RHS Vasilissa Olga (D-15) [+1943]

Shipwreck

Max Depth: 31,9m | Temp.: 20°C (Oct-21)

The Story

After the turbulent interwar period and the assumption of the prime ministership of Greece in 1936 by Ioannis Metaxas, the threat of a new world war became more and more pronounced in the international environment. The new regime, aware of the developments and the role that Greece would be called upon to play, began a systematic effort to prepare the country in the defense sector.

In this context and to strengthen the naval fleet, the Supreme Naval Council decided in 1936 to order four destroyer ships. After tough negotiations with the UK, the final order for two ships was placed in January 1937 at the Yarrow & Co. shipyard in Scotstoun, Glasgow. The design of the ships was an evolution of the British G-class destroyers designed in 1933 and represented one of the best destroyer types of the time.

The construction cost was £380,000 for each ship and they were to be named “King George D-14” and “Queen Olga D-15”.

During the final consultations, the Greek government agreed with the British, and it was decided that the purchase of the ships’ armament should be carried out by Nazi Germany, which agreed to be paid in kind, specifically with Greek tobacco, to save foreign exchange reserves.

On 1 February 1937, the keel of the Royal Hellenic Navy RHS “Vasilissa Olga” was laid down. It was launched on 2 June 1938, and construction work was completed on 4 February 1939. On 11 February 1939, the Greek flag was raised, and three days later, the RHS “Queen Olga” left Glasgow for Greece.

Fifteen days later, on 1 March 1939, it will sail to the Salamis dockyard, having received the insignia D-15. There, intensive work began on fitting the ship’s armament, which will take two months (4 Rheinmetall 127mm guns and 4 Rheinmetall 37mm anti-aircraft guns), as the builders did not wish to transfer their armament to the British shipyard.

General Characteristics

Class and type

G class destroyer

Displacement

1.335 t (standard)
2.000 t (deep load)

Length

98,5m

Beam

9,8m

Draft

2,6m

Propulsion

2 sets of Parsons geared steam turbines (34.000 HP), 3 Yarrow boilers

Speed

max safe: 34 Knots,
allowed: 32 knots,
eco: 14 knots

Range

(in miles)

 

3.370 @ 12 knots
2.330 @ 19 knots
1.600 @ 26 knots
1.180 @ 31 knots

Fuel capacity

455 tones fuel oil

Crew:

200

Armament

4 × 12.7 cm SK C/34 (Rheinmetall)
4 × single 3.7 cm (1.5 in) AA guns (Rheinmetall)
2 × quadruple 53.3 cm (21 in) torpedo tubes, made in UK
2 × depth charge launchers
2 × depth charge rack

In October 1941, the fourth gun of 127mm and the aft T/S was removed to add 1 A/A gun 76mm and 6 guns 20mm, which replaced the anti-aircraft armament. The ASDIC 128 (Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) anti-submarine device, which was essential for detecting enemy submarines underwater, would also be fitted.

The services of Destroyer “VASSILISSA OLGA”

The destroyer “VASSILISSA OLGA” action began even before Greece entered the Second World War. On 30 July 1940, the “VASSILISSA OLGA” and the sister ship, “VASSILIS GEORGIOS,” were anchored at Nafpaktos when they were targeted by an Italian plane which dropped four bombs on them, but without hitting them.

On 15 August 1940, after the torpedoing of the “ELLIS” in Tinos, the destroyer “VASSILISSA OLGA” was again called together with the “KING GEORGE” to escort the passenger boats with the pilgrims of Megalochari from Tinos to Piraeus.

With the declaration of the Greek-Italian war on 28 October 1940, the “VASSILISSA OLGA” developed an intense war activity. Commanded by Captain Alfredo Leontopoulos, it took part in convoy escorts and patrols, as well as in the first and third (14-15 November 1940, 4-5 January 1941) raids in the Strait of Otranto.

On 03 March 1941, together with “VASILEUS GEORGIOΣ”, transported the gold and foreign exchange reserves of the Bank of Greece to Crete, followed on 25 April by the movement of the Greek Government to the mainland after the German invasion. On the same day, the “VASSILISSA OLGA” arrived in Alexandria and was integrated with the expatriate Greek fleet in the Middle East.

