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The Ambush of SS Persia: Voices from a Lost Liner

By Alan Wren

Who would willingly have boarded a passage to India at Christmas 1915, knowing that a U-boat might attack anywhere along the route to the Suez Canal?

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William Hall had built a career on P&O’s Empire Run and was master of the SS Persia for this voyage. Kapitänleutnant Max Valentiner, commander of U-38, had sunk 53 ships around Britain, but had just been ordered to the Mediterranean. A merchant ship’s success was safe arrival at its destination, while a U-boat would triumph by sinking it.

Despite warnings, the Admiralty had underestimated U-boats, which left the Royal Navy ill-equipped to counter the threat. As maritime losses escalated, Q-ships tried to hoodwink U-boats into surface battles. The torpedoing of RMS Lusitania, with the loss of 1,198 lives, incensed Godfrey Herbert, captain of Q-ship Baralong. He had vowed never to take prisoners from U-boats and allegedly went on to murder Valentiner’s cousin and some of the crew of U-27. The embittered Valentiner responded by switching tactics, from ‘stop and search’ to ‘shoot on sight’ which is how he attacked SS Persia. Many died without goodbyes. Only now can their voices rise and their stories be told.

From Comment
2020-12-17 Paula .... I think the Ambush is terrific. I don't know what else one would look for in history writing but the kind of compelling narrative, measured judgment, vivid scene-setting, unobtrusive detail and convincing speculation one finds here, backed up by intensive research. And all done with tact, compassion and a lightness of touch. I've found it previously quite hard to get a handle on the entirety of the Persia tragedy...but you have enabled me to do so. Thank you! MC

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