Friday, January 31, 2020

The London Bombings – 7th July 2005

On 7th July 2005 London was waking up to the newspaper headlines that many had hoped would come for a long time. The announcement that England’s capital city would host the 2012 Olympics had been met with cheers and celebration, the front pages echoing each other in the joy that was a lot of hard work for the campaigners behind the scenes.

That morning copies of those newspapers were strewn around the carriages of the London Underground trains as they ferried passengers to work on their daily commute. Always a place that many people dread because of the crowds, this was by far the best way to get around the city and quickest, despite the hustle and bustle.

But at 0850 that morning the control rooms started getting alarms of an unusual nature. What looked like power surges were starting to cause havoc and delays in the tunnels. The news channels started to pick up on this very early on and the reports of junction boxes exploding and causing the trains to stop were nothing more than confusion as to what was really going on.

When three different areas all reported the same problem a feeling of dread hit the staff at the control rooms as the first reports came through of walking wounded staggering down the tracks to safety. Rumours of people with blood all over their faces soon turned out to be true as it soon became clear that the power surges were possible terrorist attacks.

After New York, Madrid, Istanbul and Bali had all suffered from major suicide attacks by Al Qaeda, it was said that it was only a matter of time before London would join that list. Today was the day. With information filtering out too slowly the decision was made to evacuate and close down the London Underground network.

Three different trains had become the target of suicide bombers who had detonated their devices in the crowded carriages to cause maximum death and destruction. Kings Cross, Edgware Road and Aldgate stations had been the target, but the attacks were not over as a fourth attacker stopped at a shop to buy some batteries. After the train stations were closed he boarded a bus at Kings Cross and sat on the top deck. When it pulled away and got as far as Tavistock Square (pictured above), at 0947 he too detonated his device.

The blast ripped the entire roof off the bus and in turn sent shockwaves around the world. After everything that had happened beneath the streets the news cameras now had something to confirm their worst fears.

It would take several days to confirm how many people were caught up in these bombings. In the end the four bombers would take 52 innocent lives and leave over 700 injured. It was the worst terrorist attack on British soil (save for the Lockerbie bombing which happened in the air).

Memorial plaques were placed at each of the train stations to remember those who were killed, a larger memorial was opened in 2018 opposite the site of where the bus exploded. A memorial dedicated to all four attacks was opened in 2009 in Hyde Park and consists of 52 square pillars each having a date, time and location embossed to represent each victim.

As the city came to terms with the attacks they security services were put on high alert, sure enough two weeks later a copycat attack targeted three London Underground trains and a bus, only this time they had got the mixture for the explosives wrong and they failed to detonate. After a manhunt that took the police all the way to Rome (Italy), the four would-be bombers were jailed for life with several co-conspirators.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Sinking of the Zenobia

The island of Cyprus has always been a wealth of history and the shipwrecks that litter the coast tell a story the gives the country its character dating back thousands of years. Just recently a huge Roman wreck has been discovered and this doesn’t come near to the incredible artefacts that have previously been found on others.

But the one shipwreck that Cyprus is best known for is that of the car ferry Zenobia. At 565ft long and a beam of 92ft she was a brand new state-of-the-art vessel that had only been built just a few months before her demise.

In May 1980 she had departed Sweden on her maiden voyage destined for the Mediterranean with a cargo of lorries, stopping at Heraklion (Crete) and Piraeus (Greece) before heading east towards Cyprus and her final destination of Syria. En route the captain noticed a list to port and after correcting this thought no more about it.
On 2 June as she arrived in Larnaca the problem reoccurred and the crew determined a software problem with the ships computerised ballast system was over filling the ballast tanks causing the ship to list. Everytime it was corrected the computer would think it required a re-adjustment and continued to over compensate.

The ship was towed out to an anchorage point to prevent any incident blocking the harbour while the crew attempted to fix the issue. With a dangerous list now becoming obvious the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. She eventually listed so far over her hull began to take on board seawater and in the early hours of 5th June she silently rolled over and sank just a mile from shore.

Incredible images of her at a 45 degree list have become synonymous with the short life of this brand new ferry. But it is the story of her since the sinking that have been the talk of the locals, for she is now resting at a depth of between 16-42 meters making her one of the largest most accessible shipwrecks for SCUBA divers and ranking her among the worlds top ten best wreck dives.

Since that day she has been mapped constantly by divers who are training to professionals who explore deep inside the ships interiors.

In the October of 2015 myself and a fellow diver Jade Convery booked a days diving on this magnificent wreck to see just what the fuss was about – and we were not disappointed.

The dive boat was one of half a dozen anchored off the wreck which showed that the money made for the local tourist trade was worth far more over the years than what the ferry cost initially! A map of the wreck was shown to us by the dive boat team leader and we got out kit together ready for a dive.

With the waters of Larnaca still warm and a bright sunny day, Jade and I descended to the side of the enormous wreck where immediately the ships portholes were instantly recognisable. Snapping photos along the way on a digital camera it amazed me just how clear the water was and how well preserved the ship was despite the decades of visitors and storms.

