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Subject: ‘Disasters’

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‘Great God! This is an awful place . . .’ so wrote Captain Scott

Posted in Disasters, Exploration, Famous news stories, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Scott of the Antarctic first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Captain Scott,  picture, image, illustration
Scott reached the Pole only to find that he had been beaten by Amundsen, by Angus McBride

The race to the South Pole was on! Captain Robert Falcon Scott, RN, had not wanted a race, but now he had no choice. The great Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, was out to reach the Pole first, having switched his plans to try and be the first man to reach the North Pole!

Captain Scott was leader of the 60-strong British Antarctic Expedition, which had headed south from New Zealand aboard the Terra Nova, surviving a terrible battering in heavy seas to reach the mighty southern continent on the last day of 1910. Scott was following up an earlier expedition to the fabulous, majestic land of ice and snows, a land of awe-inspiring, desolate beauty, of stupendous mountains and glaciers, of deadly danger and many other wonders to behold.

He and his men had come to learn first and reach the Pole second in an unhurried way. Now he had to decide at once whether or not to challenge Amundsen, for news had just reached him that the Norwegian had landed at the Bay of Wales, 60 miles nearer the Pole than he was, and Amundsen was interested in success, not science, and had more than 100 dogs to get him to the Pole.

Scott made up his mind. They would “go forward and do our best for the honour of the country without fear or panic.” From his base at McMurdo Sound it was 923 miles to the Pole. He decided to use motor sledges at first, then the ponies they had brought with them, then dogs. For the last lap, Scott and a few picked men would drag a single sledge to the Pole, having left the dogs and supplies at a depot for the return journey.

They started on November 1st, 1911, after the Polar winter was over, in high spirits and sure of success. The motor sledges had gone on ahead and they marched with the ponies and the dog-drawn sledges to One Ton Depot, which they had built the previous autumn. Twelve men, 10 ponies and a dog-team reached the depot on November 15th.

Then things started to go wrong. First the cylinders of the motor sledges cracked and they had to be abandoned. Then the ponies, despite every effort of Captain Oates of the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, began to die. And the weather, which should have been good, turned nightmarish, with blinding blizzards and glaring sun in between them which caused snow-blindness. Twelve miles from the great Beardmore Glacier they were brought to a standstill and remained trapped in a camp for days.

Even Captain Scott confessed his deep depression to his diary, though to none of his men. By December 7th, there was hardly any food for the ponies and the men were eating into their advance rations. Then at last the wind dropped.

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The loss of H.M.S.Victoria stunned the entire nation

Posted in Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about H.M.S.Victoria first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

HMS Victoria,  picture, image, illustration
The Loss of HMS "Victoria", the Men jumping from the Ship as she turned bottom upwards before going down

“Full speed astern!” roared Admiral Markham urgently, but it was too late. Only a few moments later his ship, H.M.S. Camperdown, rammed the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet, H.M.S. Victoria, which went down in a few minutes with 359 officers and men.

One man and one man alone was responsible for this totally unnecessary catastrophe and he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet himself, Admiral Sir George Tyron, who went down with his ship, the Victoria. For it was not the fault of the Camperdown that the tragedy occurred. The date was 1893 and it was the greatest naval scandal of Queen Victoria’s reign.

1893. Great Britain ruled the waves of the world, as she had done ever since the Battle of Trafalgar. There had been no world wars since Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 and throughout that time the Royal Navy had kept the sea lanes of the world safe for shipping.

The British Empire, protected by the Navy and Army, was at the height of its power. Soon, but not yet, rival navies, especially the German fleet, were to challenge British supremacy, but already there were signs that the world’s mightiest navy was not as good as it might be. The standard of gunnery was low and conditions for ordinary seamen were to remain poor until, in the early years of the 20th century, Admiral Fisher improved them and became affectionately known as “Jacky” by every Jack Tar.

Many warships were out-of-date, too, before he transformed the Navy. And in 1893, battle practice was not taken seriously enough because there had been no major sea battles for so long. The truth was that the rulers of the Navy were a little smug, like the British themselves!

Against this background the sinking of the Victoria came as a body blow. She had been launched in 1887 and was 340 feet long and 70 feet across at her widest. There were two 111 ton guns on a giant turret and many smaller ones, including twelve 6-inch ones. The battleship had plenty of armour plating, but a few critics, whose voices were drowned in the excitement of everyone else when the ship went into service, pointed out that only 162 feet of her 340 feet were, in fact, covered in armour.

