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The Struma attack
File:Struma (ship).jpg
Photo believed to show the Struma in Istanbul harbor, 1942
Coordinates 41º23'N, 29º13'E Coordinates: 41°23′N 29°13′E / 41.383°N 29.217°E / 41.383; 29.217
Date February 24, 1942
Target The ship Struma, carrying Jewish refugees from Romania to the British Mandate of Palestine
Attack type Ship sinking
Weapon(s) Torpedo
Death(s) 768 Jewish refugees
Belligerent(s) Soviet Union, Turkey

The Struma was a ship chartered to carry Jewish refugees from Axis-allied Romania to British-controlled Palestine during World War II. On February 23, 1942, with its engine inoperable and its refugee passengers aboard, Turkish authorities towed the ship from Istanbul harbor through the Bosphorus out to the Black Sea, where they abandoned it without food, water, or fuel. Within hours, in the morning of February 24, it was torpedoed and sunk by the Soviet submarine Shch 213, killing 768 men, women and children, with only one survivor, a 19 year old man, making it the largest exclusively civilian naval disaster of the war.[1]

The Struma sinking, along with the Patria disaster which preceded it, became a rallying point for the Irgun and LEHI Jewish underground movements, which precipitated the eventual British withdrawal from Palestine.[2][3]



[[File:|thumb|250px|right|Last letter from a Struma passenger to his son, while quarantined on board the ship in Istanbul harbor]] The Struma, a Bulgarian ship sailing under the Panamian flag,[4] was commissioned by the Revisionist Zionist organizations in Romania, especially Betar, to carry Romanian Jews as immigrants to Palestine. Apart from the crew, there were approximately 790 passengers. They included some Betar members but were mostly wealthy Romanian Jews who could afford to pay the high price of a ticket. The voyage had the approval of the Ion Antonescu government.[5]

Most of the passengers were not permitted to see the vessel before the day of the voyage. When they finally saw it they were shocked to discover it was far worse than they had imagined. Sleeping quarters were extremely cramped without enough space to sit up, and the ship had only two lifeboats. Passengers were not told that the engine was in even worse condition: it had been recovered from a wreck on the bottom of the Danube River.

The engine gave out several times after the Struma set sail from Constanţa, on the Black Sea on 12 December 1941. After three days, the ship was towed to Istanbul where it remained at anchor while secret negotiations were conducted over the fate of the passengers. In the wake of violent unrest within Palestine, the British government was determined to uphold its policy of restricting mass Jewish immigration and urged the Turkish government of Refik Saydam to prevent the ship from sailing onwards. Turkey refused to allow the passengers to disembark. After weeks of negotiation, the British agreed to honour the expired Palestinian visas possessed by a few passengers, who were allowed to continue to Palestine overland. With the help of influential friends[specify], a few others also managed to escape. One woman was admitted to an Istanbul hospital following a miscarriage.[citation needed]

On February 12, British officials agreed that children aged 11 to 16 on the ship would be given Palestinian visas, but a dispute occurred over their transportation to Palestine. The United Kingdom declined to send a ship, while Turkey refused to allow them to travel overland.

Towing to sea and sinking

[[File:|thumb|250px|right|Map of the Bosphorus strait, showing the Struma's quarantine location in Istanbul harbor (1), from where it was towed and sunk in the Black Sea (2)]] On February 23, after negotiations between Turkey and Britain seemed to reach an impasse, Turkish authorities boarded the disabled ship, and towed it through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea.[6] As the ship was towed along the Bosphorus, many passengers hung signs over the sides that read "SAVE US" in English and Hebrew, visible to those who lived on the banks of the strait.[7] Despite weeks of work by Turkish engineers, the engine would not start. The Turkish authorities abandoned the ship in the Black Sea, about 10 miles north of the Bosphorus, where it drifted helplessly.[7]

[[File:|thumb|250px|right|Soviet submarine SC-213 torpedoed the Struma on February 24, 1942. It also sank the Turkish vessel Çankaya the previous evening.[8][9]]] In the morning of February 24, there was a huge explosion and the ship sank. It was later discovered that the ship had been torpedoed by the Soviet ShCh (Scuka) class submarine (Russian: Щука) SC-213, which had also sunk the Turkish vessel Çankaya the evening before.[9] 768 people were killed, among them more than one hundred children.[5] Only one person survived: a 19-year-old man named David Stoliar, who was found clinging to the wreckage by the crew of a rowboat sent out from one of the watchtowers along the Turkish coast, twenty-four hours after the sinking. Stoliar was imprisoned in Turkey for six weeks, then released and admitted to Palestine. Later, he moved to Japan and then the United States.


The Sc-213 submarine ... encountered on the morning of 24.2.1942 an unprotected enemy vessel Struma ... The ship was successfully torpedoed from a distance of [1,118 meters] and sunk ... Junior officers ... Unit Commander and non-commissioned officers ... and the Red Fleet sailor who fired the torpedo ... have shown courage.

—Soviet Military Archives[5][10]

On June 9, 1942, Lord Wedgwood opened the debate in the British House of Lords by urging that the mandate over Palestine be transferred to the United States, since Britain had reneged on its commitments. He stated with bitterness: "I hope yet to live to see those who sent the Struma cargo back to the Nazis hung as high as Haman cheek by jowl with their prototype and Führer, Adolf Hitler".[11]

For many years there were competing theories about the explosion that sank the Struma. In 1964 a German historian discovered that a Soviet Shchuka class submarine, the SC-213 (sometimes referred to as ShCh-213[12]), had fired a torpedo that sank the ship.[13] Later this was confirmed from several other Soviet sources.[14] The submarine had been acting under secret orders to sink all neutral and enemy shipping entering the Black Sea to reduce the flow of strategic materials to Nazi Germany.[15]

In July 2000, a Turkish diving team found a wreck on the sea floor at approximately the right place, and announced that they had discovered the Struma. A team led by a British technical diver and a grandson of one of the victims, Greg Buxton, later studied this and several other wrecks in the area but could not positively identify any as the Struma; the wreck found by the Turks was far too large.[16]

On 3 September 2000 a ceremony was held at the site to commemorate the tragedy. It was attended by 60 relatives of Struma victims, representatives of the Jewish community of Turkey, the Israeli ambassador and prime minister's envoy, as well as British and American delegates. There were no delegates from the former Soviet Union.

In November 2008, a team of Dutch, German and Romanian divers of the Black Sea Wreck Diving Club discovered the wreck of the SC-213 off the coast of Constanţa in Romania. Since the registration markings that could help identify the wreck were missing due to damage to the submarine, it took divers until 2010 to identify the wreck as the SC-213.[17]

See also


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