SS L’Atlantique of the Cie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique was an unique example for the next ocean liners of the 1930s.

SS L’Atlantique of the Cie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique was an unique example for the next ocean liners of the 1930s, not only in Interior design, modernity, and wonderful Art Deco areas, but also a bad example regarding the risk of “fire”.   Only 16 months she crossed the seas, when her lacquered interiors, wooden panels, were the victims of a fire on January 3rd 1933.

Youtube video – L’ATLANTIQUE 1931-1933 Part I, before the fire. Take a tour , on the beautiful liner before the accident. Photos source: l’Illustration 1930, 1931 – Miroir du Monde 1933.

Youtube video – L’ATLANTIQUE PART II , the doomed liner

On this January 3rd, 1933 only a part of the crew was aboard, 229 souls, the ocean liner was on the route to Le Havre, for some refits and transformations….but early in the morning at 6h 45…..a fire broke out.

Fitted out with the most expensive wooden lacquered panels, the Atlantique was on of the most modern designed liner of its period.

The beautiful shopping gallery, the use of wood and the important spaces gave the fire the best conditions to destruct this unique Art Deco Liner. 18 victims were the result of this accident and new rules for fire protection for Ocean Liners.

Background and History – SS L’Atlantique

SS L’Atlantique was ordered from the Penhoet shipyards in St. Nazaire, France, birthplace of the famed Ile De France.  In fact, she was considered by some to be the “first cousin” to the Ile de France.  However, L’Atlantique would work a different route,  and her end would come much sooner than the Ile De France.

The L’Atlantique was part of the Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique.  This line, as well as other lines on this route, traveled from European ports to South America.  She was launched on April 15, 1930, and she set out on her maiden voyage from Bordeaux to Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires on September 29.

Her only shortcomings were the onset of the Great Depression, as well as her external appearance.  Externally, she was a rather ugly ship.  She looked top-heavy, coming close to looking clumsy.  In order to improve her appearance, her three funnels were heightened.

Inside, she was beautiful.  Everything was in tune with that which would be found on any North Atlantic vessel of the French Line on the North Atlantic.  In the picture at left, you can see the L’Atlantique’s famed shopping mall.

However, her commercial life was short.  The New York Times had this to say about the L’Atlantique on January 5, 1933:

“The luxurious new 42,500-ton L’Atlantique, the twelfth-largest ship afloat, and pride of France’s South Atlantic fleet, was wrecked by fire in the English Channel, and it was feared that a score of the more than 200 men of the crew who were aboard drowned or perished in the flames which swept the ship from stem to stern.  The others were rescued by four freighters (the Achilles, Erato, Ford Castle, and Ruhr) which responded to the only call for help which the wireless operator was able to send out before he was overcome by smoke.”

“The liner carried no passengers, as it was being sailed from Bordeaux to Le Havre for overhauling before resuming its run to South America, but the fire apparently started in a first class stateroom.  Captain Rene Schoofs said it was discovered there at 3:30 AM, and before the crew could organize effective measures against it, the fire had spread through a section of first class cabins, apparently making its way along the electric wire conduits.  Just before six o’clock, it was obvious that the L’Atlantique, ablaze from end to end, was beyond saving, and the order was given to abandon ship.  One of the first boats lowered met with disaster when the davit ropes broke, throwing seven or eight men into the sea, where they were drowned.  Others, according to the Captain, particularly the boiler-room crew, stayed at their posts until too late to save themselves from asphyxiation, and still others were trapped by swift-spreading flames.”

“Captain Schoofs, the last to leave the ship, jumped overboard half dressed, following seven or eight of his crew who had remained until the last minute working the lifeboat winches.  In the half light provided by the glow of the burning vessel and the first rays of dawn, a lifeboat from the Dutch steamship Achilles made its way to the point where men where in the water water, and rescued all of them.  They were landed at  Cherbourg, Captain Schoofs coming ashore in a Dutch officer’s uniform lent to him by the captain of the Achilles.”

“Late this afternoon, the L’Atlantique began to list to port and when last observed bad a twenty-degree list.  The flames were no longer visible, but smoke was pouring out of the hulk.  The ship still was too hot for tugs to attempt to tow the hulk, which was 25 miles west of the Island of Guernsey.  The French Ministry of Marine announced tonight that the liner was a total loss.”

However, L’Atlantique was not alone in her destruction at that time.  Another French liner, the Georges Philippar, was destroyed by fire.  Fifty people turned up missing after that fire.  And that’s a lot, considering that her total capacity was 850 (600 passengers and 250 crew).  The Georges Philippar was believed to be destroyed due to defective wiring.  This led to an accumulation of a high electrical charge in the ship itself, causing fires to break out all over the ship at the same time.  The French press believed a similar cause of the fire on the L’Atlantique, but some hinted at sabotage as the cause.

However, who was to claim the still-floating wreckage of the liner caused rivalry between the French, the Dutch, and the Germans.  However, the tugboat captains from these companies were beset by waves, winds, and currents, which caused the wreck of the L’Atlantique to list to starboard, which made some wonder if she could even make it to Cherbourg harbor before sinking.

The first people to board the ship after the fire were two Frenchmen, who risked their lives to raise the French tricolor for the purpose of claiming the wreck for France.  However, the tricolor was soon blackened by the clouds of smoke that were still coming out of the liner.

Continuing the national rivalry, the captains of the three nations’ tugs, after towing L’Atlantique into Cherbourg, all filed reports with the Chamber of Commerce in Cherbourg in order to settle the controversy of who salvaged the liner, and thus who owns it.  Captain Schoofs claimed that the liner was not officially abandoned, as he gave the captain of Minotaure the authority to take charge of the salvage.  But if it was abandoned, the first tug to start salvaging it owns the ship.  The French press didn’t particularly appreciate that the liner’s salvage caused a bitter salvage fight.

Though the fire was finally put out on January 8 by the Cherbourg fire brigade, the value of the remains could not be properly assessed until the hull had been pumped out and the wreckage cleaned up.  The estimates were that if L’Atlantique was able to be restored after the fire, she would be worth from $2,500,000 to $3,000,000.  However, if she was only good for scrapping (as ended up being the case), she would only be worth $80,000 to $120,000.

After she made it to Cherbourg, a year-long battle between the marine underwriters and the ship’s owners ensued.  During this whole to do, she sat idle in Cherbourg.  It was finally determined, after the final accounting of insurance money coming to $6,800,000 in favor of the Compagnie Sud-Atlantique.  Finally, in February 1936, with there being no intention of restoring L’Atlantique to a marketable state and no further need for the ship as evidence, she was sold to scrappers.  Thus, she was towed to Smith & Houston, at Port Glasgow, and turned into scrap metal.

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About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

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