The sad story of S/S Burdigala, former S/S Kaiser Friedrich (1897-1916)

by Dimitri Galon, translated by Byron E. Riginos

Dedicated respectfully to the first teachers, William Kaye Lamb and J.H. Isherwood.

Burdigala Paquebot

S/S Burdigala – Marine de Commerce – Paquebot postal à grande vitesse “Burdigala” de la Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique. (KFB Collection)

As the global human history is influenced by main and powerful figures, likewise the shipping history is marked by large and powerful ships, some of which became reference points during the process of its development and prosperity. Many of the historical traces of these vessels are intertwined not only with the companies which have brought them to attention, but with the events which have marked decidedly the history of humanity as successes or failures.

If someone undertook the task to compile a list of all the ship names which are considered as historical milestones, he should also include the ocean liner S/S Burdigala, better known by her first name S/S Kaiser Friedrich, in a special position because of the underlying differentiation from all other ships whose names are associated with the development of shipping, usually expressed through their speed, success and competitive efficiency. The differentiating factor for this position is underlined by the fact that the S/S Burdigala became known more for her failure to meet the most basic requirement as set by her purchasing owners-that of speed, rather than shipbuilding features or high aesthetic arrangements of her internal accommodation.

Constructed on behalf of one of the most important shipping companies of Germany, the Norddeutscher Lloyd, aimed to seek together with “sister-ship” S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the prize for speed and luxury in the most highly demanding shipping route, the line of the northern Atlantic. But she failed to meet the expectations of her owner and manufacturer, who had set as an indisputable term of the contract, a minimum cruising speed at 22 knots, which the S/S Kaiser Friedrich-Burdigala never managed to reach. This failure gave har a bad name which accompanied the liner as a curse during her 17 years of existence, condemned her to remain mothballed for a long time, since her service life did not exceed a total of 5 years.

The S/S Burdigala, which is was sank on 14th November 1916 in the northwest waters of the island of Kea, Cyclades, Greece, was the main research objective during our first shipwreck dive mission of September 2008, under the name of Kea Dive Expedition. The mission was organized well before the identity of the ship was revealed and was only planned for identifying and highlighting a shipwreck, which as we initially approached her, was termed as the Unknown Shipwreck of Kea. Immediately after successfully identifying her as the S/S Burdigala, our team undertook the task of not only inspecting the sunken ship, but also embarking upon a systematic investigation of primary and secondary historical sources and information which would help to simulate her odd and sad story. Our research brought us face to face with a vast array of documentary evidence well forgotten for years. We found photographs, images and names which no one could remember any longer. In front of us opened an entire era and a world definetly passed but still able to trigger our historical consciousness, stimulating its central nerve, that of the perception of time.

The meticulous effort for restoring the historical details of the S/S Kaiser Friedrich-Burdigala, has revealed once again, that there is a latent “unconcealed truth”, consisting of countless chips in a mosaic, which as a whole is only able to show sometimes the “unconcealed truth” aspect not only of what has actually occurred, but of what we, as today’s living successors perceive and believe as the truth. Based on this fact, understanding the human weakness for an integrated presentation of a historic event, aware that always something will be missing, we have tried to present and render within the texts of our web site the sad history of the S/S Burdigala with as many chips of the mosaic which we managed to find and piece together as seamlessly as possible. We believe that the picture which we managed to recreate-allowing for potential shortcomings, including several detailed diversions and perhaps too much insistence on figures and dates-will aptly convey to readers our deeper feelings as experienced not only during the dives but also during the countless hours of research in libraries and archives.

Transatlantic travels and steam.

The battle for marine sovereignty and the ‘Blue Riband.’

The wooden paddle steamer S/S Sirius, built in 1837, of 700 GRT, with a length of 61 meters, width of 7.62 m and a 600 hp twin cylinder engine, was owned by the Irish Cork Steam Ship Company. Was chartered by the British & American Steam Navigation Company, known as B & A of London, was the first ship in 1838 to cross the Atlantic using steam as the primary means of propulsion.

By 1838, at a period when steam started to become synonymous with power, three major maritime companies, the London based British & American Steam Navigation Company, known as B & A, the Bristol based Great Western Steamship Company, known as GW, and the Liverpool based Transatlantic Steamship Company, were all willing and able to assert their primacy and profits in the emerging but promising transatlantic shipping line, which was to unite Europe with North America. The three companies had ordered new, steam-powered, paddle-wheeled ships aiming to dynamically enter this new market which until then had used sails for crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The B & A, due to a delay in the delivery of the ship she was building, the S/S British Queen, decided to charter the 703 GRT steamer S/S Sirius, from the Irish Cork Steam Ship Company, in order to make the first transatlantic voyage by a ship which used steam power as its main mean of propulsion. By this move, the B & A aimed to gain a positive impression from such pioneering activity. Similarly to B & A though, GW, also intended to make the first steam crossing of the Atlantic with her large ship (1.700 GRT), the oak-wood paddle wheeler S/S Great Western.

Although the first transatlantic voyage by steamboat was carried out in 1819 by the sailing ship S/S Savannah, which was equipped by auxiliary steam engines, she managed to cover the distance from Savannah (Georgia) to Liverpool in 29 days. Nevertheless, this success was not registered as a transatlantic steamboat crossing since the primary means of propulsion for the S/S Savannah remained to be her sails.

On 4th April 1838 the S/S Sirius sailed from London to New York, arriving on 22nd April thereby performing the first officially recognized transatlantic steamboat crossing in the history of shipping. At the same time she earned the title of the fastest ship, but such was to last only for few hours, as the rival GW company, with the S/S Great Western, also arrived in New York slightly later. The fact that the S/S Great Western began her journey a few days after the departure of the S/S Sirius, automatically earned her the title of the fastest ship on the planet. The crossing by the S/S Great Western took 15 days and 12 hours, with an average speed of 8.66 knots.

The S/S British Queen, 1.863 GRT, built by the shipyard Curling & Young of London, for the British & American Steam Navigation Company (B & A). Although the operator had planned for this ship to be the first steam powered to cross the Atlantic, this objective was not achieved because of delays in delivery from the manufacturers. The S/S British Queen, which was the largest ship of its time, equipped with engines built in Glasgow by Robert Napier, embarked upon its maiden voyage on 12th July 1839, from Portsmouth bound to New York where she arrived 15 days later. Notable is the fact that among the passengers on this first voyage, was Samuel Cunard, who a year later founded the Cunard Line, a company which achieved the greatest longevity in the history of world shipping.

In the autumn of that year, the Transatlantic Steamship Company placed to the newly created North Atlantic shipping route the S/S Liverpool (1.150 GRT), which was first two funneled steamboat. A year later, in 1839, the B & A added to the same line the ship which was ordered with the intention to become the first transatlantic steamboat, the S/S British Queen (1.863 GRT) which was not delivered on time. From that year onward the story of transatlantic crossings essentially begin, which while subjecting the companies involved to a long and fierce competition, with maritime sovereignty as the prize, provided at the same time all the ingredients which created the legendary period of rapid, large and luxurious liners, the well known Great Ocean Liners.

About ten years later, in the middle of the 19th century, the transatlantic sea routes linking Europe and North America continued to remain mostly in British hands. Among the liner companies struggling for sea sovereignty in the North Atlantic, the one which stood out by far was the British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, better known as the Cunard Line which was a founded in May 1839 by the Canadian businessman Samuel Cunard.

Immediately after its incorporation, the ships RMS Britannia and RMS Columbia were added to the fleet in 1840, setting a new speed record by crossing the Atlantic in 14 days and 8 hours, with an average speed of 10 knots. Hence Cunard showed that had good organization, adequate financial resources and unparalleled competitive strength. The years which followed confirmed the strength of this company since for an entire decade her ships were the fastest in the most demanding sea route, the line of the north Atlantic. Cunard in 1850 lost her leadership from a main competitor, the American company Collins Line, only to regain the title of speed in 1856 with the launch of the S/S Persia, which remained invincible until 1863 when the scepter of speed handed to Cunard’s new built the S/S Scotia.

Blue Riband Trophy

The trophy of the “Blue Ribbon”, known as the Blue Riband, a prize awarded to the fastest ship crossing the Atlantic. Although the first transatlantic crossing by steamer was achieved for the first time by S/ S Sirius in 1838, the prize of the Blue Riband was introduced in 1860. It had the form of blue burgee which was raised to the highest bow flagstaff. Later, in 1935, the shipowner and politician Sir Harold Keates Hales (1868-1942), established another prize which became known as the North Atlantic Blue Riband Challenge Trophy, a trophy weighing 46 kg and with a height 1.20 meters. It was a great honor and an objective of big liner companies to acquire it.

In 1860 liner companies operating the North Atlantic routes, the main ones being Cunard Line and Inman Line, decided to formalize the existing informal awarding of the speed prize, known at the time as the “record breaker”, which belonged to those ships which achieved crossing the Atlantic fastest. The official prize institution took the name Blue Riband (Blue Ribbon), a term which probably originated from horse races, as the judges used to be award a blue ribbon to the fastest horse. This old naval prize, given as a title to the fastest transatlantic ship liners, also meant that these were the fastest-ships of the world, now established as an official title, which was raised to form a blue pennant at the highest point of the bow mast of the honored ship. It was natural for the competing companies to try hard to acquire it, since the prize was immediately marking the winning company as one of the best worldwide. The acquisition of the Blue Riband was therefore synonymous with success and “achievement”. The speed of the vessel to which the prize was given, was calculated by the average speed in the open sea for the two routes, i.e. from Europe to America and vice versa. Sometimes there were ships which earned the title at the same time, as one managed the fastest route westbound and the other eastbound which was quicker because of the Gulf Stream and the aligon winds. These rules were in force until 1935, and were changed by Sir Harold Keates Hales.

