THE BURNING OF THE 'VOLTURNO' - PAGE 8
'TALES OF SOS AND TTT' - 1927

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Here is another page of data, a very large page of data in fact, kindly provided to the Webmaster by Bernard de Neumann of the U.K. It is a section of a book entitled "Tales of SOS and TTT", by B. Copplestone, published by Blackwood in 1927. I have learned that B. Copplestone means Bennet Copplestone, and that name is the pseudonym of Frederick Harcourt Kitchin (1867-1932). It was written, accordingly, quite late in the author's life.

And should a visitor wonder, as did the webmaster, what 'TTT' means, I found just one WWW reference to the subject and believe that it is the term for a safety broadcast, re a storm warning perhaps, or a navigation hazard, or anything involving marine safety. Bernard de Neumann explains and clarifies: "TTT - In the days of spark-gap transmitters, when only morse (or similar) could be transmitted, it was necessary to have simple codes for some messages.  SOS (... --- ...) for disaster and TTT (- - -) for alarm (i.e. disaster may be looming) were two of the codes.  These codes continued for CW (carrier wave) transmitters, and were only phased out of marine use in recent years.  SOS corresponds to today's voice alarm MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY, and TTT to PANPAN PANPAN PANPAN."

Bernard de Neumann explains further "In my explanation of spark-gap and CW transmitters, I should have explained, I think, that spark-gap transmitters broadcast over a wide spectrum of frequencies (remember interference from HT circuits on cars interfering with early TV reception) and the spectral profile was also affected by the length of the transmitting antenna. When tuned circuits were introduced, it was possible to produce a single frequency wave which was switched on and off by the morse-key, thereby enabling messages to be sent, and many non-interfering (tuned) transmitters and receivers were possible. Then later when carrier amplitude or frequency were dynamically changed (amplitude or frequency modulation i.e. AM or FM), music, voice and video broadcasting began. That's where Fessenden came in, and later Baird." - We thank you again, Bernard!


From 'TALES OF SOS AND TTT'
by B. COPPLESTONE - published in 1927


There was a striking contrast between the case of the Volturno and that of the Titanic in the previous year. The Titanic, in a flat calm sea, had not nearly boats sufficient, to save the crew and passengers; the Volturno, which had ample boat accommodation, could not make effective use of it. Boats are at the best a precarious passage to safety in weather such as that with which the Volturno was battling, they were a quick way to certain death.

Calls for help were promptly sent out, at first a general signal of SOS and a few minutes later with the position and particulars of her emergency. By a few minutes past seven the second wireless officer - C.J. Pennington, who was then on duty - was in touch with the German steamer Seydlitz some ninety miles away, and shortly afterwards the chief operator, Walter Seddon, who had been aroused from his bed, heard the reply of the Cunard liner Carmania. Other acknow­ledgments and assurances of help poured in, and it became still more plain that the best and only course open was to wait for it.

Meanwhile, misfortune piled upon mis­fortune. Just before half-past eight another fire, which proved to be as un­quenchable as the first in the cargo holds, broke out in the coal-bunker, and by cutting off the supply of fuel ultimately made of the Volturno a helpless fiery log upon the water. Burned out forward, and with her coal supplies pouring forth flame and gas, the vessel realized as nearly as has been seen on land or sea the popular notions of Hell.

In the fight against the two fires Captain Inch of the Volturno, his engineers, and crew - many of them Dutch - rose to the height of the emergency. Captain Inch, though blinded by flame - for three days after rescue he could not use his eyes, - never ceased to direct operations, and for so long as steam power was available the vessel was kept before the wind and the fire prevented from spreading aft. Hoses poured down water until they burned out, and then - other hoses were shipped. The emigrant passengers, more than five hundred of them, behaved very well. They did what they could, kept quietly out of the way when they could do nothing, and the Jews among them held religious services. And all the while that those on the Volturno were fighting a lone and, judged by its results, a success­ful fight to save lives - not the vessel, she was doomed from the first, - they drifted in a ring of spectators, of steamers which had rushed up eager to help but which found themselves compelled to lie off as mere onlookers. There, rolling and pitching in the heavy seas, drifted the Volturno, a torch peopled by blinded gasping heroes; there, looking on, the crews and passengers of vast comfortable liners, seeking ways of help, yet all incapable of making their efforts good.

