A maritime disaster – An Irishman’s Diary on the fate of the ‘Principessa Mafalda’
The “Principessa Mafalda”: sank in 1927 with the loss of 314 out of 1,250 passengers and crew
When our ship, the Drina of the Royal Mail Line, was moving down the coast of Brazil, the captain leaned over the big coastal chart and tapped his pencil on a small circle of dashed line.“That’s where the Principessa Mafalda went down,” he said, with a scathing reference to how that ship’s captain and crew had handled the calamity.
The disaster of this transatlantic liner, once the flagship of Italy’s leading shipping company, made world headlines in 1927. She sank with the loss of 314 out of 1,250 passengers and crew.
Two of our 12 passengers were an elderly Italian couple who had lost near-relatives in that tragedy over 30 years before. They wanted to pay tribute to those loved ones, and that afternoon the captain took them up to the bridge deck. When our ship passed over the estimated grave of that famous liner they went to the wing and tossed a small wreath into the sea.
The ship was launched in 1910 and named after Principessa Mafalda, the second daughter of the Italian monarch Victor Emmanuel III. Of 9,200 tons, the vessel was designed for the voyage between Genoa and Buenos Aires. It became known for its luxury, spacious first-class cabins, two storey ballroom and excellent food. However, after many years voyaging on the route it became prone to mechanical faults.
In 1927 it set off on one more voyage. Several times it stopped in mid-ocean while the engineers struggled with the engines. At the Cape Verde islands stop, more repairs were carried out and it continued on its journey. The ship crossed the equator with a colourful ceremony, the orchestra playing and an enormous cake produced by the team of chefs.
However by 23rd October, it had developed a list to port. Two days later, 80 miles off Salvador da Bahia in Brazil, there came a great trembling. The starboard propeller shaft had fractured. It had shifted off its axis and gouged several gashes in the hull. It was found that the watertight doors could not be closed.
The captain had an SOS sent out and shortly afterwards several ships came to the rescue, including a Dutch and a British liner. With clear weather and ships standing by it seemed that the crisis was under control.
However, panic spread on board. Not all the lifeboats could be launched due to the list of the ship. Some were rushed and swamped by frantic passengers. One of the first lifeboats to get safely away was filled almost entirely with crew, including the ship’s purser, a very senior figure. Other lifeboats making their escape had many crew members on board while passengers yelled from the railings of the sinking ship.
Confused messages from the Principessa Mafalda made it difficult for the rescuing ships to provide effective help. They launched lifeboats and picked up many from the sea.
Amid final scenes of chaos, the captain drowned and the chief engineer was reported to have shot himself. The liner sank stern first.
The Italian couple, whom I got to know, told me that the official inquiry by the marine authorities in Italy carefully avoided making any judgments on the behaviour of the captain, officers and crew. It was an embarrassing subject. They also told me about the tragedy of the princess after whom the ship was named.
In 1925 Principessa Mafalda married Prince Philip of Hesse a leading member of German royalty, with whom she had four children . For a time he was a supporter of Hitler and he and his wife acted as a link with Mussolini’s regime in Italy. However, when Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, Hitler believed she was conspiring against Germany. He ordered her arrest by the Gestapo. A royal princess, she may have been but she was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, a place of great suffering, deprivation and brutality.
Several hundred prisoners were killed and injured when the Allies bombed an adjacent armaments factory. Mafalda was pulled from the rubble, badly injured. A seriously burned arm was amputated but she died from loss of blood under the operation.
Her tragic figure has never been forgotten in Italy. The story of a princess cosseted by the wealth and privileges of royalty ending up in the a place of anguish, misery and death has been portrayed in a moving drama on Italian TV as well as in a documentary. Before that, in 1995, a postage stamp was issued that showed her face, with its round eyes and short wavy hair, against a background of strands of barbed wire.
Recently a friend on holiday in Como, by the lake of the same name, came across an impressive sculpture of her standing in a long flowing dress. As far as I know there is no memorial to the ship that bore her name, except for the small dashed circle on the marine chart.