Sabotage: The Mafia, Mao and the Death of the Queen Elizabeth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


Sabotage: The Mafia, Mao and the Death of the Queen Elizabeth
by Brian Izzard
Amberley Publishing

Nobody was convicted of the burning and sinking of the Seawise University, off Tsing Yi, on January 9, 1972. An official inquiry attributed at least nine fires on the former Cunard liner RMS Queen Elizabeth to arson, but there was insufficient evidence for charges to be brought.

Conspiracy theories have swirled around for decades, linking the blaze to disgruntled employees, communist militants, cold war and cross strait politics, or an insurance claim, but the disaster's cause and motive still remain a mystery.

British maritime historian Brian Izzard revisits these old scenarios, but his sensationalistically titled second book, Sabotage, founders when it fails to name names, or offer new information to Hong Kong people who remember the Seawise University's smoke or sailed by its semi-submerged hulk.

Readers expecting a racy conspiracy yarn will soon realise Sabotage is actually a padded maritime history, and with the detail required of the genre.

Izzard drew niche praise in 2009 for Gamp VC, his book about the controversial British submariner, Rear-Admiral Anthony Miers. Students of legendary ships and old salts will be riveted by the former Sunday Express journalist's detailed study of C.Y. Tung's doomed 1,031-foot, 14-deck liner, right down to the 180-ton shaft brackets for its 32-ton brass propellers.

Sabotage has the sealegs for holiday reading because the author has also done so much homework on the turbulent past of Hong Kong's most famous wreck.

Izzard succinctly highlights how the 85,000-ton, four-screw liner was designed for 2,228 passengers, launched at Clydebank in 1940, and was then converted to carry up to 16,000 troops at up to 32 knots, often with inadequate numbers of lifeboats, across the U-Boat-infested Atlantic in the second world war.

His dry reportage fails to capture the Hollywood glamour of the Queen Elizabeth's post-war cruising heyday. But the author encapsulates the top-heavy complacency of its British gentlemen owners, who watched their revenues whittled by pan-Atlantic flights, and didn't look too deeply into the mafia connections of the liner's 'bouncy' American buyers. Izzard diverts the reader into engaging snapshots of the Philadelphia and Florida underworld, but doesn't say whether the Queen Elizabeth was actually the mob's boat.

Izzard regains speed when he describes how Tung limped the rusting liner from Florida to Hong Kong, and the labour unrest of its chaotic refit here. The highlight is the tycoon's optimism with the incredulous television interviewer, Alan Whicker, in November 1971.

The author's analysis reveals a catalogue of Titanic-like preludes to disaster: the duty fireman was absent, the fire was fanned via open safety doors, and workers spotted flames but went to lunch. There were also delays in emergency calls, with a Hong Kong telephonist even insisting Seawise University was a land-based blaze.

The book also reveals the ship's distance from its nearest fire station, the confusion of firefighting on board, and how the fireboat-turned-landmark Alexander Grantham helped pump so much water into the blazing liner that Tung's altruistic dream began to list.

Local ship safety and hose checks were improved after the disaster, Izzard writes.