During the second half of the 19th century, the struggle for maritime sovereignty was expressed through the possession of the Blue Riband. The north Atlantic was the main area where the various liner and shipbuilding companies were competing with each other on issues of knowhow and organized management. The driving force behind such competition was of course profit making, which increased constantly since shipping was the only mean for connecting Europe with the Americas. Another but very important economic factor which supported the expansion of transatlantic shipping was the fact that at this period the mass migration from Europe to America commenced, during which more than 25,000,000 people had fled their countries, seeking a new life fortune across the Atlantic. Beside the already established companies such as Cunard and Inman, many new ones were established as the British Anchor Line, the French Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, the British National Line, the American Guion Line, the White Star Line famous from the Titanic, which acquired its first steamer in 1868, the Dutch Holland-Amerika Lijn, the Belgian Red Star Line, and many others. The Blue Riband speed prize, during this period changed hands several times among the dominant companies White Star Line, Inman Line, a.k.a. I & I, and the American Guion Line. The Cunard underwent an economic crisis but managed to return strengthened again in the liner scene with the ships RMS Campania and R.M.S. Lucania which clinched the trophy away from Inman’s S/S City of Paris, managing to maintain its possession from 1893 until 1897.

The end of the 19th century was marked by the dynamic entry in the global scene of the merchant shipping, of the German companies Norddeutscher Lloyd Bremen, known as NDL and Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft, known as the Hamburg Amerika Linie or as HAPAG. Although the two companies had made their presence since the mid-19th century, HAPAG was founded in 1847 and NDL in 1857, both had not hitherto indicated interest in becoming transatlantic liner leaders. The evolution of these two companies as global economic players who would dominate the maritime scene for at least ten years, from 1897 to 1907, was an integral part to a policy for the promotion of Germany’s economy and the establishment of the German Empire as a world power.

The new German policy and the attempt for mastering the seas by HAPAG and NDL.

The imperial family of Hohenzollern, has provided for 200 years the Kaisers of Prussia. Among them were some who were particularly distinguished for their skills as Frederick (left in second row), which was named Great during the Napoleonic Wars. After establishing the first national German Federal Empire, Versalies 1871, in which Prussia was the dominant force, the Prussian Kaiser, Wilhelm I, was also declared the Kaiser of the German Empire, next to the Empires Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. On the bottom row are the three last German Kaisers, whose names were honorarily given in three NDL ships. From left is Wilhelm I, the first German Kaiser, so-called Great, whose name was given to S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (1897, Blue Riband 1898). In the middle is his grandson Wilhelm II, the last German Kaiser, whose name was given to S/S Kaiser Wilhelm II (1903, Blue Riband 1904). On right is the Friederich III., son of Wilhelm I and father of Wilhelm II, whose name was given to S/S Kaiser Friedrich (1897), later renamed to S/S Burdigala (1912), which was the only of the three ships which not only did not win an honorary distinction, but failed even to meet the specifications of its shipowning to be company, NDL.

From the early years of governance by the new German Empire (Deutsches Reich), which evolved out of the Franco-German war of 1870-71, the organization of production and supply of raw materials, combined with the use of steam in factories, led to a rapid development of industrialization as a result of the strength of the German Empire in the global allocation of power and domination. Aided by such political and economic climate, Kaiser Wilhelm II, son of Kaiser Friedrich III of the Hohenzollern family, was interested in the early years of his rule to not only strengthen the Navy but also the merchant marine of Germany, making them both competitive and dominant in all seas.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, being the grandson of Queen Victoria of Britain, knew by heart the verses of poet James Thomson, “Britannia! Britannia rules the waves”, and was determined not only to assert the rights of Germany at sea, but rather to challenge the very sovereignty of the seas from Great Britain. Having by his side Generals, Admirals, shipowners and businessmen, he managed to achieve his vision by channeling enormous amounts of money into the German Navy and Merchant Marine, establishing both as leading forces of the maritime world. From this remarkable apogee, NDL and its main competitor from Hamburg, HAPAG, both enjoyed enormous benefits and support from the direct governmental assistances.

The main objectives of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his staff was in one hand the development of the German Navy, and on the other hand the development and independence of the Merchant Marine fleet from foreign capital, mainly British. For the development of naval fleet he relied on German heavy industry, especially on the leading metal industry Krupp of Essen and Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who was appointed as the overall commander of the fleet. For the development of the merchant marine he relied on two leading and undisputable personalities of German owned ships, Albert Ballin, director of HAPAG and Dr. Heinrich Wiegand, Director of NDL. The investments in shipping together with the simultaneous large orders for naval and commercial ships, led the German shipbuilding industry and metal foundries on a rapid development track, which affected the wider economy, knowhow and employment. It is of no coincidence that from this economic development, the German economy emerged as a world power, effecting changes on the global balance of power, which in turn lead Europe, by 1914, to the First World War.

Although HAPAG was active for more than ten years in the international shipping arena, the younger of the two, the Norddeutscher Lloyd, was the one which led the German Merchant Marine during the first phase of its peak, manifested by its conquest of many Blue Riband trophies and also by the great growth of the German merchant fleet, becoming a world power within a very short time.

The golden ten years of German merchant marine and the NDL company, 1897-1907.

An NDL poster advertising the steam line in America, Australia and the Far East. The ship pictured is the S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the sister ship of S/S Kaiser Friedrich. (KFB Collection)

An NDL poster advertising the steam line in America, Australia and the Far East. The ship pictured is the S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the “sister ship” of S/S Kaiser Friedrich. (KFB Collection).

By 1881 NDL had already positioned eleven ships ranging from 4,500 to 6,900 GRT to the North Atlantic routes, competing successfully with HAPAG of Hamburg, the Holland-Amerika Lijn of Rotterdam and the Red Star Line of Antwerp. During 1885 NDL won the state contest for the creation of a shipping line between Germany, Australia and East Asia. With the continuous expansion of its business, NDL was prepared by the middle of 1890 to take the leading role away from the British Cunard Line which up to that point had prevailed in the northern transatlantic sea routes.

Around the end of 1895 NDL had the financial power, the vigor and with the appropriate business structure commenced, under the administration of the charismatic Dr. Heinrich Wiegand, achieving her ambitious vision for claiming the scepter of the most British dominated shipping line, the line Europe – North America. For realizing such vision required not only ships able to compete with ships of other companies as HAPAG or the French Line, but even more to be able to compete and overpass the ships of Cunard Line, as the “Blue Ribband” titled R.M.S. Campania and R.M.S. Lucania.

Dr. Heinrich Wiegand (1855-1909) studied law and worked for several years as a lawyer for Norddeutscher Lloyd, before taking the reins of the company in 1892. He was the man who by a series of drastic measures such as increasing the total tonnage of the company fleet, ordering new large and fast ships and expanding business to Australia and the Far East, NDL was led to success, becoming one of the major global shipping companies.

Dr. Heinrich Wiegand (1855-1909) studied law and worked for several years as a lawyer for Norddeutscher Lloyd, before taking the reins of the company in 1892. He was the man who by a series of drastic measures such as increasing the total tonnage of the company fleet, ordering new large and fast ships and expanding business to Australia and the Far East, led NDL to success, rising to become one of the major global shipping companies.

Dr. Heinrich Wiegand’s program included the ordering of four medium-range, ca. 10,500 GRT new ships, plus two great ocean liners which would be fine contenders for the speed prizes of transatlantic travel. Consequently NDL representatives, under close supervision from Wiegand, visited the most important German shipyards with the mandate “construct the fastest ship in the world and we will buy her”. Hence setting the demanding requirements and specifications pertaining to the number of passengers and the service speed, which ought not to be less than 22 knots. Wiegand allowed a free hand to the naval architects regarding the lines of the ship, but insisted on the condition that his company would accept the ship in its fleet only after successfully completing a transatlantic voyage and practically meet all the conditions of the contract. If the conditions were not met, then NDL was entitled to return the ship to the shipyard. In this way Wiegand tried to protect NDL from great financial risks, since he knew that up to that point in time no German shipbuilder had undertaken to build ships of this large size and speed.

Two companies responded to NDL’s “challenge”, A.G. Vulcan of Stettin and Ferdinand Schichau of Danzig. The cities of Stettin and Danzig (renamed as Gdansk after the Second World War) are currently in Poland, but at the time were significant shipbuilding and shipping centers of Germany, not only during the First but during the Second World War as well. The A.G. Vulcan shipyard undertook to build the ocean liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse while the F. Schichau undertook to build the ocean liner Kaiser Friedrich. The names of the ships were given according to a policy of NDL, which in this way wished to honor the Kaisers of the Hohenzollern family from which the Kaiser Wilhelm II and his ancestors originated. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was the grandfather, while Kaiser Friedrich III was the father. This policy was followed by NDL during the years of its activity, naming the largest ships of its fleet after the German imperial family.

The S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, was the flagship of Norddeutscher Lloyd; during construction at the Vulcan Stettin shipyard. She was one of the two ships commissioned by NDL, the other being the S/S Kaiser Friedrich. Designed to compete successfully with Cunard Line in the northern Atlantic Ocean. By placing the ship in the Bremen - New York line, she immediately won the Blue Ribband speed trophy away from Cunard. The S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was the first ship sunk (26.8.1914), immediately after the start of World War I, in the north-west coast of Africa, near Rio de Oro in Western Sahara. (Arnold Kludas Collection)

S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, was the flagship of Norddeutscher Lloyd; here during construction at the Vulcan Stettin shipyard. She was one of the two ships commissioned by NDL, the other being the S/S Kaiser Friedrich and was designed to compete successfully with Cunard Line in the northern Atlantic Ocean. By placing the ship in the Bremen – New York line, she immediately won the Blue Ribband speed trophy away from Cunard. The S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was the first ship sunk (26.8.1914), immediately after the start of World War I, in the north-west coast of Africa, near Rio de Oro in Western Sahara. (Arnold Kludas Collection).

The companies which undertook the construction of two ships for NDL was quite different in size. A.G. Vulcan was the more experienced of the two, as it had built the four largest ocean liners of the German merchant fleet. In contrast to the Vulcan, Ferdinand Schichau was known for building fast destroyers for the German Navy, but had no experience in building large passenger ships. Although in 1894 the company had successfully built two ships of 6,500 GRT for NDL’s Australian and Far East lines and had accepted another order from Wiegand to build the 10,500 GRT S/S Bremen, such did not stop the company from being regarded as a yard specialized primarily in the construction of small ships. Thus the order from NDL for the S/S Kaiser Friedrich, was viewed as an opportunity for F. Schichau to enter the lucrative market of building large overseas vessels, aiming to apply its knowhow, which had been tried successfully for the construction of destroyers for the German Navy. It should be noted that NDL’s Chief Engineer, Max Walter, after reviewing the shipbuilding and engineering blueprints for the Kaiser Friedrich, he immediately expressed his reservations to Heinrich Wiegand, who did not take them into account and proceeded without hesitation with ordering the ship.

