On 23rd October 2018 I will be donning my best gear, cleaning and polishing my boots and saddling up my new F850 GS to undertake a pilgrimage to Savona, a town close to Genoa, both to put the bike through its paces but also to draw some closure to a story that spans a century. Spoiler alert: this is only the backstory - the reason for this undertaking - not about the bike or anything particularly existential - although that will follow! However, it stands alone as an event that needs to be recounted. If you haven't guessed it yet, it concerns a lesser known maritime tragedy that occurred during WWI, The key players - a German U-boat, a brand new Cunard liner being used as military transport, two Japanese destroyers and some very brave men and women.
4th May, 1917
It was a quiet and balmy ocean scene that around 4,000 mixed-regiment troops (with a large Essex contingent) and a few dozen nurses awoke to on board the SS Transylvania on 4th May 1917. But all that was to change rapidly. They were sailing to Alexandria in Egypt on the liner, a top spec Cunard passenger ship procured by the Admiralty to assist with the war effort as soon as she was put into service. They had boarded in Marseilles the previous day and spirits were high. The town of Savona on the Italian coastline could still be seen in the distance, about two miles away. A safety briefing was planned for that morning and troops were milling around at their respective posts and duties when suddenly, at 10:00 hrs, a torpedo from the German U-boat U-63, commanded by Otto Shultz, an Iron Cross recipient and highly respected U-boat commander, slammed into the portside engine room. Another followed shortly after and the ship was fatally damaged. She took on so much water that she sunk quickly, disappearing from view in under an hour. The nurses, all women, were all taken off the ship in the lifeboats first. Captain Smith made sure all the men were off the nearly fully submerged ship before he jumped himself, finding and scrambling aboard a broken lifeboat with a few other men. Although he did manage to get to shore, he would not recover from his injuries and died the next day.
In all, just over 400 men were to perish. But loss of life could have been much worse, if it wasn't for two accompanying Japanese destroyers, the Matsu which came alongside the Transylvania and took on board troops and the Sakaki who circled around to force the U-boat to remain submerged. The Matsu took many hundreds of men off the sinking liner to safety. Most had to jump onto the deck of the destroyer, some would have perished in the scramble to get off the ship, some were crushed between the destroyer and the hull of the troopship as the waves washed both together, still others died from direct impact of the torpedoes. My great uncle, Albert Edward Blenkinsop, was one of the casualties. He was nineteen. His body, along with 274 others, was never recovered but he and they are still remembered every year in a poignant ceremony in the war Cemetary of Zinola, just outside Savona. The sinking affected the town deeply, as I was to later discover.
The last letter home
I first became aware of the SS Transylvania when I reopened a special 'memories box' I'd kept safe for three decades. I was a bit of a tomboy as a girl and from the age of about 9 or 10 developed an interest in WWI and WWII, probably in part after playing with combat-clad action man 'Eagle Eyes', stolen from my brother when he wasn't looking. I still have the toy's tiny model Colt 45 revolver and holster, but old Eagle Eyes vanished long ago and is probably living under a witness protection scheme somewhere. I loved watching the Sunday action films that were regular viewing in the '70s, films like Kelly's Heroes or The Eagle Has Landed still raise a grin. Though now it's for the cheese factor. My interest meant it was I who inherited my dad's wartime papers at the age of 13 (snatched them more like) for which I duly bought a special carved wooden box specially to house them. After a cursory glance and tinker with the contents, I sealed them all away, medals, naval records, certificates, photos and all. An in-depth analysis would wait for several years.
The full story of the SS Transylvania I did not uncover until about three decades later, when I became curious to find clues about my great uncle's life. I have some very moving documents - his last letter home on YMCA letterhead in which he tells his mum not to worry because 'it's a nice place where we are going, there is no fighting' and asking her to send a watch as 'a keepsake'. The letter from his CO informing her of his death which may have arrived before the letter home. Every time I read that I can feel a shiver down my spine. No matter how many years separate us, in some way I feel there is a thread of pain, like a sliver of DNA in me carries an imprint of the impact of that letter. The anguish and despair that simple piece of paper, with penciled writing, now discoloured and slightly faded, must have caused is almost tangible to me. How long did she wait until opening the envelope? Who knows. I do know it affected the whole family deeply. My father came along ten years later. He was christened Albert Edward, in memory of his uncle. He too went to sea, but only for the last couple of years of WW2, on minesweepers, on one of which he lost a toe. Not to a mine, but a dropped hatch.. these things happen.
They do remember them, so should we
The town of Savona still, to this day, holds a wreath-laying ceremony on the anniversary of the sinking, as well as every Armistice day. I couldn't make the centenary anniversary event last year, but I heard that many relatives from all over the world came to the town and told their own, handed down version of events from their fathers and grandfathers. I hope to meet some of those who attended that on my visit.
Why do I want to do this? To remember - for as long as we do remember, in as much horrific detail as we can - we as a species may yet try to avoid meaningless destruction of lives (on any 'side', we're all the same underneath) repeating itself and find a way for negotiated peace to prevail. Maybe, but I have to say unlikely. We're still too governed by fear to always act rationally. But I'm fortunate. I'm the kind of person who appreciates life and appreciates that I wake up every day and can see the sun shine. Something about riding makes that sun seem brighter to me, it brings into sharp focus my own lucky life and my gratitude that I'm alive. There's always a reason to ride. This time, it's more than just about me.
A full account of this journey is to follow on a subsequent blog and also in Motorcycle Sport and Leisure magazine in due course. These will focus more on the trip itself, but I thought a bit more context was important in this case. If you have enjoyed it, please share with others who would find the history of interest.