On June 22, 1893, Admiral Tryon, on board Victoria, was leading his ships from Beirut to Tripoli. They were sailing in two columns, with Victoria on the column farthest from land, leading six other battleships and cruisers. The other column, led by Rear Admiral Hastings Markham, sailed parallel to them at the head of six more ships.

There were 718 men aboard Victoria, and the ship’s company were known as a happy, hard-working one. As for the Admiral, he had only just returned to sea duty after a long spell in posts ashore.

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The great fire of 1861 at the Surrey Docks in Southwark

Posted in Architecture, Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, London on Friday, 14 March 2014

Tooley Street Fire,  picture, image, illustration
Front View of the Great Tooley Street Fire of 1861 at Surrey Docks in London

The Surrey Docks opened in 1807 and as the Empire grew this part of Southwark saw a huge expansion in trade and commerce coming into London from all corners of the globe. There was building expansion too, with scores of warehouses springing up in the area, vast brick caverns bursting with imports and exports of every description: animal, vegetable and mineral. It was in one of these buildings, Scovell’s warehouse at Cotton’s Wharf, that a fire broke out in a consignment of jute. It quickly spread throughout the vulnerable district and before long the whole Tooley Street area was ablaze. The fire raged for the two days it took to bring it under control and was not fully extinguished until after a fortnight. It was the greatest fire in London since the Great Fire itself, almost two hundred years earlier. This disaster confounded the insurance companies, who raised premiums substantially, and led to the creation of the London Fire Brigade by the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1865.

Many more pictures relating to Southwark can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Following a jungle stream saved Juliane Koepcke’s life

Posted in Aviation, Disasters, Historical articles on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about aviation disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 588 published on 21 April 1973.

Lost in the jungle, picture, image, illustration
Juliane had the will to survive this ordeal by Graham Coton

Flight 508 from Lima, the capital of Peru, to Pucallpa, 475 miles away in the heart of the Peruvian jungle, was on schedule. Everything appeared to be normal. Half an hour after take off ground control received the routine message from the captain, “We will land at Pucallpa in thirty-eight minutes.” Then, suddenly, radio contact was lost. The plane had vanished.

After ten days of fruitless searching all hope was lost. The dense jungle refused to reveal what had happened to the aircraft and the ninety-two people on board. There was no sign of wreckage or survivors. Missionary Clyde Peters parachuted into the area but he found nothing and eventually had to be rescued himself.

And then, on January 4th, 1972, eleven days after the aeroplane’s mysterious disappearance, a blonde, seventeen-year-old girl staggered out of the jungle – the only survivor from that ill-fated flight. Juliane Koepcke, her body racked with pain, her clothes torn to shreds, had somehow walked twenty-five kilometres through a jungle of danger to safety.

Thirty minutes after take off the plane hit a patch of turbulence, a not uncommon occurrence over jungle terrain. Rain beat against the windows. The skies darkened. Lightning flashed. Luggage fell from the racks on to the passengers. A woman screamed. Juliane looked at her mother. “This is the end of everything,” she said.

Seconds later Juliane realised she was no longer in the aircraft. She was being hurtled through the air, still strapped in her seat. At 10,000 feet the plane had disintegrated. Then Juliane lost consciousness – everything went black.

As she came to she became aware of the splashing of the rain on her body and the ceaseless croaking of frogs all around her. Her foot was bleeding and there were bumps on her head and face. She tried to look around but her vision was blurred and no matter how hard she tried she could not summon sufficient energy to move. That night she slept where she had fallen, her seat over her, lost in the middle of the jungle. The frogs continued their croaking.

In the morning, although still a little dizzy, she managed to get up. Her seat, was all she could find of the plane. A short distance away she found a small parcel inside which there were some toys and a piece of Christmas cake. It was Christmas day. She tried eating the cake but it was saturated with the dampness of the jungle and the taste was not very pleasant. Juliane’s first thought was for her mother. She searched the area in vain. Although Juliane did not know it at the time, her mother was already dead.

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Stranded on the Greenland ice cap after a plane crash

Posted in Aviation, Disasters, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about aviation disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 587 published on 14 April 1973.

Few flyers can have faced such daunting prospects as did the captain and crew of the four-engined Hastings aircraft which crashed on the Greenland ice cap on September 16, 1952.

