H.P. Lovecraft, "The White Ship"
The wreck of the HMT Marquette was identified by our team back in May 2009 during a three days mini expedition to the wreck. The wreck's postion was obtained by fishermen and was verified with a single dive in October 2008. A requisitioned cargo passenger liner, Marquette was torpedoed in 1915 in the course of the First War. We consider her discovery to be quite important, firstly because of the historical interest of the event of her loss and secondly because the discovery of the wreck's position is probably the most important addition to the historical record associated with her. Exploring her is an arduous task as she rests in about 90 meters of water and 14 miles offshore. Nonetheless, since we first visited her she remains our major running project.
The Marquette was a British flagged cargo passenger liner operating in the transatlantic trade during the early 1900s. During the First World War she was requisitioned by the British Government as a troop transport and subsequently torpedoed and sunk off Thermaikos Gulf in October 1915 by the German U 35. The event happened at a time when submarine commerce warfare in the Mediterranean was gaining full momentum and there were practically little defenses available in the French and British camp. It might then be that it deserves a closer look as a case study in the operation of the Allied communication lines in the above context.
The ship’s commercial career is linked to the flourishing transatlantic cargo/passenger trade of the late 19th – early 20th century. The Marquette was originally built as the Boadicea in 1898 by Alexander Stephen & Sons of Glasgow. Of 7057 gross tons and 4536 net she had a registered length of 486.5 feet and was driven by a triple expansion steam engine producing 770 NHP1. She was one of five sister ships built for Wilson & Furness – Leyland Line, her first owners who employed her in regular London to New York voyages. Very soon she was sold to the Atlantic Transport Line and renamed Marquette on 15 September 1898, continuing on the same route. Between 1905 and 1914 she was chartered to the Red Star Line and served a line from Antwerp to Boston and Philadelphia. Early In 1915 she was requisitioned as a troop transport, showing in the Ministry of Shipping lists as from the 2nd of March 19152.
The East Mediterranean theatre saw quite a few developments through 1915. By autumn the Dardanelles expedition had come to a standstill and would soon be terminated and the Salonika expedition was just beginning. German submarines had made their appearance in this sea since late spring, initially as a consequence of the Entente naval presence off the Dardanelles and later, in what would become a full blown campaign, to target the Allied lines of communication to the ports of the North Aegean, as well as to exploit the opportunities presented to them from a dense Mediterranean traffic, military and commercial. On a more specific note, during the end of September, beginning of October, the Admiralstab ordered submarines in the Aegean to operate against Allied shipping to Salonika and Kavalla as well as against any ships in the vicinity of Bulgaria’s Aegean coast (Dedeagach)3. U 33 and U 39 sailed from Cattaro on 28 and 25 September respectively but their commanders chose to concentrate on the approaches on the east and west of Crete. U 35 sailed from Cattaro for her second Mediterranean patrol on 12 October under the command of Korvettenkapitän Waldemar Kophamel. She was to initially operate against transports on the approaches to Salonika and generally in the North Aegean, before embarking on a special operation in the African north coast and commerce warfare. For the first part of her mission, she arrived off Salonika on the 20th of October4.
The Marquette sailed from Alexandria for her last voyage on 19 October 1915. She had a crew of 95 and was carrying 646 passengers belonging to the No1 (New Zealand) Stationary Hospital and the Ammunition Column of the British 29th Division. She was laden with military and medical material, ammunition, horses and mules (541 animals)5. Her Master, Captain John Findlay took her towards the Cerigo Channel and from there, in the escort of destroyers, steamed northwards through the Doro Channel. After passing Cape Doro, Marquette continued alone with the instructions to make use of Greek territorial waters of the eastern mainland to her final destination, Salonika6.
On the 23rd of October 1915, 08:307 hours Kophamel spotted the ship around 30 miles south of the entrance of Salonika. He immediately identified her as a transport, her silhouette more or less correctly being recognized as a Leyland steamer. On 09:14, U 35 fired a single torpedo towards the ship’s starboard side from an estimated distance of about 1300 meters. A hit on the forward hold and an immediate listing to port was observed. Kophamel correctly presumed that there was heavy cargo which shifted in the holds. Being in an extremely dangerous area and concerned that warships might arrive soon, Kophamel steered the submarine away to the east remaining submerged until 10:55 hours8.
