Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Death in the ice – The loss of the Erebus and Terror

There are few sea stories that come with a vast amount of drama of such ships as those that set sail to the Arctic as part of explorer John Franklin’s expedition to find the North West Passage, a channel said to link the Atlantic with the Pacific and could save many weeks and months sailing around America to get to the west coast. Franklin was no stranger to voyaging and in 1845 he set off aboard the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror with 133 men.

They sailed on 19 May 1845 from Kent, by the time July had come they had made it up to the ice, landed five men due to sickness and bade farewell to the two ships that had accompanied them. With 129 men on board in total, great things were expected, with the voyage expecting to take a long time, but as no word of them came back people started to get concerned.

After two years with nothing from Franklin, search parties were drafted up to be sent out to conduct a hunt for the two ships and their missing crews. Years went by with rumours of sightings of the ships, over land the Inuit tribes told of a group of explorers that starved to death and showed them items that were confirmed to be from the lost expedition.

As the years ticked by, more evidence was found including written records of the expedition, frozen corpses, items from the ships and graves of several sailors. It was in 1984 that permission was granted to exhume three graves on Beechey Island by Professor Owen Beattie who wanted to find out exactly what had killed them.

Beattie found that pneumonia with lead poisoning had been the cause of death once the corpses had been exhumed and tested. The cans of food were poorly soldered and they lead may have contaminated the food and slowly killed them.

But the most interesting discovery came only recently when search teams located both ships on the seabed. Erebus was located in just 36 feet of water, deteriorated but upright, in September 2014. Two years later the Arctic Research Foundation announced that the Terror had been found in 79 feet of water and in pristine condition.

Since the discoveries there have been several dives on the wrecks with remote cameras and incredible images of these lost ships have been broadcast to the world. There is still a lot to learn about the mysterious vanishing of this entire expedition, but now all the pieces of the puzzle are there, it will only be a matter of time before we learn as much as there is to know about this.

Franklin and his team are commemorated in London and there is a museum in Oslo, Norway, which gives plenty of details about the search for the North West Passage in the place where Roald Amundsen’s two ships Fram and Gjoa are now on display. It will only be a matter of time before items recovered from the Erebus and Terror are on display for all to see and maybe even one day the wrecks themselves raised like the Amundsens Maud was a few years back.

But incredibly, it was the mysteriousness of the Franklin expedition that has made this the most memorable of them all, the loss of two ships and 129 crew has gone down in history as one of the great sea stories, with still so many unanswered questions, but this has ensured that their tragic legacy will live forever.

The statue of Sir John Franklin in central London (right) and a monument in nearby Greenwich (below). 


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

HMS Royal Oak – The Story of Joseph Cachia

Of all the missions in the Second World War, one stood out in the early months as both death defying and impressive, despite the huge loss of life it caused. It was always believed that the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow was safe from attack, the bay close to the capital Kirkwall was the perfect size and shelter to anchor a fleet of the finest warships afloat away from danger, but all this confidence came to a sudden and explosive end by the actions of U-boat skipper Gunther Prien. 

It was the night of 13th October 1939 when Prien took his submarine, U-47, to the north coast of Scotland, his mission being to sneak into Scapa Flow and attack the ships before making a run for it. This was almost a suicide mission, but one that required an enormous amount of patience, calculation and bravery if they were to navigate between the defences that protected these ships. 

On board the Royal Oak, things were silent, most of the sailors asleep in their messdecks. One of these was Leading Steward Joseph Benedetto Cachia (right), born in Malta yet serving on board this ship so far from his native Mediterranean island nation. At 36 years old, Joseph married Catherine Debattista on 19th November 1931 in Sliema and had two daughters, Lilian and Carmen. He wasn’t the only Maltese national on board, around  a dozen more at least, mostly people who lived by the sea and wanted to join the Royal Navy for adventure, never believing that one day they would be back in a World War far from home. 

