H.P. Lovecraft, "The White Ship"
The particular project begun when, following information obtained from fishermen, we visited an unidentified wreck off the island of Kea in April 2010. We suspect it to belong to the Théophile Gautier, a French liner torpedoed by the British HMS Talisman in 1941. While documentary research has progressed to a certain degree, exploration of the wreck is still at a very early stage. Since the wreck is close by but at great depth and in a spot with frequently adverse weather, isolated outings has been judged as the best way forward. Still, progress is expected to be slow.
The fate of the Théophile Gautier, matches this of Europe's which was devastated by the Second War. In the years between, people were only too eager to forget the horrors of the First War and live in peace. No one wanted to consider the possibility of history repeating itself. Things developed differently though and the world was once more set on fire. The ship, built for enjoyment, travelling and cruises was caught - like everything else - in the war and finally became one of its casualties.
Théophile Gautier was built at Dunkirk's 'Ateliers et Chantiers de France' for account of 'Société de Services Contractuels des Messageries Maritimes'. Her keel was laid in October 1923, she was launched on 26 June 1926 and delivered on 18 January 1927. Her port of registry was Marseille. Her length overall was 135.86 meters and her grt 8194 tons. Accommodation for 728 passengers was provided in four classes. In the contemporary press it is mentioned that '...although her size does not classify her amongst the most important ships of the Company ... she was nonetheless the object of very detailed studies ... the passengers' accommodations were comfortable and luxurious decorated in oriental style ... and constitute an ensemble of great artistic value...'. An elegant looking ship by all means, she had an island amidships with flush fore and aft decks, a straight stem and cruiser stern. As regards to cargo carrying, she had four holds that were worked by both derricks and cranes. Her deadweight all told totalled 4570 tons when loaded at her summer salt water marks at a draft of 6.732 meters. An innovative feature for her time was that she was driven by diesel instead of steam engines. Actually she was the first passenger liner ship propelled by internal combustion engines to be built in France (as well as for her Owners). Her propulsion plant consisted of two - 2 stroke, single acting, 6-cylinder, diesel Sulzer engines delivering 6000 IHP and driving twin screw propellers for a service speed of 14.50 knots1.
Surviving records regarding the ship's voyages are quite detailed. She was put in service in the Company's north Mediterranean line with ports of call including - amongst others - Marseille, Alexandria, Beirut, Istanbul, Piraeus, and Naples. All in all there had occured a few notable incidents like for example two collisions, one in 1928 and one in 1932 both in Naples. The routeing and ports of call were changed occasionally over the years; she was sometimes chartered exclusively for the purposes of a cruise like for example during August and September 1934 for a cruise of the 'Association Guillaume Budé'. The cruise started from Marseille on 25 August where she returned on 19 September after calling at Palermo, Zante, Gytheion (Crete), Piraeus, Volos, Salonika, Istanbul, Chios, Patmos, Kos, Rhodes, Santorini, Melos and Monemvasia. In the summer of 1937 she was put in a line serving Black Sea ports as well with calls at Odessa and Constanza. During 1939 she was returned to the Mediterranean - only round voyages, where she stayed for a part of 1940 as well. War broke out in the meantime and her passengers and cargo included now troops and war material.
Her movements during the war are equally well known. On 08 June 1940 the ship is stopped at Piraeus under orders of the French Admiralty where she stayed until September reportedly due to non availability of bunkers. She sailed on the 16th of September for Beirut. While underway, on the 18th she was spotted by a British hydroplane which ordered her to proceed to Haifa for contraband control. Due mention must be made that France had signed the Armistice with Germany on the 20th of June and at the time Théophile Gautier belonged to the Vichy French merchant marine. She was therefore technically considered as a ship belonging to a neutral country. Her Master refused to obey the British and alerted French forces stationed in Beirut. Two French warships set off immediately, met the Théophile Gautier and escorted her to Beirut where she arrived on the 19th. The incident caused the British to declare that they oppose for the ship to proceed to France without being first directed to Haifa. View that, the original plan to proceed afterwards to Marseille was cancelled and Théophile Gautier was laid up in Beirut2. The ship remained in Beirut for almost a year but it seems that the war was following her too closely... On the 8th of June 1941, the Allied Syria-Lebanon campaign started as an effort to prevent Germany in establishing themselves in these Vichy French controlled territories. During the 10th and the 11th, the Beirut harbor was the target of two air attacks with bombs falling only a few meters from the ship and causing her slight damages. For her safety then, she was ordered to leave for Piraeus (orders later amended to Thessaliniki), Greece which was by then under German occupation. Sailing from Beirut on the 12th and after a voyage during which she encountered numerous breakdowns - probably a result of her long immobilization period in Beirut - she arrived at Salonika on the 19th. During her stay there she was used as a depot ship providing accommodation for a number of French officers and the French Naval Attaché. Her tweendecks were used as a holding facility for a number of British and French prisoners of war brought in from Syria.
