A Brief History
On December 1, 1768, the Danish ship Fredensborg sank in a storm off the coast of Norway on her return trip from a death filled delivery of slaves to St. Croix in the Caribbean. Previously we reported on “10 Infamous Ships” and today we list “10 More Infamous Ships” that either served an evil purpose or were particularly unlucky, and are remembered today with less than fond memories. As always, we invite our readers to add those nominees they think belong on such a list. (Note: the RMS Titanic and SS Edmund Fitzgerald are TOO obvious!)
1. CSS Hunley.
A ship that sank 3 times has to make this list! The fact that the Hunley had already sunk twice, once when the skipper accidentally stepped on a lever causing the submarine to dive when the hatches were open, should have been a clue. In a classic “Oops!” moment, the Hunley was sunk for a third and final time when attacking the USS Housatonic with a 90 pound explosive charge at the end of a 22 foot long spar. Apparently, the sub’s designers did not realize that a large explosion only 22 feet away could damage the sub. All hands were lost.
2. Cap Arcona.
On May 3, 1945, World War II was going rather poorly for the Germans who were desperately trying to shuffle their troops, citizens, and prisoners to keep them away from advancing Allied armies. In spite of British Army officials being notified that the Cap Arcona, Deutschland, and Thielbeck were carrying prisoners of war and with World War II in Europe about to end in mere days, the RAF sent 5 squadrons of Hawker Typhoon fighter bombers to attack the ships off Lubeck, Germany, sinking them and killing as many as 10,000 people, most of whom were prisoners of the Germans. In spite of the impending end of the war, the RAF sent their latest fighter bombers, the Hawker Typhoons, armed with 20 mm cannons, 60 lb rockets and 500 lb bombs to attack the ships. All three ships were sunk, with thousands of people going into the cold water. Incredibly, the fighter planes began strafing the survivors, shooting them up as they tried to swim to safety. Apparently this act was not spontaneous, but part of the orders they had received for the mission! The hapless prisoners were weak and emaciated anyway, but the surviving SS men and women (perhaps 500 or more) pushed them away from lifeboats and makeshift rafts. Rescue boat made no attempt to save prisoners. The Cap Arcona was the largest and most heavily loaded of the victim ships, with at least 5000 of its passengers dying on that fateful day, one of the largest maritime disasters in naval history.
3. K-3 Leninsky Komsomol.
The submarine K-3 Leninsky Komsomol was commissioned in 1958 as the Soviet Union’s first nuclear submarine, but hardly the last. Called K-19: The Widow Maker in the 2002 film, the real Soviet ship was actually known informally within the Soviet Navy as “Hiroshima” and was, according to the BBC, “Russia’s first nuclear-armed submarine”. Barely over 2 months from commissioning the nuclear reactor suffered a coolant leak, dangerously raising reactor temperature. With the radio system inoperative, the ship and crew were in peril. Although Captain Zateyev had argued the reactor needed a back up cooling system, none was installed. That lack led to the dilemma the captain faced: lose the ship or have men expose themselves to radiation while cobbling together an emergency cooling system. Unfortunately, 8 Soviet sailors died making the ship saving repairs, and another 15 died later of radiation poisoning. The officers had to throw the small arms on the sub overboard to prevent a possible mutiny, though they kept 5 handguns for themselves as protection from the crew! When they make a major motion picture about the misfortune of your ship, you know the vessel qualifies as “infamous.”
4. USS Maine.
On February 15, 1898, at 9:40 p.m., the US Navy had one of its darkest and yet most memorable days when the armored cruiser USS Maine ACR-1 blew up and sank while docked in Havana Harbor, Cuba. Sent to Cuba to protect American interests during the Cuban revolt against Spain, the Maine blew up and sank quickly, having experienced over 5 tons of gunpowder exploding in the forward part of the ship. The giant explosion and quick sinking cost 266 of the 374 man crew their lives. The Navy and the US in general was stunned, and although the cause of the blast was not known at the time (and was not determined even after subsequent investigation), the press drummed up national hysteria against Spain, insinuating that Spanish sabotage had certainly caused the sinking. By April, the US and Spain were at war, with the US war cry “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” ringing out. When the name of a ship associated with disaster becomes a national battle cry, we call that ship “infamous.” The Maine was not the only big ship to blow up for non-combat reasons, but may well be the most infamous as her disaster sparked a war.