Robert Zimmerman, Chief Naval Architect of AG Vulcan, had worked for 11 years in British shipyards and knew well the secrets of the British shipbuilding practices. He studied very carefully the blueprints of Cunard’s S/S Campania before working on the construction of Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. It is of no coincidence that major parts of the ship, such as the steering system, were manufactured in England and later these were sent to Stettin. Under his guidance the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was built, to become the first ship that would take the leadership of transatlantic travel by taking away the Blue Ribband speed prize from Cunard Lines, which would transform the German shipping industry to a world power.

Immediately after her delivery in September 1897, S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was the largest ship of its time and was immediately placed servicing the Europe to America line, as NDL’s flagship. Since her first passage to New York, the ship achieved an average speed of 22.5 knots making the fastest maiden voyage of all time. During the return trip the average speed of 22.29 knots was enough to offer the title as the fastest ship of the world.

The maiden voyage of S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse became a milestone for the maritime history not only of Germany but of the entire world, as for the next ten years, from 1897 until 1907, the alternating possession of the Blue Riband speed trophy and thus the sovereignty of the seas, remained among the two German companies, namely Norddeutscher Lloyd and Hamburg-Amerika Linie (HAPAG). From these two companies, initially NDL seized her first victories and the first benefits which were to be continued by HAPAG, under the guidance of its General Manager Albert Ballin, becoming by the early 20th century the largest shipping company of its era.

S/S Kaiser Friedrich, the German period, 1897-1912.

Under the Norddeutscher Lloyd flag.

The Ferdinand Schichau shipyard (Schichau Werft) at Elbing, Danzig (today Poland), at the dawn of the 20th century. In this shipyard during 1897/98, the first ocean liner was built, the S/S Kaiser Friedrich, later renamed S/S Burdigala. (KFB Collection).

The Ferdinand Schichau shipyard (Schichau Werft) at Elbing, Danzig (today Gdansk, Poland), at the dawn of the 20th century. In this shipyard during 1897/98, was built the ocean liner S/S Kaiser Friedrich, later renamed S/S Burdigala. (KFB Collection).

After S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse obtained the speed prize, NDL had hoped to strengthen and secure its success by the deployment of S/S Kaiser Friedrich, which the company was building in the yard of Ferdinand Schichau in Danzig. NDL’s optimism and confidence for a successful future could not be hidden, as indicated by an eight page brochure printed in April 1898, stating that “the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, will be assisted by an even more gigantic ship, the Kaiser Friedrich, which is expected to be even faster”.

The main concern of the Schichau shipyard was to build a ship which would be slightly smaller than a ship built by the A.G. Vulcan, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and certainly much cheaper. At the same time the newbuild should be able to meet the demands posed by the NDL contract which mandated that the test speed of the vessel should be 22.5 knots for a period of six hours and that the guaranteed minimum speed be of 21 knots so that during thus ensuring that the transatlantic crossing would not exceed six days. According to these specifications the Kaiser Frierdrich was designed and built with three chimneys designated as the number 587 build with the following technical characteristics: length 183 meters, width 19.4 meters, tonnage 12,480 GRT and a displacement of 20,100 tons. Fitted with two five cylinder reciprocating steam engines (with cylinder diameter of 109.22 cm, 162.56 cm, 233.68 cm, 2 x 236.22 cm), with quadruple expansion, driving twin three-bladed bronze propellers,with a diameter of 6.19 meters, coupled to crankshafts made by Krupp Steel, the best steel in Germany. The engines were designed to develop a maximum nominal 28,000 horse power and in conjunction with the fact that the pressure in the ten boilers were rated at 15.5 bar, offered, according to the calculations by the Ferdinand Schichau engineers, a significant potential for coal economy. Contrary to common shipbuilding practices of the era, the engineers placed the engines slightly forward, between the second and third boilers. The ship had nine main boilers, each fitted with two coal loading trap doors plus a tenth auxiliary boiler; these were positioned in three watertight compartments each ducted to a smokestack.

By the end of her completion, the S/S Kaiser Friedrich had cost 525,000 pounds, surpassing by far the initial budgeted cost. Once concluded though, she was a pure example of shipbuilding magnificence with her beautiful line, low freeboard, an unusually long forecastle, a curvilinear bridge, large promenade deck and a feature very characteristic of the German shipbuilding at the time- an exceptionally high poop.

In addition to the features above, Kaiser Friedrich as well as other steamers of her time, were designed and constructed to operate as commercial armed cruiser in the event of war, as defined by German law, which meant that their exterior had to exude a solid and a sound effect. It is no coincidence that all those who reported on this particular ship in the future, always spoke with the best words about her external characteristics and her shipbuilding form.

S/S Kaiser Friedrich

S/S Kaiser Friedrich, at the period when she was provisionally delivered to Norddeutscher Lloyd. Compared to her “sister ship” S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, technologically was not superior, but was better in matters of luxury and interior decor.  Her beautiful and sleek hull lines together with some shipbuilding features, became reference points for those who delved into her short lived career. ( Collection).

Although in terms of the technical characteristics the Kaiser Friedrich was inferior to the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, in terms of interior design and lavishness she was a lot more sophisticated, with a harmonious blend of high quality and good taste. All the 180 first-class and 111 second-class cabins were placed on higher decks, offering their occupants remarkable views. Some of the first-class cabins were also convertible into large seating areas. In addition to the 420 crew, the ship could accommodate 1,350 passengers out of which 400 in first class, 250 in second and 700 passengers in third-class. Like the most sumptuous transatlantic ships of her time, the Kaiser Friedrich’s main dining and living rooms were lit by extravagant chandeliers and the surrounding walls dominated by the hanging Caryatids representing the art and sciences and decorated with painted panels portraying Kaiser Friedrich III’s family and their respective coat of arms. The walls were painted in a shade of ivory, adorned by gold ornaments, while the carpets were all red. The most prominent feature though was the ship’s promenade deck, especially in the first class areas where the deck was open so as not to obstruct the view and extended along the highest point of the ship’s admit for 100 meters. The ship was also equipped with smoking lounges, bars, music room and a library.

Kaiser Friedrich III

Kaiser Friedrich III, of the Hohenzollern family, a.k.a. “the Kaiser of 99 days” since this is how long he ruled. His name was honorarily given to the ocean liner S/S Kaiser Friedrich by Norddeutscher Lloyd, later to be renamed S/S Burdigala. Kaiser Friedrich III married the elder daughter of Queen Victoria of England and from this marriage Wilhelm II was born, the last Kaiser of Germany. (KFB Collection).

The construction work was completed in May 1898 and the Kaiser Friedrich embarked on its maiden voyage on May 12th from Danzig in Bremerhaven, the mother port of Norddeutscher Lloyd. During the sea trials, the engineers of NDL, which were present on board, discovered with disappointment that even with greatest of efforts she could reach the speed of 20 knots and by no means exceed it. Upon the ship’s arrival at the port and due to its poor performance with respect to the low speed she had achieved during the trials, the NDL categorically denied receiving the ship, adhering strictly to the explicit terms of the contract. Only after F. Schichau had confirmed that he would significantly improve the ship’s speed and performance did the NDL agree to include the Kaiser Friedrich in its fleet, planning its first transatlantic voyage from Bremerhaven to Southampton and from there to New York.

Since both companies had titles of ownership of the ship, one can say with certainty that they were both interested in finding a solution. The fact that the larger share of ownership, 62% belonged to F. Schichau, which at that point was trying to penetrate the global shipping market, combined with the explicit terms of the contract that made the return of the NDL ship not only possible but also likely in case it deviated from the terms of agreement, brought F. Schichau in a rather difficult and defenseless position.

In order to preserve the prestige of the company, it was essential that a solution should be found, a solution satisfactory to all. The first step involved sending the ship off to Southampton where it underwent some “structural adjustments” whose principal objective was to improve the speed. The ship remained for several days in the dry dock yards “Prince of Wales”, during which time the length of its two propeller blades was shortened by 30 cm. On June 1st 1989 the ship sailed back to Bremerhaven.


An NDL poster, from the dawn of the 20th century, advertising the overseas voyages of the Norddeutscher Lloyd. (KFB Collection).

On 7th June 1898, the S/S Kaiser Friedrich began its sea journey from Bremen to Southampton under the helm of an experienced NDL captain, Ludwig A. Störmer. The next day, on 8th of June, the ship’s first transatlantic trip to New York commenced , carrying 209 passengers in the first and second class, and 183 in the third, of which the majority were immigrants. The journey had started off well, but very quickly the bad weather and a number of mechanical problems significantly reduced the speed of the ship. Afterwards, the left engine ceased operating for 20 hours and 26 minutes, shortly followed by the right engine, which stopped running for 11 hours and 42 minutes. Fortunately for the passengers and the crew, the engines halted separately, not simultaneously. The cause of mechanical problems was later considered by ship specialists to be overheating of bearings or as it was formally stated in The Marine Engineer Magazine “the failure of the slide valves to work smoothly and to the breakage of studs on the air pump brackets, so that a proper vacuum could not be maintained”.

The result was disastrous as it took 7 days, 10 hours and 15 minutes for the S/S Kaiser Friedrich to cover the classic route from Southampton to Sandy Hook, New York, where it arrived on June 16th. Another several hours of delay were added to its already poor time count, owing to the fact that the ship had to stay outside the New York harbor and wait for entry allowance because of the mines that were placed to guard the harbour after the outbreak of the Spanish-American war in April 1898. The next day, the NDL hosted a press conference at the ship’s foyer, which was attended by media representatives, shipbuilders, engineers and ship-owners. As publicized by The New York Times in an article dated 17th June 1898 and headlined The Kaiser Friedrich – The Fine Big Steamship Makes Her Maiden Trip in Over Seven Days – Engines Easily Overheated, the average vessel speed during its first transatlantic crossing was 17.73 knots, pointing out that “nobody knows the actual maximum speed of the vessel”, as the average speed had been lowered due to mechanical problems.


A S/S Kaiser Friedrich passenger list of 16th June 1898 (pertaining to the ship’s first transatlantic voyage), addressed to the Governor of the U.S. Immigration Authority. The name entries reveal the ethnic mosaic of Europe. Leading the ranks are Hungarians, Austrians, Ukrainians, Germans and Russians. (Ellis Island Archive).

