MS Hans Hedtoft: Denmark’s Titanic

Oct 3, 2023 0 comments

Nearly five decades after the sinking of the Titanic, another tragedy struck in the oceans. A Danish liner was on her maiden voyage off the coast of Western Greenland, when she collided with an iceberg and sank on January 30, 1959 with the loss of all crew and passengers on board. Like the RMS Titanic, she too was deemed “the safest afloat.”

MS Hans Hedtoft was built by Frederikshavns Værft at Frederikshavn in northern Denmark. The 271-feet long, 2,857-ton freighter had been specially designed for the Danish government to withstand the harsh conditions of the North Atlantic Ocean, particularly along the desolate shores of Greenland. With its double hull and seven sealed compartments, along with fortified bow and stern sections, the ship was engineered for resilience. It was equipped with state-of-the-art instruments, ranging from radar and gyrocompasses to Decca Navigators and radio-equipped life rafts. Captain P. L. Rasmussen proudly proclaimed, “This ship means a revolution in Arctic navigation,” while a government official confidently asserted, “Now we can sail to Greenland all year round.”

Nonetheless, not everyone held faith in the ship's construction. Knud Lauritzen, a private shipowner, contended that the Hans Hedtoft's steel plates ought to have been welded, rather than riveted, as the riveting of plates onto a solid framework does not provide sufficient resistance against ice pressure. This critique was dismissed by some as the resentful words of a private operator who preferred the government to charter his vessels rather than constructing its own.

Hans Hedtoft sailed from Copenhagen on her maiden voyage on 7 January 1959, reaching Julianehaab, Greenland, in record time. In Greenland, Hans Hedtoft called at Nuuk, Sisimiut and Maniitsoq before returning to Julianehaab.

On 29 January, she began her return journey to Copenhagen. On board were 40 crewmen, a cargo of frozen fish, and 55 passengers, including one of Greenland's two representatives in the Danish Parliament, and six children. The following morning, after rounding Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of Greenland, the ship ran into a storm and visibility dropped to a mile. At 13.56p.m. the telegraphist on the weather station Prins Christians Sund picked up an SOS from the ship stating that the ship had collided with an iceberg. It’s position was given as approximately 20 miles south east of Greenland’s most southerly part, Kap Farvel. Within an hour, another message was sent stating that the engine room was flooded.

At 15:12 pm, a message came from the ship informing that the ship was sinking. A small West German ocean-going trawler, the Johannes Krüss, and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Campbell turned toward the stricken ship. Another German fishing trawler radioed that she was on the way. At 17:41 came the final message from the Hedtoft: "Slowly sinking and need immediate assistance."

For the next several days and nights, ships and airplanes combed the area looking for traces of the missing ship and her freight of 95 human beings, but no wreckage was found, except a lifebuoy which washed ashore on the Faroe Islands some nine months after the ship sank.

The most curious thing about the sinking was that the ship was equipped with three lifeboats, each capable of carrying 35 people each. In addition, it had two 20-man lifeboats and four self-inflated rudder life rafts with automatic distress beacons. It was possible to evacuate the entire ship, yet for some reason, no lifeboats were deployed. Perhaps they had hoped help would arrive. Perhaps the captain decided to keep everyone aboard until the last possible moment because the seas were too rough to attempt launching the lifeboats.

MS Hans Hedtoft remains the last known ship sunk by an iceberg with casualties.

In 2005, the Queen of Denmark unveiled a monument at Copenhagen to commemorate the 95 people lost on Hans Hedtoft.

# HIGH SEAS: Little Titanic, Time
# The ship - lost on its maiden voyage, Qaqortup Kommunia


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