Monday, August 31, 2020

SS Normandie – Triumph to Tragedy

Of all the liners in history there is one in particular that stands out as possibly the most beautiful ship ever built, at least that is the opinions of many who have come to know the SS Normandie. Owned by the French Line, she was launched in 1932 from her builders in St Nazaire in the middle of a global depression.

However, this world wide crash of the stock markets and general bad times for business did not stop the newest French liner from wowing the crowds with her maiden voyage on 29th May 1935. Incredibly she won the coveted Blue Riband award for the fasted crossing of the Atlantic on her first voyage, breaking the westbound record on the return voyage.

Already things were looking up for the pride of France and her interiors told you why. With staterooms that were unmatched to any other ship, her passengers could dine in some of the finest restaurants in the world while completely forgetting they were at sea. The artwork adorning the vessel in the new Art Deco style that made the 1930s such a great decade for the memories of peacetime, but this was not to last.

As the Second World War darkened Europe with Nazi invasion, it was only a matter of time before France was under occupation. When war was declared the ship was in New York and was immediately put under protection from then, her home country falling under Hitler’s rule by 1940.

During the two and a half years she was alongside in New York City’s Pier 88 there were many other liners joining her temporarily – one famous photograph shows Normandie with both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth side by side, a sight that the people of the Big Apple loved to see.

While the other two ships were hard at work transporting personnel across the Atlantic in the war effort, especially after America joined the war in December 1941, the Normandie was being fitted out to be used for the same reason. The early months of 1942 were planned to get the liner up to scratch with a conversion from a luxury liner, a process that involved thousands of workers and so much effort to take apart the wooden panels, statues, staterooms and fancy artwork. She was officially renamed Lafayette, yet she would never sail under this name.

On 9th February 1942 at 1430 hours, sparks from the hotwork being carried out in the First Class Lounge ignited a pile of lifejackets that had been stored there. A fire erupted and spread remarkably quickly due to all the flammable material that was in that area. Unfortunately for the Normandie, her fire and flooding equipment were all deactivated while the conversion work was going on.

New York City Fire Department were on scene but the hose connectors on board were French and did not fit their hoses. Harbour fire tugs sprayed the ship but within an hour the ship was burning onto her upper decks, black smoke billowing out of the side of the vessel. Water was being pumped onto the ship to douse the flames but they were fighting a losing battle.

By the evening the fire was under control but the ship had taken on a list that was causing water to flood in through various openings, an attempt to counter balance the ship failed and as the night wore on the Normandie’s list increased. When all attempts to right the ship had failed, the order was given to abandon ship. During the fight to save her there had been several injuries amongst the workers and fire crews resulting in one death.

The ship finally went completely over in the early hours of 10th February and the morning light revealed the sad state of what was once the finest ship in France. It would take 18 months to get the ship upright again, but by then the damage was done and she was eventually sold for scrap.

Today the legacy of the Normandie lives on in the memories and books that have told the story of her life, a huge model of her is on display aboard her running rival Queen Mary and she is probably more loved now than ever, her history as fascinating today as it was in the 1930s.  

In 2017 a trip to New York City led me to Pier 88 to see the site where the career of the Normandie was ended so publicly. Today it is like nothing had ever gone on. No plaque or information board to tell the story of this ship and her glorious life. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Ship That Sank the Andrea Doria

Many people will have sailed on board the liner Astoria when she soon retires from service, but only those with a love of her history will know what her story is and how she hit the headlines in 1956. With a white hull and single funnel, she is operated by the company Cruise and Maritime Voyages out of Portugal to destinations all around the world.

At over 16,000 gross tons and 525.1 feet long, she is in 2020 on her 72nd year of service making her oldest liner in the world still going. She is not a huge liner like the ones that are made famous by their size, but she can still hold 550 passengers and take them on a voyage of discovery.

Built in Gothenburg, Sweden, she was launched on 9th September 1946 as the Stockholm for the Swedish-America Line transatlantic routes to New York. Although she was the largest ship built in Sweden she was actually the smallest liner on this route, but that didn’t stop her making trip after trip with success.

