Report of François Rolland, Commander of the Auxiliary Cruiser S/S Burdigala

Written statement by the Commanding Officer of the Auxiliary Cruiser S/S Burdigala, Lt. Cdr (Reserve) François Rolland, by order of the French Navy.

Translation: Byron E. Riginos

HMS Rattlesnake

The British destroyer HMS Rattlesnake was the rescuing ship which assisted the survivors of S/S Burdigala. In the statement by Commanding Officer François Rolland, there is a special mention about the impeccable performance and spirit of camaraderie of the Captain and crew of HMS Rattlesnake. (KFB Collection)

Official Gazette, October 15, 1919.

“Auxiliary Cruiser BURDIGALA: torpedoed and sank on November 14, 1916, in the Kea Channel; until the last minute the crew fired against the enemy periscope.  The crew gave a good example of action and sacrifice.”

Report of the Reserve Commanding Officer ROLLAND, commander of the Auxiliary Cruiser BURDIGALA.

I have the honor to give reference to the circumstances under which the Auxiliary Cruiser BURDIGALA was lost, on the morning of November 14, 1916, at 11.20 (East European Time).

The ship had sailed from Thessaloniki the previous day at 16.30, heading for Toulon with 29 passengers of the Army and sailors. It carried no armaments equipment.

The speed was 14.75 knots, which was the maximum speed that the well worn boilers could offer.  The actual course was 227 degrees* with 15 degrees variations in different directions, effected each quarter-hour.  The weather was good and the sea calm.  At 10.45 we were about 2 nautical miles off the cape, NE from the port of San Nicolas of the island of Kea:

Latitude = 37 ° 39´ North
Longitude = 24 ° 16´ East of Greenwich

The course was on the right side, 247 degrees**, when suddenly the boat vibrated violently, while  an explosion was heard. The starboard side had been torpedoed, while on deck, the men off duty had seen no periscope nor a torpedo wake.

Almost immediately the ship listed to the starboard side, inclined 3-4 degrees.  It remained steady in this position without an increase of the listing for about 20 minutes.

My first move, not knowing the situation and just not knowing if there was inflow of sea water, was to stop the engines as soon as possible so as to be able to lower the lifeboats without the risk to have them filled with water because of the vessel’s speed or to damage any of the davits.  Seeing that the buoyancy of the ship had not changed, I gave an order for steaming ahead with the right engine while I turned the wheel to the left, in an attempt to set the ship aground in the Bay of St. Nicholas, if managed to get there  in time. In retrospect I learned that my orders had not reached the engine room, as the first level of the engine room was completely filled with water. Nevertheless, my first order was accomplished by the engineer officer, who at that time remained in position, assisted by two second engineers who were able to close the steam valves from the top of the engines. The second order was also accomplished, but in the opposite way, by placing the left engine forward and here is why. The engineering officer who stopped the engines, was informed of my intention to go ashore and restarted the engine in forward, but managed to do so only for  the left engine, which continued working on slow speed ahead until the sinking of the ship.

Nevertheless, I managed to turn the vessel towards the entrance of the Bay of St. Nicholas, but unfortunately we never reached there in time.

Immediately after the explosion seawater gushed into the engine room and with such speed that the crew barely managed to escape. As I was told by the chief engineer, “The water rose as quickly as we climbed”.  Upon his command to close tight the internal bulkheads of  the engine room and boiler room, one of these was automatically shut down by the jolt. Another, from the upper bulkheads, which was operated manually, connecting the engine with the repairs room, which was always kept closed at night, had unfortunately remained open since the hinges were distorted by the blast.

Immediately after the explosion, which occurred near the main power generator, if not right below it, all the lights went out. Trying to start up the second power generator did not work, because of short circuits derived from seawater.

The crew evacuated the boiler area when the explosion took place, closing the bulkheads, under the supervision of officers.

On the bridge, while executing orders to save the vessel and crew, we were surveying the area around the ship. Two or three minutes after the explosion, the second coxswain, CHANTELAC,  drew to our attention that he saw a wake on the left side and later saw a periscope. Immediately  orders were issued to the gunners to aim and shoot, but unfortunately the enemy appeared not to have been hit. Immediately after the first fire, the submarine dived and the periscope vanished a few moments after being spotted. The firing stopped but the surveillance continued without any result.

Meanwhile I sent an officer to the radio room to send the distress signal. He returned saying that the signal was sent by using the spare radio, due to the loss of electricity after the damage of the power generator.  He found that the S.O.S. signal was sent, but added that it was not possible to give additional information such as the name and position of the ship because of the short-range capability of the auxiliary radio. This information was not confirmed later on by the then head of the wireless radio.

Fearing that we could not lower the lifeboats from the left side at the last moment, in case that the ship’s listing would increase to the right, I lowered the boats on this side just slightly above the sea level, so that they could be used in time to evacuate the crew.

At the same time I dealt with the collection of the ship’s secret and confidential documents, which were thrown overboard into the sea, after taking appropriate measures to ensure their sinking.

Once the ship was hit, my main concern was to know whether she would stay afloat and for this purpose I kept receiving continuous reports from the engineering officer regarding the increase of the water level; once he was satisfied that all necessary measures in case of sinking had been taken, came on deck to give me a complete damage report of our situation.

