As the decade of the 1920's closed the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes had three very similar ships on order or in various stages of construction. These were the Felix Roussel, Georges Philippar & Aramis. It was not of course possible to forsee how the careers of these ships would unfold, but as history would eventually reveal they would have very different stories to tell. The Felix Roussel would of course survive the longest, with many adventures encountered during World War II, the Aramis also had many stories from that period, one of which would lead to her sinking. For the Georges Philippar however the memories would be brief and dramatic with death and destruction occurring on the return leg of her maiden voyage.
The Georges Philippar was constructed by Ateliers et Chantiers de la Loire, Saint-Nazaire for the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes, being launched on November 6th 1930 and completed in January 1932. Like her sisters she had been fitted with the very distinctive funnels (nautonaphates) unique to the three ships. Only one of the funnels was actually used for the purpose intended, the forward funnel was a dummy.
Prior to the first sailing threats were made against the ship. Despite these threats the maiden voyage commenced from Marseilles on February 26th, 1932 to China & Japan via the Suez canal. Leaving Yokohama on her homeward run the ship called in at Shanghai, Saigon and Colombo. The Georges Philippar departed Columbo on May 10th at 10.30pm headed for Djibouti with a complement of 262 crew and 505 passengers (though sources do vary on these counts).
Early on the morning of May 16th with the ship about five miles from Cape Guardafui (the Horn of Africa), a fire broke out in a piece of electrical equipment in a cabin on 'D' deck. Power was quickly turned off to this section of the ship, but the fire spread very rapidly, no doubt assisted by the various conduits running through the ship. Many passageways and cabins quickly filled with thick smoke, also threatened were the wireless room and the bridge, which affected communications within the ship. The rapidly deteriorating situation led to multiple SOS messages being sent out, these were halted when the fire caused loss of power to the wireless equipment. As a prelude to preparing to lower the lifeboats the ship was turned into the wind and brought to a stop whilst within the ship the watertight doors were closed. The order was given to abandon ship at 5.45am, with the ship having developed a 15 degree list. Because of the location of the fire it was imperative that many of the lifeboats be launched quickly to prevent them from being consumed by the fire. Many situated amidships required hosing down as they were launched to prevent them being lost to the fire. Some passengers were reported to have jumped directly into the ocean to avoid the flames, in particular those trapped in their cabins that were able to use the portholes to reach safety of sorts, assisted by ropes lowered down the sides of the ship.
In response to the SOS calls, three ships were able to respond quickly; the Russian tanker Sovietskaļa Neft (Sovetskaya Nefta), T & J Harrison's cargo ship Contractor, and the Brocklebank Line's cargo ship Mahsud. The Sovetskaya Nefta appears to have been first on the scene and rescued over 400 passengers and crew. Captain Vicq is reported as being the last to leave the burning vessel, ensuring as best he could that no one remained on the ship. He had sustained burns prior to leaving the ship. By 8.35am the rescue was virtually complete although the Georges Philippar remained adrift and fully engulfed in flames. The Sovetskaya Nefta stayed on station until noon to ensure no one else remained to be picked up, then sailed towards Aden for a rendezvous with the passenger vessel Andre Lebon, which was eleven days out of Marseilles bound for the Far East. After transferring the survivors the Andre Lebon returned to Djibouti to disembark the survivors, who would reach France on the passenger ship General Voyron out of Madagascar. The Contractor and the Mahsud were on scene between 5am & 8am, the Contractor rescued 129 whilst the Mahsud rescued 149 in addition to the 54 souls who had perished either on the Georges Philippar or later in the water.
After being completely abandoned the vessel drifted in a north easterly direction, eventually sinking at 2.56 p.m. on May 19th 1932 about thirty miles from Ras Bagashu on the Arabian coast in about 1,800 feet of water. This was about 145 miles north east of Cape Gardafui. The position was at position was 14°20'N 50°25'E or thereabouts, various similar co-ordinates are given for the site of the sinking.
Philippar underwriter loss: £1,250,000.