On 25th July 1956 she left New York and sailed into dense fog off Nantucket. Sighting another ship on her radar she followed the correct procedures to pass the ship on her port side. But for some reason the mystery ship suddenly turned to port instead of to starboard, right into the path of the Stockholm. At 2310 hours the bow of the Stockholm ploughed into the side of what they now knew was another liner – the Italian vessel Andrea Doria inbound to New York from Italy.

The side of the Andrea Doria was opened up and the ship began to list straight away, the bow of the Stockholm ripped off. Incredibly the Stockholm was still afloat and began to rescue the hundreds of passengers now taking to the boats and being the only ship on scene at the moment managed to take on board 327 passengers and 245 crew from the Andrea Doria, including a young girl who had been scooped out of her bed on the Italian liner and was found in the wreckage of the bow of the Stockholm!

Over the next 11 hours the rescue operation went with success, over 1000 people rescued before the liner rolled over and sank. The death toll in this disaster was 46 including five people who had been killed on the Stockholm.

The ship limped into New York with the survivors and was repaired in around three months with a new bow section. It is here that the ship carried on her journeys until 1960 when she was sold to an East German company and renamed Völkerfreundschaft where she operated out of her new owners country until she was then laid up in Southampton, UK, for several years.

Over the decades she was taken to Norway to be used as barracks, going through a host of name changes as Volker, Fridtjof Nansen, Italia I, Italia Prima, Valtur Prima, Caribe, Athena, Azores (below with yellow funnel) and finally Astoria. She was completely rebuilt at Genoa in Italy, the home port of the Andrea Doria – a fact that the local press quickly picked up on!

In 2008 as Athena she came under attack by pirates off the coast of Somalia but this was repelled by water cannon being fired by the crew and also a coastguard aircraft shooing them away.

She was renamed Astoria in 2016 and sailed out of London Tilbury for several years before once again she made the headlines when it was revealed in June 2020 that due to the COVID-19 outbreak, some of the crew of Astoria (and several other liners owned by the same company) were being held on board without being flown back to their respective countries, some even claiming to be on hunger strike while at the same time not being paid. The Maritime Coastguard Agency prevented the ship from sailing while an inspection was carried out after concerns for the crews welfare was highlighted by the All Indian Seafarers Union.

As it stands the Astoria – ex Stockholm – is still officially a fully functioning cruise ship, but for how long now nobody knows.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Missing in the Night - The loss of the Flag Theofano

 On 29th January 1990 a great storm had blown towards the coast of Hampshire and was causing havoc with the marine traffic coming in and out of the Solent area. For those in charge of the waterways in Southampton and Portsmouth, trying to deal with the ships that needed a berth to unload their cargoes was a nightmare.

That evening the Greek cement carrier Flag Theofano was one of those ships, bound for Southampton after a short voyage from Le Havre with 19 crew on board. At 2818 gross tons, the cargo ship was 324 feet long and was 20 years old, having been built in German and changing ownership several times, eventually her current name from 1989 and owned by the Golden Union Shipping Company of Piraeus.

Unable to provide the Flag Theofano with a berth that evening, she was called on the radio and told to go to anchor for the night at an area of the Solent known as St Helens Roads. Agreeing to this change of plan they acknowledged it and headed to the anchorage. 44-year-old Captain John Pittas could now relax for the evening and worry about getting alongside tomorrow.

Dawn the next morning brought no better weather but the berthing arrangements had been put in place and the Flag Theofano was given the green light to weigh anchor and proceed into Southampton. But when she was called on the radio there was no reply.

When vessels in the area were called and a search carried out, the ship had simply vanished. Had she already gone somewhere else? The search intensified and that morning the full horror was realised when two lifeboats, a life raft and two bodies were found nearby. It was now obvious – the Flag Theofano had gone down in the night and not a single person had known about it. There had been no radio calls and no eyewitnesses.

