9 of the Deadliest Shipwrecks in History | History Hit

9 of the Deadliest Shipwrecks in History

Photograph taken by a passenger of Cunard Line's RMS Carpathia of a lifeboat from the Titanic
Image Credit: passenger of the Carpathia, the ship that received the Titanic's distress signal and came to rescue the survivors, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For as long as humans have been traversing bodies of water on boats, seafaring has presented a whole host of perils, from natural disasters like storms and tsunamis to manmade issues and deliberate attacks. The horror of shipwrecks and maritime disasters captures a sense of terror like little else.

Ships become safer year after year, with stringent safety measures in place in the modern world. But this has not always been the case, particularly in times of war. Here are 9 of the deadliest shipwrecks in maritime history.

1. White Ship (1120)

On 25 November 1120, a vessel known as the White Ship sank while crossing the English Channel. Around 300 people are thought to have been killed in the disaster, but the shipwreck also triggered a conflict that led to thousands of deaths in the years to follow.

One of the casualties of the White Ship disaster was William the Aetheling, the son of Henry I and heir to the English throne. His death resulted in years of conflict and unrest in England as Henry’s succession plans were overturned. Claimants fought over the throne, and during this time of upheaval it’s thought that thousands of English citizens starved.

The White Ship disaster cost the lives of nearly 300 English and Norman nobles.

Image Credit: British Library / Public Domain

2. HMS Victory (1744)

The HMS Victory was a 100-gun Royal Navy vessel launched in 1737 (not to be confused with Lord Nelson’s famous flagship of the same name, which was launched in 1765). The former HMS Victory sank during a storm in the English Channel on 5 October 1744. The shipwreck killed some 1,100 seamen, making it the deadliest naval disaster to ever occur in the English Channel.

In 2009, the wreck of the HMS Victory was discovered roughly 50 miles off the coast of England, near Plymouth, by the US company Odyssey Marine Exploration. After nearly 3 centuries underwater, the ship’s cannons were still in good condition, with their royal crests still visible.

3. SS Sultana (1865)

A steamer which normally carried cotton in Mississippi, during the American Civil War the SS Sultana was also used to transport soldiers. Around 2 am on 27 April 1865, one of Sultana‘s boilers exploded, quickly followed by two more. The enormous explosion ripped through the wooden boat, causing huge damage and major fires.

The ship was grossly overcrowded: despite having a maximum capacity of 376 passengers, Sultana had 2,137 on board. The official death toll was 1,168, making it the worst maritime disaster in American history.

Despite the magnitude of the disaster, it was somewhat overshadowed by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the killing of his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and the end of the Civil War. As such, no one was ever held accountable for the sinking.

4. RMS Titanic (1912)

Perhaps the most famous maritime disaster in history, the sinking of RMS Titanic has become immortalised in the popular imagination thanks to James Cameron’s 1998 film Titanic.

The largest ship in the world at the time, RMS Titanic set off on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on 10 April 1912. She had an estimated 2,224 passengers on board when she struck an iceberg on the night of 14 April 1912, which caused significant damage to the ship’s hull.

A lack of lifeboats (there were approximately 20 on board, enough for roughly half of the ship’s passengers), combined with a rapid sinking time, chaotic evacuation procedure and icy Atlantic waters, saw approximately 1,500 perish. Survival rates from the sinking of the Titanic were particularly notable because of the way they were skewed by firstly gender and secondly class: 97% of first class women survived compared to just 46% of third class women and 33% of first class men.

Dan Snow visits RMS Titanic expert Tim Maltin to sort the fact from the fiction about the ship’s final hours.
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5. RMS Lusitania (1915)

The Lusitania was originally a passenger ship, but had been commandeered as a light merchant cruiser on the outbreak of war in 1914. By 1915, naval warfare in the Atlantic was intensifying: Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a warzone and warned that they would fire at any ship they came across.

On 7 May 1915, the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland as she carried passengers and munitions back from New York: she sank in 18 minutes, killing 1,198 passengers and crew. The torpedoing was viewed by many to have violated the rules of war, given Lusitania was not armed.

The sinking is viewed as one of the catalysts for America’s entry into World War One: approximately 128 Americans died in the sinking, and there was widespread public outrage. America entered the war just under two years later.

6. MV Wilhelm Gustloff (1945)

Originally built as a cruise ship as part of the Nazis’ Strength Through Joy programme, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was commandeered by the German navy in 1939. For most of the war, she was either a floating barracks or a hospital ship. In 1945, with the Soviet Army advancing, she began to transport civilian refugees from East Prussia as part of Operation Hannibal.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the ship was swamped by desperate refugees hoping to get to safety. When she embarked from Gotenhafen in Poland on 30 January 1945, it’s thought she was carrying around 10,000 people: 5 times her intended capacity. That same evening, three Soviet torpedoes slammed into the ship, causing severe damage.

Freezing temperatures complicated attempts to evacuate the ship, and despite managing to send out distress signals, the Wilhelm Gustloff sank roughly one hour after the torpedo hit, killing over 9,000 of those aboard. It remains the single deadliest maritime incident in history.

Roger Moorhouse is an historian of the Third Reich and World War Two, author of The Devils' Alliance, Killing Hitler & Berlin at War. In this fascinating episode, he discusses the worst maritime disaster in history: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945.
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7. MV Goya (1945)

Built in Norway as a freighter in 1940, MV Goya was seized by the Nazis when they occupied Norway. By 1945, she was being used as a passenger ship to evacuate civilians as part of Operation Hannibal, and often ended up grossly overcrowded as a result.

Leaving port on 16 April 1945, the ship had over 7,000 passengers: more than 5 times what she should have safely been carrying. Goya was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine just before midnight that day. Such was the force of the explosions and impacts that the ship sank in minutes, killing the majority of passengers in their beds.

MV Goya photographed in Oslo, 1940.

Image Credit: Public Domain

The exact number killed is unclear thanks to poor record-keeping in the midst of war and the panic of the Soviet advances, but it’s thought that between 6,000 and 7,000 perished. Approximately 180 survived the sinking. The wreck has officially been declared a war grave by the Polish authorities.

8. SS Kiangya (1948)

One of 8 ships operated by the Shanghai Merchants Group, the SS Kiangya was a passenger steamship. When she left Shanghai in December 1948, she was packed with well over 2,000 passengers (possibly more, the manifest is unclear), the majority of whom were refugees fleeing the advancing Communists during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949).

It’s thought Kiangya hit a mine, probably laid during World War Two by the Imperial Japanese navy. The ship exploded, killing between 2,750 and 3,920 people. Approximately 700 survivors were picked up by other vessels. The wreckage was later cleared and refurbished, re-entering service in 1959 as a ferry between Shanghai and Wuhan.

9. MV Doña Paz (1987)

Built in Japan in 1963, Doña Paz was sold to a Filipino ferry provider in 1975. After being gutted by a fire in 1979, the ship was restored and sailed between Manila and Tacloban, a provincial capital, twice a week.

In 1987, whilst en route from Tacloban to Manila, Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker, Vector, which was carrying 1,050,000 litres of gasoline and other highly flammable petroleum products. A fire spread quickly across both ships, causing panic and chaos as it spread.

The 25 survivors reported there were no life vests accessible to them, and that the crew made no attempts to organise or issue coherent evacuation orders. Over 4,000 perished, making the sinking of the Doña Paz the worst peacetime maritime disaster in history. Blame was officially levelled at Vector, which was deemed unseaworthy: it had no licence, lookout or qualified ship’s master, but it was also clear that Doña Paz was grossly overcrowded, with at least 2,000 of its passengers not listed on the manifest.

Sarah Roller