I AM ON THE PHONE TO DAVE RONNAN, skipper of Our W, comparing notes on an unknown wreck we had dived out of Eastbourne and whether it had been identified yet.
We move on to more general diving matters: Were going to Newport this summer, would you like to come along Dave asks me.
At least, thats what I think he is asking. Rather than sticking to Eastbourne, Dave and co-skipper
Sylvia like to get out and about, basing the boat in other ports such as Dover, Ramsgate or Lowestoft for a few weeks exploratory diving.
Thoughts of Newport in South Wales flash through my mind. Its only 40 minutes across the Severn Bridge from my home in Bristol, and if there was worthwhile diving in that part of the Severn estuary, I am sure I would have heard of it.
My thoughts race on. Are there other Newports around the country Perhaps he means one of those
I rush to catch up with what Dave is saying: Were going to be running a few charters out of Dover, then well head across to Nieuwpoort in Belgium to do some of the wrecks off Flanders and that side of the North Sea...
At last, Im on the same wavelength.
I cant remember Tintin diving off the Belgian coast, but Belgium could be the next big thing for UK wreck-divers looking for something new and different. Several South Coast dive-boats run well-filled cross-Channel trips to Normandy, so why not Belgium
A few months later, I take the Norfolk Lines ferry from Dover to Dunkerque.
From there its just 30 minutes along the motorway to Nieuwpoort, or an hour along the coast road, which I follow just for the fun of it.
Taking longer ferry journeys and driving fewer miles is always my preference for a more relaxed trip. With current fuel prices it usually works out cheaper, especially as I board the ferry with an almost empty tank, and fill up with Continentally priced diesel once in Belgium.
The Belgian coastline consists of miles of perfect sand, backed by miles of seaside towns, inhabited in summer by miles of families building sandcastles on the beach, a bit like the best of the UKs own sandy seaside resorts.
Nieuwpoort is divided in two. Nieuwpoort Stad is the old town along the river, with the commercial docks and fishing port, while Nieuwpoort Bad is the newer town along the beach, with hotels and marinas.
Dave has given me co-ordinates of the war memorial in the old town for our rendezvous, so I head there with the aid of a map printed from Google. There is no sign of Our W, but I do learn that King Albert I had ordered the lock gates to be opened and the lowlands to be flooded to make life hard for the advancing Germans in World War One.

I DRIVE ON TO THE NEW TOWN, check into the Cosmopolite hotel and find
that parking by the beach is next to impossible. I get away without collecting a parking ticket in a residents only space, marked by green lines, learning that I am not supposed to be there only later, when I drive back to the old town.
This time I spot the big orange Offshore 125 Our W coming up the river. By the time I work out how to get my van onto the quay, Dave and Sylvia are tying up alongside.
They have split their time in Nieuwpoort between two four-day charters. The first group is just disembarking, enthusing about calm seas, good visibility and fantastic wrecks.
I help them unload, then gratefully receive some help lowering my own kit down the quay and onto the boat.
The solution to parking in the new town is simple. I leave my van in the old town, by the boat where the parking is free, and buy a three-day tram pass for a modest 10 euros. Both the old-town docks and the Cosmopolite hotel are on the tram route.
I use the pass that evening for a night out in the old town; it has real character, is spotlessly clean, uncrowded without being dead and has some excellent restaurants and bars that Dave and Sylvia have already extensively researched and tested. Beware of Belgian monastery beers!
The trip is off to a good start, and I havent even been diving yet.
An early-morning tram brings me back to Our W. We are coming on to spring tides and the wind is picking up, so Dave allows plenty of time to get down the river and out to our first wreck, the German Beitzen-class destroyer Z8, Bruno Heinemann.
By some quirk, the wreck site is off Cap Griz Nez, back in French waters.
Dave reminds us about not taking anything. The French authorities are known to zealously enforce laws that prohibit divers, especially British divers, removing anything from any wreck in French waters.
The Bruno Heinemann is also a German war grave, so we have a British boat operating from a Belgian port on a German wreck in French waters. Its a potential mess we dont want to get into.

ON 25 JANUARY, 1942, the Bruno Heinemann was on her way south from Germany to Le Havre to take part in Operation Cerberus, escorting the Channel Dash of the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, when she struck two mines. Her bow was blown off, and lies 80m away from the rest of the wreck. The forward part is broken, while further aft the wreck is moderately intact, and capsized to starboard.
The shot lands just aft of the broken part. From here, a dive to the stern and back is just about right for a depth of 32m, though I do make a brief foray forward to find that the break is just about where the forward of two torpedo-launchers would have rotated from the centre of the deck.
Aft is an intact torpedo-launcher, complete with four torpedoes, a pair of gun turrets, depth charges, mountings for smaller machine-guns and anti-aircraft guns, a kedge anchor, two big bronze high-speed propellers, and a toilet - pretty much everything that
gets me excited about warship wrecks.
The only thing not on our side is the visibility, best described as marginal, but not completely crap. It hardly surprises me; I was more surprised by the previous groups departing comments about stunning visibility.
Reviewing the circumstances later, it looks as if the main difference was that they had dived the wreck on the other tide, when the water was coming from the north rather than the south.
They had also been diving on smaller tides, so now the spring tide was lifting sand from the banks that litter the southern end of the North Sea and clouding the water, as opposed to bringing cleaner water in.
The building wind may also have had something to do with it, waves lifting dirt from the shallowest banks.