The wreck of the ship was located when an oily patch on the water along with bubbles was located along with something attached just below the surface to a rope. 20 meters below the surface, the ship with her cargo of 4000 tons of cement was upside down on the seabed and the first chance of a break in the weather allowed divers to inspect the wreck.

By now her cargo had come into contact with the water and hardened, leaving her now as a huge concrete block surrounded by the hull of the ship. There was never any sign of the missing 17 crew members and her loss was later thought to be capsizing due to bad weather possibly shifting the cargo.

The loss of this vessel and her crew of 19 is a forgotten disaster of modern day that is barely remembered. There are no memorials to the victims and one of the two bodies found is today buried in Portsmouth’s Kingston Cemetery with no gravestone to mark his passing (left). Ibrahim Hussain was just 19 years old when he became a victim of this shipwreck that is today barely talked about and with few who remember even the name. 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Gibraltar Air Crash 1943 – The Death of General Sikorski

At the southern tip of Spain lies a huge rock sticking out of a peninsular that for over 300 years has been territory of Great Britain. This town is called Gibraltar, more commonly nicknamed “The Rock” or simply “Gib,” it is like a small country with its own airport that has to stop the traffic going to and from the border with Spain in order for aircraft to land on the runway.

It is this runway that was the scene of a terrible disaster in 1943 that has been the topic of conspiracies ever since. This is largely due to the identity of one of the victims – General Władysław Eugeniusz Sikorski. He was commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces as well as the Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile, running his countrymen from Paris, London and the USA.

In May 1943 Sikorski travelled to the Middle East to inspect Polish forces and the trip was a success, despite Polish-Russian relations breaking down after the discovery of the Katyn Wood massacre earlier that year. Despite the problems politically, he was otherwise still hopeful of a return to friendly terms with his neighbouring countries but this would come over time.

Returning from Cairo his plane landed at Gibraltar for a refuelling and as the evening of 4th July 1943 wore on, the aircraft was ready for the final leg of the journey back to London. On board the aircraft was his daughter (also his secretary), several Polish armed forces dignitaries, a Royal Navy Warrant telegraphist and a Conservative MP. There were a total of 12 people on board including pilot Flight Lieutenant Eduard Prchal and at 2307 hours the aircraft, a Consolidated Liberator II, was cleared for takeoff and sped down the runway.

What happened next has been attributed to the cargo shifting as well as the controls jamming, but somehow the aircraft lasted around 16 seconds before plunging into the sea off the end of the runway. Rescue workers pulled out only one survivor, the pilot. The other 11 people on board were dead.

Immediately conspiracies were rife. Was it a Russian plot to kill Sikorski? Or even a British plot? Even Polish plots have been considered. But the investigation showed otherwise despite every attempt at derailing the official stories.

The death of Sikorski sent the allied forces into mourning and his body was taken back to Britain where he was laid to rest in a Polish war cemetery in Newark-on-Trent. In 1993 his body was exhumed and flown back to Poland where he now lies in a tomb in Krakow’s Wawel Castle. But he would not lay rested for long.

In the end the conspiracy theories prompted an investigation to prove once and for all that he had died in the plane crash and hadn’t been assassinated. In 2009 he was once again exhumed and his body examined. The report stated that his injuries were consistent with that of somebody who had died in an air crash, putting any theories of him being shot in the head to rest once and for all.

Today a memorial plaque in Gibraltar’s Cathedral of St Mary the Crowned on the main street pays tribute to Sikorski and where his memorial service was held in the war. A larger memorial, originally next to the airport but now at Europa Point, displays an aircraft propeller and commemorates the air disaster that caused so much controversy. The repositioning adds the names of the others who died in the disaster instead of just Sikorski.

As a Bridlington resident I was interested to learn that one of those who died was a local resident,  Royal Navy Warrant Telegraphist Harry Pinder who was working at the shore base HMS Nile in Alexandria. He lived at 57 Hilderthorpe Road with his wife and at the time of his death was returning to Britain for his daughters wedding. His body was never found.

