Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Britannic Comparison - By Jake Billingham & Joanna Dolan

In the second instalment in a series of guest blogs, Jake and Joanna here take us through the differences that the hospital ship Britannic had compared to her sister ships Titanic and Olympic.


The Britannic is best known as the sister ship of the RMS Olympic and the RMS Titanic along with being the third and final luxury liner of the White Star Line’s Olympic class.  Construction began on the Britannic on November 30, 1911, with her launch on February 26, 1914. At 883 feet in length, she was intended to be the largest and grandest of the three ocean liners.  That all changed with the start of World War I, when she was recommissioned as a hospital ship in 1915.  The HMHS Britannic departed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage on December 23, 1915.

Following the Titanic tragedy, several notable modifications were made during the construction of Britannic to increase safety measures.  Most notably, Britannic had a bulb shaped expansion joint design which differed from the straight cut expansion joints on the Titanic and Olympic.  The Britannic also had four expansion joints in comparison to 2 expansion joints for each of her sister ships.  More lifeboats were also added, including one open and one collapsible lifeboat, making the total number of lifeboats equal to 55 in comparison to Titanic’s 20 lifeboats.  Five gantry Davits were added to the Britannic along with six Wellin type davits to both sides of the ship, two on each side of the poop deck, which could handle two boats, just like on the Titanic and Olympic. Another safety revision included Britannic having an increased number of watertight compartments totalling 16. Also, a new bulkhead was added in the electric engine room, and five bulkheads were extended up from E deck to B deck with some extended right up to the bridge.  Britannic’s watertight double skin ran the length of the boiler room to the engine room, and the length of the  ship’s beam was increased to 94 feet in order to allow room for the double hull.  The width of the ship was also increased to allow for the double hull. Another significant difference included a higher rated horsepower which was 18,000 horsepower 3.000kw, in comparison to the two sister ships which had 16.000 horsepower 12.000kw.

In addition to the design changes to improve safety, there were several structural changes intended to be made to the Britannic with the intention of her being even more opulent than her sister ships. First Class would have been given a larger À La Carte Restaurant and a new reception room on B deck, where the utmost elite in society could dine. A play room was to be added to First Class where children could play.  Unlike on the Titanic or the Olympic, children could use one of the Palm Courts.  On the Britannic, there would also have been a lady’s hair salon in addition the barber shop.  New sitting rooms were to have been added on C deck  as a result of the parlour suits on Titanic.  First Class would also have seen the addition of many more private bathrooms and washrooms.  The swimming baths would have seen more of an Art Deco design in order to keep up with the luxurious German liners, unlike the basic decor of the Titanic and Olympic (left) swimming baths. Britannic was going to have a self playing Welte-Mignon organ added to her grand staircase as well. The organ was made but was never installed on the Britannic. It can still be seen today on exhibit at the Museum für Musikautomaten Seewen, Solothurn Switzerland. The Britannic also had a shelter deck added to her stern. In addition, Second Class, like First Class, would have been given their own gymnasium. Third Class passengers would also have been given new entrances.

Sadly, the Britannic, never saw any of the luxurious design upgrades and never saw a day of service as a passenger liner.  Instead, she was transformed into a hospital ship.  Many modifications were required including the public rooms on the upper decks being converted into wards for the wounded.  Lower on the ship, the large First Class dining room and the reception rooms became operating theatres and main wards.  The medical personnel would occupy the B-deck cabins, while the medical orderlies and the less critically wounded patients would be accommodated on the lower decks.  From the evidence shown by some surviving photos, we know that the partially enclosed First Class promenade was used as patient wards as well. In order to be recognised as a hospital ship, the Britannic was painted white with a green stripe down the side of the ship broken by three red crosses.  Green lights were also fitted to the side so she could be easily determined as a hospital ship at night, and she was also fitted with two big red crosses on both sides of her boat deck that light up at night. The Britannic could carry 3,309 casualties.

On November 21, 1916, the Britannic was in the middle of her sixth voyage when an explosion disrupted a beautiful Sunday morning in the Kea Channel just off of the coast of Greece.  The Britannic had struck a mine, and the explosion warped her steel and jammed the bulkhead doors in full open position.  Despite all of the additional safety modifications, the Britannic sank in about 55 minutes in comparison to the 2 hours and 40 minutes that it took her sister ship Titanic to sink.  Only 30 lives were lost that day with more than 1,030 lives saved, while Titanic’s casualties were much higher with the loss of 1,496 lives and only 712 lives saved. 

