This rust-free Luger was in perfect working order.


ITS ONE OF THE STRANGEST DIVES Ive ever done. Im 8m down, crawling on my belly across the muddy bottom of Lake Atter, 25 miles east of Salzburg, plunging my hands elbow-deep into the muck.
It feels like reaching into a giant vat of chocolate mousse. I stir up clouds of silt and the visibility drops to nil. Its a probing technique my friend and dive buddy Werner Thiele has shown me. Through my bulky neoprene gloves, I feel the sleek shape of a cylinder, about the thickness of a gun barrel.
Ive come to dive the Salzkammergut region of inner Austria, a picturesque area of more than 70 lakes in the central Alps, in search of World War Two artifacts. The Salzkammergut was the site of some of the most secret projects of the Nazis: a naval station on Lake Toplitz tested prototype miniature submarines and underwater rockets; and a plot to destroy the British economy by flooding the market with counterfeit bank notes was hatched here; as was as a planned Fourth Reich, after the Nazis presumed that they would beat the Allies.
By February 1945, the German war machine was in a tailspin and retreating fast. The Salzkammergut was one of its final holdouts. In the final days of the war, under cover of darkness, crate after crate of secret cargo was dumped into the lakes, many of which are deep, with tree-covered mud bottoms. It was the perfect hiding place.
Much has been recovered over the years, including thousands of counterfeit banknotes and equipment used to make them, but much remains.
Stolen art, sealed Swiss bank accounts and millions in gold bullion are rumoured to be hidden in the lakes.
The area has come to be known as the Devils Dustbin.
Later this year, a major search of Lake Toplitz will be conducted by Florida-based Global Explorations, which has a three-year permit from the Austrian government to explore the 103m-deep mountain lake.
Norman Scott, who is heading the search, is confident of finding what others have missed: We know theres $134 million in gold bullion down there, he says.
His team will use technology not available to other searchers, including 3D sonar, magnetometers and sub-bottom profilers.
For adventurous scuba divers, the lakes are a window into Europes tenebrous past. By the time I wriggle the cylinder out of the muck, I realise Ive been duped. Its only a tree branch. But a moment later, I feel something small and smooth. Its a tiny hand-blown medicine bottle, from the 19th century.
At the end of the dive, Werner and I compare our finds: he has three old hand-blown bottles and a gas-mask case. He explains that SS officers often used these tube-shaped cases to discard their personal effects into the lakes. We cautiously open it but, as with Al Capones lost vault, theres nothing inside but a few spare gas-mask filters.
We have based ourselves in Hallstatt, a postcard-perfect waterfront village on the shores of Lake Hallstatt, 37 miles south-east of Salzburg. Because of the presence of natural salt mines, the area is believed to be one of the first places of human settlement locally, dating from the late Bronze Age, 1200 BC.
The region has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a place of exquisite beauty. Many of the top Nazi officers - Eichmann, von Ribbentrop, Goebbels and Hitler himself - had palatial waterfront homes on the lakes here.
Diving in the Salzkammergut was pioneered by Gerhard Zauner, who has been running a dive shop here since 1974. When I meet him at his fill station on Lake Hallstatt, a few miles from town, hes wearing lederhosen, a white T-shirt and suspenders. Hes a heavy-set man with a bushy, rusty-grey beard.
When I ask him how many dives hes done, he says he doesnt know. Hes made a point of not logging his dives, to keep secret from the authorities the locations of all the guns he has found, he says with a hearty laugh.
Gerhard has had several run-ins with the authorities. When he was a young man in the 1970s, he and some buddies pulled up an anti-aircraft gun and ammunition from Lake Atter, took it out to the woods and fired off a few shells, narrowly missing the town church.
Gerhard doubts the stories of lost treasure, but he has found enough artifacts to open a small museum in his familys guesthouse and has written a book (in German) about diving in the Salzkammergut.
The Zauner Museum is a medley of his finds from the lakes over the years: soldiers helmets; gas masks; SS medals; a stamp from the naval academy dated 7 February, 1945; grenades he defused himself; a metal bust of Hitler.
One of the more curious items is a German propaganda pamphlet for US troops with a cartoon of dead American soldiers on the battlefield. When held up to a light, a painting of a naked woman can be seen through the paper.
