A Serbian community organisation in Malta is to erect a monument on the Marsascala coast to recall the sinking, 105 years ago, of the ocean liner SS Polynésien some 3km offshore.

The Polynésien was being used as a troop ship and was carrying mostly Serbian troops when it was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk on August 10, 1918, during the First World War.

The 152-meter-long French ocean liner was launched in 1890 and carried up to 580 passengers. It had a cruising speed of 17.5 knots. Prior to the war it was employed on regular trips between the Mediterranean and Australia. It was requisitioned by the French military authorities at the outbreak of war in 1914  to serve as an armed troop ship, transporting combat personnel to and from New Caledonia, Indochina and across the Mediterranean.

Polynésien’s last voyage started on August 7, 1918 in Bizerte, Tunisia. The ship carried 499 Serbian cadets and a small number of officers en route to the Salonica front in Greece. Among them was a Serbian heroine of the First World War – Sergeant Milunka Savić.

According to various accounts, on the evening of August 9, the St Thomas Bay hydrophone listening station issued an urgent message to Naval Headquarters reporting suspicious engine sounds and hammering, sounds which were attributed to a submarine.  However, an enquiry later found that the report was not forwarded to officers up the chain of command and nothing was done about it. 

Polynésien approached Malta the following morning heading for Marsaxlokk. It was the last in a line of ships in convoy. At around 10.30am the ship was rocked by a huge explosion midship on its port side. Efforts to ground her on the Marsascala coast failed as the engines were put out of action and the ship sank quickly.

It was later established that the troop ship was hit by single torpedo fired by a German Type UC II mine-laying submarine under the command of Eberhard Weichold. The submarine managed to slip away unharmed. 

Many of the Serbian soldiers took to lifeboats. A naval trawler went alongside and boarded most of the remaining. But at least 11 crew and six passengers died. The survivors included Sergeant Milunka Savić who thus added surviving a shipwreck to a list which included being injured 10 times in action in three different wars.  She is regarded as the most-decorated female combatant in the recorded history of warfare.

The Serbian survivors were cared for at Fort Ricasoli and at Cottonera hospital (now St. Edwards College). They were later ferried to the Salonica front to take part in the final battles of World War I and the liberation of Serbia.

The ship sank to a depth of 65 metres and is a popular diving site. The wreck is known among the diving community as tal-platti in view of the crockery found around the site. Both its bow and stern sections are in relatively good shape. 

An impression of the monument being set up in Marsascala by the Serbian Educational and Cultural Centre St Helen of Anjou.An impression of the monument being set up in Marsascala by the Serbian Educational and Cultural Centre St Helen of Anjou.

The Marsascala monument is being set up on the initiative of the Serbian Educational and Cultural Centre – ‘St. Helen of Anjou’, a voluntary organisation active within the Serbian community in Malta in collaboration with Heritage Malta and Marsascala local council.

The monument will be erected at Fajtata Bay, overlooking the site of the wreck. Local artist Joseph Chetcuti is to handle the casting of the bronze monument, the NGO said. 


Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us