The Royal Oak was an old battleship now, commissioned in 1916 just in time to see action in the Battle of Jutland, but she still had immense firepower, not least in her eight 15 inch guns in four turrets that could pack a punch for any enemy ship that got too close for comfort. With a crew of over 1200, she spent her peacetime years conducting patrols and even managed to star in a movie. At 620 feet in length, she was dwarfed by some of the more modern warships that were now being seen on the world’s stage. 

Meanwhile as Prien was sneaking through the Scapa Flow defences, the hands of midnight ticked over into the morning of 14th October. With the silhouettes of the vessels at anchor, Prien lined up his U-boat for attack. He fired several torpedoes at the battleship, only one of which struck home, so he quickly made ready for a second attack where three more torpedoes all hit their target. Royal Oak was doomed, she rolled over and sank less than half an hour after the first explosion. 

U-47 managed to escape from Scapa Flow and returned to Germany a hero, Prien being awarded the Knights Cross. Royal Oak went down and took 835 crew with her, there were 424 survivors. One of those killed with Leading Steward Cahia. 

It is only when the relatives of those who died on board such ships start to dig into their family history that the story of the people on board ships such as Royal Oak come to light. Cahia’s name is mentioned in several places – the Book of Remembrance at Kirkwall Cathedral, the Naval Memorial situated on The Hoe in Plymouth and he is also named on a monument in his hometown of Sliema in Malta. 

Joseph Cahia became one of the first Maltese casualties of the Second World War, the island was not directly affected with the war until fighting broke out with Italy in June the following year and the island was under siege from the axis powers, a siege that was broken by the success of the convoys fighting through to deliver much needed supplies. Cahia’s daughters both emigrated to Australia after the war and his descendants talked about him with pride for many years after. The tragic part of this story was that he was only duty that day covering for a shipmate that was on a date. Would he have been one of the lucky ones if he had not done a good turn for a friend?

Today the Royal Oak is upside down still where she landed after that fateful night in 1939. She has been dived on but is officially a war grave and so only with special permission can this shipwreck be visited, usually by divers from the Royal Navy who will change the ship’s ensign and make sure that the spirit of the Mighty Oak is kept alive.  

For Leading Steward Cachia, his legacy and that of his 800+ shipmates will never be forgotten. 



National Memorial Arboretum plaque to Royal Oak






Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Whitechapel Murders of 1888

The person who murdered at least five women in the Whitechapel area of London in late 1888 is without doubt the most famous serial killer in the world. This is probably because he was the first one that had such a memorable modus operandi that also came with a catchy nickname that the press loved – Jack the Ripper.

Now officially the killer has never been caught, charged or identified, but as the last 133 years have shown, there have been no shortage of suspects and evidence.

It was 31st August 1888 that the body of Polly Nichols was found murdered in Bucks Row, a gruesome sight but one that was never seen before to this extent. She had been mutilated and stabbed numerous times, yet nobody came forward to say that they had seen a thing.

On 8th September a second victim, Annie Chapman, was found outside the back doorway of 29 Hanbury Street, she too had been savagely attacked in the same way. It didn’t take a genius to link the two murders but worse was to come.

30th September 1888 went down in history as the “double event” when two bodies were found at different locations. The first one was Elizabeth Stride, but her corpse had not been as butchered as the others, within less than an hour it was found out why – the killer most likely had been disturbed and run off. The body of Catherine Eddowes was laid in Mitre Square and ripped open like the others.

By now the police were worried that there was a maniac out stalking the streets that had murdered four women in just a month. It wasn’t that there was not enough information – there was too much! A lot of it was hoax letters, even a piece of kidney sent to the police saying that it had come from one of the victims.

In the morning of 9th November 1888 a visitor to 13 Millers Court found the final victim of Jack the Ripper’s murderous rampage. This one was inside a small room, a bedsit that Mary Kelly had rented, giving the killer as much time as he needed to carry out his deed. Because of this her body was unrecognisable, laid on her bed and cut up into pieces, innards spread out and blood everywhere.

Officially this was the last victim of Jack the Ripper, although there were others before and after these five that may have been down to the same killer. With too many clues to go on the list of suspects over the years has been astronomical, it seems that every day a new expert comes along and gives their own theory on sometimes the smallest possible evidence.

