Soldiers Lost at Sea: A Chronicle of Troopship Disasters

Soldiers Lost at Sea: A Chronicle of Troopship Disasters

by James E. Wise Jr., Scott Baron




Heroism, tragedy, devotion to duty, and scandal are just a few of the ingredients that make up this dramatic first-time account of troopship losses in wartime. International in scope, it offers a compilation of stories about historic troopship disasters caused by torpedoes, aerial attacks, mines, surface fire, foul weather, friendly fire, and poor planning by military decision makers. Some are well known, like the explosion of the steamship Sultana on the Mississippi while transporting 2,000 Union soldiers home from Confederate prisons. Others, like the June 1945 sinking of the Japanese cruiser Ashigara by a British submarine that resulted in the loss of 800 Japanese soldiers, are little known. An extraordinary few far surpass the authors' criteria for selection of disasters with high troop loss and the involvement of heroic acts. Among the most memorable is the 1851 sinking of the British frigate Birkenhead with some 600 soldiers and their wives and children aboard. Lacking sufficient lifeboats, the men stood steady in their ranks on deck as the ship went down.

Board of Inquiry hearings, action reports, survivor debriefings, and personal correspondence collected from archives in Germany, Italy, Russia, Australia, Britain, and the United States tell the story of some fifty vessels that went down. Many of these disasters, the authors explain, were kept secret for decades. An introductory chapter provides an overview of troop losses at sea beginning with the age of galley warfare, but the majority of the book focuses on losses of World War II Allied and Axis ships followed by incidents from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781591149668
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Publication date: 11/28/2003
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 1 Year

About the Author

James E. Wise Jr., a former naval aviator, intelligence officer, and Vietnam veteran, retired from the U.S. Navy as a captain. His books include Stars in Blue and U-505, among many others.

Scott Baron, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War and former law enforcement officer in California, is the author of They Also Served: Military Biographies of Uncommon Americans and coauthor, with Wise, of The Navy Cross and Women at War: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Conflicts.

Read an Excerpt


A Chronicle of Troopship Disasters

By James E. Wise Jr. and Scott Baron

Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 2004

James E. Wise Jr. and Scott Baron
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59114-966-5

Chapter One

The Evolution of Troopships


When man first went to sea it was for trading the products of his skill and
toil. Discovering that streams and rivers were highways to open waters, many
explorers and adventurers followed these early mariners to the Mediterranean
basin, where traders from Asia, Europe, and Africa came together-not always in
a friendly way.

Along with trading came the rise of piracy. To defend precious cargoes from
these marauders, boats evolved that could house soldiers and escort merchant
ships safely to port. Early historians cite the round ship, a sailing cargo
carrier, and the long ship, a combatant vessel propelled by oars, as examples.
The round ships depended on the fighting long ships for protection, and together
these teams became early navies. One early troopship was the Egyptian-oared war
vessel, developed in c. 4700 B.C. Pharaoh Ramses III used a later version of it
in 1194 B.C., when he defeated the Northerners of the Isles in the first
recorded naval battle.

A keel eventually evolved, as represented in the Phoenician war boat of 750
B.C. Smaller and more practical than its Egyptian forerunner, this boat was
armed with a ram, or metal beak. It had a fore and aft deck, with a high
stock-adelike bulwark to shelter soldiers and crewmen from spears, rocks,
arrows, and Greek fire.

By the fifth century B.C. the Greeks had excluded the Phoenicians and the
Carthaginians from the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea, gaining control of shipping
in the eastern Mediterranean. Greek war galleys, built long and narrow
for speed and easy rowing, roamed the seas protecting their commercial vessels.
Preferred tactics were ramming and boarding, for which they carried marines,
archers, and spearmen. Rather than destroying ships, they focused on killing the

During the Greco-Persian war amphibious assaults used troop carriers when,
during the Persian expedition (494 B.C.), ten thousand soldiers crossed the
Aegean and landed on the plain of Marathon. Eight thousand Athenian defenders
engaged the invaders and pushed them back into the sea. With the subsequent
defeat of the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis (480 B.C.), the Greek
victory ushered in the Golden Age of Athens. The Greeks had gained maritime and
commercial superiority and, with their achievement of intellectual and artistic
preeminence, they laid the foundation for Western Civilization.

In 275 B.C. the Romans conquered southern Italy, engulfing the Greek cities.
The Romans borrowed designers and shipbuilders from their vassal Greek states
and set about to build a large fleet of biremes, triremes, and quinqueremes.
Their lack of seamanship proved disastrous as the Punic Wars began, with
thousands lost in heavy seas off Sicily. Challenged by the elusive Carthaginian
ships, which used sideswiping, ramming, flanking, and breaking-the-line tactics,
the Romans found a way to turn a sea battle into an infantry engagement across
decks with the corvus, an eighteen-foot gangway that housed a pointed iron beak
under the outboard end. When an enemy ship closed or tried to sideswipe a Roman
vessel, the corvus, which was pivoted from a mast by a topping lift, could be
dropped on an unwary enemy locking the vessels together. Legionnaires would
then race across gangplanks to do battle.