Threats - Prior to the maiden voyage of the Georges Philippar, the French police had received threats against the ship.
Fire alarms - On the return maiden voyage, in the vicinity of Columbo, the fire alarms had been activated, twice in a store room where bullion was held. They also went off again about thirty minutes before the fire started. In all cases the ship's officers made an examination but discovered nothing unusual.
Political Intrigue - Some believe the blaze was started to cover up the assassination of a controversial passenger, investigative journalist and author Albert Londres, who was known for exposing the dark side of French political and economic affairs. His upcoming article involved 'drugs, arms and Bolshevik interference in Chinese affairs'. Londres was killed and his notes destroyed in the fire. Adding to the mystery was that while on the voyage to France, Londres met and confided in what he had learned with Mr & Mrs Alfred Isaak Lang-Willar. The couple survived the fire, but were killed on May 25th 1932 when the plane that was flying them to Marseilles crashed 70 miles southeast of Rome.
A sequence of Newspaper Reports
The tragedy that overtook the Georges Philippar naturally drew front page coverage in many of the world's newspapers. The texts below feature the reporting in the Canberra Times from Wednesday May 18th 1932 when the story broke, to Monday May 23rd 1932 when the ship was reported as having sunk.
Wednesday May 18th 1932
200 MISSING IN MARINE DISASTER
LINER DESTROYED BY FIRE
VESSEL ABANDONED IN GULF OF ADEN
RESCUE SHIPS ACCOUNT FOR 689 MANY RECEIVE SEVERE BURNS
Two hundred of the complement of the new million pound French liner, Georges Philippar, are unaccounted for in the Gulf of Aden, following the outbreak of a destructive fire on the vessel. The liner took fire five miles from Cape Guardafui, and 600 passengers and the crew were forced to take to the boats. Of the complement 698 have been rescued by passing vessels, but the fate of 200 is a mystery. Many of the first-class passengers are reported to have been trapped in their cabins, while some of thc rescued died from severe burns.
The newest Messageries Maritimes liner, Georges Philippar, 21,000 tons, which was launched in 1930 at a cost of GBP 1.OOO.OOO was abandoned in flames five miles from Cape Guardafui when bound from Marseilles to China. The Hakone Maru hurrying to the scene passed a number of lifeboats, while the Otranto and Kalsar-i-hind raced to pick up passengers. The Russian naptha ship, Soviet Skaia, was the first to arrive and is believed to have rescued 400, while the Mahsud picked up 134 and the Contractor 129. One passenger, believed to be an Englishwoman, died as a result of burns.
Fierce Battle with the Flames
The fire was first noticed two days out from Colombo when a dance aboard had only just finished; the fire squad set to work immediately. The fire at first did not seem serious and passengers were not informed. Every precaution was taken to prevent the spread. The master of the vessel ordered full speed to Aden 250 km?? that the fire would be kept down until the port was reached. He recognised that the great stores of oil fuel aboard constituted a terrible source of peril. An hour later the lifeboat stations had to be sounded and the passengers tumbled upstairs in all sorts of attire, and took to their stations wearing life jackets.
Serious Situation Before Dawn
Just before dawn when the vessel was five miles off Cape Guardafui the Captain found the fire making rapid headway and sent out an S.O.S. In the semi-darkness men, women and children got Into the lifeboats. Some were cut off by the fire breaking out amidships. Three passengers and several members of the crew were severely burnt. Some of the lifeboats capsized, but thc passengers were hauled aboard other lifeboats. The crew took to detachable rafts. All the boats sought to get well clear owing to the fear of explosion, but not too far away as the blazing ship was a beacon for the vessels steaming to the rescue. Within a few hours the rescue ships began to arrive and found drifting lifeboats and rafts, and took the occupants aboard. One lifeboat was found empty and it is still unknown whether tho occupants were saved by Russian ships.