There it will take over escorts of British convoys to the surrounding ports. With Captain I. Vlahopoulos as her new Captain, who took up his duties on 14 June, the ship would proceed to Calcutta, India, in October 1941 for necessary repairs and refitting to improve and strengthen her armament.

On 15 January 1942, “VASSILISSA OLGA” departs Calcutta and proceeds to Trincomalee and Colombo, Ceylon. There she begins its intense activity, which has to do with anti-submarine surveys and escorting two large American steamships of 25,000 tons, until 8 February, when she sets course for the Mediterranean.

On its return to Alexandria, on 22 February 1942, “VASSILISSA OLGA” joins the 14th British destroyer flotilla, taking the insignia H 84. Under the new commander Commander D. Alexandrou from 26 February, she participates in the convoy escort to Tobruk, where she quickly stands out for her combat action when the Axis forces decimate other warships and merchant ships. To better demonstrate the danger, it should be noted that out of the 15 destroyers of the 14th Flotilla, only three survived, including the Greek destroyer.

On 3 May, while participating in another convoy to Tobruk, the ship ran aground in a shoal, destroying one propeller and damaging the shafts. it returned to Alexandria, where the crew, with self-sacrifice amidst bombardment, will proceed with her partial repairs. On 30 June, it will be towed by the corvette “SAHTOURIS” to Port Said and then to Port Tewfik, where her repairs will be completed in October.

The above event will be the occasion for the captain’s replacement by 37-year-old Commander George Blessas on 28 August 1942. With this captain, the “Vasilissa Olga” will write one of the most golden pages of our naval history in the period to follow.

After seven months of inactivity, the “VASSILISSA OLGA” would continue to escort convoys, first in the North Indian and then return to the Eastern Mediterranean.

At dawn on the 15th of December 1942, while the “VASSILISSA OLGA” was returning from 45 miles south of Malta, together with the British destroyer “PETARD” (G 56), they spotted the Italian submarine “UARSCIEK”. After a fierce battle, a series of bombs from the Greek destroyer hit it, causing it to leak, forcing it to surface and surrender. Despite the British destroyer’s attempt to keep the submarine afloat and tow it to Malta, the British captain’s decision to increase the towing speed proved fatal. The watertight door of the aft compartment opens, the submarine begins to fill with water, and shortly afterward disappears forever into the abyss.

So great was this success that a month later, the King of England awarded the captain of Queen Olga, George Blesa, the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for the successful sinking of the submarine.

Τhe night of 18 to the 19th of January 1943, the “Queen Olga” sank off Libya; in cooperation with English destroyers, the Italian-equipped fishing vessel “STROMBOLI” (475 tons), achieved her objective with the first two volley.

The legendary ship continues its activities in the Indian Ocean where, together with British destroyers, it escorts five ocean liners carrying troops to New Guinea. It returns to the Mediterranean at the beginning of March, taking part in escorts in the Malta, Alexandria, and Tripoli areas.

On 1 June 1943, in partnership with the British destroyer “JERVIS” (G 00), “KING OLGA” will sail for the eastern Sicilian coast. In the evening battle that follows, the Allied ships sink the Italian torpedo boat “CASTORE” (795 tons).

The Greek destroyer participated in the operation to capture the Allied forces on the islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa, where it bombed Italian positions. In the following period, “VASSILISSA OLGA” supported operations during Sicily’s invasion. By escaping a series of air attacks, it earned the title of “lucky ship” by the British.

With the capitulation of Italy signed on 8 September, “VASSILISSA OLGA”  was the only Greek ship where, together with the battleships “WARSPITE” and “VALLIANT,” the destroyers “FAULKNOR,” “FURY,” “ECHO,” “INTREPID,” “RAIDER” and “TERRIBLE” participated in the surrender and escort of the main part of the Italian fleet to Malta. This participation was particularly honorable for our legendary destroyer and the Royal Greek Navy, as well as a practical recognition for her struggles on the Allies’ side.

Immediately after the surrender of the Italian forces, the Allies began operations in the Dodecanese area to take control of the entire area of the southeastern Aegean. RHS Vasilissa Olga will also be present in this area of action.

