The deadliest shipwrecks in history

RMS Lusitania torpedoed by a German submarine
Over 1,200 people lost their lives when the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915 | Shutterstock

We can look at a shipwreck in a variety of ways. For some, they’re no more than salvage or a commodity, while others see them as evidence of historical events, a means to further our understanding of the past, while adding to the posterity of those that discover a relic thought lost in time.

And while the sight of a ship pressed onto the sea bed by millions of gallons of water is at once profound and curious, the absence of any human life is eerily obvious. This complicated paradox was evident in the discovery of Endurance, which was made even more satisfying because we knew that the whole crew survived the ordeal. But as the following shows, many thousands haven’t been so lucky.

RMS Lusitania

On 6th October 1935, the wreck of one of the largest passenger ships, formerly carrying almost 2,000 people, was discovered off the south coast of Ireland. The RMS Lusitania was located pretty much where it had sunk after being hit by a torpedo, fired from a German U Boat on 7th May 1915, nine years after it first set sail.

It later transpired that, in addition to her 1960 passengers, RMS Lusitania was carrying over 150 tons of munitions and ammunition. There were 761 survivors.

SS Sultana

Designed to carry 376 passengers, the SS Sultana, a side-wheel steamboat, had 2,137 people on board when a faulty boiler exploded close to North Memphis on 27th April 1865. No one was ever held to account for what was the worst maritime disaster in US history. This was largely because of a combination of corruption and bad timing, as the incident occurred twelve days after Lincoln’s assassination.

What was left of the SS Sultana was discovered in 1982, 10 metres under a soya bean field in a location where once the Mississippi ran.

SS Kiangya

On 4th December 1948, the SS Kiangya sank about 50 miles north of Shanghai following either an internal explosion or a collision with a mine during the Chinese Civil War. The Chinese passenger steamboat had a capacity of just under 2,000, but it’s likely that many stowaways were on board fleeing the conflict. Therefore the exact death toll could have been as many as 3,500.

The remnants of the hull were salvaged and refurbished and on 4th February 1959, and the newly-named SS Dongfang Hong 8 set sail once more.

MV Doña Paz

This could also be read as a grisly two-for-one as the 1987 sinking of the Doña Paz involved an oil tanker, the now notorious MT Vector. The former, a passenger ship carrying over 4,000 people, was way over double the passenger capacity it was built for. And it wasn’t properly managed - it's alleged the radio wasn’t working and the lifejackets were locked away - when it collided with MT Vector (operating without a lookout in calm seas) near Marinduque in the Philippines.

The subsequent collision ignited over 1,000 tonnes of fuel setting fire to both ships and the surrounding water, killing almost 4,400 people. With just 24 survivors it was the worst peacetime maritime disaster in history. Both wrecks lie half a kilometre underwater, upright and, with a somewhat ironic twist, in remarkably good condition.

MV Wilhelm Gustloff

On 30th January 1945, the worst ever shipping disaster occurred in known history when the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was hit by three Russian torpedos. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff, formerly a hospital ship, had recently been called upon to evacuate German troops and refugees from the advancing Soviet Armyin Poland as part of Operation Hannibal.

When it was hit it was carrying around 10,000 people and over 90% of them lost their lives. The subsequent wreck is one of the largest in the Baltic Sea, lying about 35 kilometres offshore from Leba, north Poland, and is classed as a war grave.