On 25th June 1898, the S/S Kaiser Friedrich set off on her return voyage, without passengers, which lasted 9 days, 2 hours and 30 minutes to Southampton. Given the very low average speed of 15 knots and a new set of mechanical problems which arose again during her return, the NDL cancelled Kaiser Friedrich’s next two scheduled trips and the ship was sent to F. Schichau’s shipyard in Danzig for repairs, always with the aim to improve her speed limit to exceed 20 and reach 22 knots. On September 4th the ship was given back to the NDL. On September 14th, Kaiser Friedrich embarked on her second transatlantic trip from Southampton to New York, where she arrived after 6 days and 12 hours on September 21st, traveling at an average speed of 19-20 knots. The corrections made by F. Schichau’s engineers slightly improved the ship’s speed performance, but not enough to cover the most important term of the contract which had set the service speed of the ship at 22 knots.

Over the next three journeys S/S Kaiser Friedrich had sailed by the end of travel season in December 1898, the speed remained at these levels without significant change. In the winter of 1898-99 the ship remained for three months at Schichau’s shipyard in Danzig for corrections and repairs, always with the aim to increase its service speed. In addition to installing new air pumps in the engine and boiler rooms, the four funnels were extended by 4.5 meters resulting in a noticeable change in appearance. With the start of the new season, the mended ship set off to its first transatlantic voyage in the year 1899, from Southampton to New York on March 5th. The crossing, which took 7 days and 40 minutes before reaching the Sandy Hook lighthouse, after the ship had lost two blades from its propellers, extinguished the last bit of hope that the ship with any new changes would ever approach the 22 knot threshold.

Because the NDL did not own any other ship of Kaiser Friedrich’s size, to cover the gap which Kaiser Friedrich’s removal from their fleet would cause, and also because the NDL did not want to return a ship 38% owned by them to the manufacturers, they patiently decided they would give Schichau’s engineers yet another chance to finally put it right. Eight more transatlantic trips followed, the shortest of which was 6 days, 22 hours and 30 minutes which finally and irrevocably classified the ship as belonging to the 19 knot class.

After all Norddeutscher Lloyd’s patience had been worn off, on 27th June 1899, during the ship’s return from New York, the company returned S/S Kaiser Friedrich back to its manufacturer on a formal ground that the ship did not cover the term of the contract which set its service speed at 22 knots. At the same time NDL ordered a new ship, bigger and faster but with the (tested) specifications same as those of S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, by the A.G. Vulcan. The new ship was S/S Kronprinz Wilhelm, which claimed and won the Blue Riband trophy two years later in 1902, reaching the average speed of 23.09 knots. Until the delivery of this new ship, which bore the name of Kaiser’s Wilhelm II son, the NDL temporarily replaced the Kaiser Friedrich with the S/S Kaiserin Maria Theresia (former S/S Spree), which sank in October 1904, during the Russian-Japanese War.

Ferdinand Gottlob Schichau

Ferdinand Gottlob Schichau (1814-1896), was born in Elbing (today Elblag, Poland) of east Prussia. Although he was from a poor family, his father was a blacksmith, managed to study engineering at Berlin. In 1837 he established the Schichau Werke of Elbing, which quickly emerged as a large industrial complex. At the Schichau Company thousands of workers produced many types of steam engines. In its shipyards the first German propeller driven vessel, the S/S Borussia, was built. The Schichau Company became world famous for the innovations introduced in warship constructions and more so for its fast destroyers.

Immediately after the delivery of the new ship, a long legal battle between the NDL and the Schichau Company had begun, which ended in 1908 with Norddeutscher Lloyd’s victory. The press of the time, from both sides of the Atlantic, was widely involved in this unprecedented event. The New York Times in their article dated June, 28th, captionedKaiser Friedrich Rejected, extensively analyses the underlying facts and causes. The general manager of F. Schichau, vigorously objected to the court decision, claiming that the culprit was the poor quality of coal used as fuel by the NDL. On 7th August 1899, he wrote a letter to the Chief Editor of the renowned magazine “The Marine Engineer”, which reads:

Dear Sir, In your esteemed journal of August 1st, page 207, you write that the KAISER FRIEDRICH has been withdrawn by the Norddeutscher Lloyd from service and returned to her builders. This not being the fact, I request you kindly to rectify it, in the next issue of your esteemed journal, according to the following data: – The KAISER FRIEDRICH was the property of the firm of F. Schichau, and in spite of her built as a high speed passenger steamer, requiring a good quality of coal, the Norddeutscher Lloyd mostly gave her a very inferior coal – besides, many of the stokers had no previous experience. Under these circumstances it could not give surprise that the KAISER FRIEDRICH was not able to develop her full speed, and there was no other way for the firm of F. Schichau but to withdraw its steamer and give her into other hands. The KAISER FRIEDRICH will make her next voyages under the flag of the Hamburg-American Line. Reiterating to you in advance my best thanks for this rectification,

I remain, dear Sir,

Yours very respectfully F. Schichau

“Mein Feld ist die Welt” – Τhe S/S Kaiser Friedrich and HAPAG

HAPAG 1860

A HAPAG poster ca. 1860, advertising the transatlantic lines of the company. (KFB Collection).

The announcement by F. Schichau Shippyards that “the Kaiser Friedrich will make its next journeys under the flag of HAPAG (Hamburg-Amerika Linie)” marked the beginning of the second chapter of later to be renamed S/S Burdigala’s history.

The HAPAG, whose coat of arms read “Mein Feld ist die Welt” (My field is the world), was established in 1847 by Hamburg bankers and ship owners. It was the first German company which operated across the Atlantic, carrying mostly immigrants with their ships which were powered by sails. In 1854, as a response to the rapid evolution of steam engines, HAPAG ordered their first steamship from shipbuilders Caird & Co. of Greenock, Scotland. The following year two brand new steamers, the S/S Hamonnia and the S/S Borussia, of 2,131 GRT, had joined the fleet setting the ground for the company’s steamship modernization. In 1899, while the S/S Kaiser Friedrich was steaming across the Atlantic, provisionally integrated into the Norddeutscher Lloyd’s fleet, HAPAG had evolved into one of the largest shipping companies in the world becoming NDL’s biggest competitor.

That same year the company’s general management was assumed by a rather charismatic young man, Albert Ballin, who was responsible for leading the company to triumph. Ballin was born in Hamburg where he grew up in a middle-class Jewish family as the youngest of 13 brothers and sisters. He spoke the Hamburg port dialect, quite well, despite his “pure” German and possessed vast experience in shipping operations, as he had dealt with this industry from a very young age. Although he never really became fully accepted by Hamburg’s elite, because of his Jewish descent, he evolved into one of the most trusted advisers of Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 1886 HAPAG, influenced by the young man’s talent, offered him a manager’s position in the company which eventually led him to the top management position. As the General Manager of HAPAG, Albert Ballin promoted the modernization of its fleet, placing the business strategy on transatlantic transport.

Believing strongly in the potential of the company he managed, he decided to focus on ocean liners. A year before, in 1989, a ship named S/S Deutschland, 16,502 GRT had been ordered from A.G. Vulcan of Stettin, which later became better known as the “The Cocktail Shaker”, because of her strong vibrations. This ship, which in 1900 was awarded the Blue Riband by breaking all the speed records, was HAPAG’s answer to Norddeutscher Lloyd’s S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse.

Ballin, who had decided against the ordering of S/S Deutschland, had concluded at the time, that ordering ocean liners with the aim of breaking the speed records was not profitable, so he decided to wait and see what was going to happen with the new ship. The cautious optimism of Ballin in conjunction with the evolution of world shipping, would later change the company’s investment policy but for the time being the Hamburg-Amerika Linie was facing other problems, the most serious of which was the shortage of a fourth ocean liner which would cover its north transatlantic routes.

Kaiser Friedrich - HAPAG

S/S Kaiser Friedrich, ca. 1900, at the period when she was under charter from HAPAG servicing the northern Atlantic line. This was perhaps the best period of the ship’s history, as Kaiser Friedrich was in accordance with the average speed expectations of HAPAG, at a time when the company was awaiting to take delivery of its new build, the S/S Deutschland with which was aiming to win the speed contest and capture the Blue Riband away from the rival S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse of NDL. In this picture the lengthening of  the funnels is visible, as is the bow flag emblem of the City of Hamburg (Wappen von Hamburg). (Arnold Kludas Collection).

In 1898 HAPAG had sold one of its oceangoing ships, the S/S Normannia, to the Spanish government which was used as an auxiliary cruiser by the name S/S Patriota during the Spanish-American war. This sale created a gap in the company’s transatlantic fleet at a time when business was thriving, as the second wave of mass immigration to America had reached its peak. Furthermore, because of the Spanish-American and the Second Anglo-Boer war in South Africa, a number of American and British ships had been pulled out of the North Atlantic route, creating in turn a considerable void in shipping.

This shortage of ships became a tremendous opportunity for German and French maritime companies, ready to reap enormous profits by covering the gap. HAPAG was the first to try to exploit this opportunity, but the absence of S/S Normannia had been evident given, that its three major ocean vessels could not satisfy the increased demand. In order to fill this gap, while waiting to add the S/S Deutschland into its fleet, HAPAG decided to charter S/S Kaiser Friedrich from the Schichau Company and include it immediately in its express line connecting Hamburg to Southampton, Cherbourg and New York. On October 2nd 1899, S/S Kaiser Friedrich embarked on its first transatlantic voyage under the HAPAG colors with a red flag and the City of Hamburg coat of arms on her bow, departing from Southampton for New York. Towards the end of the journey, the ship went off course and run aground near the coast of New Jersey but without damages. Soon after her return to Europe a second passage on the same route followed, which ended with the ship’s homecoming to Southampton, on 16th November 1899.

During the winter 1899/1900, Kaiser Friedrich remained in Hamburg where repairs were undertaken by the well-known shipyards of Blohm & Voss, mainly for increasing the number of cabin passengers, as well as its cargo capacity. At the start of the new travel season, on March 30th 1900, the ship set off from Southampton to New York. This departure marked the beginning of the most stable and successful period of the liner’s operating life, since HAPAG was not interested in breaking speed records and since taking delivery of S/S Deutschland was soon expected, the speed of Kaiser Friedrich was deemed more than sufficient by the company.

Kaiser Friedrich Accomodation Plans

The accommodation plans of S/S Kaiser Friedrich. (KFB Collection).

