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"The conduct of the passengers and crew was splendid."
".....the P and O officers and crew did everything possible."
"........we are very sorry for all those who lost friends or dependants by the sinking of the Persia, but you know, of course, that this was an enemy act....We should add that His Majesty in his speech at the opening of Parliament stated that 'reparation will be demanded from the enemies of this country for the victims of unprovoked and unjustifiable outrage......arising out of the torpedoing of ships by enemy submarines, with a view to bringing same to the notice of the German Government for compensation at the conclusion of hostilities". From: P&O director's letters to relatives of those lost.
On 30th December 1915, passengers onboard P&O's SS Persia were enjoying lunch, when the ship was torpedoed, without warning by a German U-Boat.
At the time of her sinking, the Persia was believed to be carrying a large quantity of gold and jewels belonging to the Maharaja Jagatjit Singh.
The tragedy caused considerable uproar and controversy in the USA....
The ss Persia was a passenger liner, built by Caird and Company, of Inverclyde, Greenock.
She measured 499 ft 8 ins overall, with a beam of 53ft 3 ins and a draft of 24ft 6 ins, and weighed 7,974 gross registered tons.
She was coal-fired and powered by a triple-expansion steam engine, giving her a service speed of 18 knots.
Persia was sunk off Crete, while the passengers were having lunch, on 30th December 1915, by German World War I U-boat U-38, commanded by
She sank in five to ten minutes, killing 343 of the 519 aboard. One reason for the large number of casualties was that only four of her lifeboats were successfully launched, due to the ship's heavy list to port.
The sinking was highly controversial, as it was argued that it broke naval international law, which stated that merchant ships could be stopped and searched for contraband - but not sunk until passengers and crew had been put in a place of safety - for which lifeboats on the open sea were not considered sufficient.
The Persia was a British ship presenting itself openly to another belligerent. The U-boat fired a torpedo and made no provision for any survivors, under Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare - but against the Imperial German Navy's own restriction on attacking passenger liners.
Maharaja Jagatjit Singh, centre, was a towering figure among the Maharajas of his time,
a close friend of Queen Victoria, an ardent Francophile, builder and jewellery collector on a grand scale.
At the time of her sinking, Persia was carrying a large quantity of gold and jewels belonging to the Maharaja Jagatjit Singh, though he himself had disembarked, together with his retinue, at Marseilles.
Among the passengers who survived were Walter E. Smith, a British Member of Parliament; Colonel Charles Clive Bigham, son of Lord Mersey; Second Lieutenant John Lionell Miller-Hallett of the Gurkha Rifles, and John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, Second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu. His secretary and mistress Eleanor Thornton, who many believe was the model for the Rolls-Royce "Spirit of Ecstasy" mascot by Charles Sykes, died.
Also among the dead were Robert Ney McNeely, American Consul at Aden and a former North Carolina state senator from Union County; Robert Vane Russell, American missionary; the Rev. Homer Russell Salisbury and Frank Morris Coleman, the co-owner of Bennett, Coleman & Co Limited.
The survivors on the four lifeboats were picked up during the second night after the sinking by the Acacia Class Sloop HMS Mallow. Only 15 of the women on board survived, among them British actress Ann Codrington (The Rossiter Case), who was pregnant with her daughter, Patricia Hilliard. Ann lost her mother, Mrs. Helen Codrington.
Sixty-seven crewmen, among them stewards and cooks from the then Portuguese colony of Goa perished, together with Purser Frank Herbert.
Purser Frank Herbert
Mr Grant, the American survivor, describing the sinking of the Persia, said:- "I was sitting in the dining saloon at five minutes past one, and had just finished my soup. The steward was asking me what I would take as a second course when there was a terrific explosion and the saloon was filled with broken glass and with smoke and steam from the boiler, which seemed to have burst. There was no panic; we went on deck as if we were at boat drill., and I reported myself at my lifeboat on the starboard side. The vessel was listing to port, and I clung to the rail. The last thing I did onboard was to tie on Captain Spreckley's lifebelt. The vessel gradually listed more and more and it was impossible launch any of the starboard boats. Finally I climbed over the starboard rail and slid down into the water. I was sucked down and got caught in a rope which pulled off my shoe, but, breaking loose, I got to the surface again and climbed on to some wreckage, to which I clung. The last I saw of the Persia was her bow pointing high in the air, and that was only five minutes after the explosion. "While I was supporting myself I managed to collect some wreckage for others to cling to. "It was past four o' clock before I was picked up by a boat. Then I saw there were five boats pulling around in search of any others that might still be struggling in the water. Some of them were overloaded, and subsequently there was a redistribution of their occupants. Four of the boats were then tied together by their painters. The fifth was some distance away. At half-past three the following morning my boat separated from the others to search for help in a more frequented channel. We rowed for three hours, and at last I saw a cruiser. "We called out, 'We are English,' and explained we were survivors from the Persia, which had been sunk. We also gave particulars as to the whereabouts of other boats. These were found about seven o' clock and the occupants taken off by English sailors.