Gently swimming over the remains of lorries and cranes, we had to have our heads right to make sure we didn’t split up from out dive team, there were so many other tourists that could accidentally get mixed up in each others packs and before you know it you are surfacing with people who you have never met! The wheels and cabs of the vehicles are strewn around the upper deck, twisted at a crazy angle but incredibly still in position (mostly). With a cargo of 104 of these trucks they have not lost their ability to be recognised and have kept their shape despite (at the time) 35 years of sea growth and rust.

The second dive took us over the starboard side of the vessel and into a large opening that I’m told was the cafeteria. What once should have been bustling with passengers and lorry drivers is now a silent watery chasm with only the fish to keep you company. Exiting through what looked like a skylight we hovered over one of the ships massive propellers, although covered in rust and sealife, they were unmistakable.

Finishing a dive like this required a few minutes of decompression time where we hovered at 3m depth until the dive computers told us that we were safe to ascend. The team leader had done this dozens of times so following him was the back up if the contraptions failed for whatever reason.

Re-emerging into the afternoon sun we both felt like we had done something amazing that day, after all this was the wreck that every diver in the world knew and loved! Despite the two dives there was so much more to explore and I should imagine that it would take several dozen dives to fully go around this giant of the sea.

But for now the Zenobia will continue to attract the tourists and thrill seekers as well as the photographers and wreck hunters. She shows no sign of crumbling away to nothing which means the revenue from this one accident will keep this town and its businesses thriving for many years to come.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Capsizing of the Al Dana

In the early months of 2006 a building appeared in the skyline of the Kingdom of Bahrain that was unlike any other building in the world. The Bahrain World Trade Center had been constructed with not only a shape that made sure it stood out from the rest, being two huge triangular “sails” back to back,  but in between the two sections were joined by wind turbines that would generate the electricity needed for the building in one of the most ambitious self-sustaining projects ever.

On 30th March 2006, to celebrate the construction of this building and the great achievements, the restaurant vessel al-Dana was hired to give the employees of the building company a celebratory cruise as a thank you for the effort and work put into this project. She was officially classed as a dhow, an Arabic style of vessel normally reserved for fishing boats, with the ability to sail around the calm waters of the island despite the licence only being granted with the limit to the ship staying alongside a port.

With over 120 people on board and the drinks flowing freely, the vessel slipped her lines and headed out into the waterways of Manama, the capital city.

Dangerously unstable, the dhow rocked from side to side and seemed to have caused concert for people before
it had even left it’s berth. But just a mile from shore the ship leaned over to starboard and didn’t recover.

With the depth of water being substantially shallow, the side of the ship rested on the seabed while those inside very quickly went from a party atmosphere to struggling to survive. The force of the vessel throwing every kind of furniture and eating implement to one side made it all the more difficult for the passengers to fight their way out of being pushed into the water.

Just minutes after the sinking the Bahrain Coastguard was on scene and began plucking the lucky survivors out of the water, climbing onto the side of the ship to help drag injured and broken passengers to safety. US Navy personnel based in the area were quick to offer assistance with personnel including divers to assist the Bahraini’s.

As the rescue operation went on into the night the dreadful realisation soon became apparent that 58 people had been killed, so close to the safety of dry land too.

An investigation concluded that the boat had inadequate stability and the crew were under-trained.

The captain and owner were later convicted of manslaughter, served a short sentence and were then deported to India. Relatives of the victims were not given compensation until 2012 after a long and continuous fight. The small amount they got may hardly have seemed worth it.

A memorial to the victims today stands at the Christian Cemetery in Manama, where around 300 people gathered for the official unveiling a year after the capsize. It is tended lovingly by the groundskeepers and is in a peaceful and fitting background, walled off from the busy traffic of the capital city.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Blitz of Britain – What Remains Today (Portsmouth, Southampton and Hull)

The Second World War was six years of every kind of story you could imagine. It would be impossible to focus on one particular area of the conflict without having to focus further. If you were fascinated by the War at Sea then which area? Atlantic? Which battle? Which ship? Which crew members? Which tactics? The list of subjects is endless.

So when I started files on the Blitz I realised very soon that they would have to be separated into areas. The bigger and more industrious the city the more that place would be hit by night time raids by German bombers. Wave after wave of aircraft from the Luftwaffe led to an unimaginable amount of explosives being dropped – from high explosive bombs to smaller incendiaries that would start fires that built up to make destruction over a wider area.

This blog entry is focusing on what remains of some of the evidence of the blitz today, starting with the city of Hull on the East Yorkshire side of the River Humber. If you head out of the city down Beverley Road you come to a derelict looking building with an advertisement billboard anchored to the side. A pub is connected which also looks like it hasn’t seen a customer in years. The truth is - it hasn’t!

On 18th March 1941 this building was a bustling cinema known as the National Picture Theatre, but this particular day it was showing the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator, much to the delight of the audience of a city that was now on food and clothing rations. Any bit of morale was good enough to perk up the spirits of a community that was being pounded night after night so a comedy was just the ticket.

