H.P. Lovecraft, "The White Ship"
The steamer Petalli was an Embiricos family, 6565 grt cargo ship built in 1917. She was sunk as a result of a German air raid against the port of Piraeus on the 6th of April 1941. Although her wreck had been previously dived by others, most notably by Kostas Thoctarides, its identity remained unknown until 2010 when we were finally able to identify her after numerous dives and painstaking research.
The 'Saronikos wrecks' project relates to our ongoing effort to explore and document modern wrecks in the greater area of Saronikos gulf. While some of these wrecks remained undiscovered until today, a few have already been located and visited by other divers. The proximity to our main base location makes these wrecks suitable for isolated outings rather than multi-day expeditions. A further advantage is that weather conditions in the Saronikos Gulf are usually mild making the dives less demanding overall. In any case, it is a great way to keep the team sharp and busy in-between major projects.
The German invasion of Greece and Krete during the months of April and May 1941 resulted in a significant Allied defeat, a defeat that was accompanied by heavy loss of men and material. Greece's merchant navy was also heavily hit; merciless air raids resulted in the sinking or destruction of a great number of cargo and passenger vessels. The opening act of the onslaught was the raid against Piraeus on the 6th of April 1941, during which the Petalli was lost.
The ship was built by 'William Doxford & Sons Ltd' in Sunderland, being completed in September 1917. She was a steel, screw cargo steamship built to a shelter deck design with her accommodation amidships and flush forecastle and aft decks. She had a straight stem, a counter stern and two masts as well as two pairs of derrick posts (one amidhips and one aft). Her registered length was 128 meters and her grt 6565 tons. She was driven by a triple expansion steam engine producing 572 NHP1. The ship appears to have been fit for carrying fuel oil as well, however that qualification has been removed sometime in 1922-23. Evidence also suggests that she had been converted to a closed shelter deck configuration in 1937, by having her tonnage opening closed. Her first owners were 'Byron SS Co Ltd' and she was initially named Admiral Cochrane flying the British flag with port of registry London. She was subsequently sold to 'M A Embiricos'2 of Athens and was renamed Petalli in 1928, flying the Greek flag and registered in Andros.
At this stage not much is known about her employments under either of her ownerships. She was probably traded as a tramp steamer, nonetheless her voyages have not been researched as of now. A notable incident of her early years occured when, on the 22nd of January 1918 she was torpedoed off Berry Head in the English Channel by the German UB 31 (Oblt.z.S. Thomas Bieber). It ended well for her since she was salvaged and continued trading. Much later, in November 1940 she was requisitioned by the relevant Greek authorities2 for the needs of the war. Again, the ship's movements during the period of her requisitioning are not yet fully known. Only sporadic mentions of the ship have been traced, like for example on the 10th of March 1941 she appears to have sailed from Piraeus to Kavalla and Thessaloniki, escorted by the torpedo boat Sfendoni. The voyage was reportedly made to carry a valuable tobacco cargo to the safety of the south, view of the impending German invasion. She returned to Piraeus on the morning of the 24th.
The ship was lost as a result of the German air raid against the port of Piraeus on the 6th of April 1941. It is worth refering in some detail to the events of that night. Germany had declared war against Greece in the early hours of the same day. Immediately measures have been contemplated to reduce the number of ships lying in the port of Piraeus3. However, many of the ships being worked were not shifted at the roads because their loading or discharging operations were deemed to be of an urgent nature. The air raid against Piraeus materialized around 21:30 hours. Ju88s of III./KG 30 based in Sicily and He111s of II./KG 4 from Austria, laid mines around the entrance of the port and bombed the ships and the shore installations. The results would not be as devastating as they turned out to be, if it was not for the British Clan Fraser discharging a cargo of military stores which included a significant quantity of explosives. The ship had not been shifted to the roads due to reasons mentioned above. Clan Fraser was hit and was soon burning. Attempts to put the fire out or tow her out of the port proved unsuccessful. In the early hours of the 7th, she blew up with a tremendous explosion which sunk or set on fire several other vessels in the port and severely damaged shore facilities. Steel plates from the ship flew for distances of hundreds of meters and glasses were shattered not only in Piraeus but also in the city of Athens, kilometers away. Chaos ensued not only for the remainder of the night but also throughout the days of the 7th and 8th of April during which frantic efforts were made to put the fires out and salvage whatever could be salvaged by shifting ships amidst the danger of mines and continuing air raids. The port was closed for days and even afterwards would not be fully used until the German occupation. There was a lot of finger pointing between the Greeks and the British for what can be considered an unprecedented disaster: ten cargo and passenger steamers, two tugs and numerous smaller vessels were lost; several others were damaged to a greater or to a lesser extent. There are differences in the counting depending on the source used and the Germans were able to salvage a few ships later on, however the extent of the damage done, not only materially but also to the Greek moral was clearly enormous.
