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Remembered Today:

Fleeing an S.O.S.?


ph0ebus
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Hi all,

I came across an instance in my research of an ocean liner that fled the S.O.S. call of another liner that had just been torpedoed by a German u-boat. What penalty (if any) would a captain face for this? Was this a common occurance? Are there any legitimate reasons a ship might not come to the aid of another vessel in such circumstances?

Thanks,

-Daniel

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In some circumstances ship's captains were instructed not to approach in case the U boat was using the distressed ship as 'bait'

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Daniel,

A ships Master would be legally bound to answer the distress call, but not neccessarily attend. If she was under the orders of the RN as has been said, they would have a plan in the event of that happening.

Regards Charles

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Hi all,

Thanks for the info. What made this episode of particular interest to me was that the Captain denied hearing the S.O.S. call, but other officers and even some passengers reported they did. I do not believe they acknowledged the SOS (at least the newspapers made no mention of this). What was also interesting was that if they did not get the call, there was little explanation as to why the ship suddely changed course away from the incident and progressed at such a high rate of speed as to actually damage a propeller.

Thankfully other ships did respond and rescued whom they could. I still haven't determined if those who responded were the closer of the available ships or not.

-Daniel

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Apparently it was standard RN procedure that when a ship in an escorted convoy was torpedoed that the convoy itself would immediately disperse. However, I do not know the RN protocol for then coming to the aid of the stricken ship (whether the torpedoed ship was a warship or merchant/passenger ship). Obviously, there were numerous occurrences of multiple ships being sequentially torpedoed in the same vicinity, either as they tried to disperse or (in the case of warships) tried to hunt for the U-boat.

Regards,

Bucephalus

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Apparently it was standard RN procedure that when a ship in an escorted convoy was torpedoed that the convoy itself would immediately disperse.

A reasonable tactic if somewhat cold blooded. The speed of all but the slowest mechantmen was faster than that of a submerged U boat so if the German commander wanted to go after any of the other ships he'd have to surface which would make him vunerable to the escort. The tactical answer was wolf packs but the communications available at the time precluded this. Liners often sailed unescorted as their speed was such as to make it difficult for a U boat to intercept unless they just happened to be in exactly the right place to begin with.

It's an interesting one, if you've hundreds of passengers on board should you risk their lives by approaching an area where a U boat may well be lurking?

What I don't understand is how passengers could have heard the incoming SOS. Radio cabins were usually out of bounds and the operator would pick up the signal on his headphones anyway.

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A reasonable tactic if somewhat cold blooded. The speed of all but the slowest mechantmen was faster than that of a submerged U boat so if the German commander wanted to go after any of the other ships he'd have to surface which would make him vunerable to the escort. The tactical answer was wolf packs but the communications available at the time precluded this. Liners often sailed unescorted as their speed was such as to make it difficult for a U boat to intercept unless they just happened to be in exactly the right place to begin with.

It's an interesting one, if you've hundreds of passengers on board should you risk their lives by approaching an area where a U boat may well be lurking?

What I don't understand is how passengers could have heard the incoming SOS. Radio cabins were usually out of bounds and the operator would pick up the signal on his headphones anyway.

Hi,

My assumption, based on the article is that the passengers overheard the crew talking about the u-boat attack and the captain's decision to flee. Unfortunately I only have the one article on this from the Washington Post at present, and have struck out in my other resources trying to dig deeper into this so far.

-Daniel

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The article at the end of this link illustrates the difficulties of conducting a rescue from a torpedoed liner with a determined U boat still in the vicinity Tuscania

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Daniel, not quite on topic but similar:

"More than 600 black South Africans who volunteered to help Britain during the First World War perished when their ship was rammed by the British liner SS DARO in the Channel in 1917.The liner did not stop to rescue any of the drowning tribesmen, who were being transported to France to help in the war effort. Whole communities in the Eastern Cape of South Africa were left devastated by the sinking of the SS Mendi in one of the most tragic marine disasters of the last century.

Disaster struck at about 5am on February 21. 12 miles off St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight. The Mendi was rammed in thick fog by the British liner, the SS Darro. The Darro. traveling at speed and without fog warning signals. loomed out of obscurity like a monster from the deep. The Mendi was struck on the starboard side and began to list heavily, stopping the lifeboats on the port side from getting away.

One undeniable fact of the tragedy, which was confirmed by a subsequent inquest, is that the captain of the Darro, Henry Stamp, did not stop to help. He sailed away, leaving behind drowning men shrieking in the water. Within 20 minutes of being struck, the Mendi sank. A formal investigation found Stamp was responsible for the collision. He was accused of travelling at a dangerously high speed and failing to ensure his ship let off warning fog signals. Amazingly, Stamp’s only punishment was to be suspended for one year."

Note that Stamp was not charged with ignoring a ship and its people in distress but with causing an accident because of causing an accident. I don't know the details of the inquiry, but I would imagine Stamp claimed it was too dangerous to stop because of the danger of U-boats.