The Cunarder Carmania, about noon, was the first to arrive, and there followed the German Seydlitz and Grosser Kurfürst. Later on came the Kroonland, the Minneapolis, La Touraine, the Devonian, and others - twelve in all; finally, the morning after, appeared the tanker Narragansett with her oil. It was a gathering of the nations, British and German and French and American, all summoned by those tiny spark signals thrown upon the ether, all anxious to lend a hand, and yet none able until the sea, at its pleasure, chose to give permission.

The story of the Volturno divides itself naturally into four parts. First we have five hours of lonely horror, in the shadow and expectation of death for all on board, between the outbreak of fire and the arrival, in the teeth of the gale, of the great liner Carmania. Then we have gallant yet unavailing efforts to send boats from the rescuing vessels to the Volturno, and one magnificent and happily successful attempt to cross the almost impassable barrier of stormy water in a small boat from the Volturno herself. Then night fell, hours of darkness stabbed by white searchlights and by the red glow from the burning wreck. Finally comes the dawn, the abatement of wind and sea, the pumping on the waves of the Narragansett's oil, and the rescue of 520 of the Volturno's passengers and crew out of a total of 654. At the close of the last scene of all we see Captain Inch mounting the side of the Kroonland with his dog in his arms. Though blinded and burned, and in the last stage of mental and physical exhaustion, this fine seaman did not forget his dog.

It was during the first period that nearly all the loss of life occurred, and that loss was directly due to the attempts to get away the passengers in boats. We must remember that at the moment when the Captain ordered out the boats, and faced the almost certain risks that they would be smashed against the rolling plunging vessel or swamped in the waves, the Volturno was herself expected to open out and sink at any moment. She had been rent by two explosions, and the fire in the holds was already beneath the bridge. No. 2 boat, the first to take a desperate chance, was in charge of the chief officer, and there were with him thirty passengers and eleven of the crew. This boat reached the water and then, rolling half over, spilled out all those who had trusted their lives to her. She righted, the chief officer and some of his men scrambled back into her and tried to save those who were still in the water. What happened after that nobody knows; the Volturno drove on before the gale and the boat was never seen again. The destruction of No. 7 boat was even more rapid. She was lowered, filled with some forty or fifty passengers, and then smashed like an eggshell against the ship's steel side. All on board perished. No. 12 boat, lowered by some dozen passengers in a panic, and lowered clumsily, tipped every one out before the water was reached. So the tale goes on. Other boats were put outboard only to be smashed to pieces as the Volturno rolled; not a life was saved by means of them, and more than a hundred lives were lost. Meanwhile on board, the fire was being fought, at first successfully. The spread aft was checked and damped by streams of water - the employment of steam was soon abandoned as useless, - and the flames were so far subdued that the forecastle could be entered. It was then that the flank of the attackers was turned by the fatal outbreak in the coal-bunker. In it were 400 tons, the ship's supply of fuel for her boilers and steam power for her engines and pumps. The need to salve some at least of this coal was so urgent that the stokehold staff, aided by eager volunteers from the deck, laboured amid flames and gas fumes for three and a half hours, and abated their efforts only when the gas made human existence, within the bunker impossible. Then the water-tight doors were closed and the bunker isolated. This brings us to about 11 o'clock in the morning, and at the close of those hours of struggle the chief engineer found himself with no more than five or six tons of coal available for his boilers. With this bucketful, as it were, of vital fuel he had to keep steerage-way on the ship, and supply power to the pumps for fighting the fires. We must continue this part of the story for the sake of clearness, though in its duration it overlaps that second part which began at noon with the Carmania's arrival. Chief engineer Robert Dewar, a sturdy Scottish economist in coal, worked wonders with his few lumps scattered over the stokehold foot-plates, and kept constantly wet with water. Until two o'clock in the afternoon, by keeping the main engines just ticking over and the pumps fully supplied with steam-power, he was able to maintain his gauges at nearly 100 pounds pressure. Then he stopped the main engines and concentrated on the dynamos for lighting and wireless and, of course, on the pumps. By five o'clock the last lump of coal had gone into the fireboxes, and nothing remained except ash and clinkers. But Dewar went on nursing his fires and his steam pressure with such jealous skill that it was not till nine o'clock in the evening that he failed to squeeze out a pound or two of steam for the pumps. And it was not until ten o'clock that this "bonnie fechter" finally admitted defeat. The engine-room was then closed and abandoned, and the engine and stokehold staff made their way to the deck. And all the while the coal-bunker hard by was smouldering and gas oozing out, and the engineers fully expected the ship plates to open under their feet and the Volturno to go straight to the bottom.