With the death of anybody famous– a VIP, politician, celebrity – it is always the other victims that are forgotten yet in a lot of ways these are the ones that tell some of the more fascinating stories.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Hull Rail Disaster - 14th February 1927

The city of Kingston Upon Hull was a major fishing, commercial and passenger port at one time in the past and as the city grew the need for a stable railway to the rest of the country became more apparent. Hull Paragon Station was the answer, with access to the main railway lines that would head up to Scarborough via Bridlington, Leeds, York, Doncaster, Sheffield and as far down as London.

One of the routes that are no longer in existence is the line that led to Withernsea and on 14th February 1927 it was a 9-carriage train from here that was heading inbound towards Hull driven by a Mr Robert Dixon. In the opposite direction was the 0905 service leaving Hull and bound for Scarborough, departing from the station with six carriages and now slowly heading out on the northbound journey under the control of driver Samuel Atkinson, a man with almost three decades of experience on the trains.

The numerous tracks outside of Hull Paragon run in a westward direction before each one branches out towards their respective onward stations west and north. The two trains should have passed each other around this point without a problem like they had done so many times before. But today there was a slight problem that would quickly turn catastrophic for the Hull railway.

As the outbound train ran under the signal gantry at Park Street and still within sight of the station, Atkinson had the strange feeling that his train had been switched on to the wrong track. He slammed on his brakes and slowly brought his train to a halt, by the time this point had been reached it was too late – at 0910 he was in position right in the path of the inbound train from Withernsea and with just seconds left, and only going at no more than 16 mph, both drivers braced for a collision.

The train crashed into the other head on, the two engines ripping into each other and telescoping into the carriages. Wooden structure and metal frame work split and flew in every direction as passengers were jolted forward and thrown to the front of their seating. As the wreckage settled and the dazed and injured passengers realised what had just happened, the state of the railway line was in a shocking state.

The tender of the outbound Scarborough train was now under the roof of the front half of the Withernsea train lead coach, the first five compartments crushed into each other trapping dozens of passengers, many of whom were families on a day out. It was only the last four coaches of the Withernsea train that were undamaged.

Locals crowded to the scene to help rescue the survivors, but the state of some of the people they found made it clear that fatalities were a guarantee. The sights some of them had seen would stay with them forever, others would be taken over the lines and through a hole in the fence to the hospitals. The final death toll would be 12 with a further 24 injured.
An inquiry later blamed the signal workers in the box for changing the points too soon, a mistake that was so easy to do yet so hard to rectify in time.

Today a memorial plaque is at the site where the hole in the fence allowed so many people to be rescued at the back of what is today Hull Royal Infirmary. Looking out onto the railway lines it is hard to imagine the carnage that once was and how many lives were affected by East Yorkshires worst rail disaster.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Heart of the ocean? - The story of Kate Florence Phillips by Jake Billingham & Joanna Dolan

The final of four entries of our guest blogger Jake Billingham once again teams up with Joanna Dolan to bring us the story of Titanic survivor Kate Phillips.


Anyone who is fascinated with the story of RMS Titanic, knows the scandal that surrounded some of her most famous passengers.  One of these infamous couples was the billionaire and his wife, John Jacob Astor and Madeleine Astor.  However, they weren’t the only passengers that boarded the ship on her fateful maiden voyage who were also engaged in a scandalous relationship. 

Another couple that is not so well known, boarded Titanic as second class passengers in Southampton under the married name of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall, but they were not married.  The couple’s great-granddaughter, Beverley Lynn Roberts, believes that James Cameron may have based part of the epic love story in his 1997 blockbuster Titanic movie on facts from her the lives of her great-grandparents.

Photo of Kate Phillips with her Daughter Ellen Mary

Photo Credit Beverley Lynn Roberts Kate Phillips Great Granddaughter

In fact, they were deeply in love and  having a secret affair.  Henry Samuel Morley was a married man, and he was also the senior partner of the firm L. Morley Confectioners.  Kate Phillips was a 19 year old unmarried shop assistant of Mr Morley’s enterprise.  Mr. Morley was at least 20 years older than his young, beautiful employee, Miss. Phillips. Henry sold two of his confectionary shops to make provisions for his wife and 12 year old daughter, and booked passage on Titanic to start a new life  with Miss Phillips in America.   It is said that Henry had a beautiful diamond encrusted sapphire necklace made for Kate and that he gave it to her while they were on board Titanic sailing towards their future together.

