Titanic and Myth by Ken WrightOn 14 April 1912, the White Star liner Titanic struck an iceberg. It may have only been a glancing blow but it was enough to send the ship to an icy grave at the bottom of the North Atlantic. The Titanic disaster has continued to fascinate us with stories of human behaviour under extreme circumstances, of class distinction and bravery. Of heroes and cowards and all the stuff of myths and legends. Of a ship that was supposed to be ‘unsinkable’ and the tremendous loss of life.

Because of its popularity over the past 100 years, in books and more recently in movies, too many people worldwide are under the impression that the sinking of the Titanic was the worst maritime disaster in history.

While there is no doubt it is the most well-known disaster, it is definitely not the worst.
Sea tragedies must be divided into two categories, peacetime and wartime. In addition, wartime losses can be divided into two sub-sections. One is the loss of a military ship and the second is the loss of a civilian ship during war.

The only peacetime sea disaster to surpass the Titanic took place on 20 December 1987 in the Tablas Strait, 110 miles south of Manila. The Philippine ferry, Dona Paz collided with the oil tanker Vector, a fireball breaking the tanker in two and sinking it immediately. The Dona Paz sunk two hours later with a loss of 4,235 lives. By comparison, the Titanic death toll was only 1,523.

The worst civilian wartime disaster in recorded history was the sinking of the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff on 30 January 1945. Millions of terrified refugees poured into the German held Baltic port of Gdynia trying to escape the bloody vengeance of the Soviet Army. The German Army and the SS had raped, looted and murdered their way through Russia and now, to the Soviet soldier, it was time for revenge.

Escape by land was virtually impossible; the only way out was by sea. Packed with about 10,582 men, women, children and wounded soldiers, the converted luxury liner Wilhelm Gustloff set sail with an old motor torpedo as escort. The temperature was 10 degrees below zero; snow was falling and ice forming on the decks and in the sea.

Undetected, the Soviet submarine S13 had been following the liner for over two hours, the Baltic snow covering the submarine’s surface approach. When in the correct firing position, Captain Third Class Alexander Marinesko ordered three torpedoes fired at the Wilhelm Gustloff’s port side. The explosions caused the ship to sink within 50 minutes, approximately 8,000 perished in the freezing Baltic Sea.

Just three weeks before the end of the war, the Soviet submarine, L3, sank the converted transport ship Goya. The Goya broke in half and sank in four minutes, water pouring into the holds filled with desperate refugees and soldiers. Around 6,200 died.

On 3 May 1945, just one week before the end of the war, the converted German passenger ship, Cap Arcona was moored in Lubeck harbour. The ship was packed with evacuated concentration camp inmates. British fighter-bombers attacked and sank the ship killing over 5,000. The pilots obviously unaware that the inmates were on board the ship.

Dona Paz.The worst British military sea disaster was the destruction of the troopship Lancastria as she lay anchored five miles off the French coast at St Nazaire. Members of the British Army and refugees were desperately trying to escape the advancing German Army.

On the 17th June 1940, planes from the Luftwaffe squadron, Kampfgeschwader 30, using special anti-shipping high explosive bombs attacked and sunk the Lancastria with an estimated death toll of 6,000-7,500. The exact figure may never be known. The French Government has declared the wreck an official War Grave and diving is strictly prohibited.

Wilhelm Gustloff.The British Government during the war placed a ‘D’ notice on the sinking which means the Official Report on this war time tragedy will not be known until the year 2040. It may be the Captain was ordered to allow the ship to be overcrowded so as to evacuate as many as possible and if this were true, then there might be some legal reason for the ‘D’ notice but this is speculation.

The Wilhelm Gustloff, Dona Paz, Goya, Cap Arcona and the Lancastria are just a few relatively unknown sinkings where lives were lost in the thousands. There are many more ships that tragically surpass Titanic’s death toll … the battleships, Yamato, Bismarck or the Scharnhorst and the liners Laconia, SS Petrella and SS Kiangya.

The sinking of the Laconia is an exceptional tale of man’s humanity to his fellow man during war. On 12 September 1942, the Laconia with approximately 3,000 persons onboard was bound for England from South Africa. The liner was far out in the Atlantic north-east of Ascension Island when about 8-10pm she was hit by two torpedoes from the U156.

The skipper, Korvetten Kapitän Werner Hartenstein thought he had sunk a British troop carrier but after questioning a few survivors, he learned that apart from British civilians and their families, a few wounded British service men, there were approximately 1,800 Italian prisoners of war with 103 Polish troops acting as their guards.

Sinking of the Lancastria, 17 June 1940. Artist Robert W. May.Shocked at the tragedy before him, Hartenstein began a rescue operation that eventually involved two additional U-Boats, an Italian submarine and three Vichy French war ships. Of the 3,000, about 1,111 survived due mainly to the enemy who risked so much to help those in distress, their humanity cutting across ideological boundaries in a time of war.

Although the death toll from the mentioned ships far exceeded the Titanic, it is still the stories of the Titanic that remain so firmly embedded in the human consciousness and the emphasis on such a great loss of life. This is why it is absolutely essential that when reading any story concerning the Titanic disaster they are viewed with historical fact and not let myths and legends become reality.

It is not the greatest maritime disaster in history.


* Ken Wright specializes in military articles about WWI and WWII for magazines in Australia, Canada, USA and Britain at War magazine in the UK.