The Romans became skilled seamen, steadily improving their tactics and
weaponry, developing catapults to hurl stones, javelins, and combustibles at
enemy ships. After winning the Punic Wars, Rome expanded into North Africa,
Spain, Asia Minor, Egypt, and Europe. Under the leadership of Julius Caesar,
Roman armies marched through Gaul and crossed the channel to Britain.
Caesar's invasion fleet consisted of eighty transports, warship escorts,
frigates, and cruisers. On board the transports were the Spanish legionnaires of
the 10th and 7th Legions. Each troopship carried approximately 150 men. Setting
up camp in Kent, Caesar's legionnaires were continually harassed by British
tribesmen who proved to be formidable adversaries. In addition to fighting the
tribesmen, the Romans had to contend with fierce weather that at one point
heavily damaged their fleet. Upon the advice of his naval commanders who were
concerned about the equinox-which would soon bring stormy weather down from the
north-Caesar embarked his force and returned to France. It would take two
more invasions of Britain to add the island fortress to the Roman Empire.

Civil war at home eventually marked the decline of the Roman Empire,
following four centuries of dominance. After splitting in two, the western
empire was overrun by German invaders, the eastern by Muslim Arabs.


Far to the north, the Vikings had been wreaking havoc. Norse noblemen fought
continuously, not only abroad but also among themselves. The battles between
the Norsemen were probably the first naval engagements in the history of
northern Europe. Thirty-ton Oseberg troopships carried hoards of fierce warriors
wielding spears, battle axes, swords, and bows and arrows.

Importantly, the Vikings were unrivaled shipbuilders. The sides of their
ships were made from long, thin, overlapping wooden planks, nailed together with
iron rivets, each perfectly shaped to fit the curves of the hull. Animal hair,
dipped in tar, was wedged between planks to make the ship watertight. Bright
colored shields along the sides kept the crews dry. The single Norse rudder hung
over the right side, and because of this was dubbed the steer board side; to
this day the right side of a ship is the starboard side.

Initially raiders, the Norsemen were also famed explorers, pushing to the
horizons of their known world and beyond. Aside from the British Isles and
Ireland, they established themselves in Germany, Iceland, Greenland, Labrador,
Latvia, Russia, and the eastern Mediterranean. In November 885 A.D. a fleet of
seven hundred Viking vessels sailed up the Seine River and laid siege to Paris.
The Parisians fought off the Vikings for a year before being reinforced. The
Vikings gave up their quest and retreated up the Seine.

Writings about early Viking engagements offer few clues as to how many
troopships were lost in battle. Yet because the fighting was fierce and the sea
and weather unforgiving, we can only assume that the toll was high.

The Crusades that pitched Christians against Muslims over control of the Holy
Land were bloody endeavors with countless Christian knights and foot soldiers
lost on land and sea. Traveling to the Holy Land by sea was in itself a
dangerous journey for the crusaders. Many of the expeditions sailed directly to
the Middle East from the English ports of Southampton, Hastings, Dover, London,
and Ipswich-as well as Vlerdingen, in the Netherlands. French and German
crusaders made their way to the Italian ports of Lucca, Pisa, and Genoa. From
there, ships took them to the Middle East. It is interesting to note that
crusaders used landing craft with a bow ramp to land men and horses. These
vessels could be considered forerunners of the LCTs used by the U.S. Navy in
World War II.

In Anatomy of a Crusade 1213-1221, author James M. Powell relates the
sea hazards experienced by crusaders:

Some three hundred ships departed from Vlerdingen in the Netherlands on May
29, 1217. This was the first contingent of the Fifth Crusade to actually
get underway. It would not be the first to arrive in the east ...

The sea route chosen by the crusaders was perilous. There was no way
to document fully how many of the ships that left Vlerdingen were lost
at sea, but the number must have been substantial. Only a few days out,
in the sea of Brittany, a ship from Monheim was wrecked on the rocks, and
the fleet had to slow while its men were rescued from the rocks onto
which they had climbed. Three more ships were wrecked in a storm off
the Portuguese coast. Bishop James of Vitry, who had earlier traveled
from Genoa to Acre, left a vivid description of the perils of travel on
the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean. He described his fear during
a storm in which the water was breaking over the ship, and this was
despite the fact that he was traveling on a newly constructed ship
and arrangements on board were suited to his episcopal rank.... Still
the trip was far from comfortable. Contrary winds impeded their
progress. They ran into a storm of such magnitude that fifteen anchors could
hardly hold the ship back as the prow of the vessel rose to the stars and
sank into the abyss. During the two days and nights that the storm
lasted, many had nothing to eat, and James himself ate nothing
cooked, because it was too dangerous to light a fire on the ship. Many
on board took the opportunity to confess their sins and prepare for
death. But, finally, the seas calmed and, with dolphins in their wake, they
sailed toward Acre. Many travelers to the East were not so
fortunate, however, and for them their crusade ended at sea.

