The sinking of SS NORSEMAN at Megalo Karabourno

SS Norseman

Translation by Ross J. Robertson

The Birth Of The Ocean Liner In Its Modern Form

During the 19th century, major developments took place in shipbuilding technology which led to the construction of larger and more efficient ships. Compared to wooden sailing ships, these better served the needs of mass migration to the new continents, particularly America and Australia.

Among these technological improvements was the universal adoption of iron and then steel as ship construction materials. This finally overcame the problem of excessive hull oscillation, a shortcoming of wooden vessels which limited their length to less than 100 meters. The adoption of the stream engine for propulsion, especially after the invention of double and, a little later, triple expansion engines made long-distance voyages far more practical than sail. Moreover, the invention of fire tube boilers enabled a six-fold increase in operating pressures, thereby greatly improving efficiency.

With travel times thus reduced, the world had suddenly become a smaller place.

Bulk Passenger Ships

As income was earned by the transportation of raw materials and goods, profitability for shipping companies largely depended on keeping holds full for both the outward and return legs of a journey. Transatlantic transportation in the 19th century was peculiar in that ships fully laden with raw materials such as wood and cotton played an indispensable role in supplying Europe with the materials needed to fuel the industrial revolution. However, their holds would be relatively empty on the return trip back to America. The expedient solution was to come from the waves of migration to the new world caused by three historical events. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, failed revolutions against monarchical regimes throughout Europe, and the great potato famine of the 1840s. Although the latter struck all the countries of Northern Europe, it was particularly harsh in Ireland, resulting in the emigration of as many as 2,000,000 Irish men and women. Shipping companies began equipping holds with rudimentary bunk beds with straw as mattresses (each passenger was expected to bring his/her own bedding). Thus was the concept of ‘steerage class’ (or 3rd class) was created. [1]

steerage class

The space allotted to 3rd class passengers. As shown, it is an upper trier of a hold to which bunk beds and simple furniture have been installed. It is not accidental that many likened it to the slave trade era.


Travel conditions for 3rd class passengers were appalling. The holds were packed with people who had very little room to move. Food was distributed raw and somehow cooked in these cramped conditions. Provisions for sanitation were non-existent, leaving passenger prone to disease and illness. Already stifling, the situation was made even worse when the seas became turbulent and the hatches had to be closed. Those in the hold had to endure the pitching and rolling of the ship in the dark, airless confinement. A typical journey lasted from four to eight miserable weeks, weather depending. Deaths on board where common during the voyage due to these horrible conditions.

steerage class

3rdclass passengers were usually allowed to occupy any available space on the deck in days of good weather. It gave them some much needed respite from the suffocating, dark atmosphere of 3rd class accommodation in the holds.


This deplorable state of affairs eventually came to the attention of the American Congress, which drafted the Steerage Act in 1819. The new rules made travel more humane, but a revision was still required in 1855. In fact, it was not until the end of the century that a comprehensive draft of specific rules governing the transportation of passengers was formulated and the situation finally ameliorated.

Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Aktien-Gesellschaft (HAPAG)

The Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Aktien-Gesellschaft, commonly known as the Hamburg-America Line (HAPAG), was founded in Hamburg in 1847 and soon became the largest shipping company in Germany (even becoming the largest in the world at one point). Its success was founded on servicing the large migratory movements from Germany to America, and later servicing Eastern Europe emigration. By the end of the 19th century, travelling conditions had changed significantly and 3rd class passengers now enjoyed the comforts of cabins, along with real mattresses and clean covers. Food was now prepared for them by ship’s cooks and served in clean canteens.

Following a 1892 cholera epidemic brought to Hamburg by immigrants from Eastern Europe, the company even built the Ballin Stadt, a “town” in Hamburg for the health control and welfare of immigrants. To cater for the demands of migration, the company decided to replace their old ships with new “B” and “P” class vessels capable of 12 knots.

Top view of the BATAVIA, the SS NORSEMAN’s ‘B’ class sister ship. It shows the configuration for 2nd class passengers.

The former were built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, while the latter were built in Germany by Blohm & Voss. Both classes could carry some 300 2nd class passengers and 2,400 3rd class passengers, whose accommodations could be disassembled to transport cargo in the hold.



A design drawing of the SS BRASILIA with the initial two hoist mast configuration.

Source: courtesyof Belfast Maritime collectables

On the 27th November, 1897, the steamship BRASILIA was launched. It was the first of the “B” class vessels, measuring 152.3 x 18.9 meters and displacing 10,336 GRT. It was driven by two propellers. It made his maiden voyage from Belfast to New York the following year. It then plied the Hamburg to Baltimore route until October 1899.

ss brasilia

Drawing of the ships built by Harland and Wolff in 1897, on the upper left is the SS BRASILIA.



