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the sinking of ss gallia

4 October 2023

Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, U-35 auf Jagd (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1938 ) pp. 8–11: (my translation):

It was a Sunday afternoon. We were headed home and cruising south of Sardinia in fine weather. Just as we were about to sit down in the bow room for a Sunday coffee that our efficient cook Bölts had brewed from some lovely beans (he had taken them from an enemy ship), a big three-funnel ocean liner was sighted. It was travelling very quickly, so it must have been running at full speed. It was also zig-zagging, but had no escort. I submerged and followed his movements, but I would only be able to hit him if he passed close by. We had just one torpedo left, and that was in the stern tube, so it would be a difficult attack to make. It was going to take a lot of luck. The ship was approaching quickly, and we could see that it was a passenger steamer, painted grey with large promenade decks. It was the sort of vessel we were not supposed to sink because there might be an American on board… I went ahead all the same; I would make the final decision about whether or not to attack based on my final impressions. I already thought we would miss the shot, since I would not be able get into a firing position while he was zig-zagging. Suddenly the ship turned and came closer to us. We certainly could not launch the torpedo in the usual way, but would have to take a corner shot — in other words, the torpedo would have to follow a pre-set angle to its target after being released from the tube.

Everything after that happened very quickly. My final impression was that it was indeed a troopship, although there were no soldiers visible on deck. I was relying on my instincts yet again. The steamship passed at distance of 900 metres, and aiming was difficult. “Launch torpedo!” The submarine vibrated as it left its tube, and I looked on. The torpedo made its turn as directed and ran towards the steamer. Below, someone was counting the seconds. You could hear a pin drop. It was frustrating to hear the fellow keep counting and not see any result. But then, after 40 seconds, there was a sharp metallic thud - the detonator - and the crack of an explosion. My men let out a resounding hurrah. Through the periscope I was able to see a large plume of smoke, rising first 10 meters and then 50 metres from behind the stern of the ship. For a moment I thought that the ship had thrown out a depth charge. That is how fast the ship was going. It only lost speed gradually, and its aft slowly began to sit lower in the water. I am still unable to believe that one torpedo was enough to sink this giant ship.

There was a terrible confusion on the ship, with masses of people pouring onto its upper deck. Some of them tried to man the guns in a last-ditch effort to defend the vessel, while many others jumped into the numerous lifeboats. These boats were released so hastily that they turned the wrong way and filled with water. People were hanging from the mooring lines. Everyone wanted to be the first one in the lifeboat. It was a gruesome sight to behold. I had seen enough, and allowed my men come into the conning tower one by one to observe through the periscope. Some stood unmoved, while others looked on in horror. The submariners were quick and curious when they came up, but they were pensive and serious when they returned to their posts.

The massive ship sank deeper and deeper until, silhouetted against the warm red sunset, its gleaming bow rose up, remained in that position for perhaps one or two minutes, and then shot straight down into the depths. It was a magnificent and terrible sight, and I could not get it out of my mind for quite some time. Twenty minutes after being struck by the torpedo, there was nothing left of the ship but a mass of debris and a number of overcrowded lifeboats that I could do nothing for. We dove to a depth of 30 metres and sailed away, each of us wrapped up in his own thoughts.

We learned more when we returned to port a few days later. It had been the Gallia, the largest French troop ship, and it was carrying senior officers and soldiers to Salonica. 1852 men went down with it. The French newspapers described it as the country's greatest naval disaster since the beginning of the war. France had lost a battle.

I am about to publish Arnauld de la Perière's brief memoir of life on board U-35 as a limited edition of 100 to 200 copies. If you would like to buy one, be sure to subscribe to the Obolus Press newsletter and I'll let you know when the book is available.