Rescue Ship's Story of Disaster
The Georges Philippar is still ablaze with a 15 degrees list to port. The latest reports show that 698 of the passengers and crew were saved. The fate of the remaining 200 is a mystery, but possibly some are aboard additional rescue ships. Captain Owen of the Contractor wirelessed to 'The Evening Standard' I observed the Philippar on fire on the horizon at 3 a.m., 35 miles distant, I reached her three hours later. I found the vessel in flames from the water's edge to boat deck, hundreds of people were on the poop and forecastle head. I launched the boats and rescued 129 passengers and crew. Passengers report that many first class passengers were trapped in their cabins.
ORIGIN OF THE FIRE
The origin of the fire is variously stated, but the French engineers told me that it occurred in an empty cabin-de-luxe through a short circuit from the wireless room. The captain's quarters are believed to have been destroyed first. The flames were travelling rapidly through the state rooms owing to fresh breeze. The Philippar's captain was the last to leave. Some of the passengers hung over the bow on ropes and were saved by our boats. Many jumped into the sea. Husbands were separated from their wives and children from their parents. All are anxious to know whether others are safe. The French captain reports that 100 missing survivors are in night clothes. All the survivors lost everything. At 8 a.m. the Philippar was on fire fore and aft.
Lost Vessel Was Unlucky Ship.
The Georges Philippar has been known as an unlucky liner. It caught fire when being built at St. Nazaire, and now has been totally destroyed by uncontrollable fire.
She was built to replace the XXX'Poulleche which was destroyed by fire in 1928. The present disaster occurred at almost the identical spot as the French liner Aais caught fire when carrying pilgrims to Mecca in 1930. The owners of the liner suspected incendiarism, as had been threatened by Chinese Communist's. A careful search for bombs was made at every port of call.
Thursday May 19th 1932
150 POSTED AS MISSING IN LOSS OF FRENCH LINER
MORE RESCUE SHIPS TO COME IN
MARINE UNDERWRITERS FACE LOSS OF MILLION
London insurance companies are faced with liabilities of about GBP1,000,000 as a result of the Georges Philippar disaster. Though there is doubt as to the extent of the death roll, there are still 150 to be accounted for but officials of the company point out that at least six ships went to the rescue, apart from those already reported, so there are still numerous possibilities of rescue. The Messagaries Maritimes say the officers of the Philippar would not have left the ship until all the passengers were taken off, and news from Aden discounts the story that 80 were trapped in the cabins.
The steamers Mahsud and Contractor have arrived here with about 250 survivors, thereby enabling a fuller diary of the Georges Philippar disaster to be pieced together. The survivors state that the fire broke out in a cabin de luxe on D deck in some electrical wiring. The flames soon mastered the woodwork and spread with such rapidity that escape from the cabins to the deck was impossible. Some survivors say that 80 were thus trapped. At least one woman was seen to jump overboard with her nightclothes a mass of flames. The chemical extinguishers and the hoses did not suffice and the flames spread eagerly on the new paint and polished wood. The first general intimation of the disaster the passengers received was the continued screaming of the Philippar's sirens.
The wireless room room on the upper deck was actually out of action before the S.O.S. could be sent. Those picked up were sent by two British and Russian steamers, which saw the blazing steamer. There was no lack of rafts or life belts, but unfortunately a number ol lifeboats capsized immediately, and it was impossible to go to the position allotted for boat drill, so that the confusion was indescribable. There was acute distress when thc rule of precedence for women and children was enforced. It caused husbands to be separated from their families. The first lifeboat to leave the Philippar containing 70 women and children was thc last to be picked up. Meanwhile Captain Vicq kept the doomed ship's head to the wind so that smoke and flames invaded the after part of thc vessel. The survivors clustered on parts of the deck furthest from the fire.
Rescue Work Under Difficulties
The tanker Soviet Skaia was first on the scene, but its explosive cargo made it imperative to keep a safe distance. Nevertheless 410 survivors were ferried across or picked up from the shark infested water, which was mercifully calm. The lifeboats of the Contractor and Mahsud were each capable of holding 30, and made several journeys to the blazing ship. Some of the survivors were picked up six miles from the burning vessel. Six hours after the first alarm the decks of the Philippar were cleared. The captain was the last to leave. There were scenes of delirious delight on the quays at Aden when the Contractor arrived. Thus a mother was united to two daughters. On the other hand there was poignant anguish when the early survivors could not trace their friends and relatives. The survivors were mostly French, but there were numerous Indians and Filipinos, Arabs and Chinese, mostly in nightclothes, although women were in male attire, borrowed from the crews of the Contractor and the Mahsud.