Over the next seven months, the ship had completed eight full transatlantic trips (Europe-America and back), between Plymouth and New York, out of which most of the eastbound crossings took less than 7 days to complete. Kaiser Friedrich’s best performance was recorded during its journey back from New York to Plymouth, in August 1900, which lasted 6 days and 11 hours. According to the press, S/S Kaiser Friedrich seemed to have found her appropriate home fleet, as she was traveling at speed levels equal to those of HAPAG’s other ocean liners, such as the Fürst Bismarck, the Columbia and the Augusta Victoria, while offering a more luxurious and sophisticated stay.

On June 30th 1900, after her fourth passage, the ship arrived at the HAPAG quay at Hoboken, New Jersey, where also the docks of Norddeutscher Lloyd were located. Her arrival coincided with the great fire of Hoboken during which many of NDL’s ships were destroyed, among them S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, which was not completely burned but had suffered major damages. It was a tragic incident with many victims and enormous financial losses. During the fire, Kaiser Friedrich participated in several rescue operations rendering crucial assistance. The newspapers of the time, as well as the official shipping records, make explicit references about the heroism of her crew.

In July 1900, the eagerly awaited S/S Deutschland, built by the A.G. Vulcan shipyards, made its maiden voyage under the HAPAG flag from Hamburg to New York. Within few months she had won the Blue Riband speed trophy, reaching an average speed of 23 knots, thus taking the lead away from NDL’s S/S Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. HAPAG’s dynamic entry into the higher class of transatlantic shipping, also meant the termination of S/S Kaiser Friedrich’s charter. Although the F. Schichau company had hoped, that after her successful integration into the Hamburg-America Linie’s fleet they would proceed with the ship’s purchase, HAPAG had other plans and decided to expand its fleet by building new ships.

Kaiser Friedrich - Strandhafen

After her return to Europe on 1st November 1900, Kaiser Friedrich was given back to her builder and owner F. Schichau, who left the ship mothballed in Hamburg port for approx. 12 years. The ship became sort of  a city emblem and was printed on many period commemorative post cards, as this one from the Strandhafen area. (KFB Collection).

In October 1900, S/S Kaiser Friedrich departed for her last transatlantic crossing from New York to Hamburg where she arrived in November of that year; the ship was subsequently returned to her owner F. Schichau who in turn decommissioned her, remaining mothballed at the port of Hamburg for the next 12 years. Despite the fact that S/S Kaiser Friedrich was a beautifully built ship, with a service speed perfectly satisfactory to meet the requirements of most shipping routes, the negative reputation which had been created around her name, as well as her failure to fulfill the purpose for which she had been built, caused her abandonment and eventually a misfortune that she most likely did not deserve. It was the first time -with the exception of the tragic first sailing and the subsequent ill fate of S/S Great Eastern-, that the possession of a ship of such class was considered by many as an “unnecessary luxury”.

There is no doubt that the failure of S/S Kaiser Friedrich to meet the term of the contract with NDL, which explicitly required that the vessel would reach the speed of 22 knots, was detrimental to the image of F. Schichau shipyards. Although the Norddeutscher Lloyd had ordered the construction of five new ships of around 6,000 GRT from the company to cover the Australian and Far East Lines and perhaps with the aim to alleviate the tension caused by their legal battle, the first large order from HAPAG was placed only about 10 years after the Kaiser Friedrich, in 1908, who ordered a middle-class 16,300 GRT vessel named S/S Cincinnati. Characteristic for the tarnished reputation and the financial damage caused by the failure of the Kaiser Friedrich, is the fact that in a commemorative album called “Die Schichau-Werke in Elbing, Danzig und Pillau 1837-1912”, which F. Schichau issued in 1912 to celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary, there is no reference whatsoever about Kaiser Friedrich. Only after a couple of years in the company’s history book did a small reference of the ship appear, under her new name S/S Burdigala, as a memory of the F. Schichau’s lost opportunity to truly play a part in the worldwide shipping.

S/S Burdigala, the French period, 1912-1916.

Under “Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique”, in the south Atlantic.

Cie Sud-Atlantique

A share title of the Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique, which previously was known as Société d´ Etudes de Navigation, after its name change on the 2nd February 1912. This share was issued on 20th March 1914, at a period when Sud-Atlantique was controlled by Companie Générale Transatlantique, widlely known as the French Line, the old competitor of  NDL and HAPAG. (KFB Collection).

The S/S Kaiser Friedrich remained mothballed in the harbor of Hamburg until 1910. This was a period when a newly formed Norwegian company, the Norwegian American Line (Norske Amerikalinje), was experiencing difficulties in trying to raise the initial capital essential for its establishment. As the Norwegian historian Bård Kolltveit points out, the F. Schichau Company made a proposal to Norske to become a shareholder, promising to provide them with the capital they needed to survive, if they would agree to purchase the Kaiser Friedrich. The proposal was accepted and the agreement reached a point where Norske gave the ship the name of S/S Leif Eriksson, in honor of the Icelandic explorer of the 10th century, Leif Eriksson who, according to the Nordic history, was the first person to set foot in America. Unfortunately for Schichau, at the last minute Norske decided not to purchase the Kaiser Friedrich, preferring to await the completion of ships they had already ordered. Two more years had passed before a solution was found, a solution that finally made Kaiser Friedrich active again. Her salvation was called Compagnie de Navigation Sud Atlantique and came from France in 1912, marking the beginning of the third period of the ship’s history.

In 1910 the ship-owners Cyprien Fabre and Alfred Fraissinet, together with the company Société Générale de Transports Maritimes and two French banks, established the company Société d ‘Etudes de Navigation. On May 27th of the same year, the company presented a proposal to the French Government with the request to undertake all postal services between France and South America. Starting in 1860 there was a bilateral agreement between the French Government and the competing company Messageries Maritimes, which carried out the postal connection between mainland France and South America. In 1912 this contract was ended and the French Government issued a tender for its renewal on the following condition: the company which would assume mail handling was oblidged to have six ships of at least 175 meters length and with a service average speed of 18 knots. The correspondence between Bordeaux and Buenos Aires was to take place every fortnight, with stopovers at Lisbon, Dakar in Senegal, Rio de Janeiro, Santos and Montevideo, and Rio de la Plata. Assuming the agreement was unprofitable, the Messageries Maritimes had withdrawn from the tender, leaving only one candidate, theSociété d ‘Etudes de Naviagation, which agreed to the terms and signed the contract in July 1911, becoming effective from 22nd July 1912. The French Parliament had approved the contract on the 31st December 1911 and right next day, on January 1st 1912, the Société d ‘Etudes ordered two ships to meet their immediate obligations. The one ship was the S/S Lutetia, 15.600 GRT, built by the Chantiers de l’Atlantique in St. Nazaire, and the other was the S/S Gallia, of same tonnage, which was built by the Société Nouvelle des Forges et Chantiers de la Mediterranee in La Seyne-sur-Meer, (which was later sunk in the Mediterranean by the German submarine U 35 in 1916, the same year that the S/S Burdigala was sunk). These two ships, for which it had been agreed to be delivered in 1913, were the first two of a four 15,000 GRT ship fleet with a speed of 20 knots, which was the shipbuilding goal that the Société d ‘Etudes de Naviagation had set to itself.

S/S Lutetia

S/S Lutetia, of 15.600 GRT, 175 meters long and with a nominal speed of 21 knots, was one of the two ships which Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique had ordered on 1st January1912. By joining its fleet on October 1913, meant the end of commission for S/S Burdigala, becoming mothballaed at the port of Bordeaux. In this picture the cock emblem of Sud-Atlantique is noticeable on the ship’s funnels. (KFB Collection).

On 8th February 1912 the Société d ‘Etudes de Navigation had changed its name to Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique, preparing even its name for the services to be offered in the South Atlantic routes. The company, with an equity capital of about 15,000,000 French Francs, had a Board of Directors consisting of Andre Berthelot, Cyprien Fabre, Alfred Fraissinet, Comte Arrnand, Pellerin de la Touche and Hubert Giraud, who were all well known shipowners and bankers. A major problem that the Sud-Atlantique had faced immediately after its name change, was how to bridge the gap period between the delivery of the ships they had ordered and the commencing of mail services scheduled to start on 22nd July. The resulting decision was to buy second-hand ships and incorporate those into its fleet for the time being. After a joint agreement with the French Government, the company’s first trip to South America was postponed for September 22nd. The adjournment gave extra time to Sud-Atlantique to further equip and prepare accordingly.

In March and April 1912, Sud- Atlantique bought six used vessels from the Orient Line, Union Castle, Bibby Line, and French Line companies. These ships were relatively old and ranged between 6,000 to 7,600 GRT, which did not really match the dynamic profile of the company. It was indispensable for Sud-Atlantique to acquire a large, fast and impressive ship, which would reveal the aspirations of the company and stress its authority. They found all which had been looking for in the S/S Kaiser Friedrich, which they purchased from the F. Schichau on 1st May 1912 for 4,000,000 French Francs, an amount considered to reflect one third of the ship’s actual value. The ship was renamed S/S Burdigala, in accordance with the practice of Sud-Atlantique to give its ships ancient Latin names such as Lutetia for Paris, Gallia for France and Burdigala for the city of Bordeaux, which was its base. According to maritime history expert Arnold Kludas, S/S Burdigala was converted at the Blohm & Voss shipyards in Hamburg. In addition to the changes done in the layout and allocation of lodging space, adjustments were also made to the basic ship systems, such as fitting of new boilers. Moreover, the ship was painted white with Sud- Atlantique’s coat of arms decorating the funnels- a red cock, symbol of ancient Gaul, since the Latin name for the cock is the same as the name for Gaul, Gallus.

S/S Burdigala - Accomodation Plans

The accommodation plans of “Paquebot-Poste Burdigala”. (KFB Collection).

The extensive repairs and upgrading of S/S Kaiser Friedrich into S/S Burdigala had taken longer than initially planned resulting in delayed delivery of the ship. The same was true for the other ships as well, which had been bought with the aim to serve the Bordeaux-Buenos Aires mail route, which was supposed to become operational from September 22nd 1912. Realizing that under the circumstances Sud-Atlantique would not be able to fulfill the terms of the contract signed with the French Government, decided to charter the S/S Atlantique from the Messageries Maritimes, with which the company finally managed to make its first scheduled trip on time.

