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Today in history… sad end for famous rescue ship

12:00am | & Lifestyle

A ship that rushed to the aid of the Titanic when she sank in 1912 and rescued more than 700 survivors was herself despatched to the seabed 100 years ago today, the victim of a German torpedo.

Built at the famous Swan & Hunter shipyard at Newcastle upon Tyne, RMS Carpathia was launched in August 1902 as a new transatlantic mail and passenger ship for the Cunard line. At almost 560ft long, she could carry more than 1,700 passengers and a considerable quantity of cargo, including frozen meat in special refrigerated holds.

Carpathia was never designed to be a flagship of the line but was an intermediate liner – a workhorse of the transatlantic trade devoted mostly to second and third class passengers. Even though her accommodations were comfortable and set new standards for the day, she would never grab the headlines in the way the biggest and most opulent liners did.

Yet it was after one of those magnificent flagships encountered disaster on her maiden voyage that Carpathia’s name became world-famous. When RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and began to sink on April 14th, 1912, Carpathia was one of the closest vessels to pick up her radio distress signals. Her Captain, Arthur Henry Rostron, immediately gave the order to turn his ship around and rush to the scene of the disaster.

Despite the dangerous ice-strewn waters, he ordered Carpathia’s heating and hot water turned off to deliver maximum steam to her engines, posting extra lookouts on deck as he made full steam ahead. She covered the 58 nautical miles in just three-and-a-half hours, arriving at 4am and the first rescue ship on the scene. Although Titanic had gone down around 90 minutes earlier with 1,517 lives lost, hundreds of survivors were huddled in lifeboats in freezing conditions.

Over the next four-and-a-half hours Carpathia’s crew rescued 705 survivors from Titanic’s 20 lifeboats, until no more could be found. On board Carpathia, the shocked survivors were given blankets and hot coffee and soup. By the time she docked in New York on April 18th, news of the Titanic disaster had already been broadcast around the world and the heroic rescue efforts of Carpathia and her crew were widely known.

Each crew member was later awarded a special medal paid for by the survivors, while Captain Rostron was knighted by King George V and presented with America’s highest honour, the Congressional Gold Medal, by President Taft.

After the disaster, Carpathia returned quietly to her usual duties, but after the First World War broke out in 1914 she was increasingly drafted for military duties, including transferring American and Canadian troops to Europe. On July 15th, 1918, she departed Liverpool in convoy, bound for Boston, Massachusetts. She carried 166 crew but just 57 passengers – there would have been many more on her return journey.

Unknown to anyone, the convoy was being shadowed by ‘U-55’, a submarine of the German Imperial Navy. At 9-15am on July 17th, the submarine struck, hitting Carpathia amidships with a torpedo to her port side, quickly followed by another which penetrated her engine room, killing five crewmen. With his vessel now a ‘sitting duck’, Captain William Prothero gave the order to abandon ship, with all passengers and remaining crew boarding lifeboats as Carpathia sank.

U-55 surfaced and fired a third torpedo into the stricken ship, causing a large explosion which sealed her fate, but was then driven off by the approach of a Royal Navy minesweeper. Carpathia finally went down at 11am, about 120 miles west of Fastnet Rock, on the southern tip of Ireland. After her famous role in rescuing the Titanic’s survivors, it was now the turn of Carpathia’s 218 survivors to be rescued by other ships.

In 2000, the wreck of RMS Carpathia was discovered by the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), the organisation founded by American adventure novelist and underwater explorer Clive Cussler. She is lying upright on the seabed about 500ft down. There are now plans to recover objects from the wreck to be displayed alongside those recovered from the wreck of the Titanic.

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