They were marooned far from civilisation. The ice cap, covering most of Greenland, the world’s largest island, is a frozen waste of snow and ice. The Hastings, which belonged to R.A.F. Transport Command, Topcliffe, Yorkshire, was ferrying supplies for the British North Greenland Expedition. Engine trouble developed suddenly as the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Michael Clancy, from Limerick, was making a second run-in.

The crash followed so swiftly that one of the crew, Lance-Corporal B. Hussey, said afterwards that the first he knew about it was that “a thousand ice-cold needles” stabbed his cheeks. They were snow particles. Then he saw the radio operator, Flight Sergeant Burke, with blood streaming down his face. Their machine was on the Ice Cap, with a broken port wing.

Appalling danger threatened as fire broke out, but the disciplined crew put the flames out so quickly that they averted what could easily have been complete disaster.

They were a mixed crew of twelve – seven from the R.A.F., four from the Army, one from the U.S. Air Force. All were shaken and bruised and three had bad injuries. Flight Sergeant Burke had been hurled against his radio panel and cut about the head; the American, Captain Charles Stovey, had two ribs broken; an Army representative, Major D. S. Barker-Simpson, had a fractured ankle.

While some rendered first-aid, others curtained off a part of the aircraft as a sick bay. The intense cold was crippling and a biting wind was sweeping across the ice cap. The point where they had crashed was 8,000 feet up.

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A Soviet air rescue saved the passengers of S.S. Chelyuskin

Posted in Aviation, Disasters, Historical articles, History, Ships on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about the S S Chelyuskin disaster first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

Slowly, painfully, its screws whirring frantically, the S.S. Chelyuskin fought its way through the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean. On her deck, her captain, Julius Schmidt, worriedly watched the ice pack inexorably closing in on his vessel. He had good cause for concern. In this area, more sturdy ships than his had disappeared without a trace, crushed to death by the terrible ice-floes. Of course, these were the chances that sailors took when they travelled in this area. But the S.S. Chelyuskin was no ordinary ship, inasmuch as she carried no less than 103 people aboard, including ten women and two children. It was a grave responsibility for a captain to carry on his shoulders.

The S.S. Chelyuskin was a Soviet ship which had set off from Russia in the August of 1933, with the express purpose of proving that an ordinary cargo vessel could voyage through the north-east passage and back within a single season. In the previous year, a Soviet ice-breaker under the command of Julius Schmidt had managed to make the journey. But unlike the Chelyuskin, she had been specially built to withstand the enormous pressure of the ice-floes.

Even so, the Chelyuskin had so far come through magnificently. After collecting a party of Russian scientists and their families from Wrangel Island, she had weathered blizzards and storms and had so far sailed through hundreds of miles of pack-ice without misadventure.

But now was the true testing time. Some way ahead of the vessel lay the open Pacific. But to reach it there were still some miles of water to be navigated, water that was filled with drifting gigantic ice-floes which could smash in the sides of the vessel like matchwood.

Desperately, the vessel twisted and turned, its bows throwing up a steady shower of ice splinters. Every now and then the vessel would halt abruptly, trapped between two walls of ice. Whenever this happened, the crew would jump overboard with cans of explosive which they planted on the ice. Numbed with the cold and breathless from their exertions, they scrambled back on the ship each time, only seconds before the explosives went up.

Then suddenly, miraculously, the Chelyuskin was only six miles from the open seas of the Pacific Ocean. Surely now, after going through so much, they would reach their goal without misadventure? The sunshine that came out at this point, softening the bleak outlines of the ice, certainly seemed to indicate that the worst was over.

Then, without warning, and as if from nowhere, a raging blizzard descended on the Chelyuskin, driving the ice floes forward until they formed a solid barrier in front of the vessel. Now it began to move forward, grinding remorselessly against the ship’s sides, until it had broken her ribs at the bows, torn a hole in her forward, and snapped off her rudder.

It was at this point that Julius Schmidt went to the radio to inform the world of their desperate plight. But even after that the ship still continued to survive for another three and a half weeks before the ice forced the occupants of the beleaguered ship to abandon her.

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Disaster struck at midnight aboard the Caspatrick

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 584 published on 24 March 1973.

