Ships 2

Georges Philippar

Ships 3

Georges Philippar

Liner Georges Philippar Burned Under Mysterious Circumstances

By James Donahue

The fine new French liner Georges Philippar burned and sank in the Indian Ocean, near the Gulf of Aden on its maiden voyage to Japan and back. The fire which broke out in one of the staterooms left 54 of the passengers and crew members dead. Some believe the blaze was started to cover up the assassination of a controversial passenger, investigative journalist and author Albert Londres,who was known for exposing the dark side of French political and economic affairs.

The 542-foot-long liner was launched in 1930 and put in service in the spring of 1932 by the French shipping firm Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes as a replacement for the liner Paul Lacat which was destroyed by fire in 1928.

As preparations were made for the Georges Philippar to leave Marseilles on its maiden voyage on February 26, French police warned the ship’s owners that they had word of a threat to destroy the liner. Yet the voyage to Yokohama, Japan, was completed without incident. The ship, under the command of a Captain Vicq, then started its return trip, making calls at Shanghai and Colombo before heading back for Marseilles.

Londres boarded the steamer during its stop in China. Writer Pierre Assouline, in a biography of Londres’ life, suggested that Londres was in China as an investigative reporter and was returning to France with information that was about to expose a scandal involving “drugs, arms and Bolshevik interference in Chinese affairs.” Londres was killed and his notes destroyed in the fire that swept the ship on May 16.

Adding to the mystery was the story that while on the voyage to France, Londres met and confided in what he had learned with Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Isaak Lang-Willar. The couple survived the fire, but  were killed on May 25 when the plane that was flying them to Marseilles crashed 70 miles southeast of Rome.

Londres was among the 518 passengers and 347 members of the ship’s crew making that voyage. It was said a quantity of unidentified bullion was included in the cargo.  On two occasions the ship’s fire alarm went off before the real fire broke out. It happened eight days before the fire and again about an hour prior to the fire. Both times the ship’s officers made a thorough examination of the vessel and found no cause for the alarm to have been tripped.

Then at 2 a.m., while most passengers were asleep, Madame Volentin, who was in No. 5 cabin on “D” deck, saw smoke coming from an electric box. She contacted the ship’s officers and the engineers shut off the electricity to that part of the ship in an effort to prevent or at least isolate a fire. In spite of quick action, however, fire broke out along the electric circuits and the mid-section of the ship, on “D” deck, was quickly consumed by flames.

The ship’s firefighting equipment was either inadequate, the crew was not properly trained to battle fires, or the blaze was so cleverly started by an arsonist. Whatever the truth of the story, the fire was quickly out of control and the fate of the liner was soon sealed.

Captain Vicq ordered the watertight doors closed in an effort to contain the fire, but this left many passengers trapped in their cabins or in companionways where they died of smoke inhalation. Some passengers managed to squeeze out of their cabins through the scuttles..

Vicq also ordered the vessel turned before the wind and signaled the engine room to stop the engines so lifeboats could be safely lowered. The boats were filled and lowered where ever they could be reached. Fire extinguishers were trained on some of the lifeboats on davits amidships to prevent them from catching fire was they swung away from the blazing steamer.

The Georges Philippar was equipped with wireless radio equipment and the radio operator managed to transmit an S.O.S. call five or six times before the fire reached the auxiliary generator on the upper deck.

The message was heard, however, by two British steamships, the Contractor and the Mahsud. The Russian tanker Sovetskaia Neft also responded. The three vessels picked up 672 survivors in the boats even as the liner burned nearby.

Captain Vicq may have been the last person to leave the blazing steamship alive. He remained behind to check all of the first and second class cabins he could reach. By the time he left the ship in the last lifeboat, he suffered severe burns about the face and legs. Yet witnesses said Vicq remained active even in the boat, pulling survivors from the open water.

The liner burned for three days before it sank on May 19.


Ablaze At Sea