Athina: The wreck of the first iron steamboat built in Greece

Interviews, Shipwrecks, WW2, WW2 in Greece

By Pierre Kosmidis

The first iron steamboat built in Greece in 1893 at Syros shipyards was used for decades in the Saronic Gulf and was then purchased by a Jewish organization carrying refugees from Europe to the Middle East, where the state of Israel was created in 1948.
Mr. Aris Mpilalis, a Greek maritime history researcher, tells about this historic ship: “In 1893 a passenger ship, under the name ATHINA was built in the shipyards of Syros,  the first iron steamer to be built in Greece. She was the property of John McDowall & Barbour.  McDowall was an engineer at the British Navy, who was born in Scotland. Once retired, he came to Greece in 1858 as a chief engineer. Seeing the opportunities presented by the development of steam shipping in Greece, he decided to work in Greece.”

In the mid 1930s, ATHINA was decommissioned at Salamina island. She stayed there up until 1939 when she almost sunk. She remained submerged for the duration of World War 2 and the condition of the vessel was such that even the German occupying forces did not deem her fit for salvage and repair. In July 1942 ATHINA was sold for scrap and salvaged in 1946. The vessel would eventually be broken, but in September 1946 an unexpected buyer appeared.

A secret organization by Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, Haganah, organised the mass transportation of Jews from all across Europe to the Middle East, in order to form the nucleus of a Jewish state.

The British government, which controlled the area, was against this project and British warships tried to stop the process and transport the Jews to camps in Cyprus and other areas.

Since the Jewish underground organization was operating with limited financial resources, Hagana usually resorted to the acquisition of very old vessels.

ATHINA was taken to Perama where the corroded superstructure was removed and a small bridge was built at the stern of the ship.

The old steam engine was replaced by a six-cylinder Deutz diesel 150 bhp engine.
After the completion of repairs, the ship received the name RAFIAH and with a crew of 8 Greek sailors she sailed from Piraeus with destination Bakar in Yugoslavia (Croatia).

Bakar, Croatia, where hundreds of jewish refugees waited for the ship
Bakar, Croatia, where hundreds of jewish refugees waited for the ship

In Bakar, 785 Jewish refugees from various Eastern European countries in search of a new homeland waited for the ship. RAFIAH departed on 26 November and sailed along the southern Peloponnese, towards the Dodecanese islands.

The vessel arrived at Sirna island, a small island of the Dodecanese, which was a meeting point for ships from the Black Sea and European ports of the Mediterranean.

Mr. Aris Mpilalis describes the last dramatic moments of the ship:

“RAFIAH (formerly ATHINA) arrived at Sirna on 7 December 1946, in adverse weather conditions. The captain decided to anchor in the bay of the island. During the maneuvers the ship crashed in the rock formations, resulting in a crack in the hull of the vessel. The refugees left the ship in panic, and eight of them died, upon leaving the vessel, which eventually sank after 45 minutes”.

With a portable wireless, the survivors alerted the British authorities which controlled the Dodecanese. After they buried their dead, the castaways contacted the only family living on the island which supplied them with as much food as they had available. In October 1972 members of the Israeli Navy went to Sirna and after identifying the remains of the victims, they transported them to Haifa where they were properly buried.

Sirna island
Sirna island

The wreck today

Professional diver Kostas Thoktaridis says about the shipwreck:

“I was first informed about the wreck in 2000 when I visited Sirna during an organized archaeological research in cooperation with the Department of Underwater Antiquities of the Greek Culture Ministry. With a diving license a group of Israeli divers visited the wreck. I remember that we remained in Sirna for over 15 days and made many dives there”. 

“The wreck is located at a depth of 22 to 38 meters in the bay of Saint John of Sirna. The vessel is a short distance from the shore, resting on sandy seabed. The only signs of hitting the rocks are three small holes, beneath the waterline. Since the vessel had no watertight compartments, these holes determined the end of the ship”. 
“In the first years that followed the sinking of RAFIAH, some persons reported that a smuggler blew the wreck into two parts and salvaged the diesel engine. But the wreck is still in one piece, while the engine is still inside”, says Mr. Thoktaridis.

Sirna island
Sirna island

The deck was made of wood, which is now completely eroded and as a result, access to the interior of the hull is easy. There, the diver will encounter dozens of small bottles and flasks that were left behind by the castaways. There is strong human presence, as one can see shoes, dishes, forks and other personal belongings of the passengers”. 

On the shores of Sirna a monument was erected to commemorate the naval tragedy of 1946 .