There are numerous colorful and admittedly touching survivors’ testimonies detailing the events after the torpedo struck. These are readily available from many sources9. Here we will only attempt to identify some key points as well as to explain why there were 167 casualties, 10 of which were New Zealand nurses, a fact which gave the event an intense emotional content. A number of adverse factors contributed in this great loss of life. First, the torpedo struck between holds No1 and No2. This was testified in the ensuing enquiry on the sinking10 and verified in situ during our diving. The result was that both forward holds were flooded and the laden ship sunk quite rapidly, in less than fifteen minutes11. If the torpedo had struck a few meters forward or aft, the outcome could be entirely different. Second, a number of accidents happened during the lowering of the lifeboats12. A number of the ships complement was killed when the torpedo struck13 with the result that some of the lifeboats were lowered by the soldiers who were inexperienced at such a task. The lowering of the lifeboats was made an even more difficult exercise because of the heavy port list and because the engines were not stopped, the ship keeping her head way. Third, the ship’s position was not correctly communicated via the SOS calls and the outgoing signal was quite faint14,15. As a result many died as a result of hypothermia and exhaustion. The first rescuing ships arrived on spot almost six hours later16. On the positive side, ship was abandoned in an orderly manner, she had been adequately equipped with life saving appliances – rafts and belts- and abandon ship drills had been carried out. The ordeal ended when one of the lifeboats managed to make contact with the French destroyer Tirailleur which proceeded to the rescue at about 14:30 hours, alerting at the same time the British Lynn. The two ships were joined about half an hour later by the French Mortier continuing their work until night fall and then bringing the survivors at Salonika. In the meantime another group of survivors in two lifeboats managed to land ashore where they were taken care by the Greeks17.
Marquette's sinking sparked much controversy. Those who reprimand the British authorities, bring forward the argument that medical personnel were embarked on a troopship, a legitimate target for being attacked18 and were thus put in unnecessary danger. A Court of Enquiry19 was held shortly after the sinking, nonetheless the particular matter seems to not have been discussed. Instead, the focus was placed on the events during and after the sinking; if the abandon ship procedures were correctly followed; the conduct of the crew and troops20; if anyone should be blamed or deserving special mention. The establishment of causes and contributory factors to the sinking was also attempted21. Questions revolved as to the Master’s actions and mainly as to the route he was making. This point calls for a closer look. The Master was given route instructions for 'slow ships' taking him - for the last leg of the voyage - through Greek territorial waters. Actually Marquette was able to do just 9 knots instead of her usual speed of 12.5 knots, as five firemen were laid up and the quality of the coal onboard was poor22. 'Slow ships' were also not required to zigzag23. These instructions had been complied with24, however estimates as to the ship’s position were grossly miscalculated and it is this miscalculation that essentially made Marquette to cross paths with U 35. Captain Findlay chose to keep somewhat further away from shore claiming that the combination of lack of large scale charts, reduced visibility and a north easterly wind posed a navigational threat. However a proper fix could not be made as the weather was '...thick over land...'25. Instead of the believed four miles ENE off Platamona point, the wreck was located no less than fourteen miles from the nearest shore of Greece. Therefore the ship’s position at the moment she was attacked was completely off any estimates.
Further to the discovery of the wreck's position which sheds light on quite a few of the question marks on the ship's loss, there is a number of aspects of the Marquette sinking, relating to the working and protection of the Allied lines of communications and German Handelskrieg in the particular theater that should be studied more thoroughly. In addition, there is potential new evidence to be gathered from the wreck itself. We aspire to present a more complete work in the time to come.
During May 2009 our team dived at an unknown wreck off Thermaikos Gulf in the North Aegean and managed to identify the remains of HMT Marquette. Located somewhat far from shore and at 87 meters of water, diving her is rather demanding, however we consider the particular wreck to carry a significant historical interest and that makes her our primary project.
