Commissioned 1 January 1931, the Giussano-class light cruiser Giovanni delle Bande Nere (John of the Black Bands) was a sleek warship of the Regia Marina, though not quite up to the same quality as her three sisters.
The 7,000-ton, 555-foot cruiser had a lot of speed– 37 knots– and eight 6-inch guns but had *razor thin* armor (less than an inch at its thickest) as an Achilles heel. To make it worse, the class had virtually no underwater protection at all.
When WWII came, Bande Nere managed to escape serious damage in the Battle of Calabria and follow-up Battle of Cape Spada in 1940 but hit HMAS Sydney in turn, then went on to survive another close call at the Second Battle of Sirte in 1942. As such, she was much luckier than her three sisters– Alberico da Barbiano and Alberto da Giussano, sunk December 1941, by Royal Navy and Dutch destroyers during the Battle of Cape Bon; and Bartolomeo Colleoni, sent to the bottom at Spada.
Her luck ran out on 1 April 1942 when she came across HM Submarine Urge who fired a pair of torpedoes at the Italian cruiser, one of which broke the Bande Nere into two sections, and she sank quickly with the loss of more than half her crew in 1,500m of water some 11 miles from Stromboli. In a cruel bit of karma, Urge, a Britsh U-class submarine was herself lost just three weeks afterward with all hands, most likely near Malta as a result of a mine.
Bande Nere was discovered over the weekend by the now-Marina Militare, and her crown of Savoy clearly seen on a released video.
“Over a seaman’s grave, no flowers grow.”
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.
– Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, October 29th. The Ghost Ship St Christopher
(This piece, originally published by Sea Classics in October 2012 as The Schooner St Christopher- Ghost of the Mary Walker Bayou, is one that is very personal to me as I spent two years researching it on two continents and talking to three of the former owners. As a good Halloween tale, I am running it here on the blog. )
Here we see the twin masted Delfzil-built schooner St Christopher of the Caymans, hard aground in the reeds along the Mississippi Sand hill Crane Refuge, where she has been since 1998.
Slipping down the builders ways in interwar Western Europe, the schooner St Christopher survived World War Two while flying a German flag, lost all her masts along with her original name and worked as a tramp steamer for decades, changed names again and sailed the Caribbean as a tall ship under a host of swashbuckling owners, and finally survived being grounded by hurricanes– twice. Now she only haunts a forgotten backwater in Mississippi.
Beginning life as the Heniz Brey
In 1932 at the Scheepswerven Gebr Niestern & Co in Delfzil Holland, Hamburg shipping company owner Johannes Brey ordered Niestern bow number 190 for use as a twin-masted coastal shallow-draught schooner. The ship was named Heinz Brey after Johannes’ father.
Curiously, she appears twice in the Lloyds’ Register for that time period and is in both the sailing and steamer listings for the year she was completed as entry LR5145984. The vessel is the same in each as she has the same signal code (RFJN), year of build (1932), Builder (Gebr.Niestern and Co.) at Delfzijl, Netherlands, listed as owned by J Brey and has Hamburg as Port of Registry. She was issued and maintained a Germanischer Lloyd certification until 1955.
In the steamer listing, she was described as a steel vessel with one deck, an auxiliary screw propeller and oil engine. She is also described as ‘Galleas’ (or galleon which means she was primarily propelled by sails) She was listed as 116 tons gross, 93 under deck and 67 tons net. Her dimensions in feet and tenths of a foot were length in the steamer listing is 88.5, breadth, 18.9 and depth 7.3 (but in the sailing list her dimensions are given as 85.6 x 19.1 x 7.3 and her tonnage as 121). Photos of her at the time show that she carried a minimum of nine sails when both her masts and her bowsprit were rigged.
In the steamer listing, her engine details are given as a German DeutschWekeKeil 74kw Type M42 two cylinder, forced air, four-stroke, single-acting engine that generated 22 nominal horsepower and 100-shp. Under power of this engine, the ship would cut blistering 6-knots. Two sister ships, constructed alongside the Heinz Brey to the same general specifications (save for a smaller engine) and for Hamburg based ship-owners were the Allegro (Niestern bouwnr.188) and Franziska (Niestern bouwnr.189). All three ships carried general cargo during the Great Depression-era in the Baltic area.
