Daily Event for October 4, 2012

On October 4, 1916 the legendary U-boat commander, Lothar von Arnauld de la Periére and SMS U-35 sank two ships in the Mediterranean. The attacks took place ten miles apart, one would go virtually unnoticed, the other would be one of the worst disasters of the Great War.

The 715 ton Norwegian freighter Birk, built in 1909, was located southwest of Sardinia, von Arnauld fired a warning shot, but the master attempted to escape. A second shot across the bows brought the ship to a halt. The master was ordered to board the U-boat and have his papers inspected. Von Arnauld gave the crew 20 minutes to leave the ship and then it was sunk with charges. No lives were lost and the crew made land.

The second ship sunk was the French passenger ship Gallia. This was a 600' long 14,996 gross ton three funnel liner built in 1913. She was designed to carry over 1,000 passengers in peacetime, but on this wartime voyage she was carrying about 2,700 French and Serbian troops bound for the fighting on the Gallipoli peninsula.

Von Arnauld estimated the ship to be traveling at 18 knots or better and she was zigzagging, at first he did not believe he could get into a good position for an attack. Through his periscope he could see hundreds of soldiers on her decks and he must have known that if her were to attack many of those men would die. To his surprise the ship altered course and presented him with the possibility of a shot, it was still at a bad angle, what he later described as an "impossible angle", nevertheless he fired his last torpedo at the fast moving ship. One shot from a stern tube at 800 yards at an angle even von Arnauld was not sure would work was all it took. (Note some sources claim he fired 2 torpedoes, but according to von Arnauld in his later interview and the original KTB, he had only 1 torpedo to use.)

Much like the case of the Lusitania in 1915, von Arnauld may have thought that a single torpedo would cause damage, but would probably not send such a large ship to the bottom very quickly, but Gallia was carrying ammunition as well as the troops and his torpedo hit her directly in the magazine. The second explosion (that some might have confused with a second torpedo) is what caused the ship to sink so rapidly. It also destroyed the radio before there had been any time to send a distress signal. Panic and chaos was what happened next, Von Arnauld described what he saw through his periscope;

"A column of water had shot into the air from the explosion. I witnessed the sight of a great ship moving so fast that it left the column of water behind it. There was wild panic on the stricken vessel's crowded deck. Lifeboats were being lowered by men too much in a panic to let them down slowly and safely. Hundreds of soldiers were jumping into the water and swimming around. The sea became a terrible litter of overturned and swamped lifeboats, and struggling men."

Inside the conning tower of U-35 the crew, according to von Arnauld, were mixed in their reactions. Many crowded around the periscope hoping to have a look at the sinking ship. Some were horrified at what they saw, others seemed pleased, the monkey, Fipps, captured from a steamer earlier, leaped around "infected with the general agitation". Von Arnauld later said; "I had caused one of France's greatest naval disasters. After what I had seen, I did not feel elated".

Twenty minutes after the torpedo struck Gallia stood with her bows in the air, then plunged into the depths taking hundreds of men with her and leaving hundreds more in lifeboats, rafts and in the water.

This was not only one of France's greatest naval disasters, but it was one of the greatest maritime disasters of the Great War, the loss of life was greater than that of the Lusitania. The actual number of those lost will never be known, however the figure is somewhere between 1,300 and 1,800. There were about 1,362 survivors, who were picked up the next day by the French cruiser Chateaurenault. Of the ship's officers, only the 2nd Officer survived.

Twenty days later (Oct. 24) another ship named Gallia was sunk in the English Channel by SMS UB-40, there were no lives lost on the Italian freighter.
© 2012 Michael W. Pocock

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