5. Graf Spee.
In 1939, World War II had just begun (in Europe), and the German fleet had already sent some of their commerce raiding ships to sea to interrupt the sea life-line to Britain. The Graf Spee was designed exactly for this purpose, to sink enemy merchant ships while being capable of defeating any ship fast enough to catch her, while being able to outrun battleships that could possibly sink her. This powerful German “pocket battleship” had been fighting British cruisers Ajax and Cumberland, and Australian cruiser Achilles in the South Atlantic when she pulled into port at Montevideo, Uruguay, for repairs. The victim of a deception campaign, Capt. Langsdorff was led to believe more British ships had arrived and joined the 3 cruisers waiting for Graf Spee to be forced by the 3 day limit allowed in a neutral port to go back to sea. Not wanting his men killed in a hopeless battle, Langsdorff had his ship scuttled as it left the harbor. Langsdorff apparently could not stand the humiliation and shot himself 3 days after the scuttling.
6. Andrea Doria.
Sure, other ocean liners have sunk, but few gained the notoriety of the ill-fated Andrea Doria, even though loss of life was minimal. By 1956 the lessons from the Titanic sinking had been learned, and ships were built with multiple watertight compartments and adequate lifeboats for the entire crew and passengers aboard the ship. Modern equipment such as radio and radar made seaborne travel much safer in the second half of the 20th Century. SS Andrea Doria, was a sizeable Italian ocean liner, 701 feet long and displacing 29,000 tons, capable of carrying over 1200 passengers. She was in service since 1951, and despite advanced construction, was somewhat top heavy and prone to heeling over excessively when hit by seas from abeam. The MS Stockholm was much smaller, in service for Sweden as a cruise ship since 1948, 525 feet long and displacing 12,000 tons. Stockholm sailed for the Swedish American Lines and carried a maximum of 548 passengers. On July 25, 1956 while sailing off the American coast of Nantucket, while in a heavy fog, the 2 ships approached each other head on at around 20 knots each. Both ships were radar equipped, with the radar functioning normally and in use at the time. The problem was the lack of communication between the ships, as neither radioed the other, both assuming a starboard turn to avoid the other, which only put them on a collision course. Only when it was too late to avoid collision did the lookouts on each ship visually spot the other vessel. Emergency reversal of engines by Stockholm and an emergency turn to port by Andrea Doria could not prevent collision, and the Stockholm struck the starboard side of Andrea Doria with Stockholm’s bow, creating a large hole in the side of Andrea Doria and demolishing the bow of the Stockholm. The Andrea Doria had been penetrated 40 feet into her hull, flooding 5 of the 11 watertight compartments of the ship and resulting in a severe list to starboard. Half her lifeboats were unusable because of the list. Aboard Stockholm, emergency measures leveled off the ship that going down at the stricken bow, though 5 crewmen had been killed. On Andrea Doria, the decision to abandon ship came only 30 minutes after collision, with the crew quickly discovering the severe list precluding the use of the lifeboats on the port side of the ship. Lifeboats from Stockholm were used to ferry passengers from Andrea Doria to the Swedish ship, and several other ships responded to the rescue. Of the 1706 people aboard the Andrea Doria, 46 died during the incident or from their injuries. The following morning, the Andrea Doria keeled over and sank, 11 hours after the collision. The Andrea Doria’s captain and crew were assigned most of the blame for the tragedy, going way too fast in the fog, failing to follow radar procedure and failing to properly ballast the ship as fuel was consumed. Investigation showed the Stockholm’s radar had been set to 5 mile scale when the radar operator thought it was set to a 15 mile scale, resulting in the ships being 3 times closer to each other than the watch officers aboard Stockholm thought they were. The loss of life was the most in American waters since 1915.
On August 10, 1628, the brand new Swedish battleship, the Vasa, set sail for the first and last time, sinking all by herself with no help from any enemy after traveling less than a mile! She was not the largest ship in the world at the time, nor did she carry the most guns, but because she had the heaviest weight of combined shot (weight of all the cannon balls if every gun fired at once), she was considered the most powerful. Designed to carry 64 guns, 48 of which were heavy 24 pounders, on 2 gun decks, as well as 300 marines to board other ships, the hapless vessel was grossly top heavy. Despite concerns by some naval personnel, the king, Gustavus Adolphus, was over eager to get his mighty ship to sea where she could intimidate or destroy the enemy, but as she was hit with a breeze on the starboard side, she heeled to port and her gun ports, which had been opened in anticipation of a salute, dipped under the water, allowing the sea to rush in and causing the list to continue and accelerate. And so the mighty Vasa basically keeled over and sank, in full, clear view of thousands of Swedes who were watching in horror from the shore. At least that also meant, however, that many rescuers were available as people rushed to small boats to save the crew of 145 sailors and 300 marines/soldiers. Still, at least 30 men died in the disaster, a fortunately low number all things considered. Imagine today if the largest and latest nuclear aircraft carrier left the pier on its first voyage and promptly sank! That scenario should give you an idea of the enormity of the disaster of the Vasa.