The Persia sank in about five minutes, and some 390 lives have been lost.
According to the somewhat meagre information which has been received the vessel disappeared within five minutes of being struck.
In addition to the fact, testified to by the survivors, that the vessel was sunk without any warning having been given, it is important to remember that there were no troops on board and very little cargo.
Portsmouth Evening News, Monday, 3rd January 1916.
Nobody saw the submarine. The second officer is under the impression that he saw the ripple of a torpedo. The survivors were thirty hours in the boats, and were picked up by a warship. Six officers were saved. The liner sank so quickly that there was no time to launch the boats. The waves soon washed over the deck and swept the passengers and crew into the sea. Colonel Bigham, who was standing on deck beside Mr Hughes, was suddenly swept into the sea. He sank, and as he was coming up bumped his head on a boat and was thus saved. Two other boats seem to have been launched, but are missing, and little hope is left to there being further survivors. The rescued crews will probably be sent to Port Said.
Portsmouth Evening News, Monday, 3rd January 1916, ex Press Association
A Reuter message from Cairo of yesterday's date says: The 59 passenger survivors who have arrived at Alexandria include 15 ladies, ten Army officers, and eight foreigners. The chief officer, second officer, seven engineers, 37 seamen and 63 lascars have also been landed. The Persia was struck amidships on the port side at 1.10 pm, and five minutes later she had completely disappeared. It was a miracle that anyone was saved. There was no panic and the four boats that were ,launched were lowered with the greatest promptitude. It is understood that 160 have been saved out of about 550 on board, but it is impossible to obtain exact figures yet.
Portsmouth Evening News, Monday, 3rd January 1916
The survivors of the Persia who arrived at Alexandria last night were the chief officer, the second officer, seven engineers, 27 seamen, 63 Lascars, and 59 passengers, the last including Colonel Bingham and Mr Grant, an American acting as agent in Calcutta for the Vacuum Oil Company. Mr Mc Neels, the American Consul at Aden, was drowned. Another American, named Rose, landed at Gibraltar.
Western Daily Press, Monday, 3rd January 1916.
Lord Inchcape, the chairman of the P and O Company, has received the following telegram from Colonel the Hon C Bigham (son of Lord Mersey), from Alexandria, who was a passenger on board the Persia: "The sinking of the Persia was caused by a torpedo, which struck the ship on the port bow on December 30th, at 1.5 pm, when she was about 40 miles to the southward of the east end of Crete. No previous warning was given, neither was there any attempt at assistance. Within five minutes of being torpedoed the ship had sunk, and it was impossible to lower the starboard boats owing to the heavy list. Five or six boats, however, were able to be lowered to port. I did not see this myself, as I was washed overboard when the boat capsized. The conduct of the passengers and crew was splendid. There was no struggling, nor was there any panic. Four of the boats, having been thirty hours at sea, were picked up by one of his Majesty's ships, and those in them received the greatest kindness and attention from the captain and officers. Search is being made for the remaining boats in the neighbourhood of the disaster. 158 persons have been landed at Alexandria out of a total of 350. The saved included 59 passengers, of whom 17 are women and two children."
Portsmouth Evening News, Monday, 3rd January 1916
"The end was horrible. The water was as black as ink. Some of the people were screaming, others were saying goodbye to each other, while those in one of the boats were singing hymns."
Liverpool Daily Post, Wednesday, 5th January 1916, ex Reuter.
"I have had interviews with several survivors of the Persia. They all bear traces of shock and hardship. Badly bruised and bandaged limbs point to the severe battering most of them sustained. One woman is in hospital with a broken leg. One young lady said to me, "I was just sitting down to table when the explosion occurred. I at once ran to my cabin for a lifebelt. I was twice thrown down in the passage by the rocking of the liner, but I got to my cabin, snatched a lifebelt, and then rushed for the deck. I had the utmost difficulty in maintaining my footing and was again thrown down. I was ascending the companion, but I was determined if I was going to die, I should not die in the vessel. "I was again thrown down, but though badly shaken and bruised I managed to adjust my lifebelt, which I had not yet put on, and then jumped into the sea. I was rescued after being fifteen minutes in the water." The stories told to me by others were all very similar. Mothers went off in quest of their children never to return. In fact only two children were saved.