Service in World War Two
The Heinz Brey’s service in World War II has been lost to history. It is know that the vessel was pressed into service with the Kriegsmarine in September 1939 and remained in use with coastal forces during the war, shuttling supplies, troops and carg around the Baltic. Her original owner, Johannes Brey, recovered the ship in poor condition in Wilhemstaven in November 1945 and returned her to service.
Her sister ships the Allegro and Franziska served alongside her.
The Allegro, (Kriegsmarine pennant number V.1010) was brought to France to support Operation Sealion, the aborted invasion of Great Britain in 1940. When that failed she remained as a U-boat tender and general coaster. Allegro was sunk just off Dieppe harbor at 49.56 N/01.04 E in on Sept 11, 1944.
Franziska used her shallow draft to good advantage transporting supplies to German troops in Norwegian fjords and evacuating more than 100 refugees from Pillaw, East Prussia ahead of the Soviet Army before the end of the war.
Tales of the Heinz Brey being a ‘ghost ship’ during the war, found afloat crammed with bodies of German civilians and soldiers killed by the advancing Red Army in 1945, have circulated but have not been confirmed. What is known is that Johannes Brey soon rid himself of his once-proud vessel.
Post-war renaming, conversion and Tramp steaming
Following her wartime service, the Heinz Brey was quickly sold in 1950 to Dietrich Mangels, who renamed her Aeolus and removed her after mast and bowsprit. Within a half-dozen years, she was sold at least twice more before winding up with Heinrich Behrmann at Krautsand in 1956. Behrmann had decided to convert the then 24-year old now single-master schooner to a traditional coastal freighter.
She was lengthened to 116 feet at the waterline, her final mast and sailing equipment was removed, and her overall weight ballasted to 240 DWT. (Coincidentally her surviving sister, Franziska, was converted and lengthened at about the same time) Painted with a black hull and buff superstructure. The converted ship, now renamed the Heinz Heino, sailed from Hamburg under a German flag carrying general cargo all along the North Sea and Baltic Coasts until 1979. During this period, she carried a Bureau Veritas certification.
Being too small and impractical for continued profitable service, the owner intended to sell the small freighter with her 47-year old engine for scrap in 1979.
A tall-ship again- with a yet another name
Dutch shipping investor AP Bakker said in a 1980 interview to a local paper: “We more or less accidentally saw the ship in a harbor close to Hamburg. We were not really looking for a ship like that, but something must have been in the back of our minds. We travel all over Europe, and you keep your eyes open.”
With that, Mr. Baaker bought the Heinz Heino for 60,000-marks in September 1979 and sailed her to Bolsward, Holland for conversion back to a tall ship. She was reworked in a yearlong 1-million guilder ($500,000) conversion at Vooruit Shipyard in Bolsward. To the hull a bowsprit was added lengthening her to 44.20 meters (145ft) overall. The three new masts were installed with the top mast being 27m from the deck. The masts held 510 square meters of sail, divided over five headsails, including the inner and outer flying jibs, inner and outer jibs and the foresail, two mainsails as well as the mizzen sail equipped with topsails. Her gross tonnage overall was increased to 149.11 tons.
Her holds, no longer to be used for cargo, were transformed into cabins for up to 24 passengers. A total of eight luxurious two-passenger and two four-passenger cabins were installed as well as a new galley and a full bar, and for the first time, air conditioning. The ship, after completing her transformation back into a sailing ship, was christened Sint Chrisstoffel (St Christopher) after the patron saint for seafarers.
Dr. Sicco Mansholt, former President of the European Commission (the executive branch of the European Union) himself christened the ship. It set sail for the Caribbean under the command of 24-year-old Dutch Captain Jan Fred van den Heuvel from Den Bosch and a five-man crew consisting of a helmsman, machinist, 2 cooks and a deckhand in November 1980.