Returning to the Petalli, during the 6th of April she was in Piraeus port, partly laden with a cargo consisting mainly of tobacco, olives and emery. Loading was ongoing and she as well, was not shifted out of port in order to complete as quickly as possibly. When the Clan Fraser exploded, the Petalli caught fire and attempts to put her out were equally futile. According to the Greek Official History on the 7th or 8th4 she was towed out of port and grounded at Selinia bay, Salamina together with other ships on fire. According to other sources however, she was towed out of port and scuttled. To our experience, narratives of these days events should be interpreted with a dose of caution as the situation was totally chaotic and therefore they can not be depended upon to provide an accurate account.
Research on the ship is continuing and information presented herein should be treated as preliminary, being by no means complete. The ship relates to one of the most important shipping families in Greece as well as to one of the most important events of the Second World War in Greece. The above warrant our continuing involvement in researching both the ship's history as well as the events surrounding her loss as completely as possible.
Bibliography and Sources:
During the summer of 2010 we commenced field research on a wreck off Piraeus. The wreck was marked on the nautical charts and has already been dived in the past, most notably by Kostas Thoctarides. After extensive field and documentary research we came to the conclusion that it belongs to the Petalli, an Embiricos family cargo steamer built in 1917 and sank on the 7th or 8th of April 1941 after a Luftwaffe air raid against the port of Piraeus on the 6th and the infamous resulting explosion of the British steamer Clan Fraser.
Arriving at the conclusion that the wreck we were diving was in fact the Petalli was not easy. The ship rests in about 72 meters of water with a least depth over her shallower parts of about 54 meters. Her bow is pointing roughly to west. What we witnessed during our first dives was an overall degraded structure with no apparent concentrated damage. The wreck belonged to a cargo ship about 130 meters of length (measured by echo sounder), of riveted construction with a vertical stem, flush forward deck and a counter stern. Superstructures were mostly non existing. Most of the upper (shelter) deck plating and the uppermost side shell strake have collapsed inwards. Nonetheless, as our field research progressed, several notable features could be made out. Two masts, derricks and four cargo hatches were identified. The most distinguishing characteristics were a pair of derrick posts on her aft, as well as two smaller side superstructures in between her two forward hatches; her anchors were noted to be missing. After consulting numerous documentary sources, a list of all known ships to have been lost in the area and of approximately the size of our wreck was compiled; their fates were researched; photographs were obtained and compared with numerous photographs of the wreck, general views as well as particular features. As a result, not only all other candidate ships were eliminated during the process but also the historical photographs of the Petalli perfectly matched general, as well as specific features of the wreck. In addition, observations such as the missing anchors or the overall degraded structure, fit the Petalli hypothesis or at least do not contradict it.
No dive report would be complete without due mention of the more technical aspects of the trade. The site does not present any major diffculties but that does not mean that the dives are care free either. Depth puts it in the T2 range so a comfortable 25-30 minutes bottom time could be done. That would yield a total dive time of 100-140 minutes using 15/55 bottom gas with Nitrox 50 and Oxygen for decompression. Nonetheless, as the wreck lies close to the Piraeus roads, ships pass almost overhead. We have therefore reduced our bottom time to 20 minutes for a total dive time of about 80 minutes in all our dives. In addition, special vigilance is required on the part of those on surface support roles. Conditons are generally mild enough. Visibility can range from good to poor depending mainly on the weather. Current is negligible.
On closing, the identification of the Petalli was a satisfying achievement, especially in the abscence of explicit documentary sources and the wreck's poor condition. Sadly the latter limits the gains to be made from exploration. From another point of view though, it is the information obtained from exploring the wreck that complemented - or better said - corrected the information that was obtained from documentary sources; and that is already the most important gain.