Photo Credit Beverley Lynn Roberts 

Tragically, just like the famous 1997 James Cameron movie Titanic , the relationship between Henry & Kate would be cut short.  When on April 14, 1912, the unthinkable happened as Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 pm.  Two hours and 40 minutes later, the “unsinkable” Titanic plunged to the bottom of the North Atlantic, taking with her 1,496 of her passengers and crew,  including Mr. Henry Samuel Morley, whose body was never recovered.  It is said that Henry fastened the sapphire and diamond necklace around Kate’s neck just prior to seeing her into a lifeboat. Kate Phillips survived the sinking, and she sat in lifeboat number 11  for close to eight hours with only her nightgown and a jacket of a crew member to keep her warm on that cold night. She carried with her a small hand bag and the keys to her trunk. However, she may have also been carrying something else even more valuable than the bejeweled necklace.

Artists recreation of Kate Phillips & Henry Morley

Photo Credit Jorge Martinez Arias

Kate Phillips’s purse and luggage keys that she carried with her into the lifeboat.

Photo credit Beverley Lynn Roberts

After three months living in America, Kate returned to England and to her family in Worcester.  It is believed that the relationship with Henry Morley resulted in her giving birth to a baby girl on January 11, 1913 .  Although, this was never officially proven, and no father was ever named on her daughter’s birth certificate.  Kate named the child Ellen Mary.  Her daughter Ellen would end up living with her grandparents for approximately the first 10 years of her life.

Kate later married in Middlesex in 1918 to Fredrick H Watson, a cafe owner.  In 1922, she reunited with her daughter Ellen. It was not quite the happy family life that one might have hoped, as Kate had been greatly affected mentally by the tragic events that took place on the night of April 14, 1912.  Sources indicate that she never fully recovered from the long term effects of losing the love of her life and the ensuing struggle thereafter. Sadly, Kate Phillips became even more mentally unstable throughout the years. She eventually  became confined to bed until her death  in March of 1964.  Some of Titanic’s victims, like Kate, died a slow death of a broken heart.

Ellen Mary never really had much of a relationship with her mother.  In fact,  she didn’t even know that her mother passed away until months after her funeral. Ellen spent most of her life trying to prove that she was the illegitimate daughter of Henry Samuel Morley. Unfortunately her attempts to be recognised as Henry’s daughter never succeeded.  Ellen Mary died on October 25, 2005 at the age of 92.

This teddy bear was given to Ellen by her mother Kate Phillips in memory of her father, Henry Morley.

This bear meant a lot to Ellen and was given to her great-granddaughter Beverley Lynn Roberts upon her death. 

Photo Credit Beverley Lynn Roberts



Memories of Ellen Mary from her great-granddaughter, Beverley Lynn Roberts:  "I knew my Gran very well and she abandoned us as grandchildren when I was 12.  Like I said previously Gran cut her mother out of her life because she was unable due to a document she signed (so the Morley’s paid for her schooling under those conditions) to tell her who her Father was when my Dad was only a little boy and so was very bitter, so don’t believe all you read. I reconnected with my Gran when I was 23, My Gran was a very strong character.  I’ve heard many stories about Kate from other family members saying how kind she was.  But I did know my Gran very well. I will always be a fantastic mum to my daughter and try my best and give her all the love and support she needs.”

We asked Kate Phililps’s great-granddaughter, Beverley Lynn Roberts, if formal DNA testing was ever conducted to prove that Henry Morley was indeed Ellen Mary’s father.  Beverley indicated that it had not, but that she had personally submitted her own DNA to Ancestry and had received approximately 15 matches to Morley family members.  While this is not official or conclusive, it does seem to give credit to the assumption that Kate Phillips and Henry Morley did have a daughter together.  Perhaps Ellen Mary was truly the “heart of the ocean.”