At the top of this suspect list though is Aaron Kosminski, who was caught by the police just after the fifth murder and was named by police in official memo’s as the killer, but it was the startling DNA evidence that showed up on a shawl found at the scene of the murder of Catherine Eddowes that had both the victim and the descendent of Kosminski on. Although this has been criticised due to the possibility of cross-contamination, passage of time and other arguments, the truth of the matter is this Polish Jew lived very close to the murders and was sent to a workhouse due to his deteriorating mental state. Later he was forced to be locked up in a mental asylum until his death in 1919.

Today there is very little left of the London that once was, so many streets have changed since 1888 but there is still the pub The Ten Bells where the victims were said to drink, the streets are there but the houses are long gone, Mary Kelly’s home is now a car park. Jack the Ripper tours are a common sight at Tower Hill tube station where visitors can pay a fee to be taken around the areas where the victims were found. A historian friend of mine did it for free up until recently, plus he was more in depth and asked you to remember that these women were not just celebrity victims, they were human beings who had families and now thanks to a killer we still can’t officially name, their names will be remembered forever.









Friday, September 10, 2021

Latvian Supermarket Collapse

It was November 2018 when I visited the Latvian capital Riga, it was the 100th anniversary of their Independence and celebrations were in the air for the next few days, but while I was here I had one place on my mind to visit and research, the site of a disaster that shook the city just a few years before.

It was the early evening of 21st November 2013 and over 100 shoppers were in the Maxima supermarket in Riga’s Zolitude district when a fire alarm went off. It was quickly established that it was a false alarm caused by maintenance work going on, but soon after a huge part of the building collapsed in on itself over the checkouts and buried dozens of people under rubble.

Emergency services were called and a huge rescue operation was launched, fire teams dug away at the rubble to reach survivors but more was to come when a further part of the roof fell onto the rescue teams, crushing more and leaving further people trapped. By now it was realised that this was a huge emergency that could change at any time and so firefighters were allowed only half an hour on site per person before being relieved.

Out in the car park soldiers started setting up tents for the rescue workers and for dealing with survivors. But as time went on and survivors were getting less and less, periods of absolute silence were called for in order to listen for signs of life. Mobile phones were ringing within the collapsed building, most likely from worried relatives and people who had not been heard from for several hours.

The digging went on into the night and well into the next few days, during this time a third collapse happened but this time everyone was out of the way in time. In the end it was found that a total of 54 people had been killed, three of them firefighters during the second collapse. The shock of the disaster was felt throughout Riga and the mayor ordered immediate inspections of all buildings that were worked on by the same company as this supermarket.

In the end the collapse was blamed on structural errors in the building and one civil engineer was jailed for six year. The building itself was demolished within days and the site cleared.

It was just a few days away from the 5th anniversary of the disaster that I took a taxi over to the site, not sure what to expect or if it would be an area that would be dangerous. Thankfully it was actually a nice place to walk around, just normal people going about their business. In th
e middle of the shopping district was a car park with what looked like a flat roof but at ground level, surrounded by fencing. In front of this was a memorial that resembled the Twin Towers of the old World Trade Centre in New York, tributes already adorning it.

Like with any disaster site, it is always hard to imagine what it must have been like here to have this all happen in front of you. I have been to many sites like this and each time I am astounded by how normal everything is around it, almost like it hadn’t happened. I think over time they are making the memorial more permanent but as it stood this was just a temporary monument. With the site visited and photographs taken of the memorial and site, it was a visit to a nearby supermarket and then catching a bus back to the city centre.

Now a disaster of this magnitude would not be forgotten, but it was the Firefighters Museum that would remember it more than anyone for they lost three of their guys in the collapse and had several more injured. This museum was quite a walk away and very cheap to get in, but it was worth the effort. This has a complete history of Latvian fire fighting and the Maxima collapse featured heavily in one particular room. Photos of the rescue adorned the wall, an actual chunk of the concrete on display, fire helmets and other parts of the story, each one with its own history. It was good to see that this was documented, but incredible to find that a disaster like this should never have happened in the first place.