After completion of the restoration work, S/S Burdigala sailed from Hamburg to Bordaeux, where she was welcomed with great enthusiasm , considering that she was the largest and fastest ship in service at the South Atlantic at the time. She would maintain this honorary title for a whole year. On September 26th 1912, the inclusion of S/S Burdigala in the fleet of Cie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique was celebrated with a luxurious dinner on board. Nine days later on October 5th, Burdigala had set off on its first journey with Buenos Aires as its final destination, flying the flag of Sud-Atlantique on her mast.

S/S Burdigala 1913

S/S Burdigala,-pobably by end 1912/eraly 1913-during her coaling operation at Pauillac, near Bordeaux, the home port of Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique. Her thirst for coal fuel was considered unprofitable by Sud-Atlantique, resulting to her reduced sailings until the delivery of the newbuilds S/S Lutetia and S/S Gallia. Immediately after the maiden voyage of S/S Lutetia, on 1st November 1913, Burdigala remained tied at the port of Bordeaux. This picture belongs to the so called “white period” of the ship, as it renedrs Burdigala soon after the extensive repairs carried out by the Blohm & Voss shipyards of Hamburg. (KFB Collection).

Although the trip had gone on uneventfully, during its return the ship experienced some mechanical problems which relusted to dry docking for additional repair work as soon as she had arrived in Bordeaux. For the time that the S/S Burdigala had remained inactive, Cie Sud-Atlantique was forced to replace the ship with the S/S La Gascogne, a ship they had chartered from the French Line. This fact combined with the Burdigala’s enormous coal consumption, had lead the Sud-Atlantique to the conclusion that the relation between the high operation cost of this lavish ship and the earnings derived was not profitable for the company. Nevertheless Sud-Atlantique had to wait further until the delivery of the new ships they had ordered before being in a position to withdraw the cost-ineffective S/S Burdigala from its fleet. On November 10th 1912, S/S Burdigala embarked on her second trip under the flag of Sud-Atlantique. This time she had managed to remain on track without any major problems, apart from grounding in a sandy shore of the river Garonne at the port of Bordeaux, following the dragging of the ship’s anchors. Over the short period of time that Burdigala served the southern Atlantic line, she evolved into a rather distinguishing persona of maritime communications between mainland France and South America. Until this day, one can find post cards of Sud-Atlantique with the ship’s photograph in many private collections that the emigrants were sending to their home countries to let their families know that they had arrived safely at their destination. On some of these photos, Burdigala is shown with its hull painted white, which coincided with the ship’s “white period”, a phase when she had first begun her career under the ownership of Cie Sud-Atlantique; on other photos the hull is painted black with a white strip around the gunwale. The latter refers to the second half of the year 1913, when the decision was made for all Cie Sud-Atlatique’s vessels to be painted in this way.

On 1st November 1913, the brand new S/S Lutetia began her first voyage to South America under the flag of Sud-Atlantique. Immediately after the commissioning of her sistership S/S Gallia into the same line, having made its first trip on 29th November of the same year, S/S Burdigala was decommissioned and she remained mothballed yet again at the port of Bordeaux until the breakout of the First World War.

Allons enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé! Under the Tricolour and the symbols of war.

Jules Abel Faivre - 1916

“We shall defeat them!” A French war propaganda poster of 1916, by artist Jules Abel Faivre (1867- 1945).

Immediately after the start of the First World War and the general mobilization, which France declared on 3 August 1913, many ships of the merchant fleet were commandeered by the French government. Among them were also ships of Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique. According to the existing records, we know that the ship S/S Lutetia and S/S Gallia were the first commandeered since the beginning of the war in August 1914. Although so far we have not found a primary source making a direct reference to the requisition of the S/S Burdigala, we believe that she was commandeered the same period, probably on 18th August due to indirect references about the ship as recounted by secondary sources, as for example, files pertaining to the transportation of troops and war material.

The French government initially used Burdigala as a simple troop carrier in service from the French Mediterranean city of Toulon to the Dardanelles and to Thessaloniki port in northern Greece. The first entry identified makes a direct reference to the ship’s name as a troop transport, dated 9th November 1914 in Toulon, where Burdigala began boarding the 14th battalion of the 2nd Constitution of Zouaves (14e Bataillon du 2e Régiment de Zouaves). The Zouaves were a select corps of mercenaries of the French army, which was initially staffed with soldiers from tribes of Algeria. The choice to send such a select battalion as the Zouaves to the Balkans, was part of the overall war plan of the Entente allies, whose aim was to open a second front in southeastern Europe, especially after the arrival of the German warships SMS Goeben and SMS Breslau in Istanbul on 10th August 1914, the subsequent closure of the Dardanelles by the Turkish Army (27th September 1914), the German blockade of the Baltic Sea and the declaration of war by Turkey against the Entente (12th November 1914); hence the sea link with Russia was cut off. Indeed few months later, on 19th February 1915, began the famous battle of Gallipoli, the purpose of which was primarily the opening of a new front in the Balkans, with a view to military involvement in neighboring countries such as Bulgaria and Greece, and secondly, the occupation of the Gallipoli peninsula, control of the Dardanelles strait and marching of Entente forces to Istanbul. In December 1915 Burdigala was designated as an auxiliary cruiser (Croiseur Auxiliaire) and equipped with Q.F. Firearms and four 140 mm caliber (5.5 inches) cannons, which were placed in pairs, at the bow and stern.

With the commandeering of S/S Burdigala begins the fourth and last period of the history of the ship. The problems faced by the previous owners, namely the companies Norddeutscher Lloyd and Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique, primarily among these being the heavy consumption of coal fuel, seems not to play a significant role during this period since the French government used every available vessel to support its military actions in the Balkan war theater, and certainly issues of fuel economy was not in its priorities.


Military post card showing Burdigala battling it out with stormy seas. The French Navy had printed a series of post cards showing ships of the fleet at moments of fighting strength. These cards had a dual purpose, assiting propaganda campaigns for keeping-up high morale and as correspondence cards for the troops helping to maintain contact with their families and loved ones. (KFB Collection).

From 1915 to 1916, up to her time of sinking, the ship continued to carry troops to the Dardanelles and Thessaloniki, which was the base of the Entente allied forces. The route followed from Toulon passing south of Sardinia and Sicily, and with a first stop in La Valetta, Malta, continuing and rounding the Cape Malea on to Piraeus and from there through the Kea Channel to the Thessaloniki port. At this point it should be noted that Greece, until the declaration of war against the combined German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Turkish forces on 25th November 1916 by the Eleftherios Venizelos government, had remained neutral and any actions on its territory and seas was the case, at least theoretically, among those forces engaged in the war.

On 13th November 1916 the ship sailed from Thessaloniki empty, -in which city in the meantime the Greek provisional government of 26th September 1916 was installed, headed by Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos,- destined for Toulon for loading more troops and war materiel. Captained by Cdr. François Rolland and the chief engineer Auguste Richard. The next day, November 14th, at 10:45 in the morning, while the ship was about two miles southwest of Cape Agios Nikolaos, Kea island, a midship explosion blasted on the starboard side which flooded the engine area. While the ship had taken a 4 degrees list and the captain hoped that she will sink within 20 minutes, later on the situation changed as the water penetrated into the second boiler room ahead of the engines. The list of S/S Burdigala increased and the captain ordered to abandon ship. Immediately the crew, under the supervision of the captain, the chief engineer and the second officer Mercier, launched the rescue boats in the water and abandoned the ship. After 15 minutes from the “abandon ship” order was given, S/S Burdigala, cut in two by a second explosion, sank off the northwest coast of Kea in a depth of 70 meters.

The history of the sinking. Torpedo or mine?

Burdigala Toulon

S/S Burdigala, under full flag dress code at the Toulon Naval Base during 1915. During this period as a commandeered troop carrier, was in service to Thessaloniki port, Greece, supporting the Dardanelles military campaign. By the end of that year she was armed by fitting four 140 mm cannons and registered as an Auxilliary Cruiser. In this picture the cock emblem of Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique, is noticeable on the three funnels and at the aft mast. (KFB Collection).

As the written statement by the commanding officer Lt. Cdr. François Rolland, the UK National Archives and the Greek press of the time reported, albeit with few errors which were corrected the next day, the survivers of S/S Burdigala were rescued by the British destroyer HMS Rattlesnake and were transported that same afternoon to Piraeus port. Later they were transferred on board the French flagship, Battleship Provence (Bretagne Class), and first aid services were provided. According to eyewitness reports, the statement by the commanding officer of the auxiliary cruiser S/S Burdigala, Lt. Cdr. François Rolland, and the Greek daily press, there was only a single loss of the young engineer Nicolas Losco. Losco, 22 years old, born on November 22, 1893 in Marseilles, France, died from burns which were suffered after a steam pipe burst in the boiler room at the time of the explosion.

According to the Athens daily press, as stated in the newspaper “Emprós”, of the 15th and 16th November 1916 (dates adjusted to the new corrected Julian calendar), the sinking of Burdigala was caused by torpedoing. There is also a specific account that “The Captain, although he realized that the ship was sinking, he ordered his gunner to open fire against a submarine, her periscope still visible. Thus about 15 cannon rounds were fired, but is unknown if they hit the target”. The same reportage, assuming torpedoing as the cause of sinking, is given by the rest of the press, as by the Patras newspaper “Neológos Patrón” of 16th November, while the official position of the French Government as submitted by 15th October 1919 which mentions that the S/S Burdigala, “torpillé le 14 novembre 1916 dans le canal de Zea, a culé après avoir canonné jusqu’à la dernière minute le périscope de l’ennemi. Son équipage a donné un bel exemple d’énergie et d’abnégation”. The same view is adopted by the French historian Auguste-Antoine Thomazi, whose important work, La Guerre navale dans la Méditerranée, mentions that “le 14 Novembre, un de nos plus grands trasports, le croiseur auxiliaire Burdigala, qui revenant de Salonique à Toulon fut torpillé dans le canal de Zéa (Cyclades)”. Based on this position and the account of Cdr. Rolland in the official report of the incident, that “the submarine dived immediately and the periscope disappeared soon after its detection” (see William Kaye Lamb, Kaiser Friedrich: The ship that failed, p. 17), the French Government awarded in 1919 to Cdr. François Rolland, to the second officer Ernest Mercier, to the Chief Engineer Auguste Richard and to other members of the S/S Burdigala crew, the medal of honor Ordre de l’Armée.

