Daily Event for December 30, 2008

In the early afternoon of Dec. 30, 1915 SMS U-38 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Max Valentiner fired at least one torpedo at the 7,974 ton passenger ship SS Persia of the P&O Line. The Persia was hit in the port boiler room by the torpedo, within a couple of minuets one of the boilers exploded and the ship rolled over and sank. The whole episode took five minuets.

Launching lifeboats was impossible, the list made the port boats swing out and the starboard boats swing in, even if they could have been launched the Persia was still underway at her own will, she was running at 18 knots when hit and was still moving for quite some time. Of the boats that were in the water, two were dragged down with the ship taking all on board with her.

There were over 500 passengers and crew on board when the ship was hit, all accounts say there was no panic during the drama, but with only five minuets between the time the torpedo hit and when the ship sank, it is doubtful there was enough time for those onboard to realize what was about to happen. Panic seems to ensue only when people have time to think about their situation, in this case they had none.

In one of the boats was Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who related his story after landing at Malta. In his statement he said there were 32 men in the lifeboat, 3 Europeans and 28 Lascars. Over the course of the next 32 hours at least two steamers passed by that failed to respond to the flairs they fired, he felt they were afraid the lifeboat was being used as a trap by a U-boat, this had been done during the war. A third ship, the SS Ningchow of the Blue Funnel Line (Alfred Holt) finally came alongside and rescued those who were still alive, nineteen of the Lascars had died awaiting rescue.

The remaining survivors were picked up by a trawler and a Royal Navy corvette HMS Mallow and landed at Alexandria. In total three hundred and thirty-five men, women and children were killed. The master, CommanderWilliam H. Selby-Hall RNR was not among the survivors.

The sinking of the Persia sparked international outrage as she was sunk without warning and no attempt was made by the U-boat crew to aid survivors, in fact for some time it was not known which submarine had sunk the Persia. Some believed it to have been an Austrian boat while others thought it may have been Turkish, Germany initially denied any complicity in the sinking, but it was finally discovered.

The U.S. Government also got involved when it was learned that Mr. McNeely, American Consul at Aden was among those killed. They protested to the Central Powers and met with high officials. Later they returned to the U.S. claiming they had received promises from the Central Powers to, in future respect the international rules governing sea warfare. These proved to be empty words and the unrestricted warfare continued.

Just a few hours later and only five miles from where the Persia had gone down, Valentiner and the U-38 found and torpedoed the SS Clan MacFarlane. She had a crew of 75 who all apparently made it into six lifeboats. This time the the U-boat surfaced and approached the lifeboats. He questioned the master, James W. Swanston as to the identity of his ship and released them to their fate.

It should be noted that at that time the sea was calm and the lifeboats were tied together, however a storm later caused them to become separated, two on Jan. 1 and finally the captain's boat on Jan. 3. None of the three lifeboats were ever found. The other three had thirty-seven men in them, thirteen died of exposure before the survivors were picked up on Jan. 7 by SS Crown of Aragon, they were landed at Malta. Fifty-one of the crew perished and Valentiner would end up on the British list of war criminals.

He was never tried at the Leipzig trials and even if he had been chances are he would not have been convicted. Persia was carrying some British soldiers making her a legitimate target, he could not have known that though. He knew he was torpedoing a passenger ship that would naturally be carrying civilians, the presence of troops could have been suspected, but not confirmed. Perhaps the reason no rescue was attempted was because the ship was gone in five minuets and he must have known his boat would be swamped with survivors and a small submarine can not accommodate hundreds of people. If he had picked up survivors he would have had to send a signal giving the position of his boat and he would have either been captured or sunk.

His actions in the sinking of the Clan MacFarlane were within the rules of war, he had interviewed the survivors, and noted the lifeboats were provisioned and had sail and oars. The survivors were also only 79 miles from the coast of Crete in a well traveled shipping lane and he would have believed those in the lifeboats had the best of chances to be rescued. He had no knowledge of the approaching storm and had left the area before it arrived.

Kapitänleutnant Max Valentiner survived the war and served in the next one as Group Commander for U-boats in Kiel until the end of the war. He died in 1949.
© 2008 Michael W. Pocock

2006 Daily Event