The wreck of the Britannic was discovered by French explorer Jacques Cousteau in 1975, over ten years before Dr. Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic.  The Britannic lies on her starboard side in just under 400 feet of water while Titanic  rests on the ocean floor about 2 ½ miles below the ocean’s surface.  The Titanic rests in darkness, while the waters surrounding the wreck of the Britannic are clear blue.  Submersibles and ROVs must be used to explore what is left of the Titanic, while submarines and divers can access Britannic’s former glory.  The wreck of the Britannic is owned by explorer, Simon Mills, and his highly regulated by the Greek government, while Titanic is regulated by the NOAA and salvage rights belong to the management company of the former RMST and Premier Exhibitions.  Both the wrecks of the Britannic and Titanic still fascinate many to this day and hold many more mysteries yet to be discovered.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Titanic - A Date with Destiny by Jake Billingham

April 1st, 1912 - Titanic’s sea trials were scheduled, but they were postponed due to high winds.
April 2nd, 1912 - Titanic’s sea trials begin at 6:00 am and consist of stopping distances and maneuvering tests. She passed all these tests, and she was awarded her seaworthy certificate for twelve months. From here, she set out for Southampton to take on her very first paying passengers, with the hopes and aspirations of her designers and crew.
April 4th, 1912 - Titanic finally arrived in Southampton at midnight at birth 44 White Star Line dock with only a skeleton crew of around four hundred, which consisted of carpenters and decorators, the eight Guarantee Group, and one paying passenger, including her designer.  Thomas Andrews had traveled with her from Belfast.  Some supplies were taken onboard ready for her sailing day on Wednesday, 10th April.
April 10th, 1912 - Sailing day; thousands of passengers line the docks ready to board the largest, most luxurious, and safest passenger ship afloat.  Along with her passengers waiting on the dock, their families and friends were ready to wave goodbye to them, in most cases forever.  There were 1,846 souls onboard her when she departed Southampton.  However, as she was sailing out of Southampton, her wake snapped the ropes of the SS New York as she was passing by her.  Passengers on her decks looked in awe as the New York almost collided with Titanic; tugboats managed to pull the New York away from Titanic’s path avoiding a collision.
6:35 pm - Titanic dropped anchor near the central fort in Cherbourg, France. The SS Nomadic and SS Traffic ferried 274 second- and first-class passengers to the ship.  Amongst these first-class passengers, were some of the most famous and wealthiest American passengers, including Margaret Brown and John Jacob Astor, along with his young pregnant wife Madeleine Astor, who boarded the Titanic here.  At 8:10 pm, Titanic finally departed Cherbourg, France heading for Queenstown, Ireland.
April 11th, 1912, 11:30 am - Titanic arrived in Queenstown, Ireland dropping anchor at Roches Point outer anchorage.  Instead of Titanic coming into the harbor, two tenders, PS Ireland and PS America, were coming out of the harbor. It was more efficient for the two tenders to ferry baggage and passengers to the Titanic.  In order for the ship to pick up passengers, do a quick turn around, and be on her way to New York, instead of coming all the way into the harbor just as they did in Cherbourg, France. At least eight passengers disembarked Titanic including Father Brown, who took the final photographs of Titanic. A fireman, who had signed up for the whole voyage, deserted the ship and got off in Queenstown. Altogether the Titanic picked up 123 additional passengers in Ireland.  This brought Titanic’s total number of passengers and crew aboard to 2,208 when she left Queenstown, Ireland.  Senior wireless operator, Jack Phillips, was celebrating his 25th Birthday.
April 12th, 1912 - Titanic is en route to New York. The weather is calm and sunny, and passengers are settling into the luxuries of the grandest ship afloat. The first ice warnings were received by the Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Ireland.  By noon, they had traveled 484 miles, and only 21 of her 29 boilers were lit.
April 13th, 1912 - A daily inspection of the ship takes place between 9:00am-11:00am. Chief engineer, Joseph Bell, reports to Captain Smith that the fire in boiler room 6, which had been burning until they left Belfast, has now been extinguished.  Later, in the evening, the Titanic has been exchanging signals with her Morse lamp from the bridge with a ship eastbound, the SS Rappahannock, that there are reports of field ice ahead of Titanic’s course.  Also, the wireless machine had broken down, and Jack Phillips and Junior wireless operator, Harold Bride, were up most of the night fixing the machine.
April 14th, 1912 - Today a lifeboat drill was scheduled to take place, but it was cancelled.  Church services took place in all classes, some were for Catholics and Christians and for the Jewish onboard. The Titanic had been receiving ice warnings all day from various ships.  One of these messages was from the SS Baltic; this message was delayed to the bridge.  This message was given to Captain Smith, and he showed this message to J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, who showed it off to some fellow passengers, but it was requested to be returned at around 7pm.