The SS BRASILIA was resold to Harland and Wolff who installed four hoisting masts for better cargo management. It was then sold to the British Dominion Line, which renamed it the SS NORSEMAN. Its first voyage under the new name was to transport cavalry troops to Cape Town for the Boer War raging in the South Africa. It then served the North Atlantic routes, catering only for 3rd class passengers.

SS norseman

A postcard depicting the SS NORSEMAN, addressed to Jack Hollandin Birmingham and sent from Australia, on the back reads:

‘Dear Jack,I am writing you a few lines to let you know that we all arrived safe, this is the old ship in which we travelled, we did almost 13,000 miles non-stop. I can tell you that we have seen enough water for a lifetime. We had a great trip, good weather for 5 weeks, I hope you are well.

Source: OEA Archive


In 1910, it was chartered by ABERDEEN LINE on the London – Cape Town – Sydney route. In May 1914, Mr. Solomon (‘Sol’) Plaatje was onboard as the ship set sail from Cape Town for London. In an article he later penned, he delineates that “during the four-week journey, passengers had all the ship’s lounges at their disposal because only 3rd class passengers were travelling on it.

aberdeen lines


This allowed them to navigate all parts of the ship and walk from the bow to the stern. The ship was a modified cargo transport, whose ticket fare was relatively cheap. There was no segregation, making the deck an excellent and unlimited space for reflection and social interaction.”

The Great Karabournou

When travelling north in the Thermaikos Gulf to enter the Gulf of Thessaloniki, to the east lies a cape called the Great Karabournos, [2] otherwise known as the Kara Burun (Turkish) or Megalo Emvolon (Greek). It is a position of strategic importance for the sea defense of the city of Thessaloniki. Directly to the west lies the Aksios Delta, the estuary of the Aksios River which deposits sediment into the sea to create a shallow coastline. Although the east-west distance between the cape and delta is five kilometres, passage deep enough for shipping is essentially narrowed to half that, making the bottleneck easy to control traffic and/or mine. In 1864, the Ottomans constructed a lighthouse and later a fortification (the Megalo Emvolo Fortress / Fort Tuzla) on the Great Karabournos, probably by order of the German, Colmar von der Goltz, reorganizer of the Ottoman army at the time.


After the outbreak of WWI, the SS NORSEMAN began to serve British war interests. It sailed from Plymouth to Thessaloniki via Marseilles, transporting 150 soldiers of the 26th Infantry Division as well as vehicles, oats, clothing, armaments, ammunition, barbed wire, and, depending on sources, from 500 to 1100 mules. The SS NORSEMAN arrived at the entrance of the Gulf of Thessaloniki, at the point of the cape-delta bottleneck, in the early morning hours of the 22nd of January 22, 1916. Together with the ships PRAH, MENONINEE, NERA, the destroyer COGNEE and two other warships, it was spotted at 04:25 hrs by the German submarine U-39, commanded by Lieutenant Walter Forstmann. The French hospital ship MASSILIA is also seen as it entered the Gulf. The submarine launched two torpedoes against the ships at 05:10 hrs and 05:36 hrs, both of which fail to find their targets. The attacks were not noticed and the submarine’s existence remained unrevealed. A third torpedo struck the SS NORSEMAN, causing considerable damage. In a desperate effort to save the stricken ship, torpedo boat 030, the fishing vessel AVON and two French tugs are hastily dispatched to tow the SS NORSEMAN to shore. Events were directed by the battleship HMS PRINCE GEORGE, whose commander, Alexander Campbell, ordered that the SS NORSEMAN be abandoned

SS Norseman

TheSS NORSEMAN half sunk

Source: ΟΕΑ archive

when its sinking stern hit the bottom at 14 metres depth. At that moment, a large wave flooded the deck, resulting in hundreds of mules drowning. The press of the time confirm that the ship ran aground near the shore without the loss of lives, except for the mules. Many animals actually survived on the intermediate decks. Covered by freezing water up to their necks, they continued to chew their food, patiently waiting for rescue.

norseman Karabourno

The half-sunken SS NORSEMAN on the south beach of Megalo Emvolo.

Source: The Sphere 4/3/1916

OEA Archive

The sinking of the SS NORSEMAN led General Sarrail, the military commander of the Allied troops in Thessaloniki, to conclude that some of the Greek officers were cooperating with the Germans. He, therefore, ordered the capture of the Megalo Emvolo Fortress, as well as the adjacent Fort Tuzla by the Allied troops. This would ensure absolute control of all maritime movement to and from the Port of Thessaloniki.

ss Norseman karabourno

The cannons at the fort of the Megalo Emvolo, the lighthouse can be seen behind, the officer is probably a Frenchman photographed after the occupation of the fort by the allied forces.