The Greek destroyer departs from Alexandria on 17 September together with the British destroyers “ECLIPSE” (H 08) and “FAULKNOR” (H 62) for a war patrol in the strait of Karpathos. In the afternoon of the same day, they are informed of the existence of a German convoy. A few minutes after midnight the next day “FAULKNOR” spotted the enemy targets, the tanker “PAULA” (4,442 tons) and the cargo ship “PLUTO” (1,156 grt) escorted by the anti-submarine ship “UJ2104”. The British destroyers target the “PAULA,” and the “Olga” targets the “PLUTO,” where after a short time, they sunk it. The “UJ2104” suffered heavy damage and escaped to be sunk the next day at Maltesana in Astypalaia.

After this operation, the “Vasilissa Olga” with the British destroyers transported on 22/09 military personnel and war material to Leros, which the Allies had temporarily occupied. It was the first time after 2.5 years that the legendary ship and her crew had seen a Greek island.

The last day of the Destroyer RHS “VASSILISSA OLGA”

At 8.45 on 25 September 1943, the “Vasilissa Olga” and the British destroyer “INTREPID” departed from Alexandria for an offensive patrol in the Strait of Kassos. At 4.15 on 26 September, they received an encrypted signal ordering them to sail to Leros.

The time is 07.00 in the morning when the two destroyers enter and dock at Lakki Bay, one of the most important naval bases in the Mediterranean. The day was Sunday, the day of the religious feast of St. Theologos.

The crew relates with the morning peace, forgetting for a moment the brutal conditions of the war. Tired from the all-night patrol, the men went to the cabins and the barricades to sleep. The officer of the watch and the assistant stay on the bridge, the cores of the homunculi stay on the guns and machine guns, and the engineers and shift stokers stay on the engines.

Two non-commissioned officers have set the radio in operation, where the Athens Radio Station broadcasts the Sunday service from the Metropolis of Athens, creating an atmosphere of devotion.

The arrival of the “Olga” on the island is causing excitement. Many people approach it or even visit it with their children, full of joy.

Nothing foreshadows the nightmarish moments that will follow.

It is 09.57 when a whistle of bombs breaks the morning calm. German Junkers Ju 88 aircraft swoop in waves over Lakki Bay without any warning from Patela’s air raid sirens or sirens from the artillery batteries and observation posts. With the two anchored destroyers as their primary target, the first wave drops its bombs from a height of 300 to 400 meters while at the same time mowing down the decks of the ships to prevent the crews from taking up battle positions.

The “Vasilissa Olga” remains unscathed despite the nearby explosions that rocked her, while one bomb hits boiler No. 3 of the “INTREPID” where it disintegrates. Bomb fragments puncture the main steam pipe, and steam escapes under pressure into the atmosphere, hissing demonically.

Dimi Matalas, an officer at the time, describes those moments:

“Those in the sub-barricades run to their positions. First of all the Captain, who with characteristic calmness tries to encourage his crew:

It is nothing, boys, hurry to your machine guns…..!

The second wave of German bombers hits the Italian Naval Base facilities, giving the destroyer crews the necessary time to crew the battle stations on their ships.

The appearance of the third wave out of 24 Ju 88 will be fatal for the “lucky ship.”

The Captain of the “Olga” is among the first to appear on the stern deck. He heads for the bridge from the port side of the ship in trousers and sweater, but barefoot. At the forward descent of the engine room, he stops to give some instructions to his officers. It is there that the fatal blow will strike him.

The first death of the “Vasilissa Olga was the Captain; Commander George Blessas continues Dimi Matalas.

Hit by a blast to the chest and neck, Captain Blessas is killed instantly, while at the same time, other crew members are hit and piled on deck around their dead Captain.

Within minutes the Greek destroyer will receive the final blow. At least two bombs fall a few meters behind the aft caisson and blow up the Vickers anti-aircraft gun’s missile launcher. A terrific explosion follows, and the stern section, almost cut off, tilts to starboard and begins to sink.

The desperate efforts of the crew to rescue the wounded vessel are unsuccessful. Lieutenant Commander Daniel, at 10:08, gives the order to abandon the ship. At 10:11 a.m., while the back of the bow was left standing for a while, as if floating, and as the last pockets of air recede, the ship is abruptly lost in the sea, which embraces it forever with its dead heroes.

Dimis Matalas concludes his narrative:

The most touching moment was when the ship was lost, there was a voice “Long live the OLGA!” and 120 people who were frolicking in the sea repeated the cry “Long live the OLGA!

