Paddy O’Sullivan traces the history of the Italian salvage company, Sorima, and describes its successful Ludgate operation off the Galley Head in 1934-35
On 19 May 1922, the ageing P&O liner, Egypt, departed from Tilbury, bound for Marseille and Bombay, having on board 294 crew and forty-four passengers. In addition to her general cargo, the liner shipped in its strong-room a consignment of gold and silver to the value of £1,054,000. This staggering fortune consisted mainly of gold ingots, several dozen cases of gold sovereigns and a large quantity of silver ingots.
The following evening saw the twenty-five-year-old liner travelling at reduced speed in dense fog off Ushant near the French coast. However, as the fog thickened, the captain of the Egypt took diligent precautions by shutting down his engines and drifting while sounding his siren at regular intervals to reveal his presence. He was not the only one to be confounded by fog on that late afternoon; another ship’s siren could be heard in the distance and gradually grew louder, though its direction of approach could not be ascertained due to the fog. Sensing grave danger, the captain and officers of the Egypt crowded the bridge as they strained their eyes to make sense of the white nothingness that greeted them. Suddenly, the unthinkable happened – the white fog turned ink-black to reveal the shadow of an oncoming ship. In seconds, the French steamer Seine emerged from the fog at high speed, making for the Egypt on a collision course. In as many more seconds, the Egypt received a death-dealing blow as the oncoming steamer crashed violently into her port side between her two funnels. While the Seine was a relatively small vessel of 1,380 tons against the Egypt’s 7,500 tons, she was built for ice-breaking with a razor-sharp prow which had been heavily reinforced for its task. With such deadly armour, the French ship ploughed deeply into the Egypt’s side with catastrophic consequences. Great panic ensued throughout the ship, especially among her crew. The badly damaged liner took on a severe list as she rapidly flooded and sank to the seabed in a mere twenty minutes, taking its valuable bullion cargo to the depths. Her unwitting assassin, the Seine, rendered all possible assistance in taking survivors on board and subsequently putting them ashore at Brest. In all, seventy-two crew members and fifteen passengers lost their lives in the incident.
The Egypt’s five-ton gold cargo dangled a tantalising bait to would-be salvors. Lloyds, having paid the full claim on the treasure within ten days of the liner’s loss, were now the owners of the bullion and were prepared to grant salvage concessions to diving entrepreneurs on a ‘no cure, no pay’, basis, and on attractive terms that would allow the salvor to keep seventy-five per cent of his recoveries while turning the remainder over to Lloyds. There were some difficulties, however; the position of the Egypt was unknown and, secondly, its 65-fathom depth (390 feet) was well beyond the recovery technology of the era. However, the lure of gold was strong, and various companies made unsuccessful attempts to find the wreck between 1923 and 1928. A Swedish company based in Gothenberg expended considerable resources in a failed attempt to locate the wreck; later, a French salvage company would also savour the bitter taste of failure in searching for the wreck. A local friar even departed from his monastery to join a team of adventurers by claiming he could find gold with his divining rod. In 1929, An Italian company succumbed to the Egypt’s challenge. This company has been formed in 1926 by a Genoese lawyer named Giovanni Quaglia. Quaglia had powerful connections and had amassed considerable wealth from the World· War I shipping shortage by converting sailing ships to motor vessels. However, such success could not sate his lust for adventure. Quaglia named his company Sorima, the name being derived from the first two letters of each of the following words: Societa Ricuperi Marittimi, translated as Society of Maritime Recovery. Despite his wealth, he was best known for his courage and dogged determination. In developing his new salvage company, he identified a need to pioneer new methods of deep cargo-recovery from the ocean floor; in this pursuit, he experienced some success in recovering cargoes from lesser shipwrecks in the Mediterranean during the embryonic years of Sorima’s development. Quaglia realised that a salvage vessel fitted out with a four-point mooring system and powerful grabs would be capable of anchoring over a wreck and tearing her remains apart to recover its cargo. The problem was that such a vessel would be working blind and perhaps even wasting its energy on the wrong location. Quaglia pondered the dilemma long and hard. Finally, he concluded that if an artillery observer could direct a gunner in accurate placement of his shells, then surely a salvage-grab could be directed in a similar fashion if only he could figure out a way to allow an observer to accompany the grab as it set to work in the inky blackness of the ocean’s depths. Eventually, the answer struck him and he ordered his salvage engineers to weld a crude one-man steel container, fitted with five windows and a telephone to communicate with the surface. The diver would be sealed in this mummy-like steel case and lowered to the seabed prior to commencing his day’s work. His breathing needs would be catered for by including a supply of oxygen in his cramped chamber which was sealed against the crushing pressure of the sea outside; his air supply was designed to last several hours in case of emergency. The newly invented system was tried and tested, and seemed to be a runaway success; now at last the Egypt’s gold was within Sorima’s grasp if only they could find the wreck.