Harry Macdonald counted himself lucky to be serving as second mate on the Caspatrick, a fine frigate of 1,119 tons which had been originally built for the purpose of carrying British troops to the Crimea. She was no record-breaker, but she was a sound, steady-going, comfortable ship, the sort of ship which most sailors speak of with affection when they find themselves berthed in a less happy ship. She had, moreover, a good Captain named Elmslie, who was a dependable seaman, liked and respected by the crew, even though he was something of a disciplinarian.

On the morning of September 11th, 1874, the Caspatrick set off from London, bound for New Zealand. On board was a crew of 44, which included Macdonald, and 429 emigrants. As far as Macdonald was concerned, the trip would be an uneventful one. But at least he could look forward to seeing something of New Zealand for the first time.

The Caspatrick reached Cape Town without incident, beyond the fact that she had been forced to skirt around the Bay of Biscay to avoid a bad patch of rough weather. Leaving Cape Town, she began the long run to New Zealand. The next day she ran into a blustery nor wester, and most of the passengers were badly sea-sick, an unpleasant experience for those concerned, but not one to cause any undue alarm. Macdonald and some of the crew went out of their way to make the passengers comfortable, and then carried on with their duties, knowing that it would be only a day or so before the seas became calm again.

Sure enough, the next day the wind dropped and the Caspatrick was once again cleaving a clean path through the waves. Macdonald paused in his work occasionally to look at the creamy wake of the ship as she sped on her way. It was comforting to know that one was on such a fine ship on which nothing could happen.

But something did happen.

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A steamer sent ‘Poseidon’ to the bottom of the China Seas

Posted in Disasters, Famous news stories, Sea, Ships on Thursday, 6 March 2014

This edited article about submarine disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 580 published on 24 February 1973.

Yuta strikes Poseidon,  picture, image, illustration
In the China Seas in 1930, the 2,000 ton steamer Yuta slammed into the side of the submarine Poseidon by Graham Coton

Six men lay at the bottom of the China Seas, trapped in the bowels of their submarine, the “Poseidon,” with seemingly no hope of rescue. They were Petty Officer Patrick Willis, Able Seamen Lovock, Holt and Nagle, Leading Seaman Clark, and a Chinese steward, Ah Hai.

Numbed with shock, they lay in the inky darkness, knowing nothing of an accident that had sent them to the bottom, beyond the fact that it had happened with such devastating suddeness that there had not been the slightest warning of any danger.

One moment they had been cruising peacefully along the surface of the water. Then there had been the deadly shock of some sort of collision, and an echoed shout of “Close watertight doors.” They had sprung to obey this order, only to be flung off their balance immediately after they had closed the door of the bulkhead of their own compartment. Then there had been a swift descent to the bottom of the ocean.

The “Poseidon” had been built in 1929, and commissioned for service in the following year. In the December, 1930, she sailed with three sister ships to the China Seas, and it was there that the accident had happened.

While the sub was on the surface some distance away from the rest of the squadron, those who had been standing on her deck suddenly became aware that a steamer named the “Yuta” was bearing blindly down on them at full speed. Unable to stop in time, she had rammed into the side of the submarine, crashing through the steel plates.

The “Yuta,” which was manned by a Chinese crew, immediately reversed her propellers. But it was already far too late for that to stop the ship. Slamming into the submarine with all the full weight of her 2,000 tons, the “Yuta” rolled the submarine on to her side. At the same time, water began to gush through the great gash that had been made in the side of “Poseidon.”

Twenty-nine men managed to get through the open conning tower before the submarine sank. With the exception of the six men trapped forward, all the others on the submarine were drowned.

For the six who had survived, the situation was grim. It was true that men on surface ships nearby would have seen what had happened, and would, even now, be steaming to the rescue. But how long would it be before they were able to get divers down to examine the ship? And when they did get down, would they find a practical way of releasing the six men?

Willis, who was in charge of the party, very much doubted it. Moreover, time was already running out. Water was seeping steadily through the bulkhead door, and there was no air beyond that which they were already breathing. At most, Willis reckoned, that air would last them for about six hours.

As far as Willis could assess the situation they had only one means of escape – the Davis rescue gear.

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Kaiser Willie believed his U boats would defeat the British

Posted in America, Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 1 on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about World War One first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 566 published on 18 November 1972.

Lusitania,  picture, image, illustration
The German submarine U20 at the sinking of the Lusitania

When the lookout saw the torpedo’s tell-tale tracks and shouted, it was too late. The giant liner shuddered as an explosion tore a gaping hole in her side. Within seconds stokers and engineers were enveloped in scalding steam as the in-rushing sea reached furnaces and boilers exploded.