8:00 pm - Fourth Officer Boxhall and Sixth Officer Moody report to the bridge to take their four-hour watch. They take over the watch of Third Officer Pitman and Fifth Officer Lowe watch.
8:55 pm - Captain Smith enters the bridge after attending the Widener’s private party in the A La Carte restaurant. Lightoller comments to the captain that the air temperature has dropped and orders Carpenter Maxwell to attend to the freshwater supply.
9:20 pm -10:00 pm - Captain Smith retires to bed giving the order to Second Officer Lightoller to wake him if the weather becomes hazy.
10:00 pm - 11:00 am - First Officer Murdoch comes on to the bridge to take over the watch from Second Officer Lightoller.  Robert Hitchens is at the helm of the ship.  Lightoller tells Murdoch that the air temperature is 32°F and that he’s told the crow’s nest to keep an eye out for large icebergs and growlers. Up in the crow’s nest Archie Jewell and Symons are about to be relieved by Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee.  The Californian has switched off its wireless after an incoming message from the Californian nearly deafened Jack Phillips, and he replied with a message telling the Californian that he was busy working Cape Race.
11:40 pm - The officers on the bridge hear three clangs on the crow’s nest bell, and the phone on the bridge starts to ring.  Sixth Officer Moody answers the phone, and Fleet reports that an iceberg is dead ahead. He thanks Fleet and puts the phone down, but the First Officer Murdoch has already detected the looming danger ahead.  Murdoch has already given the order to stop the engines and to put the ship hard to starboard. However, it’s too late, and in about 30 seconds the iceberg scrapes down the starboard side of the ship.  As the iceberg scrapes along the length of the ship, he suddenly changes direction and puts the ship hard to port in order to swing the stern away from it.  He also orders the watertight doors to be closed.
11:41 pm - Captain Smith comes onto the bridge soon after the impact and asks Murdoch what they have hit.  A shocked and grey faced Murdoch tells the Captain that they have hit an iceberg. Captain Smith immediately orders the carpenter to inspect the ship for damage. Boxhall is also sent down to check for damage to the ship.
11:47 pm - Captain Smith orders the engines to be started up again to half speed.
April 15th, 1912 - 12:00 am - The Titanic comes to a stop for the final time within ten minutes of the collision.  Over 14 feet of water have entered the ship. The mailroom is flooding, and the crew members are trying to save the mail bags.  Although two of the mail clerks’ bodies would later be recovered by the Mackay-Bennett, none of the brave souls survived the sinking.
12:06-12:15am - The first-class lounge has been opened for passengers to receive further instructions. The band is also summoned to play in the lounge. Captain Smith has ordered the lifeboats to be uncovered and swung out. Loud steam starts exiting the funnels, and the wireless operators are put on standby and to prepare to send out distress calls for help.
12:15-12:40 am - Thomas Andrews has returned to the bridge, and he tells the Captain that the ship is going to sink, and that she only has an hour or two to live.  The first distress call is sent out, and the lifeboats are uncovered and swung out and prepared for launching. Lifeboat number 7 is the first lifeboat to be loaded and lowered with only 28 passengers onboard.  The boat has a capacity of 65 passengers. The Titanic has started taking on a starboard list. The men in the boiler rooms are fighting against the incoming water, trying to stop the flooding. Lights are spotted off the port bow on the horizon.  
12:40-1:00 am - The SS Mount Temple has received Titanic’s distress call and responded to the call alerting Titanic that she’s on her way; this ship is the first to make way for the sinking Titanic. During this time Carpathia also responds to Titanic's distress calls, and Harold Bride reports this to the bridge while the German ship, Frankfurt, also responds. Lifeboat number 4 is lowered to A deck. Lightoller orders the crew to open the D deck gangway door on the port side. This door is left open throughout the sinking; it was opened to help in loading the lifeboats. Lifeboat number 5 is lowered with 35 passengers onboard; the lifeboat has trouble lowering and starts to tilt, scaring the passengers. Harold Bride suggests to Jack Phillips to start sending the SOS distress call, and he makes a joke and remarks "This might be the last time we get to use it."  Fourth Officer Boxhall fires the first distress rocket in an attempt to get the attention of the ship on the horizon. Some stokers rush up the grand staircase, scaring some passengers. Some crew members on the poop deck telephone the bridge to notify them of the lifeboats in the water.  Steam stops venturing from the funnels as lifeboat number 9 is lowered to A deck windows. Water has reached the E deck stairs. During this time, lifeboat number 3 is being launched with only 32 people onboard. The band moves to the boat deck level of the grand staircase. 