Actually our efforts to dive and identify the wreck started back in October 2008 when Nikos Vardakas and the undersigned did a single dive to check a wreck position given to us by local fishermen. The dive posed several challenges, including very limited visibility on the wreck, but we managed to arrive at some useful conclusions as to the size and general layout of the ship. After some preparatory research, a series of dives was done during May 2009 and we identified the wreck as being the HMT Marquette from her photos and builder’s plans. The ‘mini’ expedition lasted from 21 to 25 May 2009. We dived for three days with generally good conditions and although a detailed survey would be an impossible task in such little time, we did gather some essential information. The wreck rests in 87 meters of water, on a level sand and silt bottom, with a port list and with her bows pointing to an ENE direction. She is in rather fair condition. On her starboard side, in way of the bulkhead between holds No1 and No2, where the torpedo hit, the side shell has a breach of a considerable size. Aft of her accommodation, in way of her No3 hold, her decks and port side have collapsed, presumably a result of hull failure during the sinking. The wreck has a considerable amount of netting and fishing lines caught on her, however the biggest problem would be the fine bottom silt that when disturbed by even mild currents envelops the wreck in a cloud that dramatically reduces visibility: midwater visibility of 20+ meters drops to 2 meters at the wreck. Currents vary from slight to rather strong – mostly at deco. We used 12/65 as bottom gas and 21/35, Nitrox 50 and oxygen for deco. All deco was done on the fly using custom ratio deco schedules.
Closing, we would emphasize that this remains an open project. Further expeditions need to be organized as its location poses certain logistics issues and the depth and size of her make the task of exploring and documenting the site a challenging undertaking.
This was our second expedition to the Marquette aimed at collecting additional material around the ship’s sinking and to further assess the current general condition of the wreck. Weather conditions were less than favorable, forcing us to cut our trip short by three days as rain and wind were picking up by each passing hour.
A dive was made on the second day during which we were able to witness in more detail the extent of the damage caused by U 35’s torpedo. Records indicate that Marquette went down in less than fifteen minutes which is surprisingly fast for a vessel her size. Upon investigating the approximately 3 x 8 meters breach on her starboard side, we were able to confirm what the Master’s testimony states; both No1 and No2 holds were pierced, resulting in an enormous loss of buoyancy and allowing for the fast water ingress which caused the ship to sink so quickly. We were not able to closely examine the other damaged area which is located on the port side, right abaft of the ship’s accommodation due to the limited visibility. This is one part of the wreck we have to look into more closely in future dives to assess with more confidence its cause. The team was also successful in obtaining some good video footage from the wreck.
On the third day, not wishing to waste time due to the bad weather the team invested to visit the GWGC Mikra Memorial. We paid our respects to the souls lost on the sinking and located the resting place of Margaret Rogers Staff Nurse, NZ Army. Most interestingly we were surprised to read in the visitors’ book that some relatives of those from the Marquette had also been on the Mikra Memorial recently.
In addition to diving the Marquette, the team was able to go to one other wreck during this expedition. Locals provided us with coordinates just a few miles from coast at a depth of 65m. We verified the sounding and dropped two divers on the wreck. Unfortunately the dive had to be aborted after a very small bottom stay. Starting from a depth of 40m down, visibility gradually deteriorated to a virtual zero on the wreck where a milky cloud enveloped both divers. Staying on a known fishing spot under these conditions, laced with nets and line would not have the brightest option. Hopefully we will be able to see this wreck under better terms in the near future.
For those interested in technical details, similar to last year – a mix of 12/65 was used as bottom gas plus 21/35, Nitrox 50 and oxygen for deco on the Marquette dives. Ratio deco was applied to approximate a profile close to VPM-B +2 for a bottom time of 20 minutes. On the dive to the “unknown wreck” we used 18/45, Nitrox50 and Oxygen – again applying ratio deco.
From 26 May 2012 to 02 June 2012 we attempted a third expedition at the Marquette in a continuing effort to explore and document the wreck as fully as possible. Unfortunately neither this time were the weather conditions such as to permit us to complete our goal.
Whilst generally wind and sea state were tolerable, that was not the case with rain. It was raining continuously for about two weeks before our getting on the spot plus during all the expedition days with maybe the exception of a couple of them. Rivers and streams were therefore putting a big amount of sediment at sea severely affecting underwater visibility. For our diving that meant that it was impossible to dive anything but the shallowest parts of the wreck if one wanted to undertake any meaningful exploration.
In all five dives were made in the course of which we managed to collect some photographic material. The broken part aft of the accommodation was visited during a day when visibility was a little better and what was seen amplified our belief that the collapsed hull and decks are a result of structural damage caused during the sinking.
On another note, we had the opportunity to conduct some dives on pSCR getting familiar with their use in an expedition context. This has been a valuable experience overall.