Posted on the glass display case is a sign, written in German and English, stating that the exhibition is not meant to glorify Nazism; its purpose is to offer a way of coming to terms with the past and a warning for the future.
Trade in Nazi artifacts is strictly prohibited in Austria, and most people here would like to forget about this period forever. The thought of divers ambling out of the water carrying a bust of Hitler or a dripping SS dagger in front of a busload of camera-clicking tourists has caused conniptions for the local tourism board.
They are going mad because theres so many divers going after this stuff, says Zauner. Diving has been banned in front of Hallstatt town, Lake Toplitz and other popular tourist areas.
All the sites I dived were accessible from shore, but some required special permission to avoid trespassing.
At some I saw schools of minnows and trout, but most were otherwise uninteresting. The real excitement comes from hunting for artifacts.
Werner Thiele and I dived beside Joseph Goebbels former house, on Lake Grundle, one afternoon. The sloping mud bottom looked promising.
We didnt find any WW2 artifacts, though we did find several very old hand-blown bottles.
Finding the best places requires planning and local knowledge and a bit of luck. The trick is to look for old buildings, explains Werner. He adds that if you know the location of a high-ranking officers house, this is also a good starting point.
But the most interesting stuff will always be buried. If you want to find something, you have to look in the mud, he says. The mud contains no oxygen, and buried artifacts are often perfectly preserved. A Luger found by a member of our group was rust-free and in perfect working order.
The trick is to stick your arms in and work by feel. Its difficult diving, and you often come up sweating and exhausted, despite the frigid water.
Werner Thiele, who runs a travel agency near Innsbruck, has also been diving in these lakes for years, and has collected many of the same items as Zauner. In the early 1990s he found
a wooden box containing a dagger and books of lists. They were sodden, but still intact. He quickly realised what they were - lists from a concentration camp.
I didnt want to look too closely at that, he recalled. He sent the box to the Jewish Documentation Centre in Vienna.
An amateur archaeologist, Werner is far more interested in the Celtic artifacts that can be found in the lakes. He once found a Celtic bronze axe, and has several arrowheads and pieces of pottery in his collection.
On the final day, I dive a site called Ammunition Wall in Lake Hallstatt. Its a steep scramble down the bank from the highway north of town.
Unlike the sloping mud bottoms at the other dive sites, this is a near-vertical rock wall. Visibility is poor, and the wall is covered in fine silt, which stirs up with the slightest movement.
As I descend, it becomes so dark that I can see only with my dive light. Its disorienting, and Werner and I constantly bump into each other.
At 40m I come to a ledge strewn with bazooka shells and launchers. Large-calibre machine-gun bullets litter the site - it looks like an underwater garbage dump.
Theres no need to dig here; everything rests on the bottom. The ammunition is still live, so I dont touch the larger shells. Werner poses for some pictures, then hands me something long and black. Its a leather knife sheath, standard issue for German soldiers. We are soon at our decompression limit and begin the long, slow ascent back to the surface, out of the Dustbin.

Darryl
Darryl Leniuk
Picturesque
Picturesque Hallstatt.
Gerhard
Gerhard Zauner has run a dive shop in the region since 1974.
Nazi
Nazi medal, now in the Zuaner Museum in Halstatt.
Schools
Schools of minnows in Lake Atter
Ammunition
Ammunition Wall, Lake Halstatt.
This
This Nazi dagger is part of Werner Thieles collection.
Gas-mask
Gas-mask case, hand-blown bottles and a medicine bottle recovered from Lake Atter.
Diver
Diver with a hand-blown bottle, Lake Altauseer

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Fly to Salzburg. The Salzkammergut lakes are easily accessible by car or rail from there. The journey takes about an hour.
DIVING: Dachstein Salzkammergut Diving Club (43 6134 8286 zauner-online.at)
ACCOMMODATION: Several guesthouses and hotels are available in Hallstatt and other towns in the Salzkammergut.
WHEN TO GO: The lakes can be dived by drysuit divers year round. Temperatures at depth in some were as cold as 5°C.
MONEY: Euro
COSTS: The Divers Inn Hallberg has rooms starting at 25 euros a night (pension-hallberg.at.tf). Group dives cost from 25 euros, or 100 euros with a personal guide.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.hallstatt.net