The master of the Georges Philippar scouts the suggestion that some passengers were trapped in the cabins of the liner. He says positively that he was the last aboard. About 420 survivors were picked up by the Soviet steamer Soviet Skaia, and were trans-shipped to the liner Andre Lebon which is making full speed for Djbouti. Owing to the difficulty of accommodating the survivors at Aden, the vessels were asked to take them to Djbouti. Some difficulty was anticipated in repatriating the passengers to France. Consequently the Messagaries Maritimes Company is communicating with the Cephee, which is bound for Australia, asking it to call at Aden. It is believed the Otranto has five survivors aboard.
Friday May 20th 1932
BLAZING LINER STILL AFLOAT
HOPES ABANDONED FOR MISSING DEATH IN BURNING CABINS PRESUMED & LAST RESCUE SHIP IN PORT
With the announcement that the P&O liner, Kaisar-i-Hind, had not picked up any survivors from the burning liner Georges Philippar, all hopes have vanished of the rescue of 91 of her complement, who are now given up as dead. The owners now admit the possibility of the missing having been trapped in their cabins. The blazing derelict is still lighting up the sea by night, and is slowly drifting northward, and a salvage vessel is expected to reach her today.
The arrival of the steamer Andre Lebon at Djibouti with survivors includlng Captain Vicq enables the Messagaries Maritimes to state: Altogether of the 768 passengers and crew of the Philippar at Colombo, 677 have so far been accounted for; therefore, 91 are missing many of whom were first-class passengers who were probably trapped in the cabins near the outbreak of the fire and were unable to reach the fire stations. All accounts emphasise the rapidity of the spread of the fire. No explanation is given as to why it could not be isolated. It is now reported that the Chinese delegation to the League of Nations, Dr See, disembarked at Hong Kong. The missing include M. Albert Londres, the well-known Paris journalist.
Music Loses Tragic Minutes
It is tragically revealed that the music and geity of the dancers on board the ill-fated liner Georges Philippar prevented most of the passengers hearing the fire alarm, accounting for the loss of valuable minutes and adding to the difficulties of escape. An epic story is told of brave stewardess who vainly darted into the burning cabins to find the parents of a badly burnt 12 year old girl, who died after she got away in a boat. The stewardess then succoured two burnt men, whom she tended all the way to Aden. She then collapsed owing to shock & exposure.
Saturday May 21st 1932
LOSS OF FRENCH LINER
INQUIRY MAY BE ORDERED
SERIOUS CHARGES BY PASSENGERS N0 BOAT DRILL HELD ON VOYAGE
As a result of serious disclosures, it is expected that an inquiry will be held into the loss of the French liner, Georges Philippar. It is stated that no boat drill was held on the voyage. Some passengers declare the lifeboats were torn and the hoses rotten. This however seems incredible as it was a first-class vessel, on her maiden voyage. All agree that no alarm was given. Three sailors in the forward cabin were unaware of the fire until two hours after it had gained a hold.