1:00-1:30 am - Lifeboat number 8 is launched with 27 people onboard, and the sea has reached the Titanic’s name on the bow.  Scotland Road is also rapidly flooding.  Lifeboat number 1 is lowered away with only 12 passengers onboard; these include the Duff Gordons. Sea water has also reached the D deck gangway door that has been left open, allowing water to enter through it.  Also, the forecastle and forward well deck have started to flood. The ship is also taking on a port list. The D deck reception room and the first-class dining saloon have started to flood. Lifeboat number 6 is lowered away with 23 people onboard; these include Margaret Brown and Quartermaster Robert Hitchens at the helm. Second Officer Lightoller allows Arthur Peuchen into lifeboat number 6.  As he climbs down the rope, he drops his wallet. This wallet was later discovered in the debris field of the wreck. He is the only male passenger who was allowed into a lifeboat by Second Officer Lightoller.  Lifeboat number 16 is launched with 53 people onboard.  Lifeboat number 14 is launched with Fifth Officer Lowe in charge and 40 passengers onboard. Officer Lowe fires three shots from  his pistol into the air to stop swarming passengers from jumping into the boat. As the lifeboat passes the A deck promenade it drops into the sea after suffering some issues with the ropes that were jammed.
1:30-2:00 am - Several ships are confirmed to be on the way to Titanic including the RMS Baltic. Lifeboat number 12 is launched with 42 people aboard.  Titanic has taken on a severe list to port. Lifeboat number 9 is also launched with 40 people aboard. With most of the boiler rooms flooded, the Titanic’s power starts to decrease. Some of the  ships that the Titanic is in contact with start to lose contact including losing contact with Cape Race, Canada. Titanic also loses contact with her sister Olympic.  Lifeboat number 11 is caught by the bilge discharge, and the boat is nearly swamped, panicking the passengers. Lifeboat number 13 is launched with 55 people aboard; it also gets caught in bilge discharge, pushing the boat aft by the force and jamming it.  Panic starts to take place amongst passengers on the decks, and the list to port makes it difficult to launch the remaining lifeboats, especially those lifeboats on the starboard side.  Lifeboat number 2 is launched with only 13 passengers aboard, and Fourth Officer Boxhall is put in charge of this boat. The last message is heard from the Titanic, “Come quick old man, engine room flooded up to boilers.” Lifeboat number 15 almost comes down on top of Lifeboat number 13. Lifeboat number 13 gets free from the falls release in the boat and manages to get away. The lights on the horizon disappear, and lifeboat number 10 is launched from the A deck promenade with 57 people aboard; lifeboat C is launched. J Bruce Ismay is on this boat.  Lifeboat number 4 is launched with 30 passengers onboard, including Madeleine Astor. Collapsible lifeboat D is launched with 20 people aboard; this is the last lifeboat to be launched by the davits.  Officers try to free the collapsible lifeboats A and B from the officers’ quarters roof. As the water is almost nearing the bridge, the power is becoming weaker. The lights of the Titanic start to change color and display an orange tinge.
2:10-2:20 am - Just before the bridge went under, Captain Smith and Thomas Andrews were last seen on the bridge together by a few eyewitnesses. Captain Smith was overheard saying to Thomas Andrews, “There is no point in waiting any longer; she’s going.”  They went over the side together at the bridge wing. Water starts to flood the boat deck, collapsible boat B lands upside down and is washed off the deck.  Collapsible A is also washed off the deck. Passengers recall hearing explosions coming from inside the ship. The first funnel collapses into the water with a great crash, killing people in its path. The grand staircase dome imploded, funneling tons of water into the staircase, coursing a whirl of water around it. The second funnel explodes and falls onto the roof of the  gymnasium. The stern rises out of the water; passengers still on the ship cling onto the ship screaming and fighting for their lives. All of the grand fixtures inside the ship crash forward as the tilt of the ship grows steeper and steeper. The ship is bending, and the steel starts to groan. Metallic sounds echo across the dark night from the dying ship as the majestic vessel is pulled under. Close to 1,500 are still left aboard. Titanic’s lights flicker and go out forever, leaving a dark silhouette of the stern. The ship breaks in half just before the third funnel at the waterline. Lanterns are seen aboard that were used throughout the sinking; some emergency lights stay on for a few seconds as the stern rises.  Finally, at 2:20 am, the mighty ship slips beneath the waves like a dying beast. People in the lifeboats can only watch helplessly as the nightmare unfolds on the tilting decks while the ship takes their families with her.  Passengers in the lifeboats hear explosions as the stern descends to the sea floor.

