The Rigel disaster

Deadly disaster result of a mistake

MS Rigel

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The German-controlled prisoner ship Rigel and a small V-boat escort burning after being bombed and strafed by British aircraft, Nov. 27, 1944.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

On the morning of Monday, Nov. 27, 1944, during World War II, patrol aircraft from the Royal Navy HMS Implacable aircraft carrier discovered a small convoy of ships flying German ensigns, sailing southward along the Norwegian coast south of the port of Sandnessjøen in the district of Helgeland, just below the Arctic Circle in Nordland County. The largest of them was the MS Rigel, a Norwegian freighter named after the brightest star in the Orion constellation, obviously requisitioned by the German occupation authorities. 

There were many people on the Rigel’s deck, so the patrol reported that she most likely was a troop transport. That report precipitated an attack by fighters and dive bombers from the Implacable that disastrously damaged the Rigel. Capt. Heinrich Rhode of the Rigel realized that the ship was doomed and ran it aground on the island of Rosøya, a tactic that saved the lives of 267 people. Nevertheless, 2,371 people in all perished when the Rigel went down, making it the third deadliest ship sinking ever.

Two other wartime ship sinkings in the Baltic Sea ignominiously claimed more lives. Yet the sinking of the Rigel may be the worst ever that resulted from a mistake. The Rigel was not transporting troops on that fateful Monday morning. It was a prisoner transport carrying Norwegian convicts, German deserters, and 2,248 Eastern European prisoners of war.

The Rigel disaster remains a forgotten tragedy in the annals of the seas. Other more illustrious ones stand out, not least the Titanic that sank in 1912. Compared to the Titanic, The Rigel was a small ship. It was less than half as long and less than a tenth as heavy as the Titanic. Yet at the time of sinking, the Rigel carried more people—2,638 compared to 2,224 on the Titanic—when it sank.

The five deadliest ever ship sinkings:

MV Wilhelm Gustloff, a German military transport sunk by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea on Jan. 30, 1945, while evacuating civilians and military personnel as the Red Army advanced; 9,400 lives lost, the most ever in a single ship sinking.

MV Goya, a Norwegian freighter sunk by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea April 16, 1945, while evacuating civilians and military personnel from German-held pockets along the Baltic as the Red Army advanced; 6,700 lives lost.

MS Rigel, a Norwegian freighter used as a German prisoner-of-war transport, sunk by British fleet Air Arm aircraft in Norwegian coastal waters Nov. 27, 1944, while transporting POWs; 2371 lives lost.

RMS Titanic, a British passenger liner that sank upon striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean on her maiden voyage, April 15, 1912; estimated lives lost 1350 to 1512.

MS Estonia, a Viking Line (Finland) Ro-Ro cruise ferry that capsized and sank in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 28, 1994; 852 lives lost, the second deadliest peacetime sinking after the Titanic.

Further reading:

“Den Glemte Tragedien” (“The Forgotten Tragedy”) by Øyvind Nordli, A-Magasinet #44, Nov. 1, 2019, pp. 16-35; online under title “Det ukjente dødskipet” (“The Unknown Doomed Ship”), Oct. 31, 2019, (in Norwegian)

“Rigel: norgeshistoriens største skipsforlis” (Rigel: Norway’s greatest ever shipwreck) by Trond Carlsen, Sandnessjøen, self-published 2003, 126-page hardcover, ISBN 8299674905 (in Norwegian with summaries in English, German, and Russian).

This article originally appeared in the January 24, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.