But then again, can’t you say that about all of them?



Thursday, August 26, 2021

A visit to the memorials of Washington DC

The capital city of the United States of America is filled with fascinating history, the museums lined up between the Capitol and the White House could take days to go around and the monuments dotted across the city would extend that trip into weeks. As a shipwreck and disaster researcher, I focused on those type of monuments when I went to visit in 2017. 

Two memorials side by side of the entrance to the Lincoln memorial were the ones dedicated to the US military losses in the wars in Vietnam and Korea, where over 100,000 names are on these panels. It makes for shocking reading when you see that each name is a real person, someone who had a family and career dreams yet ended their lives in a war so far from home. The Korean side had a mock up of the patrols, statues of soldiers trodding through vegetation, not knowing if this next step was going to be their last.

Close by, just behind Lincoln, is a monument to the Father of the American Navy, John Paul Jones. Born in Scotland, Jones fought the British at the Battle of Flamborough Head where his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, was sunk after an overnight battle on 23rd September 1779. He went on to be a Russian Admiral and took part in many sorties before he died alone in a Paris apartment many years later. The monument to him has a scene of battle with many of his legendary quotes such as “I have not yet begun to fight” which he famously shouted from the deck of his blazing ship.

One of the major things my wife and I went to see was the Pentagon, the home of the US military and the scene of one of the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001. While New York was reeling from the attacks on their World Trade Centre, a third passenger plane was directed at one of the sides of the Pentagon and demolished a hefty part of the well built structure. 184 people were killed and today the site has a memorial garden which names all those who were tragically lost in this pointless terror attack. Despite the main roads being so close, the area was quiet and secluded. By coincidence the attack happened on the 60th anniversary of the Pentagon being built as a stone around the other side gives the date 11th September 1941.

Heading out in a taxi we then directed our taxi to an area next to the Potomac River where a large memorial to the sinking of the liner Titanic in 1912 stood. A huge statue of a man with his arms outstretched was dedicated “to the men of the Titanic” from the women of America. This was another memorial that was nice and quiet and in very good shape for its age. One of many memorials to this most famous of shipwrecks.

The Potomac River is also the scene of a major disaster on 13th January 1982 when Air Florida flight 90 took off from the nearby airport and could not gain enough height due to ice on the wings. Losing altitude the Boeing 737 struck a bridge and smashed into several cars before plummeting into the icy river below. Despite a major rescue operation, there were just five survivors from the aircraft, but four others died on the bridge in their cars bringing a total death toll of 78. The bridge was later renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge after one of the heroic passengers of the flight as a monument to his bravery in helping others that cost him his life.


Thursday, August 19, 2021

Marchioness – Disaster on the Thames


The 1980’s was a decade of major disasters that stunned the world and made household names of the incidents that occurred. Names like Lockerbie, Hillsborough, Challenger, Zeebrugge were constantly in the news, but one name still stands out today as being a tragedy that should not have happened and certainly shouldn’t have had the aftermath that it did – the Marchioness.

Built in 1923, the Marchioness was an old pleasure boat that was designed for inland cruising and had undergone many modifications over the years. At just over 85 feet long, she was just 46 gross tons and had made a name for herself during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, where thousands of stranded British troops were rescued from the beaches by the “little ships” that would then earn their place in history.

Owned by Tidal Cruises in the late 1970s, she was carrying over 100 passengers at a time by the time further modifications had made an upper and lower saloon internally, where parties could hire the vessel for celebrations and go on a cruise down the River Thames in London. The Marchioness, along with her sister ship Hurlingham, were popular vessels and it was in this role that she found herself in the early hours of 20th August 1989.

Setting off from Embankment pier at around 0125 hours, she was carrying around 133 people including her two crew members, for a celebration of the 26th birthday of city banker Antonio de Vasconcellos. The party was in full swing as the vessel slowly edged away and headed eastwards. At around the same time, further up the river was the dredger Bowbelle that had just departed from Nine Elms near Battersea Power Station. This much larger vessel was 25 years old and 262 feet long, at 1474 gross tons she was much bigger than the pleasure boat.