4:00-8:00 am - Passengers in the lifeboats saw rockets on the horizon; officers in the lifeboats used flairs to get the attention of the ship that was steaming towards them.  The first boat to be picked up by the Carpathia was lifeboat number 2. Fourth Officer Boxhall was in charge of this boat; it reached Carpathia just after 4 am. The first person to board the Carpathia was first class passenger Elizabeth Allen. The last boat to be picked was lifeboat number 12. The Titanic survivors were greeted with warm clothes, which were donated by the Carpathia’s passengers, and they were given hot drinks. Fourth Officer Boxhall is requested to report to Captain Arthur Rostron on the bridge, but he would not report to the Captain until all of his passengers from his boat were safely aboard the ship.  He later did report to the Captain; he informed Captain Rostron that the Titanic had sunk in the early hours of the morning.  J. Bruce Ismay was given the Captain’s quarters to be by himself.
April 18th, 1912 1912 9:25 pm- RMS Carpathia arrived in New York with the 712 survivors; she didn’t stop straight away at Ellis Island. She went directly to Pier 59 to drop off Titanic’s lifeboats and then went to pier 54 where Titanic survivors disembarked. There were thousands of news reporters and relatives waiting on the dock waiting to see who had survived the tragic sinking.

On a Sea of Glass: The Life & Loss of the RMS Titanic by Bill Wormstedt, J. Kent Layton, and Tad Fitch
Titanic Journey Through Time by Charles Haas and John Eaton
Titanic Honor and Glory Real-time sinking video
Belfast Titanic blogs
Edited by Joanna Dolan.
Special thanks to Bill Wormstedt for assistance with editing and accuracy.  

Friday, July 24, 2020

Sinking of the Eastland - Disaster in Chicago

Of all the disasters I have written about, few of them are as unbelievable as the SS Eastland, a vessel that met her demise while she was still alongside and tied up to the wall. Just three years after the world was shocked by the loss of the Titanic and one year after the Empress of Ireland, it seemed that passenger ships were in a vulnerable position, but nobody expected what happened to the Eastland.

On Saturday 24th July 1915, Western Electric were holding their fifth annual employee picnic and thousands were ready to enjoy themselves by taking a trip on board the ship moored on the Chicago River. Their destination was Michigan City in Indiana and the journey was half the fun on board a ship that was known as the "speed queen of the Great Lakes"...... a reputation cemented by the numerous journeys across Lake Michigan.

Launched in 1903, she was 265 feet long and had gone through several owners until finally being purchased by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company in 1914. 

Passengers started embarking at 0630 that early morning and under a light rain shower, around 2500 had crowded onto the Eastland ready for the departure an hour later. This was the maximum amount of people that was allowed on board and the band began to entertain the guests who were in the summer festive spirit.

The vessel starting listing port and starboard with the huge amount of people moving around, nobody paying any attention to the rocking until suddenly the list to port caused everything to suddenly slide down and not come back up. Passengers began to panic as everybody piled on top of each other, screams as the ship rolled over and the side of the ship gently settled into the Chicago River bed.

Those watching from shore cried out in horror as hundreds of people were so close to safety, yet so far to reach. Although the captain sounded the alarm, it was too late to do anything. The Eastland lay on her side like a beached whale.

A huge rescue operation was launched and people were pulled out of the water by nearby tugs, bystanders jumped in to save those struggling to stay above water, the Chicago Department of Health sent several people to give medical assistance and people with every kind of skill descended on the scene.

Before too long the Eastland was crawling with divers, welders, doctors, coastguard, police officers, fire crews and volunteers to help get the people out that were trapped withing the wreck. But it didnt take long before the bodies of the dead were being retrieved. In all, 844 people lost their lives including 22 entire families.