CAPTAIN REPORTS MISSING AT 50
The report of the master of the Georges Philippar (Captain Vicq), published by the Minister of Marine Affairs, today stated When a woman passenger gave the alarm at 2 am, I went to the spot and found the fire spreading rapidly though fire fighting apparatus was brought into play. I ordered the ship to lie to and sent out an S.O.S. Passengers on the deck where the fire originated were unable to leave their cabins owing to the frightful rapidity with which the flames spread. They either perished or were asphyxiated. A few who threw themselves into the sea were saved. Two boats were launched amidships and four on the afterdeck. They caught fire. The order for evacuation of women, children, other passengers, crew and officers was issued. The steamships Soviet Skaia, Contractor and Mahsud picked up those rescued. We could have saved everybody if the incredible rapidity of the fire had not caused victims to fall at the start. The passengers remained perfectly calm. The officers and crew showed admirable
devotion. I left the ship 8 a.m. when it was a huge burning mass, and I was picked up by the Soviet vessel, which transferred the survivors to the Andre limebon at 10 o'clock. The missing are now believed to total 50. Some who booked at Saigon did not board the vessel. The comparative calmness of the sea prevented a greater disaster. A Dutch doctor Van Tright and his wife saw their children burned to death. An English passenger asserts that deaths were due to the failure to awaken the sleepers whom the closing of the watertight doors trapped. There is said to have been a fire aboard at Shanghai. The officers, however, belittle this. A family consisting of grandfather, parents and child jumped through a porthole and floated for three hours before they were saved.
Mr and Mrs Muirhead who were British Survivors of the Georges Philippar disaster say that the alarm was given but not until the first class quarters on D deck were already ablaze. Smoke overcame many passengers in the state rooms. There was no panic, but complete lack of organisation. The bulkheads at each end of the corridor leading to D deck were closed too hastily, fatally trapping many passengers. The survivors appreciate the extreme kindness displayed aboard the Soviet vessel Soviet Skaia. Everything possible was done for their comfort.
Monday May 23rd 1932
LINER TRAGEDY French Demands for Inquiry
GREATER SAFEGUARDS AT SEA
DEMAND MADE ON MINISTER
Public opinion throughout France is gravely disturbed at the Georges Philippar tragedy and there is an insistent demand for a most searching inquiry as to the cause of the fire and the handling of the situation after the fire was discovered, which will undoubtedly take place when Captain Vicq and the officers return. Captain Vicq's disclosure that the flames broke out simultaneously in several widely different points is regarded as mysterious especially as the naval engineers who built the ship deny the possibility of a simultaneous short circuit or even any short circuit owing to the careful insulation wires. Senator Pergeon, Vice-President of the Senate's Navy Commission, voice the concern felt in maritime circles in a letter to the Minister for Mercantile Marine, demanding an official assurance that there is an effective state of control over the building of liners, also requiring that new safety measures devised be submitted to Parliament without delay for immediate application. The offices in Paris of the Messageries Maritimes Company are still haunted by friends and relatives who are anxious about the 48 missing.
Burning Vessel Founders
The French liner Georges Philippar foundered on Thursday night. A mass of flames, the liner drifted 160 miles before sinking. Gold ingots shipped at Djibouti, Columbo worth GBP30,000 went down with the vessel. The Georges Philippar was gutted fore and aft and no wreckage was left afloat. The fierce heat prevented the salvage tug Preserver from taking hold of her.
MISSING REDUCED TO 36.
It is now estimated that 36 persons are missing but survivors at Djibouti (French Somaliland) say that a lifeboat capsized near Cape Guardaful in a calm sea and that some of the occupants may have reached the shore. Owing to lack of communication, it cannot be ascertained whether any survivors landed there. Nearly all the survivors who landed at Aden from the rescuing steamers Contractor and Mahsud have left for Marseilles by the RMS Comorin and the Japanese steamer Hakone Maru. A woman passenger at Djibouti has succumbed to injuries received in the fire.
Built: 1930 by Ateliers et Chantiers de la Loire, Saint-Nazaire
Tonnage: 16,990 grt
Length: 542 ft 7in (165.38m)
Breadth: 68 ft 2in (20.78m)
Draught: 46 ft 9 in (14.25m)
Propulsion: (primary) Two CCM, Paris built 10ST68 each producing 5,500hp at 110rpm
Propulsion: (auxiliary) Five 6DH38 producing total of 3,000hp at 250rpm
Passengers: 1st class 196; 2nd class 110; 3rd class 90; steerage 650.
Speed: 18.5 knots
Article by James Donahue
Memories from Christopher Louis, head of the administrative board of Georges Philippar.
Archive resources of the Canaberra Times
Page added May 14th 2010.
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