But when the air raids caused an evacuation of the cinema halfway through the film, it was only good luck and good planning that made sure nobody was inside when the cinema and pub took a direct hit.

What was more incredible was the fact that the destroyed cinema was kept in that exact condition through the years and today is still untouched save for the greenery that spirals up the walls. The local group National Civilian WW2 Memorial Trust started a campaign to save this historic venue and to have it as a memorial to the blitz and for anybody to come to learn about the Second World War by the use of classrooms built on the grounds. So far the funding has been successful and the group has achieved their aim.

250 miles south is the city of Southampton, a place synonymous with shipping and therefore a sure target for enemy bombers. In the road leading away from the main shopping area and heading towards the dockyard is Holy Rood Church (right).

On 30 November 1940 this church, like Hull’s National Picture Theatre, took a direct hit and was all but destroyed, the impressive spire gone but the tower still standing tall out of the wreckage like an act of defiance. As the rubble was cleared it was decided that the grounds internally would be made safe for visitors and is today a memorial yard for the Merchant Navy which has memorials within for the victims of both the Falklands and the Titanic. The tower is still there with the clock fully working and making sure that its voice is heard over 75 years after it was almost destroyed.

Not far from Southampton is the naval city of Portsmouth which has two significant buildings that were struck in the Blitz. On Southsea seafront stands the Royal Garrison Church (below), missing half of its roof in a 1941 air raid yet still functions as a church, looked after by English Heritage. It was here 200 years ago that author Jane Austen visited as well as Lord Nelson himself. The building itself dates from the 13th century and the miracle of its survival is now part of the history of the church today.  

The other side of the city lies the historic dockyard which took a variety of hits in the attempt to target the Royal Navy at the heart of its bases. In one particular night in March 1941 a bomb slammed into the roof of a building that featured an ornate clock tower that was immediately destroyed and collapsed part of the roof. After the initial repairs, the clock tower would have been completely forgotten about until enthusiasts and historians decided that, over 40 years later, they wanted to restore this part of the still-standing and still-functioning building back to its original form. 

Conducting months of research and interviewing people who remembered the clock right down to getting the noises of the chimes correct, a new clock was erected and opened in 1992, winning two awards in the process - Europa Nostra 1993 and the Portsmouth Society’s Best Restoration of the Year 1993. 

Another major Portsmouth building that was rebuilt was the Guildhall in the city centre. After taking a direct hit this building was nothing more than a shell during the war. Today you would never know anything had happened and it looks as majestic as ever (above). 

With so much to learn from the horrors of the Second World War bombing raids, it is fitting that the nations capital has a memorial to the firefighters who helped stop these fires spreading and risked life and limb in their efforts to save lives. Outside St Pauls Cathedral this black monument stands as a testament to the thousands who gave up their nights and in a lot of cases their lives in the never ending struggle. The famous photograph of London burning while the Cathedral sits untouched in the centre is iconic and made front pages headlines.

Looking around the towns and cities today you could not image this amount of destruction and death on such a scale, let alone think about having to fight to survive. But while ever we have these monuments and buildings to remind us, the memories of the people and cities which are now long gone will never fade away.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Rohilla Rescue

The steamship Rohilla is one that is famous in the small North Yorkshire town of Whitby but for both tragic and heroic reasons. Built as a passenger ship for the British and India Steam Navigation Co in 1906, she was fitted out as a hospital ship at the start of the First World War to cater for the amount of casualties expected in the impeding battles that were going to be taking place on the continent.

On 30th October 1914 the Rohilla was heading towards the French coast with 229 people on board when she grounded on rocks in a gale and despite efforts to free her she remained stranded. A huge rescue operation was launched from shore, but with her being so close to land it was surprisingly difficult to affect a rescue. Several lifeboats were sent out as well as the coastguard using rockets from the beach to attempt to provide a line for the exhausted people to cling on to eventually led to more and more people getting off the ship alive.

But as the ship broke up in the storms she settled lower and lower and after three days they managed to get a total of 146 survivors on dry land. As the newspapers captured the rescue operation for their front pages, the tragic ending was that a total of 83 people lost their lives, so close to dry land. The rescuers on the beach and the RNLI lifeboat heroes were celebrated for doing a marvellous job in such testing circumstances.

Today the remains of the wreck of the Rohilla are scattered across a wide area with several large parts exposed on the rocks at low tide at the foot of the cliffs. The wreck does get dived on and several interesting artefacts from there are today on display at the Whitby Lifeboat station which doubles up as a museum holding two large models of the ship (one as it was in her heyday, another of the wreck rescue), dozens of artefacts such as the life ring (right)  and all the information about that day that you need to get an idea of just what they had to go through.

At the entrance to the harbour a plaque (right) commemorates the disaster just a few hundred yards from where it all took place a century before. Another memorial (below) in the cemetery also serves as a marker to the mass grave that now unite 33 of those who died together on that ship that was meant to be a place of refuge and safety.