The wreck was raised and later sold to the US Navy where she was renamed USS Wilmette and went on to have a long and distinguished career which included hosting President Roosevelt during the Second World War planning meeting.

In 1947 the Eastland was scrapped, but the memory of what happened to her in 1915 would always leave a scar on the people of Chicago. Today a plaque commemorates the exact spot where this shocking disaster took place.

The Eastland Disaster Historical Society was set up to help remember the Eastland and has spent many years collecting information on every aspect of what happened, each year leading the memorial ceremonies that reunite the families of those who would forever be linked with this small area of the Chicago River. Each year brings more people who are fascinated to learn the story of how so many came to grief just a few feet from the safety of dry land.

  100th anniversary commemorations (above). All photos courtesy of Eastland Disaster Historical Society.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The July 21st Attack - When London Was Saved by a Miracle

On 7th July 2005 the United Kingdom watched as the horror of a terrorist attack unfolded live on the news, three London Underground trains had suffered suicide bombings at Kings Cross, Aldgate and Edgware Road, but as the Tube stations were being evacuated and the passengers spread across the capital on the famous red buses, the fourth and final terrorist detonated his bomb in Tavistock Square. 52 people were killed and over 700 were injured.

As the investigation was still sifting through the evidence two weeks later, the Metropolitan Police had no idea that they were about to taste a second helping in the exact same circumstances. The date was 21st July 2005 and four terrorists were getting into position to cause chaos.

At 1226 that day the first of four suicide bombers triggered the detonator at Shepherds Bush station, four minutes later a second one at Oval station, a third at 1245 at Warren Street and, just like the 7/7 attack, a double decker bus at 1330 near Bethnal Green.

But unlike the deadly attack from two weeks ago, the bombers who made these devices had made a huge error in the chemical mixtures and not one of the bombs exploded. Each of the terrorists, shocked by the small bang and smoke that erupted from the detonator, ran off into the streets while the London Underground system was evacuated.

As each of the bombs was carefully examined by forensic officers, CCTV footage showed heroic passengers on the trains confronting the bombers and attempting to calm them down before they ran away. A huge manhunt was now underway, a hunt that would have surprising, and shocking, results. Images of the four suspects were quickly distributed to the media and the country was on high alert. Who knows if they would carry out something while on the run. The police had only a matter of time to get this right.

The following day a police surveillance team believed they had tracked down one of the bombers and followed him across town. To their horror he turned and walked right into Stockwell station where the armed teams ran after him. Tackling him to the ground as he boarded a train, they shot him dead. The man was Jean Charles De Menezes, a Brazilian electrician. This was a tragic case of mistaken identity and one that the police would spend the next few years trying to explain. A memorial motive is today dedicated to the life of a man who was nothing to do with terrorism yet became the only victim.

On 23rd July better results came as Warren Street bomber Yasin Omar was arrested in Birmingham, another high profile raid on 27th July saw Muktar Said Ibrahim and Ramzi Mohammed appearing on their balcony in barely any clothes, their hands in the air in surrender. Hussein Osman, the Shepherds Bush attacker, was seized in Rome and extradited back to Britain. Other suspects were taken in for questioning and some charged with assisting the bombers. One of these was Manfo Asiedu, who decided against the attacks at the last minute and left his bomb in some bushes where police would find it later.

On 9th July 2007, after a trial lasting almost six months, the four bombers were found guilty of conspiracy to murder and jailed for life, Asiedu was found guilty of the lesser charge of conspiracy to cause explosions. The others arrested at the time for assisting each got various shorter sentences.

While the legacy of the 21/7 bombings was a great escape, the fallout from the shooting of an innocent man was the one thing that nobody had counted upon. But when all is said and done, four terrorist bombers on a murderous mission could have made this day so much more worse. Instead of having a memorial ceremony for a countless number of dead, we instead remember the day that a miracle saved the London transport network.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Race to Save the SS United States

There are many ships around the world that have been turned into a museum and are today open to visitors, you will find a great majority of them are warships and submarines, the rest are smaller commercial vessels like a tug, tender, trawler or sailing ship. But how many ocean liners are today available to the public to look around and be transported back in time to a period when these great ships ruled the waves. Only three spring to mind – Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, SS Rotterdam in the port of Rotterdam and the Queen Elizabeth II which has only recently opened in Dubai, UAE. Both are hotels and offer the visitor a chance to live on board and dine in the fabulous restaurants and cafes as if you were floating on a calm Atlantic wave.