Before sailing Bakker said in an interview when asked about his hopes for success with the ship in the Caribbean, “There is always plenty of wind, there is sunshine and it has a warm climate. Sun, beaches and palm trees, my love, what more do you want?”
Trouble in paradise
When the Sint Chrisstoffel found her way across the Atlantic to the warm Caribbean island of St Maartin and a busy schedule. The ship’s owner A.P. Baaker intended to sail her with up to 24 passengers for an average fee of $400 per berth on one-week cruises. The large ship, with a hand-cranked windlass and the original 1930’s power plant required a crew of a dozen experienced sailors to man her but with the small 6-man crew embarked it was instead planned to have the passengers sign on for “working cruises” where each would be expected to work so many hours per day while on their week-long sail to keep the vessel moving.
Within a year the ship, undermanned and with a less than ideal sailing rig, soon found herself in trouble. She grounded on Great Bay Beach off St Maartin’s southeast coast under unknown circumstances.
St Maartin Ministry of Shipping director Mike Staam remembers the incident well. “They couldn’t get the ship off and started selling beer to onlookers. It was so successful that they rented a cottage across from the ship and started a little bar called ‘Het Anker Bar’ (The Anchor Bar).”
By 1984, the ship had been pulled off the beach but was non-functional and was impounded at harbor for back slip fees. She was officially de-classsed by Bureau Veritas at about this time.
In December 1984, Oklahoma City jeweler Darold Lerch (incorporated as Caribbean Cruising Co.), purchased the unlucky St Christopher at public auction for $45,000 USD at the famous Bobby’s Marina on St Maartin. The ship was in, ‘floating condition but not much more.”
Lerch sailed her with a scratch crew to Venezuela where the ship’s hull was scraped for the first time since leaving Holland. From there he sailed the ship to Jamaica where a holding tank ruptured and the Caymans where the ship lost an anchor.
Lerch, interviewed in 2010 complained about her initial sea keeping abilities while rigged “She was always breaking anchor…She was beautiful but sailed horribly. You had to keep her 100-degrees off wind and for every mile you gained forward she would drift two sideways”.
In 1985, Lerch found out just how the St Christopher would sail in a hurricane.
On Labor Day weekend, 1985, Hurricane Elena’s winds forced the St Christopher ashore on Ft Desoto’s North Beach near Tampa Florida in Pinellas County. The ship had been forced from her Bayboro Harbor moorings near the Salvador Dali museum in St Petersburg at the last moment before the storm. Her 24-yer old South African master, Michael J Matter, had unsuccessfully fought against 40-50 knot winds and flood surge tides more than six feet above normal to keep her at sea. For the next nine months, the white-hulled schooner sat impaled on a sandbar –and luckily just out of the jurisdiction of just about any state or local organization.
The ship’s owner, Darold Lerch, drained his bank accounts attempting to free the vessel before he was approached by a group of investors including Cliff Henderson and Jerry Cross to buy the vessel and turn her into a cruise ship in Cancun. The group of investors incorporated under the name “Tall Ship St Christopher” then later “Blue Water Cruising” and managed to finally free her in May 1986. This was not before one of the investors, ironically a German, drowned in an attempt to free the vessel during Tropical Storm Juan.
She was taken to Pensacola and there refitted with both new sails and rigging and rewired. From there the schooner sailed to New Iberia Louisiana where her original 1932 DeutschWekeKeil engine (remarkably similar to the same model used by Nazi Seehund type midget submarines) was replaced by two new Detroit Diesel M671 engines. Remembering how badly the ship sailed when he first obtained her Lerch and his partners installed a new generator, bow thruster with a 14” bronze prop, new hydraulics and a new hydraulic windlass. For the first time since Roosevelt was president, the St Christopher could raise her sails without the manual labor of a dozen men.
She was reflagged with a British ensign and a Cayman port of registry, number 710614, call sign ZHEP8. Her name was Anglicized from the Dutch Sint Chrisstoffel to St. Christopher of the Caymans to reflect her new flag.