Pictured left, great-granddaughter of Mary Kate Phillips, Beverley Lynn Roberts, & pictured right, Henry Morley's great-niece, Deborah Allen.

Photo Credit Beverley Lynn Roberts



Photo of Ellen Mary on her 90th Birthday.

Photo Credit Beverley Lynn Roberts.







We would like to dedicate this article, not only to Kate Phillips, but also to her daughter Ellen Mary and great-granddaughter, Beverley Lynn Roberts, who has helped tremendously with supplying us with these amazing photos and fascinating information about her family.

Sources include Beverley Lynn Roberts,,, and

The Britannic Sinking - By Jake Billingham

In part 3 of Jake Billingham's articles, he describes the turn of events that culminated in the Britannic ending up on the bottom of the Kea Channel. 

The Britannic stopped at Naples for her usual Coal and water refuelling stop on November 17th.

A storm prevented her from departing Naples until that Sunday afternoon. Then Captain Bartlett made the decision to take his chances as there was a break in the weather but just as they left the sea rose again but by the next morning the storm died down again and the Britannic passed the strait Messina.

Britannic struck the mine low on the starboard bow between 2 and 3 holds at 8:12am November 21, 1916.

The force of the explosion damaged the watertight bulkhead between boiler room 1 and the forepeak. That meant that the first four compartments were flooding. The explosion caused a gas bubble lifting the Britannic’s bow coursing the hull to flex,Whipping the foremast and breaking some of the connections between the mast and the wireless transmitter in the ships silent room. This meant that the Britannic could still send out distress messages but could not receive a reply.

The firemen's tunnel connecting the firemen's quarters in the bow with boiler room 6 had also been seriously damaged and water was flowing into that boiler room.

The explosion warped her steel and twisted her frame a little which caused the bulkhead door between boiler rooms 6 and 5 to fail in closing.

The doctors had left the portholes open on E deck so water was able to flood the compartments that had not been compromised by the mine explosion.

The nurses and doctors and chaplins sat down for breakfast when the mine was struck, and all the cutlery seem to dance and fall to the ground and smash.  The matron told them to put their lifejackets on and get to the boat deck.

Captain Bartlett, in his pyjamas, came to the bridge and set a course to make for the Kea Island in an attempt to beach the ship. For some reason, the Britannic’s steering gear wasn’t responding so they had to use the engines to try to steer the ship. 

The Captain hadn’t given the order to abandon ship, but some of the stokers,who were in the bowels of the ship, decided to launch two of the lifeboats.  One of the occupants was Titanic survivor Violet Jessop, but as the lifeboats were launched the port propeller was on water level and still turning. The two small lifeboats were pulled into the turning propeller smashing the lifeboats killing many of the occupants in the lifeboats.

8.35 a.m. Captain Bartlett noticed the rate of the ships sinking had quickened, and he gave the order to abandon ship and for the engines to be stopped.

8.50 a.m. Captain Bartlett noticed the ship’s sinking had slowed, so he gave the order to start up the engines again in his final desperate efforts to save his beloved ship.

9.00 a.m. Captain Bartlett ordered the engines to be stopped for the final time.

With six watertight compartments flooded the Britannic had reached her full capacity.  Unable to stay afloat, the ship took a server list to starboard, and the forecastle deck was underwater.  The sea rising fast towards the bridge.  The captain, still in his pyjamas, gave two final blasts of the ships whistle. As the ship was rolling over onto her starboard side, Captain Bartlett walked off the starboard wing and swam into the sea.

Britannic rolled over on her starboard side with her funnels falling off like chimneys over into the sea. The Britannic was nearly 883 feet long, and she sank in approximately 400 feet of water.  The bow struck the sea floor as the stern was still on the surface, and the Britannic’s stern vibrated and slid slowly beneath the sea to her final resting place.

9.07 a.m. HMHS Britannic has gone.