The ship’s captain, six officers, 65 non-commissioned officers and ratings, and eight civilians were the tragic toll of the loss of the Greek ship.

The British Admiral announcing to the Greek A.S. the sinking of the “Queen Olga” wrote:

The loss of this brilliant ship, which had made famous throughout the Mediterranean, will be deeply felt by all who served with it.

Captain Blessas, with his iron will and steadfast principles, identified his name with self-sacrifice and brotherly solidarity. After his death, he was awarded the Medal of Valour and the British War Cross and, at the same time, promoted to Commander.

From 31 December 1941, to the day it was sunk on 26 September 1943, the RHS “Vasilissa Olga” had sailed 74,741 miles in 4,707 hours, having covered more miles than any other ship in the deadly environment of the Mediterranean sea.

The Ship Dismantling

In the early post-war years, the wreck of the destroyer Vasilissa Olga remained undisturbed at a depth of 32 meters. One of the most legendary ships of the Royal Hellenic Navy, in January 1952 it was registered for sale by auction to Antonios Marakis, whose proxy was Konstantinos Efthymiadis. The ship was declared “useless to the Royal Navy” by the Shipwreck Salvage Agency, and in October of the same year, the contract was signed, allowing the dismantlers five years to complete the salvage of the shipwreck.

The contract stated that “the wreck sold shall not be disposed of together with any war material of any kind on board,” which shall be returned to the navy unless it is deemed unusable, in which case it shall be returned to the beneficiary. It was also not allowed to sell the lead carried by any vessel as ballast, personal effects of the crew which will be returned to the beneficiaries, as well as historical relics such as shields, anchors, telegraphs, and steering wheels. In the same agreement, the parts of the wreck that were recovered were to be evaluated by a three-member naval commission.

Thus, in March 1955, this committee delivered to A. Marakis the wreckage of the “Vasilissa Olga” weighed 350 tons. These consisted of scrap iron weighing 300 tons and copper and other metals weighing 50 tons from the propellers, electric cables, pipes, refrigerators, etc.

Work continued in 1956; in April, the first two six-month extensions to the dismantling work was granted. Thus in October 1956 A. Marakis received about 120 tons of scrap iron and 12 tons of copper, brass, and lead.

Although the contract stated that if the lifting work were not completed by the deadline, the buyer would be declared bankrupt, in March 1958, he received a new six-month extension of the work.

In total, of the materials recovered from the wreck of the “Vasilissa Olga”, the Royal Navy retained 103 damaged 4.5-inch caliber shells.

Veteran diver Michael Xiradakis, who, along with his brother Sifi had worked on several wreck dismantling operations reports:

We worked on the “Vasilissa Olga” for six months, and only two divers, myself and Sifis, cut it. We would go down to a depth of 25-30 fathoms, work for 5-10 minutes, and get the pieces up; we would use a crane that would lift 30 tons.

In March 1997, Kostas Thoktaridis’ diving team, in cooperation with the Navy and the Municipality of Leros, recovered 111 objects currently displayed at the local Historical and Folklore Museum.

The wreck today

Despite the salvage operations that were carried out, a significant part of the glorious destroyer remains today on the seabed of Leros. The bow is the most easily identifiable part of the ship and the only one that survives intact. The bases of the two large guns bear witness to its glorious past.

Warped scales, grates from the engine room, parts of the aft superstructure, and the manhole leading to the destroyer’s bulkheads are just some places where one can see the tremendous shock pressures the ship suffered.

Looking more closely at the surrounding area, a diver can still find portholes from the ship’s bridge, remnants of anti-submarine bombs, and explosive material from the shells.

Much of the wreckage is now covered by a thick layer of mud, and in combination with the limited visibility due to weather conditions, made our dive particularly challenging.

Acknowledgements

On 30 October 2021, on the historic island of Leros, under the guidance of Kostas Kouvas, owner of Hydrovious Diving Centre, whom we thank warmly, we dived twice in this legendary shipwreck, a witness of recent Greek history.

In these dives took part: Akis Seasidis, Christos Michail, Ventouris Bountouris, Vassilis Tsiairis, Nikolas Margaritis, and Andreas Andrikopοulos.

Historical research and research of archival material: Andreas Andrikopοulos.

Sources

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RHS Vasilissa Olga (D 15)

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RHS Vasilissa Olga (D 15) 37.121000, 26.854000
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