With high hopes of early success, Sorima’s salvage vessels, the Artiglio and the Rostra, set out to search for the Egypt in 1929. But the reluctant treasure liner was not about to give up its secrets without a struggle. The next two years saw both ships sweep wires in vain across vast tracts of featureless ocean without the slightest glimmer of success in locating the sunken liner. Quaglia became exhausted both physically and financially from his futile efforts, while his salvage company, Sorima, was driven to the edge of bankruptcy by his failure to find the Egypt. However, the old adage ‘fortune favours the brave’ was to hold true for Quaglia, and in his second year of searching and sweeping the Bay of Biscay, the elusive Egypt was found sitting upright on the seabed. Diving operations commenced immediately, as six heavy-duty moorings were placed about the sunken liner. When mooring operations had been completed, the familiar sound of the ship’s grab .clanking over the side heralded the start of a long and often frustrating salvage operation. As the grab plunged to the bottom, the observation diver – dressed in heavy layers of woollen clothing – donned his knitted cap and entered the cramped steel diving-bell that was to become his home for the next four to five hours. Having entered the bell, the Artiglio’s deck-crew set about fixing the heavy lid in place and tightening a series of bolts and nuts to keep the water out. Then the telephone system was tested once more before the diver in his canister was lowered into the ocean to follow the grab already sitting in position as if to await his instructions. Soon, deck-winches were groaning under the strain as the listing Artiglio set to work demolishing the Egypt’s seven decks to access the strong-room in the bowels of the ship. Blasting by dynamite was a necessary prerequisite to opening the ship prior to tearing off steel plates. As the operation progressed, the chatter on the ship’s telephone was almost constant as directions were sent up from the murky depths by the diver. Soon, the temperature inside the diving-bell would drop sharply, causing the walls to become shrouded in droplets as moisture condensed from the diver’s breath on the cold steel. Eventually, depleted oxygen levels would cause the diver to suffer splitting headaches and shortage of breath, leaving the topside crew with little choice but to recover the bell. Once back on deck, the steel lid of the diving bell would be unbolted to release its shivering occupant to welcome fresh air and warmth; a fresh diver with a replenished oxygen supply would continue the work on the seabed.
On 22 June 1932, Lady Luck at last smiled on the Artiglio’s efforts; two gold sovereigns came up in the grab; the next lift brought up two gold ingots. Euphoria flashed around the ship with hoots and howls at the first sight of gold from the deep. Work ground to a halt in the excitement as the ship’s cook broke out the wine to enable the crew members toast the success of several years’ efforts. As the euphoria died down, work commenced as before. Soon, gold bars and coins were tumbling out of the grab and onto the Artiglio’s deck in daily monotony. Though bad weather regularly interrupted operations, the Artiglio’s efforts continued throughout the years 1932 and 1933 until practically all five tons of the Egypt’s gold had been recovered. Finally, the Italians pulled up stakes and departed the Egypt in 1933, having successfully recovered ninety-three per cent of its cargo.