It wasn’t long before the Bowbelle was following the Marchioness close behind, but neither ship seemed to have seen each other. As the party boat passed under Southwark Bridge, the dredger crunched into the side of her twice and pulled her under the river, her upper decks being ripped off in the process and dozens of terrified passengers now finding themselves thrust into the Thames fighting for their lives.

The Bowbelle continued on and hit the Canon Street bridge as radio messages were transmitted for immediate assistance. Pandemonium broke out on the banks of the Thames as people were being dragged out of the freezing water and onto dry land, several clinging on to wreckage, the Marchioness completely underwater and trapping many within the confines of the boat.

As a huge rescue operation was mounted, it soon became apparent that 51 people on board would not be returning from this party. What happened next would shock the already grieving families as the inquest revealed that hands were removed from the bodies of the dead in order to identify them, the fact that the Bowbelle’s crew had been consuming alcohol before sailing led to it being highlighted at the inquest, but the main cause of the disaster was blamed on both vessels not keeping a proper lookout.

 The wreck of the Marchioness was raised the morning after the collision, she was eventually scrapped. Bowbelle was later sold on and renamedBom Rei, she went down off Madeira after breaking in two with the loss of one crew member. She is today a popular site for SCUBA diving expeditions.

Memorials to the victims of the disaster appear in several locations down the Thames bank at various rescue points; a large one is in Southwark Cathedral where memorial services are conducted on the anniversaries. But the greatest legacy of this tragic event is the building of the new RNLI lifeboat station just up the river from where it happened. Today if there is any water-borne emergency, including attempted suicide or falling off pleasure vessels, the fast boat and its professional crew are there to save the lives. Thanks to this being put in place, it is hoped that the likes of another disaster on this scale will never be seen again on the Thames. 





Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Tay Bridge Disaster

The River Tay is the longest river in Scotland, starting at the slopes of Ben Lui and ending 117 miles away in the North Sea. As with any river, it is necessary to build structures in order to allow people to cross, whether it be a tunnel, bridge or ferry. At certain points in any river these structures become a necessity, so in the 1800s a design was underway for a railway bridge across the Tay between Dundee and Wormit.

The bridge was designed by Sir Thomas Bouch and opened on 1st June 1878 for passenger carrying trains and was a success straight away. But just over 18 months later, on 28 December 1879 a violent storm erupted and hit the River Tay with a full fury. The bridge was restricted to one train at a time and as one train from Burntisland was allowed through, sparks were seen coming from the tracks. This was nothing to worry about as the previous train had had the same issue. In this weather it was not unusual for the train to be buffeted and the wheels make contact with the track.

On the Dundee side the train was expected but failed to appear. Other than a flash of light there was nothing but darkness in the storm. What nobody knew at this point was that the bridge had collapsed and the train had run straight off into the gap and plunged into the freezing River Tay below.

Nobody knows for sure just how many people died that night, 46 bodies were recovered, there were at least 59 people on the train but no accounting for those holding season tickets or additional people. The death toll has since been put at 75.

The subsequent inquiry into the disaster blamed the structure of the bridge and the design flaws that led to the storm destroying that part of the bridge. Designer Sir Thomas Bouch was held to blame and died less than a year after the disaster, his failing health worsened by the stress caused by the Tay Bridge collapse.

There have been many theories as to what exactly caused the collapse, controversies over whether Bouch should have been blamed and not forgetting the fluctuations in the number of people said to have died. The bridge itself was not used again, a new one being built next to it and opened for service just six years after the disaster.

A number of places remember the Tay Bridge train crash, for a start there is the bridge itself, the original stumps still visible next to the modern bridge jutting out of the water. On both the Dundee and Wormit waterfront are memorials which only went up a few years back after years of campaigning. A steel piece of the bridge is on display at the Dundee Museum of Transport, another in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh (below). 

Incredibly the train itself was salvaged and put back into service, nicknamed The Diver, it was in service until 1919 with may people refusing to cross the Tay on this locomotive, the superstition and fear being very real on this industrial service.