Driven furiously into the teeth of the north-westerly gale, the Carmania, under double banked fires, had lost not a moment of the five hours which it took her to reach the Volturno. The wireless cry which had summoned her over eighty miles of water had been explicit of the urgency: "No. 1 and 2 holds blazing furiously; come at once." Six boats had been swung out ready to take the water, others could be made ready in a few minutes, and by the instructions of Cap­tain Barr guest-warps were run from one end of the ship to the other, so that any boat coming up to the side would find a rope there to meet it. All the boat ladders were hung over the side also, and everything made ready for the rapid transfer of the Volturno's people to the Carmania. There was no lack of vol­unteers for boat duty. But whatever man may propose it is always the sea which disposes. Out of the many boats available one only was launched, in charge of the first officer, and failed utterly to reach the Volturno. Captain Barr did what he could. He manoeuvred his big and rather cumbrous vessel to within a few hundred yards of the Volturno, and tried to make of her a shelter for his boat against wind and sea. But the Volturno, driving before the wind at a couple of knots, ran away from the boat, leaving it fully exposed. First Officer Gardner was then obliged to throw out a sea-anchor to keep his boat from being swamped. He had a wretched and ineffective time in a sea too heavy for any boat. At the launching he had eight oars in use and two spares, but very soon under the buffets of the waves all the oars were broken or lost except three, and the boat was half-filled with water. All the while oil was kept dripping, and had some little effect in saving the boat though it did not help towards the achievement of the main purpose of reaching the Volturno. As it was, even with the help of oil, the Carmania's boat was only kept afloat by constant baling. When it became apparent that Gardner could by no possibility reach the Volturno, and was in the gravest danger of being swamped himself, there came the critical problem of picking him up. And this was an operation much more dangerous than getting a boat into the sea, itself so extremely hazardous that, as we have seen, many of the Volturno's boats were smashed to pieces in the attempt. It was a very pretty bit of emergency sea­manship which saved First Officer Gardner and all his men without even the sacrifice of the boat. Captain Barr manoeuvred the huge bulk of the Carmania to windward of him, and then allowed the liner to drift down bodily right upon the boat. It will be understood that the steamer which offered so much greater a surface to the wind drifted much more rapidly than the boat lying at a sea anchor. As the Carmania came down she took the force of wind and sea off the boat, so that those in her were able to grab the guest-lines and hold the boat against the ship's sides. Then all the men, except Gardner and two others, were hauled up by ropes. The first officer and these two with him then, with astonishing skill and composure, hooked the falls on the ends of the boat and were run up to the davits as though they had been arriving from an everyday boat trip. There were still plenty of volunteers anxious to make further attempts, but Captain Barr wisely decided that once was enough. No boat could possibly reach the Volturno, and it was useless to add lives of the Carmania's men to those already lost from the Volturno. All this while messages were passing between the wireless houses of the two ships, and it was decided that the Carmania might most fruitfully be employed in looking for the Volturno's boats, and for any possible survivors in the water. This the Carmania proceeded to do, forcing her way against the wind for some eight miles and then circling round, but though she came upon many buoyancy tanks which had been torn from shattered lifeboats she found no men at all. By the time that Captain Barr returned other ships were arriving, the German liners Seydlitz and Grosser Kurfürst, and the American Kroonland. Both the Seydlitz and the Kroonland repeated the attempt of the Carmania to send boats, but failed as she had done to reach the Volturno. The Kroonland's crow were Belgian, and it is of special interest to note that all through this international affair of the Volturno there was no failure in courage and devotion among the men of the many nations engaged. The British in the Carmania, the Belgians in the Kroonland, the French in La Touraine, the Germans in the Seydlitz, and the British and Dutch in the Volturno herself, all rose to the great­ness of the occasion, and proved themselves to be true brothers of the sea.