He kept coming each time to inform me about the increase of the water level until the point when he informed me that water which had flooded the boiler room reached a height of 4 meters. Although he said he was of the opinion that bulkhead had given in, I think that water came from the engine room through an open water tight door via a passage way leading to another watertight door that led down to the boiler room, from which the water was flowing in.  This information, combined with some confirmed indications we had on the bridge showed that the list of 3-4 degrees had reached at 7-8 degrees, resulting in the slow but steady sinking of the ship, making me to realize that the total loss of the ship was nearing.  That occurred 8 to 10 minutes before its full immersion. Any hope of salvaging BURDIGALA was now lost, so I gave the order to abandon ship.  Once making sure that the last crew members -that is the staff of the wheelhouse, weapons, and officers who were responsible for the bridge duties- came down, I launched the lifeboats. Meanwhile, the British destroyer RATTLESNAKE, which we were watching from the moment of the explosion, came to us with great speed from the port side, while her captain informed me that he was coming to pick-up those who were still on board our ship. I told him to wait one minute and after some thought I announced that it would be better to stay clear, thinking that possibly a lateral approach would expose them and risk the danger of being torpedoed himself.  The advent of his approach forced the last two lifeboats, the first operated by the second officer, the second by the chief engineer, to be removed so as not to be crushed between the two vessels, although they would have preferred to await for me, despite of orders to be removed. I walked few steps to the deck, then toward the bridge, escorted by the officer in charge of maneuvers, who always stayed close to me, and then we realized that the ship was just about to sink.

02

A log book page of the HMS Rattlesnake, dated 14th of November 1916, documenting the events of the sinking of French Troopship "Burdigala". (Copyright © UK National Archives)

We headed to the port side where there were two more life rafts in their launching hoists. Along the way we met an English sailor who had come on board during RATTLESNAKE’s approach, and had stayed on after the departure of the destroyer. The officer cut the ropes of the life raft and all three went down, first the English sailor, then the officer of maneuvers and then myself, allowing the current to drift us away. We had all three boarded on the same life raft but could not get away as the vortex of the sinking ship had already become evident.

A few moments later Burdigala sank, 35 minutes after the explosion.

After we were picked-up by a launch of the RATTLESNAKE, the officer of maneuvers and I were moved into one of our two lifeboats, the one piloted by the engineer, which was in a nearby safety distance for our rescue. After that we headed toward the RATTLESNAKE, which had already picked-up all the other lifeboats. Shortly after the boarding onto the destroyer by all hands was completed, she headed for the Port of Piraeus where we arrived at 15.30. There we boarded onto the battleship PROVENCE.***

It was reported to me that near the location of being torpedoed there was a small fishing boat. It was also pointed that there was a cone-shaped buoy near the fishing boat. I declare this fact, believing that it might be useful.

The counting of the crew was done aboard the RATTLESNAKE, where I was very pleased to acknowledge that all the crew and passengers were present. Unfortunately one day after we mourned the death of a young engineer named LOSCO, who died from burns which were suffered after a steam pipe burst in the boiler room at the time of the explosion.

Finally, I wish to express my appreciation for the good conduct of certain officers, noncommissioned officers and sailors, whose names are mentioned in the attached list for honorary decorations. I think that such qualities of coolness, energy, serenity and spiritual presence by the crew, have contributed for the ship to stay afloat longer, so as to allow the evacuation without lamenting any loss of life.

I am pleased that the awards which I asked to be given to them as a reward for their behavior were given. Many of them belong to the naval reserves, most of them are merchant mariners, possessing a spirit of devotion which highlighted their moral capacity, tested and confirmed in two ways, both during their normal sailing service hours and during the sinking.

I cannot resist not to mention about the excellent attitude and spirit of camaraderie indicated by the commander of the RATTLESNAKE, who did not hesitate in order to save lives, to bring his ship along BURDIGALA, which was expected to founder at any moment, executing a maneuver that could have devastating consequences for his ship and crew. This should not be ignored.

The reception encountered aboard his ship from himself and either higher or lower ranking crew was friendly and courteous as everyone did their best to relieve us.

Also I mention the excellent conduct of the English sailor Charles TOOKE, able seaman of this destroyer, whose first instinct was to jump on board our ship and be as helpful as possible, ignoring the risks, without expressing either surprise or sadness at the departure of his ship.

The few moments we spent with the officer of maneuvers and myself with him, he always remained by our side and he abandoned the ship only when we told him to do so.

Signature

Rolland

_______________________________________________________

*) The French report on the text is “route vraie était le S47W.”.  The log entry “S47W” means “South and 47 degrees West”, totaling 227 degrees.

**) Although in the French text the phrase is “Route sur la bordée de droite, c’est-à-dire au S.67W.”, the CO probably means “Route sur le bord de droite, c’est-à-dire au S.67W.”. This translates that the ship was steaming by constant criss crossing following a 247 degrees course to the right and 212 degrees to the left, maintaining a true heading of 227 degrees.

***) Refers to the Battleship PROVENCE, the Flagship of the French Navy in the Aegean Sea.  The Battleship PROVENCE  was also the one which on the 21st of November 1916, just one week after the sinking of BURDIGALA, received the distress signal about the sinking of HMHS BRITANNIC.

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