Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The sinking of the Andrea Doria, 1956

Collisions at sea between two ocean liners are very rare events, especially when one of them sinks. Such an event occurred on 25th July 1956, when world events were dominated by the Suez crisis, and President Eisenhower was seeking re-election. This was also the first tragedy of its kind to be accessible to the world via television, the use of which had become widespread in the United States and Canada, and was also spreading in Europe.

SS Andrea Doria

The SS Andrea Doria was an Italian North Atlantic liner that represented Italy’s resurgence after World War II. Its keel was laid on 9th February 1950, at the Sestri Ponente shipyard, Genoa. This was the port from which had come not only Christopher Columbus but also Admiral Andrea Doria (1466-1560), after whom the liner was named. The admiral had been one of the most powerful men of his time, and even fought against pirates when in his 80s. His name had previously been honoured by the naming of an Italian battleship that served in both world wars and was indeed still afloat during the lifetime of the luxury liner of the same name.

Progress on the building of SS Andrea Doria was slower than was hoped, with various delays along the way. She was launched on 16th June 1951 but fitting out was not completed until 6th November 1952 when she began her sea trials. Her maiden voyage was on 14th January 1953. Despite all the hype and the hope surrounding this national icon, there were also fears that this could be an unlucky ship, because of many accidents that occurred in the shipyard, and a bizarre incident when her steam whistle stuck open.

The pride of Italy, and particularly of Genoa, was invested in the SS Andrea Doria, with the aim of competing with the great maritime nations, not so much on size or speed, but on luxury and comfort. She was therefore only 700 feet long and of 29,000 tons (the comparable figures for the SS United States were 990 feet and 53,330 tons, and for the RMS Queen Elizabeth 1,000 feet and 83,670 tons). That said, Andrea Doria was no slouch, with an average cruising speed of 23 knots, as compared with 28.5 knots for the Queen Elizabeth and 30 knots for the United States.

In the years following the Titantic disaster of 1912, all new liners had to take safety concerns very seriously. The Andrea Doria was no exception, having a double-hulled construction with eleven watertight compartments, any two of which could be flooded without endangering the ship. There was lifeboat accommodation for everyone on board.

The total passenger complement was 1241, with 218 of these being in first class and 320 in cabin class. There were 563 officers and crew. Passengers had access to a total of ten decks, comprising cabins, dining rooms, bars, games rooms, swimming pools, a gymnasium, a children’s play area, an observation lounge, a cinema, a chapel, a reading room, and open and enclosed promenade decks. The furnishings and fittings were of the highest class, with over $1 million having been spent on d├ęcor and artworks. This was almost certainly the most luxurious liner afloat at the time.

As the ship set off on her maiden voyage, the whole city of Genoa came to a standstill, as this marked a real turning-point in the fortunes of the city and the country. However, the voyage was not entirely smooth, with strong winds and heavy seas being encountered as Andrea Doria neared New York. It was noted that one particularly bad wave off Nantucket caused the ship to list by 28 degrees. Nevertheless, she made good time and was nearly on schedule when she docked. She was to make another 100 Atlantic crossings, full to capacity nearly every time.

Final voyage

Her final voyage left Genoa on 17th July 1956, under the command of Captain Pietro Calamai, who was due to transfer to another ship of the Italian Line when SS Andrea Doria completed the return trip. More passengers came on board at Naples and Gibraltar before the ship headed out into the Atlantic. The weather was calm for the whole crossing, but the ship ran into fog on the last full day, Wednesday 25th July. The passengers had already packed their bags and left them outside their cabins for collection by the crew, as they expected to dock at 9.00am the following day.

However, at 11.10pm, 60 miles off Nantucket Island, the SS Andrea Doria collided with the liner “Stockholm”, of the Swedish-American Line, which was heading in the opposite direction. The bows of the Stockholm, which had been reinforced for cruising in ice-covered waters, struck the starboard side of the Andrea Doria, at a near 90 degree angle, and it was this impact that caused all the 52 deaths that occurred as the bows penetrated nearly 40 feet into the side of the Andrea Doria. Five crewmen aboard the Stockholm also perished.

The impact soon led to the Andrea Doria listing 18 degrees to starboard. As stated earlier, the ship was built to withstand the breaching of two of its watertight compartments, but a bulkhead door was missing in the engine room, and the starboard fuel tanks were flooded whilst the port tanks were empty and had not been re-ballasted, thus adding to the instability. It was soon clear that the ship would sink.

The Andrea Doria was more fortunate than the Titanic, which sank in the Atlantic (some 1,000 miles to the north-east) 44 years previously. For one thing, the Andrea Doria hit another ship, and not an iceberg. The Stockholm, although badly damaged, was not holed and was able to play a major part in the rescue operation. Other ships, including the “Ile de France” were also soon on the scene and were able to launch their own lifeboats, which made up for the fact that the growing list of the Andrea Doria made it impossible for half of her boats to be used. US Navy vessels were also prominent in the rescue operation. Captain John Shea, commander of the USNS Pvt. William H. Thomas, directed operations and commented on how smoothly they went.

By 6.00am, all the survivors had been rescued, four hours before SS Andrea slipped beneath the waves, with the news cameras rolling, to lie on the seabed 225 feet below. The rescue was aided by the fog lifting before daybreak, and the excellent work done by the rescue crews. The fact that the accident happened in July was also a factor in preventing hypothermia becoming a problem – another contrast with the fate of the Titanic passengers. Those passengers who went into the sea did not stay there long before being picked up.


An inquiry was held into why the collision took place, but came to no definite conclusion. There were suggestions that the crew of the Andrea Doria had misread their radar screen, and that they should have turned to port, rather than starboard, when the other ship appeared to be on a collision course. It is also possible that the two ships were moving at very different speeds, as the fog was intermittent and the Stockholm had only just encountered it.

There was some criticism of the Andrea Doria’s crew in the aftermath of the collision, such as a statement that the first boats to reach the Stockholm were filled with crew members rather than passengers, but other reports praised the crew for keeping calm and guiding people to safety.

The wreck of the Andrea Doria has been dived several times, and items recovered have included the life-size statue of Admiral Doria that graced the first class saloon. In 1984, the strongroom safe was opened live on television, but nothing of great value was revealed, probably because the passengers had already retrieved their belongings prior to their expected disembarkation.

In Italy, there were moves to replace the Andrea Doria with an identical ship, but this was never done. Captain Calamai never commanded another ship. The Stockholm was repaired and still sails today as MV Astoria (registered in Portugal).

© John Welford