Boats had failed, as they were bound to fail, in rendering any effective aid, though the distance between the Volturno and the rescuing fleet clustered about her was often no more than a few hundred yards, and this distance was crossed in one instance by a man from the Volturno swimming. The one boat which actually did get across, with four men in her, was curiously the one despatched at the suggestion of Second Officer Edward Lewis Lloyd of the Volturno. It was late in the afternoon, and those in charge of the burning Volturno had watched with understanding eyes though with bitterly disappointed hearts a succession of failures to get across the gulf of stormy waters. There had been forlorn efforts made to push rescuing vessels under the stern of the Volturno so that communication might be established by hawsers - though they would have snapped like cotton thread, - and the situation must have looked almost beyond hope. Officers and crew were sticking devotedly to their work, but the passengers were losing heart. In Lloyd's words, "They were starting to pray and weep again seeing that no boats were coming to our assistance.” So he made his suggestion to Captain Inch: "Supposing we tried one of our own boats, captain: it might encourage them." The second officer was given permission to try, and he chose for his attempt a small lifeboat which he judged better for employment in a heavy sea than a big and cumbrous boat. He took with him four volunteers - two able seamen, a fireman, and a steward - a strange mixed lot, yet all men who "could pull. "It was," explained Lloyd afterwards, "only endangering life to have a person there who could not pull." Before this small party set forth in their little boat the fleet of onlookers were warned by the still active wireless oper­ators to be on the look-out. Made wary by the other boat disasters, Lloyd's chief anxiety was to get his boat into the water undamaged by smashing against the ship's side. He adopted the device of lowering his boat to within about eight feet of water with the after-part tilted down below the bows, so that when the falls were let go the boat would dive stern first into the water and not smash flat on her bottom. By this means he succeeded in getting her in, though not without some damage. When afloat and clear of the Volturno, Lloyd took the after oar himself and steered with it, backing and pulling so as to keep head on to the seas. "When I saw the white foam," said he, "I watched and backed my oar and got the boat in a fore and aft line with it, and the sea came over us but did not do us any harm." The Grosser Kurfürst, towards which Lloyd was making, was just a quarter of a mile away, and it took him and his gallant crew a full hour to get across this small space. The boat was leaking, no one could be spared to bale her, and it was touch and go whether she would float long enough to reach the German vessel, chosen because she happened to lie in the safest direction. By the time Lloyd at last won his way to safety, his boat was nearly full of water and quite dead to the sea, and could not have floated for many more minutes. Indeed, she sank as soon as the last man had been hauled on board the Grosser Kurfürst. This feat of young Lloyd, with his mixed bag of a crew, becomes the more deserving of high praise when we learn that the officer himself had been badly burned fighting the fire, and injured internally by a fall while working to secure the Volturno's tottering foremast. Yet he wanted - though wisely and kindly forbidden - to go back in a German boat, and in fact had to take to his bed for a couple of days in charge of the Grosser Kurfürst's surgeon.

By now it was night, with wind and sea slightly abating. But the unfortunate Volturno had not reached the end of her troubles. Just after the engineers had come on deck, their work ended below by the complete consumption of the carefully hoarded coal, the fire reached the ship's magazine in which were kept the rockets and powder for signals. The existence of this magazine had not been forgotten because some of the rockets had been taken out and used in an attempt to throw lines to the rescuing vessels, but the possibility of its explosion had been overlooked. About ten o'clock it went off in one fierce bang and wrecked the aerial which had been kept in action under the greatest difficulties since seven o'clock in the morning. Quite early in the day the foremast had nearly come down and with it the aerial, but means had been found to prop it up. Now as late as ten o'clock in the evening, the loss of wireless communication did not matter very much. It was an incon­venience not to be able to talk by wireless with the rescuing fleet, but there re­mained the ordinary resources of signalling. The operators, who had been on duty continuously for fifteen hours and to whose efforts was due that encouraging though helpless fleet of surrounding steamers, were then ordered out and joined others on deck who were doing what they could.