Sorima of Genoa. the city of Christopher Columbus, had inadvertently become the best-equipped, most-profitable deep-water salvage company in the world. Its hard-served apprenticeship in recovering the Egypt’s gold saw it pioneer new grabs, powerful lifting cranes and unparalleled salvage techniques; its achievements had marked a new era in the science of salvage. An idea of the immensity of the operation may be realised from the fact that its work spanned five years. When one takes into account the fruitless efforts of the earlier Swedish and French salvage companies from 1923 onwards, quite ten years had been spent on recovering the Egypt’s gold. Quaglia’s success enabled him to acquire a total offive ships and engage in simultaneous salvage operations across European waters. As he planned the future strategy of his company, he realised that his chances of encountering another glamorous gold cargo were a million-to-one. However, the ocean floors were littered with valuable cargoes of copper and other non-ferrous metals thanks to the U-boat campaign of World War I, and Quaglia’s scribbled calculations told him that 2,000 tons of copper were just as lucrative as three tons of gold. Britain alone lost 2,500 merchant ships to the torpedo and mine during the 1914-18 War. Many of these ships were sent plunging to their doom, laden with ingots of copper, nickel, tin and brass. These valuable commodities represented much-needed war supplies to feed Britain’s insatiable armaments industry. U-boat commanders attempted to cripple that industry by cutting off Britain’s supplies, deliberately targeting war suppliers. Much of this slaughter was carried on across the south-west coast of Ireland with efforts concentrated off Waterford, Galley Head and west of Fastnet. Now the Galley Head area promised rich pickings as Sorima identified two copper-rich steamers: the Spectator and the Ludgate. Alan Crothall’s book, Wealth from the Sea, states that the Ludgate contained 350 tons of copper, and the nearby Spectator 1,298 tons of copper. In 1934, having negotiated satisfactory terms with the British government – the owners of the copper Quaglia dispatched two vessels, the Artiglio and the Arpione, to set up base in Kinsale. This Artiglio was in fact a second salvage ship so-named, in memory of the original Artiglio which had blown itself sky high whilst demolishing a munitions wreck off France in the 1930s.
On arrival off the Irish coast, the Italians were struck by the emerald-green vista that greeted their eyes, in sharp contrast to the parched landscape of their native Mediterranean. They were also struck by Ireland’s ever-present rain and the bad-tempered nature of the Atlantic. A once-calm ocean might suddenly turn boisterous as gale-force winds whipped up mountainous seas. Howling winds would strip the crests of waves, filling the air with spray; driving rains added to the discomfort by eliminating visibility. Such conditions made salvage prohibitive and forced the Italians to run for the shelter of Kinsale Harbour time and time again. Such events happened all too often for the Italians’ liking. Sitting at the pier for weeks on end, chipping rust, painting and attending to repairs was extremely boring; on the other hand, salvage of copper bars was exciting and could attract substantial pay bonuses after a successful stint of recovery. Locating the Ludgate was given priority as both ships laid out their search-wires in tandem and began the monotonous process of sweeping for the wreck. The next seven weeks brought nothing but frustration and broken sweep-wires caused by entanglement in rocks. In desperation, the Artiglio’s captain decided to put a man ashore at Galley Head to question the locals for guidance. Only one man could offer assistance; it so happened that a local man, Denis O’Donovan from Brownstown, near Ballycusheen, was driving cattle to Rosscarbery fair at four in the morning on 26 July 1917. Denis was rarely called by his Christian name; he was more usually referred to as the Coitineach, an Irish word referring to Denis’ origins in Ballycotton. As the Coitineach herded the cattle over the hill of Croachna, the blackness of night was suddenly illuminated by a blinding flash and gigantic fireball two miles south of the Galley Head lighthouse. Turning his head to look at the source of the flash, a loud bang and thunder-like sound rolled in from the ocean. The passing Ludgate had struck a German mine and sank in a mere two minutes. No doubt its weighty cargo of copper ingots contributed to its sudden demise. Twenty-four lives were lost, including that of the captain, many being still in their bunks when the mine exploded. Five survivors clung desperately to floating wreckage for several hours; mercifully, British patrol boat no. 46 arrived on the scene at 10.35 the next morning and plucked the shivering mariners from the sea before heading for Castletown Berehaven. The barely alive survivors had endured the chilly Atlantic for all of six hours; some were semi-conscious and near death from their ordeal.
The vital information obtained from the Coitineach brought success to the Italians, who easily found the Ludgate in a few days. Moorings were laid down, dynamite charges rigged and fired, and all top-decking torn away by the grab from the Ludgate to reveal three open cargo hatches. Both aft and middle hatches were brimful (and still are) of copper pyrites, and are of fourteen per cent average purity. However, the forward hatch was crammed with tombstone-like copper ingots weighing three hundredweight each. Meanwhile, the Arpione busied itself dealing with the copper ship, Spectator, sunk eleven miles south-east of Galley Head. A companion to the Ludgate, the Spectator was more fortunate by being torpedoed and sunk without loss of life on 19 August 1917. The submarine UC-33 was reported to have carried out the foul deed. At the time, the Spectator was on a voyage from Zanzibar to Liverpool. Her remains lay in 300-feet of water, close to the site of the Lusitania. As required by law, all Italian mooring-buoy locations were reported to Irish Lights.