The ship's last voyage started with the decision to get her back in France which was finally taken in October. She sailed from Thessaloniki on the 3rd, in convoy with the steamers Delos and Torcello. The ships were escorted by the Italian torpedo boats Monzambano, Calatafimi and Aldebaran. Théophile Gautier was laden with a cargo of flour destined for Athens, various provisions and construction materials. Reportedly, her name and nationality were conspicuously marked on her hull. On 18:37 hours of the next day while the ship was steering a SE course and was between the islands of Evia and Kea, a torpedo struck in her starboard aft. Engines were stopped and the abandon ship signal was given. At some point an attempt was made to get the engines running again; while the crew managed to start the starboard engine, the port one would not start. Her Master, CLC Hontarrede judged that an effort to strand the ship in shallow waters would be futile, therefore the crew went on with abandoning the ship. The Master's report suggests that the damage done to the ship was considerable. Mention is made to '...pulverized bulkheads...' and '...blown up decks...' as well as a forceful water ingress3. It is stated in his report that at the time a number of crew were dinning near where the topredo hit, hence the heavy loss of life. Helping out injured men was described as a pretty hard task, nonetheless the majority of the spaces were searched and survivors rescued. At 18:45 those of the crew that were injured were taken in the lifeboats. Twenty three minutes after the torpedo hit, at 19:00 hours, the ship started to settle by the stern, the sea covering her aft decks. After making sure that no one alive remained onboard the Master and the last of the crew abandoned the ship. At 19:20 the Théophile Gautier sank stern first. Survivors were picked up by the Italian escorts and eventually landed at Piraeus wherefrom they were repatriated to France. Out of a total of 109 persons onboard, crew and passengers, 18 went missing, 2 died from their wounds afterwards and 13 were injured.
The submarine that torpedoed the Théophile Gautier was the British HMS Talisman (N78), a British Triton Class large patrol submarine (T-Class Group I). The boat displaced 1,573 tons when submerged and had a length overall of 83.82 meters. Main armament consisted of ten, 21inch torpedo tubes with a payload of 16 torpedoes and a 4in/40 QF Mk XII gun. She was propelled by twin screws driven by diesel engines producing 2,500 bhp and electric motors producing 1,450 shp for a speed of 15.25 and 8.75 knots respectively. Her diving depth was 300 feet and had a wartime crew of 62 men4. Talisman saw service in Home Waters during 1940 and 1941 and was subsequently transferred to the Mediterranean in July 1941. She was lost (presumably mined) off Sicily on or around the 17th of September 1942. The patrol during which she sunk Théophile Gautier was her second Mediterranean patrol taking place from 20 September to 12 October 1941. On the 4th Talisman spotted the convoy under favorable conditions, meaning there were no aircraft present and sun was setting. She went on and attacked Théophile Gautier which was identified ajudged to be the largest ship. According to French sources the Italian destroyers were lacking any detection equipment. That seems to be confirmed by the British since it is mentioned that at first the submarine positioned itself on an 85 degrees director angle, however was forced to go deep as the starboard flank destroyer was heading straight for them and finally passed right above. Coming again at periscope depth, Talisman was now presented with its target's stern. Due to the angle changing rapidly to zero thus making the attack increasingly difficult, a salvo of four torpedoes was fired on 18:35 at a distance of 1000 yards as the boat was swinging to starboard; a difficult shot indeed but one that was rewarded with a hit. After firing, the boat immediately dived at a depth of 65 meters. A persistent counter attack ensued during the next one and a half hours during which the British counted 29 depth charges. In his report Lieutenant Commander Wilmott described his position as '...precarious...' because the batteries were drained and he had to surface in restricted waters to recharge them. After surfacing at 21:55 hours he expressed both his surprise and relief to find the area clear of any enemy presence. He commented as follows: "...Unbelievable but fortunate negligence on the part of the enemy..."
The Italian escorts carried out a counter attack which was reported by the British as '... heavy and fairly accurate...' Monzambano observed a strong underwater explosion and a large oil stain on the surface so they concluded (and reported) that the offending submarine was destroyed. A further search in the area was carried out only the next day by aircrafts, revealing two large oil stains on the surface. It is difficult not to judge the Italian and German performance in the knowledge of Lt Cdr Wilmott's actual situation and of course his comments on the enemy's '...fortunate negligence...' However, despite the escorts' failure to prevent the attack - or destroy the submarine afterwards - one must admit that they did a decent job in forcing Talisman to stay deep with their depth charging. That, firstly made it possible for survivors to be safely picked up and secondly, the Torcello moved along unscathed (Delos had already left the convoy before the attack). In addition and to their defense, we already pointed out that these ships were poorly equipped, lacking detection equipment so they had really limited capability to prevent the attack.
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During April 2010 we made a couple of attempts to dive an unknown wreck to the north of the island of Kea at a position given to us by local fishermen. After sounding the wreck we ascertained that she rested at about 112 meters of water and at a general N to S direction. Both our attempts did not produce the expected results. During the first outing we did not manage to dive at all as the weather forecast proved totally off. Instead of fair conditions as expected, we arrived at the site with full force 5 winds blowing. We returned shortly afterwards only to be met with more bad luck. Once on the wreck we had a scooter problem and were forced to abort the dive at her very beginning. Current was quite strong to continue swimming and despite being rather away from shore, visibility was only average.
From the wreck’s position, approximate size and brief glimpses during the short stay we speculated that it belongs to the Théophile Gautier, a 8194 gross tons French passenger liner owned by ‘Société des Services Contractuels des Messageries Maritimes’. The ship crossed paths with the British HMS Talisman while passing between the islands of Kea and Evia on 04 October 1941 on her way to Marseille. The Théophile Gautier was attacked and sunk with the loss of 20 lives.
During October 2013 the project was again taken up and the wreck was revisited. A dive was made to the aft part where it was observed that the stern of the ship was totally blown apart. Due to the great depth bottom time was kept short, just twenty minutes down at the wreck, therefore we did not have the chance to explore further forward than the funnels and that would mean about midhsips. Despite that, the damaged stern and the general layout of the visited parts of the wreck further reinforced our view that this is indeed the wreck of the 'Théophile Gautier'.
Field research is at an early stage and will be ongoing for some time to come. Further dives are necessary to completely explore and document the wreck. Weather conditions are challenging and the depth in which the Théophile Gautier rests makes diving it a demanding task.