As if that explosion, with its stream of flame rising some seventy feet into the air, had been a last prearranged signal of distress, the steamers which had given up hope of taking off the Volturno's crew and passengers before morning awoke into strenuous life. They put forth many boats, and did at last succeed in approach­ing the Volturno. The first to arrive, a German boat, was nearly swamped by a mass of passengers who hurled themselves at it, and had great difficulty in avoiding the fate of the Volturno's own boats in the early morning. The other boats, and there were many of them of various nationalities, kept out a little way, trying to keep station with the drifting steamer, so as to be ready to pick up those who might jump over-board. This Captain Inch urged his Russian and Polish and Jewish passengers to do, but they, though willing as they had shown to hurl themselves into a boat at the risk of sending it to the bottom, were not at all willing to entrust themselves to the sea. In order to encourage them Captain Inch invited his crew to jump and show the passengers the way; this many of them did, among them the junior wireless operator, Pen­nington, who has left a record of his feelings. It was not an experiment in life-saving which looked inviting even to men who for many hours, with a burn­ing ship under their feet, had awaited death with calm courage. The sea looked a long way off, and the boats drifting past the Volturno looked farther off still. Yet after some hesitation, to which he frankly confessed, Pennington jumped and was picked up by one of the Kroonland's boat's crew of Belgians. Some other officers and members of the crew also jumped and a few passengers, after seeing that those who went before had been saved by the boats.

There was little that those who re­mained in the Volturno could now do. All efforts to keep down the fires had ceased with the failure of steam power, and no one knew, though the engineers suspected, to what extent her underwater plates had been buckled by the heat. Now that the aerial was down, and had become a mere coil of silent wire littering the deck, they had not even the small moral satisfaction of talking with their would-be rescuers. All that they could do was to herd the passengers in the safest part of the ship aft, supply them with food and drink - the bakehouse was kept going all through the night, and the bakers who worked there were not the least devoted to their duty of that scorched heroic company, - and make such preparations as remained for saving life should the Volturno suddenly sink. Few expected that she would survive until daylight after suffering three explosions and so many hours of fire. The crew, guided by the half-blind captain, made rafts, and everything which would float for a while was requisitioned and tied up to serve the purpose of rafts. There had been no more boats coming alongside, or encircling the ship since about midnight, and those small hours until day broke at half-past five must have seemed terribly long. The Volturno still drifted with her stern to the wind, and the fire did not make its way, visibly, farther aft than No. 3 hatch. It was better not to think too much about what was going on below.

The one sign coming through the black night, and bearing on its white rays a continuing assurance of help whenever help became possible, was the Carmania's searchlight. It had first been used to help the rescuing boats to pick up people from the water - though some of the boat's crews grumbled at it as a literally blazing nuisance, - and afterwards as a kindly means of keeping the suffering men of the Volturno in touch with hu­manity. And as it happened the Carmania with her searchlight did pick up many boats which could not get back to their own ships. It was dangerous with her rather unmanageable bulk to keep the ring of smaller vessels, so that she lay outside, as it were, keeping goal. One of the boats thus seen and rescued by the Carmania belonged to the Minneapolis, and had been in the water for five hours with an exhausted crew. In this valuable self-imposed job of boat picker-up the Carmania developed a tech­nique of her own, and steamed more than twenty miles while engaged upon it. Pres­ently the other steamers came to depend upon her and signalled to her news of their missing craft. It was in the weather and in the darkness quite impossible for any boat putting forth from a vessel to make sure of getting back.