8. USS Indianapolis.
Sunk by a Japanese submarine after delivering the first atomic bomb to Tinian in 1945, the secrecy of her mission precluded a distress call and resulted in no search for the survivors until some were spotted by chance 3 and a half days after the sinking. Of the 1196 men crewing the ship, only 317 survived, the greatest loss of life on a US Navy ship at sea in history. Many of the men were eaten by sharks during their 4 days of hell in the water, either after they died or while still alive. The horror of this incident is recounted in the 1975 movie, Jaws, as well as Discovery Channel’s production Oceans of Fear, which described the disaster as the worst case of mass shark attacks in human history. In fact, the name of the USS Indianapolis has become forever linked to the deep rooted fear of shark attack.
9. MV Wilhelm Gustloff.
On January 30, 1945, Soviet submarine S-13 fired 3 torpedoes into the side of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner named after an assassinated Swiss Nazi that had been converted for military use. The Wilhelm Gustloff had been engaged in evacuating German troops and civilians from the Courland area of the Baltic coast, transporting them back to Germany to escape the Red Army. The ship was carrying over 6,000 troops, and with crew and civilians, total passengers probably numbered over 10,000. The crew managed to launch only 1 lifeboat, though a few others were cut free and ended up afloat as well. Those passengers that ended up in the water died quickly from hypothermia and only about 1000 people survived the sinking, making the disaster probably the worst loss of life of any maritime incident in history. Of the 9000 or so killed, 5000 were children! (Note: Only 11 days after the sinking of the Wihelm Gustloff, the same Soviet submarine, the S-13, torpedoed and sank another German luxury liner that had been converted, the SS General von Steuben, renamed the Steuben, resulting in another 3,000 deaths. Hitler declared the sub’s skipper, Alexander Marinesko, a “personal enemy.”)
On April 27, 1865, the paddle-wheel steamboat, SS Sultana was carrying 2427 people when she blew up, killing 1800 of those passengers, making her name associated with the worst maritime disaster in American history. The Mississippi steamboat was jammed with soldiers returning North from the Civil War, mostly Union soldiers who had been in Confederate prisoner of war camps (especially Cahawba and Andersonville). Crowded onto the riverboat designed to carry only 376 people, many of the soldiers were emaciated and ailing from their time in the horrendous prison camps. The ship had started from New Orleans and had made a stop at Vicksburg (Mississippi) in order to repair a boiler. The repair was hastily done in a slip shod manner to avoid the 3 day delay that replacing the boiler would entail. Fate determined that choice was a grave mistake. Struggling under the extreme overload against the strong Mississippi River spring current, the engineers probably overloaded the pressure in the boilers in order to continue to make good speed. After the ship had passed Memphis 7 or so miles ago, at 2 a.m. a huge explosion tore the ship apart and sent passengers flying! Obviously, a boiler had exploded, the greatest fear of riverboat sailors in those days. Passengers had a terrible choice; stay on the burning, sinking ship, or go into the fast flowing and icy cold Mississippi River. Both choices were likely to result in death. Rescuers pulled at least 500 survivors from the water and took them to local hospitals, but of those 500, 300 died. The fact that 800 people survived the ordeal is amazing. The possibility exists that the disaster was the result of sabotage, with a former Confederate saboteur making the claim in 1888 that he had placed a “coal torpedo” in the ship’s load of coal, a bomb disguised as a large lump of coal designed to blow up in a boiler when loaded into the firepit. The Sultana has been infamously referred to as “The Titanic of the Mississippi.”
Question for students (and subscribers): What ships would you add to this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Blow, Michael. A Ship to Remember: The Maine and the Spanish-American War. William Morrow & Co, 1992.
Capek, Michael. The Wilhelm Gustloff Story. Essential Library, 2017.
Shaw, Frank. Full fathom five;: A book of famous shipwrecks. The Macmillan Company, 1930.
Watson, Robert. The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of a Doomed Ship in World War II. Da Capo Press, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a drawing from 1788, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.