- Wright, Ken
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
There were warning signs.
The dogs sensed something was wrong, barking well after they should have settled down. The birds wouldn’t roost as they normally would. The gentle ripple of the harbour’s water against the shore had increased in frequency. At 5.20 on the morning of Monday 28 December 1908 most of the people in the city of Messina in Sicily and in Reggio Calabria were still in bed. Twenty two seconds later, an estimated 100,000 men, women and children, people from both sides of the Straits, were either dead or dying.
The earthquake began six miles under the Straits of Messina, the strip of ocean that separates Sicily from mainland Italy, and struck with an estimated force of 7.5 on the Richter scale. Messina and Reggio Calabria, the two closest cities to the epicentre were the hardest hit but towns and villages for many miles up and down the Sicilian and Italian coastlines succumbed to the earth’s tremors. Buildings, roads, water and gas mains, sewerage pipes were destroyed and all forms of communication were severed with the outside world. The panic and devastation was horrific. Some survivors sought safety in the country side but many crowded around the harbour hoping to escape the horror by boat or ship. It’s doubtful any would have realised the danger they were in as the water began to recede from the shore. The keels of the vessels in the harbour rested on the ocean floor as the water receded further and further from the coast line to a point where the wall of water rose to a height where the sheer weight of water could not be held, then collapsed sending a 30 foot high tsunami racing back to shore at about 80 miles an hour. Thousands more perished when the wave hit. Some vessels, wrenched from their moorings, smashed into people, and nearby waterfront buildings adding to the already devastated city.
Virtually all forms of authority had disappeared. Civil servants, military personnel, police officers or people of influence who could restore some resemblance of order were either already dead or shortly would be. Into the chaos of Messina came many inmates from the city prison; the walls had collapsed, releasing them. From the nearby hills came the feral gangs to join the prison inmates and like a pack of jackals began feasting on the dying carcass of the city. Looting broke out everywhere while the survivors, numb with shock, despair and grief, were unable to defend themselves against this human excrement. For the residents of Messina, Reggio Calabria and many other towns and villages, they could be forgiven if they thought this was the hell the priests had preached about from the pulpits during mass. Meanwhile, the outside world continued its normal activity oblivious of the disaster.
There were many foreign vessels in the Messina harbour at the time and most larger ships survived relatively undamaged although a few were sunk. The Italian torpedo boat Saffro was still afloat and immediately began rescuing foreign sailors from the harbour water. At first light, some of the crew rowed ashore to see if they could assist in some way but were turned away by armed scavengers who were trying to rob the nearby bank. They did manage to rescue some survivors before returning to the Saffro which weighed anchor and headed full steam to Naples where details of the disaster could be passed on to Rome.
The authorities in Rome were, 15 hours after the disaster, at last aware of the situation in the southern part of Italy and began to organise a national relief operation. In the meantime, rescue operations were already underway in Messina. Crews from four British merchant ships, the Afonwen, Ebro, Chesapeake and Drake accompanied by Italian sailors had already began to help the living, dig out the dead and dying and do anything else humanly possible that could be done under the circumstances. Rain and cold hampered their efforts and more earthquake victims died of exposure.
Tuesday morning saw the arrival of the German liner Therapia and the British armoured cruiser HMS Sutlej which was being used as a practical class room for 168 boys training to enter the service with the Royal Navy at 18 years of age. The Russian battleships Admiral Makarov Cesarevitch and the Slava entered the harbour soon after and began immediate assistance. The Russian navy personnel were at that time the only real force that could establish any form of law and order, and once it was realised that armed looters were hindering their rescue of survivors, the Russians acted with brutal efficiency. Sidearms were issued to all junior officers and many looters were summarily executed with a bullet to the head. Looting decreased markedly. The Russians worked tirelessly and without thought to their own safety, as did everyone involved.