And so we come to the grey dawn, and to the arrival of the Narragansett with oil to pour on the troubled waters. It is easy to exaggerate the effect of oil; it does not kill a swell but it does kill the breaking crests of waves by cutting off their tops. An oil bag is part of the compulsory equipment of ships' lifeboats under regulations of the Board of Trade, and hung slowly dripping over the bows has in many boat voyages proved its value. In the circumstances of the Volturno rolling and plunging in a heavy sea, in which boats could scarcely live and could make little progress, the effectiveness of oil pumped wholesale upon the water is still open to doubt. And yet one can be sure that the bold use of oil by Captain Harwood of the Narragansett did greatly encourage the boats' crews of all the vessels to renew their exertions, and the apparent effect of the oil on the sea did bear the test of some rather striking photographs. A great deal must depend on the manner of use, and in this instance we had an oil-tanker at work under a skipper who brought brains and skill in seamanship to bear on the problem before him. He had not himself used oil before in such large quantities, but he had no doubts about its efficacy. Even before he arrived in the early morning of October 10, after steaming at full speed for 230 miles, he sent a wireless message to the Carmania, suggesting that lubricating oil should be pumped round the Volturno so as to enable the boats to get alongside. And as soon as he arrived on the scene at half-past five Captain Harwood set to work to try his own prescription. At first he pumped oil on the weather side of the Volturno, but presently adopted the better plan - as advised by Captain Barr of the Carmania, - to pump on the lee side so that the Volturno might drift over the broad expanse of oil and float surrounded completely by oiled water. He kept on pumping all the while the fleet of boats from the rescuing steamers were taking off the Volturno's people, and he did not stop until all had left the ship. He used two four-inch hoses, and altogether poured out between twenty and thirty tons of heavy non-inflammable lubricating oil. He described the effect of it as the oil spread before his eyes: how it broke the seas, leaving just a smooth swell.

The work of rescue, with the powerful aid of the Narragansett, was completed in almost exactly five hours, and was got through without further loss of life. It yielded one incident of engaging human interest. This occurred when one of the Devonian's boats was alongside the Volturno. A woman threw a child, as she thought, into the boat, but it fell between the boat and the ship. Instantly one of the seamen (Hazlewood) of the Devonian dived after it and had it safely up before he himself could be crushed between the boat and the ship's side. "It was the quickest thing I have ever seen," said Captain Inch, and then, smiling, told the sequel. The woman who had thrown the child "got hold of me by the arm, and she was shrieking until the man got her child into the boat again. Then she wanted to kiss me, but I told her to go down into the boat and kiss the man who had saved her child."

________________

The Volturno was lost in the autumn of 1913, and all through the early part of 1914 the Board of Trade was kept busy ascertaining the facts by public inquiry, and apportioning thanks and friendly awards to the officers and men of the International Fleet who had pulled the Volturno's survivors out of the fire. Among others, medals, plate, and grants in money were made to sixty-five officers and men of the Nord Deutscher Lloyd Company's steamers, Grosser Kurfürst and Seydlitz. The medals and plate were sent to the British Embassy in Berlin in July 1914, and the money grants at £3 a-head were paid over in German marks - then worth a shilling each - to the N.D.L. at Bremen. Then came the War with its rude interruption of agreeable international courtesies, and it was not until 1923 that the Board of Trade found itself wondering whether those German officers and men of the Seydlitz and Grosser Kurfürst ever had received their awards. For though it had full evidence of the grant of awards it had none of receipt. So the official wheels began to move again, and forty-six of the medals were discovered at the British Embassy - nineteen had dis­appeared. The missing medals were thereupon replaced by duplicates from England, and at last, in 1924, the distribution was made to all those beneficiaries who could be found and to the next-of-kin of those who were dead. Those marks of 1914 were also paid over - in 1923 - though they had suffered a lamentable sea change in the course of nine years of depreciation. We have read with deep sympathy the respectful grouse of one German sailor who observed that his gratuity of 62 marks, worth three good gold English pounds when they had been paid in 1914, had by the time that they reached his hands shrunk to less than the value of three English halfpence.

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