Liverpool Daily Post, Wednesday, 5th January 1916.
A cable from Lord Montagu of Beaulieu to the 'Daily Express' says: Malta, 4th January: I have had a miraculous escape. After thirty-two hours in the water holding on to a broken boat, I was rescued at nine o' clock in Friday night by the Ningchow. It was a million to one chance in the dark. Out of nineteen alive on Thursday at sunset, only eleven were alive on Friday. the P and O officers and crew did everything possible.
Hull Daily Mail, Thursday, 6th January 1916.
It is reported that very valuable jewels belonging to the Maharaja of Kapurthala were lost in the Persia. The Maharaja will arrive in Cairo today from Port Said. Western Daily Press, Thursday, 6th January 1916
Survivors of the Persia who landed here relate that they were sitting at lunch when the ship was struck. No explosion was heard, and no submarine was visible. The vessel shivered terribly, and immediately took a heavy list. There was no time for panic. The boats could not be got away. The boat in which Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was contained two other passengers, one English and one Italian. and eight of the crew, of which seven were Lascars. They had a terrible experience after getting away from the ship. They were lacking absolutely everything, even water. The boat was without oars, and was tossed about helplessly in a heavy sea for 31 hours.
Western Daily Press, Thursday, 6th January 1916, ex Press Association
The P and O Company have supplied lists which show that the loss of life in the sinking of the Persia was greater than formerly announced. The final figures are - on board 501, saved 166, drowned 335.
Portsmouth Evening News, Friday, 7th January 1916
The list shows there were on board - passengers 184; European crew 81; native crew 236 - total 501. There were saved - passengers 85, European crew 31; native crew 70 - total 166. Thus the total number of lives lost is 335.
Western Daily Press, Friday, 7th January 1916
The total loss of life by the piratical destruction of the Persia was 335. This included 119 passengers, of whom 46 were women and 13 children.
Hull Daily Mail, Friday, 7th January 1916.
Paris Sunday: Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who had a wonderful escape from the torpedoed P and O liner Persia has reached Paris, and is staying with his old friend Lord Bertie at the British Embassy. He is still suffering a good deal from lack of sleep and pain from wounds, and if well enough he will leave for London tomorrow. Speaking of his experiences while drifting about the Mediterranean, he said, "During my last 24 hours in the sea I thought as a reasonable man that it was all over. At the end of the second day I was resigned to my fate, but determined to fight to the end. Curiously enough I suffered very little from hunger, but a great deal from thirst. The cold at night was intense, though probably the temperature did not descend to freezing point. Being wet all the time was a source of incredible discomfort. "When the Persia sank, and I was sucked under, I was knocked against the ship and bits of wreckage, and when I came to the surface I was badly bruised through colliding with all kinds of debris. It was heartbreaking to see two ships go by fairly close and both ignore us. I think it was extremely courageous of Captain Allen, of the Ningchow, to pick us up, because he was taking a great risk in stopping to do so. "This last New Year's Eve was the dreariest I have ever spent, but it closed with the happiest experience of my life - my miraculous rescue. I really owe my life to the fact that I was wearing an inflatable waistcoat, for I kept slipping off the wreckage to which I was clinging, and then it was only the waistcoat that kept me afloat." Lord Montagu retains among his souvenirs of his amazing adventure his waterstained passport and a £5 note, which were in his pocket book all the time he was in the water. After his arrival at Malta, Lord Montagu received a message of congratulation from the King.
Portsmouth Evening News, Monday, 17 January 1016, ex Press Association
Mr Gerard, the United States Ambassador in Berlin, reports that the German Government has now heard from all the German submarines in the Mediterranean, and that none of them admits responsibility for the destruction of the Persia.
Portsmouth Evening News, 19th January 1916
Washington, Tuesday: Germany officially denies that any German submarine sank the Persia. Austria has heretofore denied that the vessel was sunk by an Austrian. Portsmouth Evening News, Wednesday, 19th January 1916.
The Board of Trade have requested their solicitor to take the necessary steps for holding an inquiry into the circumstances attending the loss of the Persia, which was torpedoed in the Mediterranean on December 30th.
Portsmouth Evening News, Thursday, 20 January 1916
This web page dated: 18th March 2020