Best wishes

David

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Something that should be remembered when discussing whether or not ships should have stopped to pick up survivors from a torpedoed vessel is the fate of the 3 RN cruisers sunk by U9 on 2 September 1914. HMS Aboukir was torpedoed first & HMS Cressy & Hogue were then sunk after slowing to pick up survivors.

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When the Dwinsk was torpedoed in June 1918 the crew took to the lifeboats but were ordered by the Captain to lie flat as his was aware the lifeboats were being used as bait. If other ships had attempted a rescue many more lives may have been lost. As it was 6 of the 7 lifeboats from the Dwinsk were eventually picked up. My Grandfather was on the 7th and was presumed drown at sea along with 22 others.

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It is highly likely that the Captain never 'heard' the distress call; it was not his job to listen to wireless messages. See the thread on wireless:

 

SS Daro has been dealt with before on this forum. Gibbo is right, the precident had been set in September 1914 as to what would happen to a ship stopping to pick up survivors.

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If the distress call was 'recieved in the ship' the Master would be responsible wether he himself heard the call or not, it is deemed he is in command and if for some reason he never got the message it is his fault for not having the procedures in place (Ships Act 1912). The operator recieving the distress would acknowledge reciept, then send the message to the Master it is then his decision on what action to take, that would be in accordance with the instructions he has been given.

Regards Charles

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If the distress call was 'recieved in the ship' the Master would be responsible wether he himself heard the call or not, it is deemed he is in command and if for some reason he never got the message it is his fault for not having the procedures in place (Ships Act 1912). The operator recieving the distress would acknowledge reciept, then send the message to the Master it is then his decision on what action to take, that would be in accordance with the instructions he has been given.

Regards Charles

Hi Charles, all...

So, given the above, doesn't this story strike you as being odd? We do not know what the Captain's orders were, but it seems strange to me that his officers would tell the press (and thus the public) something completely contradictory (and perhaps unflattering) to what the Captain himself stated publicly. Why would a crew do such a thing?

Given what fate could (and sometimes did) befall ships that responded to SOS calls, I can understand why he may not have responded. It would have been nice if the risk that they faced were explained in the article, but it is not surprising it was not related.

Can folks think of other occasions when crews publically contradicted their Captain like this? Also, if there were an investigation into this incident, would the records be at Kew, if they survived?

Thanks,

-Daniel

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Daniel,

What date did did this incident occur? the instructions for merchantmen are contained in CB585 may be a copy at Kew if not there is one at the Admiralty library and maybe Greenwich.

To leave men in peril on the sea, sounds like a song coming on! always left a bitter taste in a seamans mouth. As for Officers telling the press, with the rules of censorship in place during the war the piece must have been passed by a government censor. There could well be a broader message in the story.

Regards Charles

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Do they indicate they had access to the signal logs; that is the only way to know what messages were received and acknowledged. I did not say he was not responsible, just that if the phrase was "he claimed not to hear" then it would have been accurate. If you are going to pull me up on what I write Charles, at least read and comment on what I write not on what you want to see.

Daniel can we see a copy of this article or can you give a reference for it so we can assess the actual details? What rules of censorship applied to the Washington Post at the time?

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As a WT office would not be on the bridge, no captain would hear incoming or outgoing messages. The radio officer would scribble the message onto a pad and have a runner take it to the bridge for the captain's attention. The sending of the paper message cleared the radio officer of his responsibilty and passed it to the captain or other senior officer on the bridge, who would then inform the captain, unless he had clear orders regarding what to do in the circumstances.

So, for a captain to claim he "did not hear the message" was disengenuous and an obvious attempt to duck his responsibility. If the ship suddenly changed course away, then that would indicate that the captain knew there was danger and he made a decision to ignore the message and seek safety.

Whether it was correct for a captain to seek safety is a difficult question to answer at this distance in time away from the horrors of the war, especially if we bear in mind that Britain was losing merchant tonnage at a disastrous rate.

Best wishes

David

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"pull me up on what I write Charles, at least read and comment on what I write not on what you want to see".

Works both ways;

Whether he heard it or not is irrelevant, do not make it sound as though it is. Many a Captain has been Courts Martialed for running aground when he has been asleep in bed.

Its not what you think is right its the way the rules work, a Captain is in command and takes that responsibility, if his telegraphist recieves the message then so does the captain.

Regards Charles

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Do they indicate they had access to the signal logs; that is the only way to know what messages were received and acknowledged. I did not say he was not responsible, just that if the phrase was "he claimed not to hear" then it would have been accurate. If you are going to pull me up on what I write Charles, at least read and comment on what I write not on what you want to see.

Daniel can we see a copy of this article or can you give a reference for it so we can assess the actual details? What rules of censorship applied to the Washington Post at the time?

Hello,

The article is entitled "New York Fled S.O.S.", and was published in the Washington Post on February 13, 1917. The ship whose SOS that the New York fled was the liner California, which had just been torpedoed by U-85.

I do not have a digital copy of the article; I will have to dig up the hard copy. I do have some bits (not the entire article) transcribed, shown below; the words in italics are straight from the artcle.

