Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Kathy Kerbow had just got up to dance when she heard a deafening crash.
The Andrea Doria lists heavily.
The ship shuddered violently and then began to list.
It was clear that there had been a catastrophic collision. Yet neither Kathy, nor anyone else on board the SS Andrea Doria, realised that the stricken liner would soon sink to the bottom of the sea.
The Andrea Doria was the epitome of luxury. Launched in 1951, this glittering liner was making a routine of the Atlantic with some 1,700 passengers and crew on board.
The epitome of luxury
On 25 July, 1956, she was nearing the end of her voyage and due to arrive in New York on the following morning.
For many hours she had been sailing through dense fog. The captain had reduced speed - a customary procedure in such conditions - and closed the ship’s watertight doors. 
With visibility reduced to a few feet, he was reliant on the vessel’s radar.
Stockholm: still afloat. Just.

Outside the fog bank, but travelling towards it at high speed, was the MS Stockholm, another passenger liner. The two vessels had reached a combined speed of 40 knots.
Each captain was aware of the other vessel: the Andrea Doria was steering hard to port, for Captain Calamai was intending to pass the Stockholm starboard to starboard.
The Stockholm was meanwhile steering hard to starboard, intending to pass the Andrea Doria port to port. This meant that the two vessels were actually heading directly towards each other.
At 11.10pm, the Stockholm slammed into the side of the Andrea Doria, her ice-breaking prow ripping through the metal and penetrating deep into the cabins.
Doomed: nothing could save her.
‘Pandemonium broke out,’ recalled Kathy Kerkow, ‘chairs fell over and glasses broke. Many people were pushing passed me, running to the other side of the room.’
Kathy attempted to return to her cabin to get her life jacket, aware that the ship was in danger. The corridors and stairs were choked with people trying to get out on deck.
The end...
Passenger David Hollyer was in his cabin when the collision occurred. ‘We were rocked by a violent lurch accompanied by a horrendous scraping noise. The lights blinked briefly. Within seconds our cabin had tipped steeply.’
He leaped out of bed; he and his wife then joined the throng of passengers trying to get on deck.
No one yet realised that the collision had been catastrophic. Five empty fuel tanks had been ripped open: these instantly filled with 500 tons of seawater. The ship began to list sharply. The engineers attempted to pump out the water but it failed to right the ship.
... is nigh.
The Stockholm was also badly damaged; the entire bow had been crushed and mangled. Yet a hasty check correctly concluded that she would not sink.
On the Andrea Doria, the captain took the reluctant decision to abandon ship. There were enough lifeboats for everyone, but such was the list of the vessel that those on the port side could not be lowered.
There was no question of women and children first. The first three boats to reach the Stockholm contained Italian crew members.
On the bottom: artist's impression
For many on board, it was a struggle to get out on deck. ‘We crawled on our hands and knees up the steeply slanting highly-polished ballroom floor across broken glass [and] debris from the bar…’ recalled Daniel Hollyer. ‘We finally reached the high port side of the promenade deck.’
He and his wife eventually slipped into the water and swam to one of the  lifeboats sent from the Stockholm.
There were now other ships on the scene, including the SS Ile de France which had picked up the SOS distress signal.
There are prizes for those who dare
By daybreak, all those not killed in the initial collision had been rescued, leaving 46 dead on board.
Captain Calamai still hoped to save his stricken liner, but by 9am even he gave up hope. The ship began to sink at 9.45am.
‘Shortly after 10 o’clock, she gave up the struggle, recalled Hollyer, ‘turning over and sliding prow first into her watery grave in a froth of foam and bubbles.’
The 46 people who died in the collision were not the only fatalities. In the last 30 years, ten divers have died while exploring the wreck.
With shredded nets trailed over the vessel, a disintegrating hull and treacherous currents, the Andrea Doria remains a death trap for those daring enough to dive to this most tantalising of luxury graveyards. 

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

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