In an interview in 1989, Lerch said of the St Christopher’s time in Florida, “She’s a beautiful old ship. With 10 years ahead of it as a charter ship out of Cancun, it is unlikely the St. Christopher will return to the bay area anytime soon. We’ve had our ups and downs here. Now it’s time to move on.”
Cancun and more misadventures
After spending three months and some $150,000 to modernize and refit the St Christopher, the ship set sail for Cancun in November 1989. The original plan was for the ship to take up to 60 tourist passengers on short 2-3 hour cruises in local waters for $30 a head. With morning, afternoon and moonlight cruises envisioned, investors planned to run her on as many as three cruises per day. The main impediment to the plan was a number of complaints and lawsuits from local vendors who brought pressure on Mexican agencies that withheld granting permits and licenses. At one point, with all of the paperwork seemingly squared away and passengers accommodated for two months, Mexican officials threatened arrest of the crew and owners for flying the Mexican flag illegally and shut the operation down.
Indeed the 1991 edition of Lloyds Register lists the St Christopher (with no Caymans reference), Registry number 5145984, Call sign PGXY. Still flagged in Phillipsburg, Netherlands Antilles. In 1992, she was dropped from Lloyds Register altogether as “continued existence in doubt.” In newspaper articles of the time, she was referred to as registered in the Cayman Islands although the Caymans had deleted her from their registry in November 1988 as her holding company had struck.
With the ship costing some $3,000 per day between the expenses of her 13-man crew’s wages, dock fees, chandler costs et al to operate in the tourist hotspot and no income flowing back in, the program seemed doomed. Eventually the St Christopher was prevented by the local harbormaster from even leaving port due to the amount of dock fees assessed against the craft. Finally in 1993 one of the more colorful ship owners bribed a harbormaster with a pair of 50-peso gold pieces (worth about $2,000 in gold) to be able to leave port in the dead of night never to return. To this day, the ship owner in question is still known to wear a pirate hat to social events occasionally.
The Ghost of the Mary Walker Bayou
After plying Europe as a coaster, evading Allied bombers in World War 2, surviving hurricanes, carrying passengers in the Caribbean, and escaping from Mexican harbormasters, the St Christopher of the Caymans found herself at Fletchas shipyard in Pascagoula Mississippi during the summer of 1998. Her interior spaces were gutted in preparation for the installation of new living quarters. The plan was for her to be refitted for use as a high-end private yacht when Hurricane Georges struck the coastal community.
The eye of the storm passed over Belle Fountaine Beach on September 28 1998, less than ten miles from Pascagoula. The storm brought gusts of up to 125-mph winds, 16-inches of rain and a 12-foot storm surge into the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Breaking from her moorings, the ship drifted across the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge and came to rest 7-miles away deep inside the swamps of the Pascagoula River’s Mary Walker Bayou in Gautier, Mississippi.
The ship was high and, during low tide, dry, in the muddy snake-infested swamp grass but she was worse for wear above decks. She had lost most of her high rigging in the storm and water had entered the ship. Water-borne looters soon found her and her antique portholes and prop were removed. Uninsured and reluctant to salvage her, owners sold the ship to Bryan Leveritt, a 49-year old former chemist and insurance salesman from Creola Alabama for $10. Leveritt formed an LLC, St Christopher Services to salvage the vessel for use as a floating missionary ship.
In 1999, the St Christopher organization applied for a canal to be dug 530 feet long, 24 feet wide and 6 feet deep to accommodate the keel and remove the vessel. The permit expired July 26, 2002 but the organization, unable to raise enough funds for her salvage, asked for a series of extensions through 2005. The organizations, with volunteer labor had worked through tornadoes, looters, hordes of yellow flies, conspiratory clouds of mosquitoes, alligators, and coyotes to enable the ship to be recovered. They were literally within feet of completing the canal and removing the ship from the swamp when Hurricane Katrina swept into the Bayou.
