The worst maritime disaster of all time?
Well, maybe. First, a shout-out to the new Armenia Blog , which is just full of interesting tidbits, and from which this story comes.
Next, the disaster. The Armenia was a Soviet passenger ship. It was built in 1928, and had a capacity of 4,700 tons. In August 1941, the Soviet Navy converted it to a hospital ship.
On November 6, 1941, Armenia's Captain, one V. Playshevsky, sailed the ship from Sevastopol to Yalta. In Yalta, we are told, the Russian Naval Command ordered the ship to remain at port until 7PM -- after dark -- or until escort vessels were available.
On November 7, at 8AM in the morning, Captain Playshevsky ignored his orders and left Yalta with over 5,000 refugees and wounded soldiers. At 11:25AM, somewhere between Yalta and Gurzuf, the Luftwaffe caught up with him. Heinkel He-111H bombers dropped two torpedoes on the helpless ship. (Soviet sources are very firm that it was clearly marked as a hospital ship.) One torpedo hit the fore section and that was that. The ship sank at 11:29AM.
Only a handful of men (either 3 or 8, depending on the source) were rescued by an escort vessel. This incident became the U.S.S.R.'s greatest naval disaster ever. Armenia now lies at 44°15'N, 34°17'E, just a few miles off the southern tip of the Crimea, some 1500 feet below the sea.
Years later, the number of deaths remains unclear. The original sources say "between 5,000 and 5,500". Later, it was suggested that as many as 2,000 more people may have been on the ship without paperwork, refugees desperate to escape the German attack on Sevastopol.
Okay, so. Some questions.
1) On the scale of world maritime disasters, how big was this?
Pretty big. Even if we take the low estimate of deaths, the sinking of the Armenia still makes the top five. If we take the high end -- which I doubt, but let's say -- then it's a plausible contender for #1.
Interestingly, the other big disasters were all similar: ships full of troops or refugees fleeing disaster on the Eastern Front. The Wilhelm Gustloff is probably the strongest contender, but the Goya is in there too.
I note that 5,000 people would have been very, very crowded on a ship this size. As for 7,000... well, it's possible, but it would have been like the Staten Island Ferry at rush hour.
2) So, what exactly happened here?
I don't know.
The story as given has some serious holes in it. Why would the captain disobey orders and take a ship full of refugees and wounded out onto an ocean full of hostile planes and warships in broad daylight, without escorts or air cover?
At this point Sevastopol had been under siege for about a week. But the ship had already slipped safely in and out of Sevastopol, and moved on to Yalta, 150 kilometers further east. Was Yalta under imminent threat of German capture too?
Or perhaps the ship didn't have enough food and water? 5,000 people... maybe Captain Playshevsky was just desperate to reach his destination before order on the ship broke down.
My tentative guess: it was a profound bureacratic screwup. The captain got wrong or confusing orders, followed them as best he could, and went down. Then blame was dumped on his conveniently unavailable head.
That's not very satisfying, I know. But I find it a bit less implausible than a ship commander, in Stalin's USSR, just plain ignoring orders.
Then there's the sinking itself. I have no problem imagining the Nazis attacking a clearly marked hospital ship. I think that's probably exactly what happened. On the other hand, I also have no problem imagining an overloaded ship foundering in the rough waters of the Black Sea and going down by itself, with no help from the Luftwaffe required. I don't think that's what happened, but I don't entirely trust the official account, either.
Finally, there's some confusion as to the status of hospital ships on the Eastern Front. I've found one page that claims the USSR, early in the war, sent a note that it would refuse to acknowledge German hospital ships as per the Hague Convention. Unfortunately that one page is on a holocaust revisionist site. Usenet googling finds several people raising this point in discussions over the years, but I can't find a solid cite. So, it's not clear to me whether being a hospital ship made a difference.
3) So what's the status of the wreck today?
Obscure. Apparently some Ukrainians lay a wreath every year. But it doesn't seem to have been visited by wreck divers yet... it's too deep for Scuba; salvage submersibles would be needed. (By way of comparison, the Goya and the Wilhelm Gustloff were not visited until the last five years or so.)
Also obscure in the sense that nobody seems to know about this. Oh, it has a wikipedia entry and all that. But it's even more obscure than the Baltic wrecks, and they're not that well known. There are very few online references and -- as far as I can tell -- no English-language articles or books.
If there's anyone who knows more, I'd be very interested to hear.
Meanwhile, R.I.P. Armenia.