The New York put on all power and speed and raced 425 miles out on a far north course to get out of the submarine zone, it was admitted. There was no thought of answering the California’s call. The New York was carrying 238 passengers, a majority of whom were Americans who had made haste to leave England when the announcement of the new German submarine campaign was published. The strain of the New York’s dash temporarily put one of the ship’s engines out of business and for 16 hours, in a raging hailstorm, the vessel fought her way forward with one engine. In contrast to the stories told by the officers and passengers the captain said the trip was normal, except for the storm, and that he did not receive flashes from the California, or other tips regarding submarine activities. Incidentally, the steward’s department, 120 strong, presented demands at the last moment before leaving Liverpool refusing to sail unless provision was made for their families in case the ship was a submarine victim. The company insured the lives of the men for $1500 each. Another proposed explanation as to why the ship fled the SOS centered on speculation regarding a mysterious passenger who was taken from the boat by the revenue cutter which met her at quarantine. It was rumored he was a special agent who was to report to Col. House. Collector of the Port Malone denied this, but said the man was a government agent. Malone said there is no significance in the fact that he met the boat, as he merely had friends aboard whom he wished to see.” (Washington Post, 2 13 1917)

Does the above shed any light on the matter? The attack was February 7th, 1917.

-Daniel

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Apart from newspaper innuendo there is no evidence that the captain actually received any SOS signal. The New York was US owned and flew the American flag and under Captain Roberts had a reputation for fast crossings to avoid the dangers of U boats etc. Some months previously she had had six lifeboats damaged pushing on through a storm at the best speed she could manage. Incidentally the high speeds were only maintained in the U boat danger zone. Its quite possible that on this occasion she was merely following SOP and making a high speed passage through the zone and all the rest (SOS ignored, mysterious passenger) is rumour and conspiracy theory (which made a good newspaper story).

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Daniel

Both the incident and the article date from before the USA joined the war. Thank you for transcribing part of this article, as I suspected it alters the way to interpret it. A Master reported as saying (and we only have the journalists spin for this) that he did not receive the messages is completely different from one commenting that he did not hear them. I took that comment to be an accurate if pedantic brush off to a journalist, rather than a comment which had implications for his responsibility. It is still possible that he was being accurate in what he said and that his ship did not receive the message. We have no idea what stories were told by the officers and passengers nor of what messages were actually received; the atmospheric conditions seem to have been poor for reception. It is a good story, if any of it is true and if it was it might have led to an official investigation, do you have any evidence that it did?

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Some background on the SS New York

The SS New York had a chequered history. She was built in Glasgow in 1888 (so she was relatively old for a liner in 1917) and was of 10,799 gross tonnage with a top speed of 20 knots. Her sister ship was the City of Berlin part of the Inman & International fleet.

Transfered to the American Line in 1892 there was a problem and a special act of Congress had to be passed to allow both ships to fly the United States flag as the law at the time (very protectionist) said that no foreign built ships could fly the Stars and Stripes. The New York's first brush with History was during the Spanish American War when she was impressed and became the US Auxiliary Cruiser Harvard, the name was apparently changed as it might have been embarrassing if the press had had to announce that the Spanish had sunk New York (for the same reason in WW2 the Germans renamed the Deuchland not wishing the potential of having to announce Deuchland kaput). The Harvard encountered no Spanish ships and became, first, a troop ship and then a POW transport. In this last role she was the scene of the infamous Harvard Incident when American marines fired on POWs who, it seems, were protesting at the overcrowded conditions in which they were being kept. Some time after the war she reverted to her old status. We next hear of her in 1906 when she collided with the troop ship Assaye which was bound for India with troops, two years later she was in the same vicinity when HMS Gladiator collided with the St. Paul, an American line mail steamer in a blizzard. In 1909 she rushed to answer an SOS from the sinking White Star Liner Republic that had been rammed by the Italian liner Florida. Rescue was accomplished before she arrived. A couple of years later there was a near collision with the Titanic caused by the suction effect of the latter's propellers.

In 1915 the New York sailed just minutes in front of the Lusitania for Britain and passengers on the Lusitania could see the new York ahead of them on the outset of their voyage. The ships did not however sail in company. Sadly some of those passengers returned on the New York for burial.

In March 1917 the US government decided that war was immanent for the USA and that an admiral be sent to England immediately to consult with the British naval authorities. That Admiral was Rear Admiral W. S. Sims and he and his aide embarked on the New York in plain cloths. The secrecy may have been in part compromised by the escort of five destroyers assigned to the New York. Despite this 9 April 1917 the New York hit a mine (possibly UM Boat laid) off the Isle of Man and Sims was taken off by life boat. The New York stayed afloat thanks to some good seamanship by her captain and the soundness of her bulkhead system and was towed to Liverpool

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Three miles Nor by West of the light to be precise. The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company’s vessel " Tynwald " happened to be in the vicinity and took on board the occupants of five of the New York's boarts (including Admiral Sims)

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