The passengers, shocked and numbed by the suddenness of the events, gathered at their boat stations. Then, as the ship began to list to starboard, two boats were lowered, quickly but unevenly over the sides, so that they tipped throwing their occupants into the water. A few minutes more and the liner’s list to starboard was so acute that it was no longer possible to lower boats from the port side.

Then, as the angle grew even steeper, passengers began to jump from the ship’s decks, while many who had rushed below to collect belongings were trapped as cabin doors jammed and furniture scythed across lower decks blocking the companionways. Now the ship’s bows began to dip and men, women and children could do nothing but cling to the tilting deck.

As they struggled to pull away those in lifeboats saw the giant liner’s four propellers rise clear of the water. She seemed to pause there for a moment, before sliding faster and faster, stem first, beneath the wreckage strewn water – sucking swimmers down in a swirling vortex that marked her passing.

In the German submarine, U20, the commander, scuttling from the scene of action, entered in his log “. . . I hoisted the periscope. Far behind a number of boats were rowing on the open sea. There was no longer any trace of the Lusitania.”

In eighteen minutes in the afternoon of May 7, 1915, the 31,500 ton, unarmed, Cunard Liner Lusitania had been sunk without warning within sight of the Irish coast. She went with 1,198 people – 291 of them were women, 94 were children and 124 were American neutrals.

The German High Command’s instructions to disregard the maritime rules of war, which did not permit the sinking of merchant ships without prior warning and care for the lives of passengers and crews, had resulted in the mass murder of over 1,000 noncombatants by a German U boat.

The news of this barbarity horrified the world. In Britain, a wave of anti-German feeling culminated in protest riots.

It brought the Americans to the verge of war. In fact so strong was the American protest that the Germans, fearing America would enter the war on the side of the British, modified their orders to submarine commanders.

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Was the ‘Great Republic’ just unlucky or was she doomed?

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Ships, Superstition on Monday, 17 February 2014

This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 554 published on 26 August 1972.

HMS Albion,  picture, image, illustration
The Disaster at the launch of the H M S "Albion" at Blackwall

It is a well established tradition that a new ship should be christened with a bottle of champagne. If this is dispensed with on that auspicious occasion, bad luck inevitably follows. This sailors’ superstition is one that must surely bring a polite smile of disbelief to the lips of most people. But perhaps they might be less sceptical if they were aware of the disasters that have followed the careers of some ships that have been launched without the customary bottle of champagne being smashed against their bows.

Take for an instance, the story of the American ship, the Great Republic, which was launched with water.

It is a story which begins on the day she was launched from the Boston shipyards on the 4th of October 1853. It was a day of which the people of that fair city felt they could be proud. The Great Republic was a mammoth ship, a veritable masterpiece of wood and iron which had been designed by Donald McKay, whose family had been established at the pinnacle of the ship building profession for three generations. Her overall length was 825 feet, she had four decks, three square rigged masts, and her mainyard, which was 120 feet long, was nearly twice the length of any other mainyard on any ship anywhere. She was supposed to have cost more than half a million dollars, and by the look of her she was worth every cent that had been spent on her.

She was due to be launched by a sea captain named Alden Gifford, who now stood on the launching platform, holding a bottle in his hand. Surprisingly, there was a distinctly unhappy expression on his face as he smashed the bottle against her bows. The reason for his unhappy expression was one which any sea-faring man could comprehend. Thanks to a violent outcry by the local temperance league, the ship had been launched with a bottle of water.

In due course the Great Republic arrived in New York, where thousands came to stare and wonder at this giant of the seas. She was, after all, one of the last of the great clippers, potentially the greatest of them all, and designed to sail around the Horn and faraway Australia. The new steamships would eventually put an end to her and all ships like her. But until that time came, she would remain a thing of beauty to be admired by all.

That beauty was not to last for long. One morning the New Yorkers awoke to the news that the Great Republic had been set alight by a nearby warehouse going up in flames. A strong wind had carried the glowing debris on to her decks and almost within minutes she had become an inferno of crackling wood and falling timbers.

The fire raged through her for three days, consuming everything in its path, until the morning of the fourth day when the decision was taken to scuttle the ship. When she was raised again, months later, the inspectors went over her and decided that she was not quite beyond repair. It was an unfortunate decision which was to cost lives.

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