Two salvage seasons, spanning 1934-35, were necessary to achieve the high level of copper recovery from both these shipwrecks. Copper ingots were deposited on Kinsale pier and moved by hand truck to an old coal store – now the Trident Hotel bar and restaurant near the pier. The Cork Examiner of 5 June 1935 reported: ‘ … the Arpione has been laid up for a few weeks in bad weather. It has landed 40 tons of ingots from the Ludgate.’ Another report from the Cork Examiner, dated 6 July 1935, states: ‘The Italian salvage vessel, Arpione, arrived in the harbour [Kinsale] with about twenty tons of copper ingots aboard, salvaged from the Ludgate. The work has been hampered by bad weather and now that an improvement has set in it is expected that salvage work will proceed with more success. She expects to leave the harbour this evening and will steam ten miles west of the Old Head and complete the salving of the Spectator’s cargo. The latter has still on board 800 tons of copper which, it is expected, will be uncovered by September when further sweeping operations by the Artiglio will take place.’ The Spectator’s total cargo was eventually salvaged and most of the Ludgate’s copper ingots were recovered; her ore cargo of pyrites was abandoned as being a commodity of low value.
By October 1935, Sorima had ended its operations off Galley Head and was busy searching off Waterford for the French copper ship Lincolnshire. With the onset of winter, the Waterford searches were greatly hampered by bad weather. And then, as Italy entered the fray of war, its government recalled both salvage vessels. The Sunday Independent of 13 October 1935 reported: ‘The Italian salvage ship, Arpione, which has been operating on the wrecks of copper-carrying vessels sunk off the south Cork coast during the war, has taken in provisions and bunkers at Kinsale preparatory to sailing for home. The Arpione continued during the summer months salvage work begun last year on two large British ships torpedoed in 1917 off the Old Head of Kinsale – the Spectator and the Ludgate – which were conveying cargoes of copper from East Africa to Wales. The total cargo of the Spectator has been salvaged.
World War II saw Neptune’s coffers topped up with more rich ingot cargoes. German U-boats once again swung into action, wreaking deadly havoc on merchant shipping as they attempted to starve Britain into submission by use of the torpedo and mine. Hitler’s admiral of submarines, Karl Donetz, was hell-bent on ridding the ocean of enemy shipping. He almost succeeded. Initially, his U-boats had great success as they torpedoed and sank merchant ships on an unprecedented scal., Countless cargoes of non-ferrous ingots accompanied the sinking ships to the ocean floor. This bonanza did not go unnoticed by Sorima, which welcomed the war’s end as it pondered new prizes to be recovered from the seabed. Peace saw the company take up negotiations, as before, with the British authorities. This time, however, Sorima was greeted with a frosty reception by their noble lordships at the Admiralty. Relations had soured, since Italy had been England’s enemy during the war and now the British authorities would have no truck with the company. Instead, salvage concessions were granted to the newly emerging English company, Risdon Beasley Marine Salvage. Beasley was to become Sorima’s arch rival and successor. Italy’s support of Hitler sounded the death knell for Sorima, and it was several years before it clawed its way back into business. However, it never regained the momentum of the glory years on the Egypt and Galley Head shipwrecks. Sorima’s last recovery effort took place in 1953 off Land’s End when the company recovered $61,000 in bank notes from the foundered American ship, Flying Enterprise. A failed attempt to locate a copper cargo off Chile in 1960 brought operations to a close.
The Ludgate still excites the imagination of sport divers who visit the wreck from time to time. Peering through the pea-green gloom, one can still see the claw marks of the Artiglio’s grab on the ship’s rusting steel; a few jade-green copper ingots are scattered about the bow area. A pair of erect lifeboat davitts stand sentinel-like over the forward hatch. The wreck itself is a veritable scrap-heap tenanted by conger eel and pollock. Though the rusting Ludgate will never complete her voyage and rendezvous with her destination in Wales, she remains a monument to a daring band of sailors who gambled with their lives and lost in a futile war that achieved little more than the slaughter of eleven million lives worldwide .
With acknowledgements to: Alan Roddie, Tony O’Mahony, Pat Joe Harrington, the late Dan Harrington and John O’Donovan Fehan, Keith Good.
- Dictionary of Disasters of the Sea by Charles Hocking FLA;
- Riches from Wrecks by Fergus Hinds;
- Wealth from the Sea by Alan Cmthall;
- Marine Salvage by Joseph N. Gores;
- Shipping Wonders of the World.