Hurricane Katrina brought devastation and destruction on a near-biblical level to the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Storm surge in excess of twenty feet lifted the St Christopher from her muddy home in the swamp and pushed her another fifty yards deeper into the woods. Worst of all, when she was cast like a toy into the thick pine and oak forests, her hull was holed and crumpled in several places and her masts destroyed.
Reluctant to let the ship go, Leveritt and his volunteer organization came up with a new plan to continue the canal, lift the battered St Christopher on a barge and float her to a shipyard in Bayou La Batre Alabama for repair. Again, the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources (MCMR), who had allowed so many extensions in the past for the canal dredging permits, extended it once more due to the new problems. Again, the ship neared removal from her new home in the swamp. Again, events overtook her, as the Deep-water Horizon oil spill hit the Gulf Coast in April 2010.
The Deepwater Horizon spill, maintains Leveritt, pulled the barge he had lined up to carry the ship out of the bayou just days before the ship was ready to move and the resulting cleanup stripped the organization of volunteers and equipment. The MCMR, its patience worn thin from a dozen years of extensions, refused to extend the permits any longer. The MCMR turned the matter of the canal dug in the coastal wetlands to the State Attorney General who in July 2010 began fining Leveritt $500 per day until the canal is filled and the wetlands restored. Leveritt, now 63, remains determined to free the ship that has been landlocked for 16 years.
The St Christopher of the Caymans, a survivor of 81-years, a world war, three hurricanes and the largest oil spill in US History, still rests today near Gautier, Mississippi and is commonly referred to by local fishermen as the “Ghost of the Mary Walker Bayou.” Whether or not she ever stakes to sea again, is not certain by any means.
Fate of her sister ships
The St Christopher’s two sister ships who had been ordered at the same time and built in the same yard in Holland both had interesting post-war histories. The Allegro, sank by Allied bombers in a French harbor in 1944 was raised and used to some extent until 1970 when she was broken up by Captain Joachim Kaiser.
Captain Kaiser also found himself with the other sister Franziska in 1980. The Franziska had been through no less than five owners, and like the St Christopher had been de-masted and used as a tramp steamer. Listed in Chapman’s , Kaiser shortened the vessel to nearly her original dimensions as a two-masted schooner and since 1999; the ship has sailed for the Gangway Foundation in Hamburg as a traditional sail training and cargo ship under the name Undine.
Displacement: 121 tons gross 240 full load
Length: 88.5 feet waterline, 145 feet oal in final scheme
Beam: 19.1 feet
Draft: 7.3 feet
Rig: Twin-masted schooner, 9 sails
Engine (as built) German DeutschWekeKeil 74kw Type M42 two cylinder, forced air, four stroke, single acting engine, 22 nominal horsepower and 100shp, one shaft, after 1986 Detroit Diesel M671.
Speed: 6-knots on diesel, faster likely under sail
Armament: machine guns and small arms during WWII German Naval service.
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Two days before Hurricane Isaac came ashore, I walked the beaches of South Mississippi taking what I term ‘before’ pictures. You see, I have survived direct hits by Fredrick, Elena, Georges, Katrina, and near misses from Rita, Gustav, Mitch, Dennis, Debbie and others. Its one thing that remains the same in each: visit the beach right before the storm to get one last look in at how it is now– as it may be vastly different on your next visit.
Here we see the Miss Vickie, a 20-25 foot sailboat (boat id number MI6883 BS) that was left adrift along the Mississippi Coast just before Hurricane Isaac. Here she is washed up along the beach in about a foot of water (at low tide). She appeared dry but with a few torn supports on her mast. With the help of a commercial tow service she could have quickly been pulled free, especially at high tide.
Here is the poor Miss Vickie (same ID number) hard aground the day after Isaac on Mississippi Highway 90 about a half mile from where the above picture series was taken. She rolled several times. Her mast is broken. Her hull is shattered along the keel in many places. She will never be moved again except by a bulldozer.
Of course, Isaac will take the wrap, but I think he was framed.