Source: The Sphere 4/3/1916

OEA Archive


On the morning of the 28th of January, while the Allied force was on its way, the operation became known to the small Greek garrison at the Fortress. They ceded their positions and withdrew without incident.

ss Norseman karabourno

The occupation of KaraBurun according to the French newspaper EXCELSIOR, the date of publication 19/2/1916. Above is the half-sunken SS NORSEMAN,in the middle the barracks of the fort and below the battery that guard the passage to the Gulf of Thessaloniki.

Source: EXCELSIOR 19/2/1916 OEA Archive

Almost immediately after the sinking, recovery attempts were made by the English. None, however, proved successful. Finally, in 1919, the SS NORSEMAN was left to its fate. Sometime later it was reportedly sold to the Italian shipwreck company, Societa Italiana di Salvataggi e Nav, then resold to a retired naval officer by the name of Pantazara. The gradual process of dismantlement began and continued until 1941. After WWII, the shipwreck was sold to Spyros Kremezis who granted Leandros Kalothis, Henry Modiano and Dimitris Stamatiadis the salvaging rights. They continued the work until the mid-1950s.

The Wreck Today

ss norseman karabourno

Map of the Megalo Emvolo area, in the west the Aksiou Delta, the estuary of the Aksios River, can be seen. The lighthouse is located in the area of the Megalo Emvolos Fortress (red), while adjacent Fort Tuzla is marked in yellow. The pin marks the location of the wreck.

Source: googlemaps.

The wreck ran aground about a kilometre west of Fort Tuzla. The coastline at the time of the sinking was further south, something that can be perceived by the existence of a small building which lies underwater today. Up to 60 metres from the shore the depth does not exceed half a meter, then it gradually deepens and then suddenly drops off from about 7 to 17 metres. The drop-off explains why the ship is seen with its stern fully submerged but its bow still above the waterline in period photographs. Water visibility in the area is very poor – almost zero most of the time. After a northerly wind, visibility may reach five metres at best.

Dives carried out by the Underwater Survey Team (U.S.T.), revealed that the seabed is muddy. While a lot must remain sunken in the mud, metal remnants are still discernible everywhere. At 14 metres, there are large pieces of sheet metal which extend for some tens of meters and provide an idea of the orientation of the wreck – its bow was at 90 degrees to the shoreline.

The author would like to thank for providing the rigging plan of the SS BRASILIA.

The author would also like to thank Oliver Lorscher for his help in the research of the English archives and German U-39 logbook.


  1. The term ‘steerage class’ derives from the large sailboat era when passengers were accommodated below the deck space of the rudder. They were later moved to the so-called ‘tween decks’, an abbreviation of ‘between decks’ which is the space between the upper or main deck of a ship and the decks below it.
  2. The name Karabournos comes from the Turkish words Kara Burun which means ‘black nose’ or ‘black cape’, while the Greek name of the area is Megalo Emvolon. The name was translated into Greek as Karabourno and the larger area became known as the Great Karabourno. The area includes the fort, as well as the small Ramos or Karabournaki, which is the area by Kalamaria beach where the former summer Royal Summer Palace, Kyberneío (Palataki) is located.


Bibliography- sources:

The Kaiser’s merchant ships in world war I , William Lowell Putnam

German luxury ocean liners: From Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse to Aidastella, Nils Schwerdtner

Imperial war museum,

The gardeners of Salonika: The Macedonian campaign 1915-1918, Alan Palmer

8th (King’s royal Irish) Hussars – Diary of the south African war: 1900-1902 ,J. W. Morton

Sea narratives: Cultural responses to the sea, 1600-present

Newspaper “Auckland Star” 31/1/1916

Τα παράκτια οχυρά του Μεγάλου Εμβόλου στη Θεσσαλονίκη. Όλγα Τραγανού- Δεληγιάννη

Εχθρός εν όψει, Τούμπας Ιωάννης

National Archives ADM 137/363-366-367-368-1198-2296

Ανελκύοντας την ιστορία: Η εποποιΐα της ανέλκυσης ναυαγίων στην μεταπολεμική Ελλάδα, ¨Αρης Μπιλάλης, Κωνσταντίνος Θωκταρίδης

Author: Nikolaos Sidiropoulos

Ο Νικόλας Σιδηρόπουλος γεννήθηκε στις 28/6/1977 στην Θεσσαλονίκη. Το 2002 πήρε το πρώτο αστέρι της CMAS και ξεκίνησε την ενασχόληση του με τις καταδύσεις. Ασχολείται με την ιστορική και αρχειακή έρευνα της ομάδας, καθώς και την υποβρύχια βιντεοσκόπηση.