But one ship is still out there and is steeped in history. The SS United States is today alongside a pier in Philadelphia on the Delaware River and is in dire need of restoration.

Built at Newport News and launched on 23 June 1951, she was fitted out and commenced her maiden voyage on 3 July 1952 and was an instant success with her passengers. She was 53,330 gross tons and had a length of 990 feet, making her one of the largest liners in the world. Not only that, she was thought to be the fastest, this being confirmed when she was awarded the Blue Riband for both the fastest eastbound AND westbound crossing on her first journey!

Owned by the United States Line, she was the pride of the country she was named after, her older running partner the SS America looking similar but not nearly as quick. But as the liner industry started to die out in the 1960s, the United States was berthed in Newport News in 1969 and there she stayed. Her owners took the vessel out of service and there began a long process of deciding what to do with her.

Following the auction of some of her interior pieces, in 1996 she was moved to her current berth in Philadelphia where she is now under the care of the SS United States Conservancy, a group dedicated to restoring her and preserving the history of this record-breaking liner. Over the years she has had much interest in somehow turning her in to a museum, a hotel and even plans to get her back to sea as a liner.

But so far nothing has happened. She sits almost abandoned and rusty, her interior gone making her a ghostly shell of what once was. In 2016 I contacted the owners to arrange to see her in return for a donation towards her conservation, but after several unanswered messages and emails they finally replied with a no. In 2017 my family and I took a drive down the road to the pier where she lay, parked up in a nearby car park and looked over in the darkened dockyard to see the sad state of this once magnificent liner from behind a wire fence.

I hope at some point there is somebody who does come along and saves her, turns her into a hotel like they have done with Queen Mary and preserve her history for future generations. If not it will only be a matter of time before she is too corroded to save and she will one day sink where she stands or be towed away for scrapping.

There is a dream that one day we will once again walk her decks and marvel at this glamorous liner, from a time when the golden age of these great ships was at its height. But it will take a lot of love, effort, patience and even more funding before anything like this would become a reality. For the future of the United States, we can only live in optimistic hope. 

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Bombing of London’s Docklands – 9th February 1996

For almost 30 years there had been conflict on the streets of Northern Ireland between those who wanted a united Ireland and those who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. Trapped between the two warring sides were the British government, military and in a lot of cases civilians who couldn’t care less. With a terrorist bombing campaign by the Irish Republican Army costing the lives of hundreds of people, taking the fight to mainland Britain, particularly built up cities in the pubs, gatherings and ceremonial events, each attack would make headlines. But in 1994 the IRA agreed a ceasefire while peace talks commenced, this lasted until early 1996 when they decided that these talks were going nowhere and the ceasefire was to be ended.

At around 1730 on the evening of 9th February 1996 a series of bomb warnings was received giving details of a vehicle loaded with explosives in the London Docklands, the area around Canary Wharf being the financial capital of the UK. Home to the media, banking, trade and finance, the alert went out to evacuate. The time for detonation was given as 1800 hours, they had less than half hour to get everybody clear of the area.

Police raced to the scene as thousands of people were herded like cattle into the streets and away from the main buildings. By 1848 a truck was located at South Quay Plaza and an officer ran to warn to men, Inam Bashir and John Jeffries, in a newsagent to evacuate, they hurried to quickly lock up their shop. At 1901 hours the truck bomb detonated with a huge blast, shattering glass for hundreds of yards in every direction, a huge crater all that was left of the truck.

The two newsagent staff were killed in the blast and several others were injured, the devastation of the office buildings in the vicinity of the blast caused £150 million worth of damage and several of these had to be demolished.

In April 1997 a raid by the SAS captured a number of IRA members, one of whom was James McArdle who was a match for a thumbprint found on the wreckage of the truck. He went on trial and was found to have driven the lorry from Northern Ireland to the Docklands and was jailed in June 1998 for 25 years for conspiracy to cause explosions. After an article in The Sun newspaper led to the judge dismissing the murder charges, he was eventually convicted of also being a member of an IRA sniper team and sentenced to a further 50 years. He was released under the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement just two years later.

Today a memorial plaque at South Quay station of the Docklands Light Railway pays tribute to the two men who died that day and the area where the bomb exploded has been rebuilt, a testament to the hard work of the Londoners who rebuild from disaster just like they did in the wartime and just like they always will.