LOOKING BACK: Collision at sea by Beachy Head

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This week saw the 60th anniversary of a collision involving the Greek cargo ship SS Germania off the coast at Beachy Head.

The German-built vessel was steaming up channel to London with a cargo of potatoes, sugar, figs, cheese, mohair and magnesia from Catania in Italy when it collided in thick fog with the Panamanian steamer Maro four miles south of Beachy Head on Tuesday April 26 1955.

The Germania initially ran aground on rocks close to the lighthouse but broke her back as the tide receded with her bows on one rock reef and her stern on another.

Coastguards and other watchers heard a series of loud cracks and said the weight of her engines and the four foot depths of water in her holds was the cause of her splitting amidships.

A report in the Eastbourne Herald Chronicle of Saturday April 30 1955 reported that lifeboat crews, coastguards, police, customs officers and men from the Eastbourne and Birling Gap rocket life saving crews rushed to the scene when an elderly man rushed in to the Lifeboat Museum on Tuesday afternoon and said to the attendant Harry Allchorn, “There’s a steamer on the rocks. A big one”.

The paper said the operation began one of the “longest precautionary watches in local maritime history” on the stranded ship.

A reporter wrote, “Other local organisations rallied to the emergency. Civil Defence headquarters became a temporary home for 19 members of the stranded vessel’s crew and members were assisted by the Women’s Voluntary Services and British Red Cross Society.

“It was about 5.30pm on Tuesday evening in a thick sea mist that the lifeboat with her crew of eight under coxswain Tom Allchorn drew alongside the grounded Germania.

“At first they were told she was not in need of help but as the tide receded, the lifeboatmen heard loud creakings and crackings from the vessel.”

The 19 seamen were taken off the ship and landed at Eastbourne Pier where officials opened their messroom so the sailors could be in the warm.

The lifeboat waited all night alongside the Germania floating in a sea of oil that had spilt from the ship as the captain and five seamen were still aboard.

The captain eventually left the ship on Thursday afternoon and the newspaper reported, “Drawing on a pair of white gloves and with his favourite carpet carefully stowed away in the waiting fishing boat, Captain Antonio Panagakos, who had commanded the 1,918 ton Greek cargo ship Germania for the past 12 months, prepared to obey his owner’s instructions to leave the ship on Thursday afternoon – 42 hours after she broke her back on the rocks at Beachy Head.

“When they heard the company had decided to abandon the ship to the underwriters, the captain and five members of his crew who had remained aboard since she grounded on the reef, shaved, brushed their uniforms and made a final tour of the vessel.

“True to the tradition of the sea, Captain Panagakos was the last to leave and there were tears in his eyes as Jack Huggett’s fishing boat drew away from the Germania’s scarred side.

“The sailors took off their caps and waved a last sad farewell and then buried their heads in their hands and did not look back again. So ended a stricken ship’s two day battle with the cruel sea.

“When they landed at the Pier and the customs checks and medical examinations were over, they walked towards the parades without speaking.

“Not once did they glance to the west where their vessel appeared to float bravely on the outgoing tide. That night they went by train to London.”