The crusade expeditions lasted into the thirteenth century. When the Christian
sword and the Islam scimitar crossed for the last time, it was the scimitar that
was sheathed in victory.

Political and religious feuds among Arabs provided an opening for the Turks
to invade the Holy Land from the hills of Central Asia. The Turks swept across
the Dardanelles and advanced to the Danube. Constantinople fell to Turkish
hoards in 1453 whereupon the Turks expanded their rule and began to dominate
the Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean showdown between the Christians and Muslims took place
at the battle of Lepanto in 1571, with troop-laden galley fleets from Spain and
Italy arrayed against the Turks. The Christians won the battle, with heavy
losses of lives and ships levied by the Turks. Approximately thirty thousand
Turkish soldiers were killed, and they lost all but 60 of their 250 galleys.
Some seventy-seven hundred Christians lost their lives, and twelve ships were


Beginning in the fifteenth century; countries such as England, France, and Spain
began construction of full-rigged ships that could transport explorers in their
search for gold and other riches. The conquest of new lands resulted from such
forays, and global empires were gradually formed.

It was during this period that British sea power gained ascendancy. England
constructed a fleet of sailing vessels that could carry vast amounts of
commercial goods, and it also built ships-of-the-line to protect its cargo
carriers. Powerful nations transported their soldiers on these ships for foreign
campaigns, but British cannon firepower ruled the day in its wars with France
and Spain.

Life aboard early British troop transports was just as uncomfortable as it
was for those who sailed the globe in U.S. troop carriers during World War II.
In both eras, troops were tightly packed into ships' holds in which they
encountered rough seas and fierce storms and often suffered from severe

The first convoy to carry regular army troops set forth in 1662 when some
three thousand British soldiers in twenty-seven ships were transported from
England to Tangier to ward off besieging Moors. British soldiers at the time of
the country's Restoration in 1660 and for years afterward were carried in
warships, merchant ships, and convoy escort vessels. Detachments of Foot Guards
and various regiments fought in the sea battles of the Second and Third Dutch
Wars (Anglo-Dutch wars of 1665-67 and 1672-74). These detachments were
eventually replaced by marines, and the need for an at-sea marine force was
recognized by the British government in 1702; later, in 1753, the British Marine
Corps was established, after years of bickering between the government and


British expeditionary forces were ordered to battle enemies at sea and on
foreign soil throughout the 1700s. The longest conflict-the Napoleonic
Wars-lasted for twenty-two years (1793-1815). Since France controlled most of
the mainland of Western Europe, British military operations took the form of
raids on the enemy coast and the landing of small forces-thus rose the need for
troop transports. Spacious East Indian ships and nine-hundred-ton frigates (the
most disliked ships by Royal Navy men) were converted to accommodate troops.
These ships and others were used throughout the war. The conflict was hastened
to an end by Nelson's defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleet at
Trafalgar in 1805. Ten years later British Brigadier General Wellington (Arthur
Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington) routed the French at Waterloo, and the
Napoleonic Empire crumbled.

During the years 1815-60 there were few military operations of any major
consequence, although it was a period of momentous change in naval history.
After two thousand years of oared propulsion and three hundred years of sail
propulsion, the navies of the world shifted to steam power. Ship's armor and the
iron hull were adopted, and rifled built-in guns with percussion-fused shells
were introduced. Arid ships were designed and outfitted as troopships. The
British paddle steamer Birkenhead was launched in 1846 and carried
troops to Ireland and the Channel Islands. She had been converted for troop
carrying and rigged for long-distance trooping. In 1850 she was officially
commissioned as a troopship and sailed in succession to Ireland, Gibraltar,
Canada, and Cape Town. Loaded with soldiers from eight different regiments in
December 1851, the Birkenhead headed for South Africa, where her men
were to reinforce the local garrison fighting in the Kaffir War. The ship and
1,200 troops were later lost, and because Birkenhead was the first loss
of a designated troopship, an extensive investigation was conducted in England.
(The tragic loss of HMS Birkenhead is described in chapter 2.)

The first large-scale movement of troops since the introduction of steam
occurred during the Crimean War in 1854. British steamship companies that
had been subsidized by the government were required to release their ships for
military use should the need arise. Steamships and big sailing ships transported
approximately sixty-two thousand men and fifteen thousand horses during the
war. Troopships were in continuous use during the last half of the nineteenth
century, reinforcing overseas garrisons where soldiers faced unrest in various
parts of the British Empire. The occupation of Cyprus was carried out in 1878,
and a year later troops had to be rushed to South Africa to put down an uprising
by Zulus, who were fierce warriors. There followed the Boer War (1899-1902)
during which trooping was carried out entirely by engine-driven ships.

by James E. Wise Jr. and Scott Baron
Copyright © 2004 by James E. Wise Jr. and Scott Baron.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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