hospital ship Arno appeared on the scene but ploughed its way through the men struggling in the water and kept on sailing, its priority being the rescue of the crew of a German ship sunk nearby. A total of 320 lives were lost among them 309 British P.O.W.s, including 45 New Zealanders. Eleven Italian soldiers also died. The ship did not sink but managed to reach the shore at Point Methoni near Pilos where it was beached. All prisoners who managed to reach the shore were confronted by hundreds of Italian occupation troops and were taken to a makeshift camp where during the next few months many died from frostbite and disease. In May, 1942, the prisoners were transferred to Campo 85 at Tuturano in Italy.


Two Italian cruisers, both sunk by torpedoes fired from the British destroyers Sikh, Maori, Legion and the Dutch destroyer Isaac Sweers. The destroyers were proceeding from Gibraltar to Alexandria when they sighted the Italian cruisers. Around 900 men from the two cruisers were killed.

HMS GALATEA (December 15, 1941)

British light cruiser (5,220 tons) of the Alexandria Fleet, 15th Cruiser Squadron, commissioned 1935 and sunk by three torpedoes from the U-557 (Paulshen) off Alexandria, Egypt. The commander, Captain Sims, 22 officers and 447 ratings were lost when the Galatea sank. There were 144 survivors. The U-557 was sunk next day west off the island of Crete after being rammed accidentally by the Italian torpedo boat Orione. All hands, 43 men, were killed.

HMS NEPTUNE (December 19, 1941)

British light cruiser, commissioned February 23, 1934. The Neptune was part of the Malta-based Force K of Admiral Cunningham and was trying to intercept an Italian convoy heading for North Africa. The Neptune capsized and sank about twenty miles off Tripoli after sailing into a newly-laid Italian minefield and hitting four mines. A total of 765 officers and men went down with the ship, Two officers and 148 ratings were New Zealand naval personnel. The survivors of the Neptune were found on a raft four days later by two Italian torpedo boats. Of the sixteen men aboard only one was alive. Leading Seaman John Norman Walton was the only survivor. He became a prisoner of war in Italy and was released in 1943. One of the escort destroyers, HMS Kandahar, also sank after striking a mine in the same minefield. She sank with the loss of 73 of her crew. Eight officers and 166 ratings were rescued by HMS Jaguar which had sailed from Malta to search for survivors.

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All text researched and compiled by George Duncan. Website by Columbus.