ANOTHER NIGHT OUT in the old town. some more monastery beers sampled, tram rides to and from the Cosmopolite Hotel in the new town and we are off
to sea again, to the wreck of the Italian steamship Pepinella. It lies upright, and as intact as any wreck can be in 30m.
Both Dave and Sylvia had dived it during the previous charter, and had enthused about how pretty it was.
On descending the shot, I can only agree. With the main deck higher off the seabed than that of the Bruno Heinemann the visibility begins a little better, then improves steadily through the dive as the tide slackens, then turns.
Big shoals of bib swarm about, with pollack off both bow and stern and conger eels in most suitable holes. The hull is alive with plumose anemones.
The wreck has an interesting mix of familiar and less-familiar features.
The general build, holds, masts, winches, boilers and engine follow the usual pattern, hardly surprising as the Pepinella was built by J Crown & Sons shipyard in Sunderland in 1928, being first named Cedartree. Subsequent changes of name were Blue Bell and Silver Bell before ownership moved to Italy and the name changed to Pepinella - not a lucky name, as she was on her maiden voyage for the new owners when she collided with the Sundak and sank, on 20 April, 1958.

BEHIND THE WHEELHOUSE, the captains bathroom is redecorated and is nicely Italianate, with small pale blue tiles around bath and toilet. The galley has a small Aga-style stove.
Surprisingly for a ship of 1928, below the stern the heavy rudder has the sort of construction that is only a step up from wooden sailing ships, with bars of iron bent into hinges and then riveted through a solid plate. Its basic, hardly in keeping with the rest of the ship.
Back at the quayside, the boat across the river looks familiar. Twenty years ago it was Autumn Moon, operating out of Falmouth. Now its a Belgian liveaboard, and a frequent visitor to ports along Englands South coast.
The boat tied up immediately behind Our W is Allegro, a big ex-police launch now operating as a day-trip dive-boat out of Nieuwpoort.
Dave introduces me to skipper Christian, who had helped with diving information and with arranging the mooring. He also recommends a restaurant where the house speciality is a massive plate of sausages cooked in a wood-burning stove.
I should have signed up for the earlier part of the trip, because the next two days are blown out.
I see a bit more of the town, then stock up on wine at the Dunkerque Cash & Carry before the ferry home.
A German destroyer and an intact Italian steamship are a good result for the trip, but the first group also got to dive the 13,911-ton Dutch passenger liner Tubantia, torpedoed in 1916, and UB13, the sub that torpedoed it.
Then, from the Dunkerque evacuation, they dived the destroyer HMS Grafton, and the motor ship Queen of the Channel.

THE CHANNEL DASH - OPERATION CERBERUS
The start of 1942 saw the German battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen harbour-bound in Brest.
Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had arrived as a pair in May 1941, having sunk 115,000 tons of Allied merchant ships. They were joined in June by the Prinz Eugen, which had separated from the Bismarck and escaped the wrath of the British fleet.
Following the 1941 invasion of Russia, Hitler became obsessed with guarding his northern flank, and ordered the ships to return to Germany where, should they be needed, they could head north to join the Tirpitz in Norway.
On the night of 11 February, 1942, the German ships left Brest and headed up the Channel, staying as close to the French coastline as possible to gain maximum fighter-cover from the Luftwaffe.
British detection of their departure was delayed by heavy radar-jamming and foggy weather. The Royal Navy had
good intelligence that the ships would put to sea and make a break for it, but assumed that everything would be timed for them to pass the Straits of Dover at night, rather than in daylight as the German departure time dictated.
The British response was under-resourced, caught by surprise and appallingly managed. Despite many tales of individual heroism by the crews of Swordfish biplane torpedo-bombers, motor torpedo boats and destroyers, the only damage to the German ships came from mines off the Dutch coast. Both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged, but not badly enough to stop them reaching safety in Germany.
The luck of the German ships would not last. On 26 February, the Gneisenau was irreparably damaged during an RAF attack on the docks in Kiel. The Scharnhorst was sunk during the battle of the North Cape on 26 December, 1943.
The Prinz Eugen survived the war, then just about survived the 1946 atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, only to sink subsequently at Kwajalein Atoll.
In moving the three ships to defend against Hitlers delusions of an imminent invasion of Norway, their threat to allied convoys in the Western Atlantic was removed.
German Admiral Räder summed it up as a tactical victory but a strategic defeat.
FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Cross-Channel ferry with Norfolk Lines from Dover to Dunkerque, www.norfolkline.com, 0844 847 5042.
DIVING: Our W/Dive 125, 07764 585353, www.dive125.co.uk. Allegro, christian-mahieu@telenet.be
AIR: Our W has an onboard compressor and a limited supply of oxygen for mixing nitrox. If you require large quantities of oxygen or any helium, it is best to arrange it in advance.
ACCOMMODATION: Cosmopolite Hotel via Tourism Flanders, www.visitflanders.co.uk, 020 7307 7738.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 323, Dover Strait - Eastern Part. Admiralty Chart 1872, Dunkerque to Flushing. Wreck Site online database, www.wrecksite.eu. The Shipwrecks of Suffolk, a PDF book, covers wrecks across to the Belgian coast, www.ship-wrecks.co.uk