In addition, and contrary to these reports, the position of France’s ally, the United Kingdom, expressed through the descriptions and arguments of Paul G. Halpern, Professor of History at Florida State University, as stated in the respected book, The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1914-1918, informs us that “The unusually high tonnage for the few ships sunk by submarine-laid mines in November was due to the line of twelve mines laid by U 73 in the Zea Channel on 28 October. The minefield claimed the French liner Burdigala on 14 November and the huge hospital ship Britannic on the 21st”. In the same wavelength, but without excluding the possibility of torpedoing, submarine warfare experts, R.H. Gibson and Maurice Prendergast, write in their book, The German Submarine War 1914-1918, that “on the 14th the French auxiliary cruiser Burdigala (better known before the war as Kaiser Friedrich, 12.009 tons) was sunk, either by mine or torpedo”.

Unter Kriegsflagge

«Unter Kriegsflagge», (Under the war flag). German propaganda post card of 1915,-by seascape artist Claus Bergen (1885-1964), famous for his paintings of the Skagerrak seabattles-, aimed to support a fund raising campaign for the submarine warfare. Although German fleet Grandadmiral Alfred von Tirpitz, had just before the war expressed his doubts about the effectiveness of submarines, as a new weapon, it proved later on as the single one war method which had greatly assisted the German Navy. (KFB Collection).

The conflicting views and information provided by the experts, in conjunction with the search for the causes of the sinking of Burdigala, -which look very similar to the causes and circumstances of the sinking of HMHS Britannic, which sunk just a week after Burdigala, in the same region , as reported by the Athens daily “Emprós” of 22nd November 1916 – has prompted us to research the German archives, focusing mainly on those of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesarchiv – Militärarchiv), the State and Military Archives of Austria (Österreichisches Staatsarchiv / Kriegsarchiv, Wien) and the five tome works of Admiral and researcher Arno Spindler, titled  “Der Handelskrieg mit U-Booten, Der Krieg zur See 1914-1918”, which is the historical corpus magnus of German submarines during their naval operations  against the merchant ships of the First World War. This work carried out under its auspices, represents the official historical position of the German Navy, based on primary naval records of the First World War.

Knowing that either as the direct or the indirect hunter of S/S Burdigala, was and is considered the German mine laying submarine U 73 (Minenleger U 73), commander of which was during this period Lt. Cdr. (Kapitänleutnant) Gustav Siess, we also sought those primary sources which would inform us about the events as seen and recorded by the German side, especially by eyewitnesses who were on board the submarine. These sources were found in the log entries of U 73 and in the autobiographical diary, in book form, titled Vom U-boot zur Kanzel, by legendary Martin Niemöller, who served as navigator of the U 73 from early 1916 until early 1917. Another account, equally important, is the narrative of French stoker Jean Lolio, who was at the time of the explosion in the engine room of Burdigala. Jean Lolio recounted his story and experience to his grandson Andre Durand, who then submitted it to reporter Jean-Paul Vignea. From this collaboration an article titled “Mon grand-père était à bord”, was published in Sud Ouest, on 29th October 2008, immediately after the discovery and positive identification of the shipwreck by our team.

The information and presentation of the facts as they are listed in the above sources, led us to look closer to the sinking of S/S Burdigala from another angle, beyond that of the French side. We concluded to a theory which, – even if it differs from the official position of the French government and the position of Cdr. Rolland who was convinced that the ship was sunk by a torpedo-, is based on documents, on historical records, on evidence and narratives of eye witnesses, not only by the German but also by the French side, as is the account of the then 29 year old Burdigala stoker, Jean Lolio. Our opinion about the causes of S/S Burdigala’s sinking is based on the following elements:

U 73, 28.10.1916

A page from the U73 ship log (Kriegstagebuch), dated 28.10.1916. Captain Gustav Siess’ signature is also noticeable in the entry: “Kea Channel from time 8 and 7΄until time 8 and 27΄- deployment of two minefields, consisting of 6 mines each. (Ref. Minefield Catalog)”. Pertains to minefield Nr. 32, which we consider, according to information available so far, as being responsible for the sinking of S/S Burdigala on 14.11.1916 and of HMHS Britannic on 21.11.1916. (Bundesarchiv – Militärarchiv, der B.R.D.).

1. Our survey initially indicated that during the sinking of S/S Burdigala, no German, Austrian-Hungarian or Bulgarian submarine (there was only one, the UB 8), was present in the sea region. The movements of all submarine flotilla at Pola of Istria and Cattaro of Dalmatia, of both forces, the Imperial German Navy (Deutsche Kaiserliche Kriegsmarine) and the Austrian-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Navy (Kaiserliche und Königliche Kriegsmarine) , better known as K.u.K Kriegsmarine, are carefully recorded, with every detail, by the German and Austrian archives; according to these there was no submarine present in the region at the time of the sinking of S/S Burdigala, nor the sinking of HMHS Britannic. The presentation of a detailed list of these submarines and their activities during November 1916 would directly support our positions, but the sheer volume of data does not permit such a listing in this article which would exceed its scope. Nevertheless, it should be noted about 40 German submarines were present in the Mediterranean during that period. The exception remains as a registered historical fact, that the only submarine present in the Aegean at this period was the U 73, which according to existing logs of her activities, after laying, from 27th to 29th October 1916, minefield Nr. 31 near Fleves island on the Saronic Gulf, Nr. 32 in the Kea Channel and Nr. 33 on the Tinos-Mykonos strait, then sailed out of the wider Aegean Sea, retuning to her base of Cattaro on 4th November 1916. Therefore, during the dates of the sinkings of S/S Burdigala (14.11.1916) and of HMHS Britannic (21.11.1916), the U 73 was already in Cattaro, where she had anchored by 7th November.


A propaganda post card which was given as a token of appreciation to participants in the fund raising campaign for supporting  the submarine warfare of the First World War. Painted by seascape artist Willy Stöwer (1864-1931), a personal artist friend of Kaiser Wilhelm II, it depicts a scene from the so called “traders warfare”  (Handelskrieg). A submarine sinks a British merchant ship, while her crew has boarded the life boats and are rowing away. (KFB Collection).

2. During 1916, the main naval war practice adopted by German submarines in the Mediterranean, was that of “war on traders”, more known in German as Handelskrieg, in French as Guerre de Course and as Commerce Raiding in English. This type of war, apart from the main objective to bend the enemy’s defense by destroying its commercial fleet, and the fleet which support its foreign trade, had elements which could perhaps be described as a knighthood. The sinking of a ship by torpedo was rare. The usual practice was the following. After the detection of a commercial vessel, the Captain of the submarine would inspect the ships documents, cargo manifesto and nationality. If he determined that the standards, in accordance with the International London Convention of 1909, were breached for carrying cargo for a country which belonged to the united forces of the Entente, then he ordered the crew to abandon ship and launch the life boats. Then he would sink the ship by canon fire or by torpedo or dynamite. The purpose being not to remove life, but rather to weaken commercially and economically the opponent. Surely there were hothead captains, who viewed the war as a purely personal matter, executing sinkings according to their credo, but in doing so they tarnished Germany’s foreign policy. German diplomacy, whose main aim at this time was to keep America neutral and out of the war, suffered a major blow which may have caused its defeat in the First World War. On 7th May 1915, the submarine U 20, under the command of Cdr. Lt. Walther Schwieger, sunk by torpedo off the southeast coast of Ireland, the great ocean liner of Cunard Line, the RMS Lusitania, with losses up to 1,198 people, among  them 128 American citizens. This led the U.S. Government to rethink and reconsider its position in relation to the war. The German Government fearing that the involvement of America in support of the Entente would lead to its defeat, decided to directly control the action of the submarines by sending the appropriate orders to the German Admiralty (Admiralstab) and assuring the American Government for its good intentions. Although this “status belli” was changed several times in 1915 and 1916, on 12th October 1916 the German Admiralty sent to the command of the German submarine flotilla in the Mediterranean (Handelskriegführung, U-Flottile Pola), the following order (see Arno Spindler, Volume III, p. 323): “In the Mediterranean it is allowed to conduct war in accordance with the rules of war, trade and war booty. Enemy merchant ships, whose weapons are clearly evident and are in the sea area west of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, may be sunk underwater [meaning that may be torpedoed]. Passenger ships [as the S/S Burdigala], even if they bear arms, should be left as they are, under any circumstance and at any area”. The order, which remained in force until early 1917, shows that the captains of submarines, at least in the Mediterranean, would be answerable to the German Admiralty in case that they violated these orders. This was much more important to a ship as the HMHS Britannic, which was protected under strict orders (see 1d) bearing also the status of a floating hospital.

Gustav Siess

The Captain of German sub U 73, which is considered responsible for the sinking of S/S Burdigala and of HMHS Britannic, was Kapitänleutnant Gustav Siess (1883-1970). During his distinguished career as submarine commander, he sunk 33 merchant ships totalling 170.066 GRT, 2 naval ships totalling 15.250 GRT and caused damages to 9 other vessels totalling 35.657 GRT. For these accomplishments the highest medal  “Pour le Mérite” was awarded to him on 24th April1918, which in this picture he wears on the chest. (KFB Collection).

3. Among the German submarine captains a competition regarding the number and tonnage of ships sunk had developed, since their achievements were directly linked to their honorary medal earnings. For every ship that each was sinking, beyond the entry in the submarines log book, they also filed the date to the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, directly next to the ship’s name, after crossing a line over the main characteristics of the sunken ship so as to indicate that she did not exist anymore. The fact that during the war but even after its end, no German or Austrian submarine captain lay any claim for the sinking of neither S/S Burdigala nor HMHS Britannic, but on the contrary it was perceived that these sinkings were due to the mines positioned by U 73, suggests, if nothing else, that the credit for these large tonnage sinkings was given to Lt. Cdr. Gustav Siess. After the war, following an investigation made by Admiral Arno Spindler, the official position of the German Admiralty remained unchanged, considering that the sinkings of these two ships were caused from the mines of U 73. In the German newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt of 10th December 1963, in an article commemorating the 80th birthday of Gustav Siess, refers him as the man who sank the largest British naval ship, the HMHS Britannic.

German Embassy

A declaration by the German Embassy, published by the Athens daily press on 31st October 1916. The statement reiterates Germany’s diplomatic policy that indeed its submarines will not fire against neutral flagged vessels. The statement mentions “warfare contraband” meaning Handelskrieg,  while the citation about “revolutionaries” denotes the supporters of “National Defense” who were destined to Thessaloniki for joining the military units of the Temporary Government of Greece who supported the Entente.

4. We know from eyewitness accounts that during the sinking of S/S Burdigala a submarine periscope was visible on the surface, against which 15 rounds from a cannon were fired by the crew. It is odd that the same incident was reported once again seven days later, during the sinking of HMHS Britannic, as researcher Simon Mills mentions. During the sinking of the Britannic, a crew member supposed that he saw a submarine periscope to cleave the surface. Although it would be daring to challenge the credibility of eyewitnesses, we believe that the fear created by the action of German submarines, not only to ship crews but also to unarmed civilians through the daily press, was enough to create hasty impressions that sometimes even replaced the facts. It is of no coincidence that the newspapers of the time were writing with excess emphasis about torpedoings which retrospectively were proved to be mine caused sinkings. Aside from the perception that torpedoings had caused the sinkings of S/S Burdigala and HMHS Britannic, a passenger ship sunked earlier, the Angeliki (706 GRT, belonging to the Giannoulátos Bros. – Ionian Steamers) on 28th October 1916 and S/S Kiki Isaia (2,993 GRT, belonging to G. Isaias and K. Zalokóstas) on 31st October 1916, near Fleves island in the Saronic Gulf, exactly the area were on 27th October the U 73 had laid the minefield Νr. 31, these were also viewed as torpedoings.  In relation to the sinking of P/S Angeliki , the press confidently reports by a headline boldly titeled “The heartbreaking tragedy of steamer Angeliki – torpedoed at night in Fleves island by a submarine”.  In the case of S/S Kiki Isaia the headlines were more cautious, posing the question, “Torpedoed or struck on a mine?”. In the latter case, the reports were based on the ship’s Captain Stamátis Sachtoúris (last grandson of national Greek revolution hero from Hydra, Geórgios Sachtoúris), who argued that, “I heard the wheezing sound of a launched torpedo”, resulting in a tendency to view the sinking as torpedo caused.  Hence even some time later, the sinkings of the Angeliki and Kiki Isaia were believed to be more likely as torpedoings. But these were just other cases for which no German submarine commander had made any post-war claims for alleged torpedoings; owing to the provision and location of the minefield, the German Admiralty considered that at least for the case of S/S Kiki Isaia, as being sunk after impact on a mine placed by the U 73. Nevertheless, we believe that the sinking of P/S Angeliki was also a result from a collision with a mine laid by the submarine U 73. One final incident that underlines the sensitivity of public opinion and the press of the time, leading to hasty estimates and direct entries considering every other sinking as torpedo caused, pertains to the case of HMHS Braemar Castle on 23rd November 1916, hitting on minefield Nr. 33 also laid by U 73 on 29th October 1916 in the Tinos-Mykonos strait. The newspaper “Emprós” of 24th November 1916, reports the incident by headline, “Another hospital ship was torpedoed between Tinos and Mykonos”. Perhaps due to this announcement explains why the sinking of S/S Burdigala was considered as sunk in this area, of course prior to her discovery and identification from our team.  Needless to say, that HMHS Braemar Castle did not sink, but was purposely run aground and after repairs continued to sail.


German percussive sea mine of the First World War. On the upper part of the float the striking lead rods which triggered the ignition mechanism are visible. (Imperial War Museum – U.K.).

5. The fact that S/S Burdigala was struck amidships on the starboard side, has led many to believe that it was a torpedo hit and not a mine, since a collision with a mine would probably rupture open the bow because of the direction and movement of the ship. The same was stipulated for the sinking of the P/S Kiki Isaia, on 31st October 1916, as the hole opened, causing the ship to sink within “four minutes”, was in the stern hull section between the third and the fourth water sealed compartments.

In order to understand better about hull damages, caused from an underwater mine explosion to such hull sections considered as safe, it is necessary to know how the mines of the First World War operated. The German sea mines during this period were percussive with anchor and could be deployed either from the surface or by a submarine through special pipes. The mine after launching reached the sea bottom and then, after activation of the anchoring mechanism, emerged to a predetermined depth where it remained active until its potential collision with an overpassing ship. It should also be noted that often the anchored mines did not remain steady in their initial positions due to dragging caused by strong prevailing sea currents.


A striking rod (horn) made from soft lead incorporated an internal glass tube (left) filled with electrolyte, a mixture of sulfuric acid and potassium bichromate.

The float being the main body of the mine, contained the explosive mixture (charge), the ignition mechanism with a fuse and the firing mechanism, which connected to the striking rods protruding from the main body. The rods made from lead incorporated internal glass tubes filled with a mixture of sulfuric acid and potassium bichromate. At the moment of impact, the soft strike rods bent, breaking the glass tube, hence the chemical mixture spilled on to a cylindrical container containing zinc carbon battery plates wired by cable and connectors to the firing mechanism. The acid caused electrolysis, producing enough electrical current to ignite the fuse, which in turn fired the charge causing an explosion of the mine. The time lag needed to trigger the explosion was directly dependent on the duration of the electrolysis. This meant that there was a time interval from the ship’s impact with the mine, until its explosion. Therefore, depending on the ship’s speed, length and the duration of the electrolysis, resulted to the precise point of the explosion and the extent of damage caused onto the hull. For a small ship, such as P/S Kiki Isaia, it is likely that the explosion took place in the stern because of her short hull length combined with the electrolytic process initiated at the moment of impact with the mine at the ship’s bow. However, for a longer vessel as S/S Burdigala, it is highly probable that the explosion took place amidships.

Jean Lollio (1887-1966)

The stoker mate of  S/S Burdigala, Jean Lolio (1887-1966), was on duty deep in the engine room at the moment of the first impact and the second explosion which caused the ship to be cut in two. He was an eyewitness of  S/S Burdigala’s sinking and later on recounted this experience to his grandson Andre Durand, through whom his story reached us as well. (Andre Durand Collection).

6. As already mentioned, one of the eyewitnesses of the sinking of  S/S Burdigala was stoker Jean Lolio, who recounted the experience of the sinking to his grandson Andre Durand. Durand, in an interview given to journalist Jean-Paul Vignea, published by the newspaper Sud Ouest, says: “My grandfather was working at his post when Burdigala encountered difficulties. He did not know exactly what had happened, but heard a noise. Suddenly, an explosion occurred and everything began to move. He believed that the ship had just been hit by a torpedo. Only afterward he learned that they were shipwrecked from a mine. The ship was cut in two. The water rose very quickly.  Entraped in the engine compartment, my grandfather thought that he will die. Fighting as possible together with another he managed to escape from the boat crawling out through an airway. He found himself in the water along with many others, holding on to anything which could float”. The phrase,“Il a cru que la bateau venait d’être touché par une torpille. Ce n’est qu’après le naufrage qu’il appris qu’il s’agissait d’une mine”. (See Jean-Paul Vignea, Mon grand-père était à bord), indicates that after the sinking of the ship it became known, at least to some of the crew, that it was not about a torpedo but a mine. Furthermore, the information that the big explosion which led to Burdigala’s breaking into two pieces occurred after the ship had been hit, leads to further theories. Such an explosion can be caused by or be associated with the explosion of a boiler, possibly in the second boiler room where, as we know from the official report by Captain Rolland, was flooded by sea water 20 minutes after the first explosion that caused rupture of the hull flooding the engine room. This hypothesis is included in our list of unanswered questions, which hopefully will be clarified and dealt with in the future.

Based on these six points -which in our opinion argue for Burdigala’s strike on a German mine located in the area where the submarine U 73 laid the Kea Channel minefield Nr. 32 on 28th October 1916,- we believe, until a documented evidence to the contrary appears, that the sinking of S/S Burdigala was due to a mine and not a torpedo. We ought to also mention that a similar conclusion has been reached by the researcher Simon Mills (see his book “Hostage to Fortune”), regarding the sinking of HMHS Britannic. These two ships apparently shared the same fate as the “seed of evil”, which was placed on 28th October 1916, was destined to lead both -with one week difference- to their wet graves. These ships, together with the Greek flagged  P/S Kiki Isaia, not as yet discovered, were the main witnesses of a violent and bloody past which is both tangible and visible today in the Aegean seabed.

Two last words.


These miniatures in scale of 1:1250, show the size analogies among the “hunter” and the “victims”. In front the sub U 73, in the middle S/S Burdigala, ex. S/S Kaiser Friedrich (rendered by Carlo Marquardt), and in the back HMHS Britannic (by Holger Lange). The analogy is 1 cm = 12.5 meters while the detailed model constructions are based on authentic naval architectural drawings. (KFB Collection).

This is the sad story of ocean liner S/S Burdigala, former S/S Kaiser Friedrich. Having reached the end of our story telling, we would like to briefly mention those particular characteristics of the vessel which still accompany her to the present, marking her special place in the general maritime historical context.  Burdigala is a ship which  -although failed to achieve the most crucial condition set by the ordering company, that is achieving a cruising speed of 22 knots,- still remains in the maritime history as a reference point of failure because of that failing.  S/S Burdigala also expresses through her history, the objectives and activities of maritime companies in relation to know-how, trade, profit, social structures and policies during the first peak of the industrialized economies, while on the other hand sketches via her travels and lengthy passenger lists a part of the history of transatlantic migration, not only for the North but also for the South American continent. Moreover, her tragic end is directly connected to the social and political crises of the early 20th century, expressed through armed conflict, which inevitably led to the First World War.

We hope that the historical research conducted about the S/S Burdigala and its rendering through this article, would help our readers understand better this historic wreck. Of course there are still some aspects in the ship’s history which remain obscure, mainly concerning her sinking. We are continuing our above water and underwater research, seeking to find answers to questions related to unknown aspects her history, while knowing that many of these questions might remain  forever unanswered. We hope that our work has contributed primarily in illuminating the main elements of the shipwreck, as a historic object and a monument for future generations. We also suppose that her neighboring and common historical destiny with the floating hospital ship HMHS Britannic, which lays in  less than two nautical miles from the point of sinking  of S/S Burdigala, make the north-western waters of Kea as one of the main diving sites and destinations of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Copyright © 2009 by D. Galon and the S/S Burdigala Project Team

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