Germany Calling
Max McLeod sailed in an old schooner to dive two of the largely unexplored wrecks littering the shallow waters off the North German province of Schleswig-Holstein. The Germans dont bother diving there, which means there could be the potential for British wreck divers to have a field day. Divernet

Crossing the bow, I swam under the steel cabling and rigging wires, some of which were still flying pennants, and finned over the deck. I had just made it past the anchor winch when the ropes floating around the foredeck hatch area wrapped themselves around my legs. They snagged on my fin buckles and locked themselves into the thick folds of my drysuit.
My initial reaction was simply to swim faster through the web of lines before their grip got any worse, but this only ensnared me all the more. It all happened so ludicrously fast.
I bent over, as far as my equipment would allow, and struggled for my knife, but a glance at the mess around my legs told me I would not have time to cut it all off, even if I had twin 15s on my back. Unable to move more than a few inches in any direction, I took a deep breath and tried to relax while I sorted things out in my mind. All I needed now, it occurred to me, was the dead captain of this vessel to float out on top of me!
I cursed my eagerness to dive such a freshly sunken ship, and had just moved on to considering what I would do in the event of an O-ring blow-out or first-stage failure when my buddy appeared, like the 7th Cavalry, over the gunwale.
He was soon busy unpicking the knots around my ankles, trying to steer clear of the tagliatelle floating around his own legs.
So this was the Eisvogel, one of a number of wrecks in an overgrown garden of them in the Baltic Sea. These wrecks, old and new, are nearly always unexplored because, incredible as it might seem, virtually no sport diving goes on here at all!

Situated between the landmasses and islands of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Russia and the north coast of Germany, the 160,000sq mile Baltic is almost an inland sea. And with few locals bothering to explore these waters, there could well be hundreds of wrecks yet to find! There is even a place near the German port of Neustadt where you will find not one, or even two, but three wrecks on top of each other!
For an area of sea so protected from the winds and enormous fetches of the Atlantic or Pacific, the sheer number of wrecks at first seems disproportionate. But for centuries the trade routes of northern European nations have lain across the Baltic, and there are scores of wrecks from World War Two here.
These include U-boats venturing out of Kiel which were bombed by the Allies before they managed to get into the Atlantic, and British bombers and German fighters shot down during raids on north German towns during the latter stages of the conflict. After the war the Allies also scuttled many German ships at sea.

The 130-ton Zuversicht tacked down in the direction of Kiel. I was travelling with Hela Seetouristik, which runs the schooner, and the dive operation Pro Aqua Tauchensport, which offers either a long-weekend (four-day) dive trip or a full eight-day charter, sailing and diving along the German Baltic coast.
The operation is run by cheerful expat Paul Simpson, and my fellow-divers turned out to be British, so there were no language problems. I felt sorry for the kindly captain Rolly Wolf, who had little opportunity to speak his native German.
With his dungarees, red neckerchief, beard and constantly oily hands, I couldnt help seeing him as a displaced U-boat skipper - or perhaps my imagination was working overtime.
The Zuversicht, a 30m teak and pine two-master, I had found moored alongside many other beautiful old vessels in the small estuary town of Kappeln, on the east coast of the Schleswig Holstein peninsula. My berth was one of 12 available for divers.
I find dive-sail holidays far more relaxing than trips on any other form of dive boat, but the 90-year-old Zuversicht is an elderly lady who requires a lot of help in hanging out her sheets.
Divers can expect some exciting diving but will also be required to assist in hoisting and setting the sails, as well as taking them down when approaching port or whatever. They are also expected to take their turn at the helm - its all part of the old schooner experience.
How much sailing and how much diving you do depends on the composition of the party. If a group of divers are travelling together, the majority rules. It isnt all work, however. On that first day I lay in the netting slung under the bowsprit with some of the 281 metres of sail flapping softly overhead, and the bow wave lapping soporifically below.
The only other sounds were the cries of distant seabirds and the gentle creaking of leather and copper around booms and masts. We were using an echo-sounder to search for the wreck of a Wellington or Lancaster bomber that had been shot down after a raid on Kiel.
We had no luck, and as the adjacent military firing zone was to be in use from the following day, we would not be able to return later in the week. The day served as a reminder that while it is always more enjoyable to dive new wrecks, a little more groundwork is sometimes needed.

There is little or no tide in the sheltered Baltic, and we never needed to worry about springs or neaps, tidal flows or slack water. It was always slack! The wrecks are mostly in around 15-20m of water, at times plummeting to 25 or even 30m! This means loads of bottom time and reduced risk of diving disorders.
At such depths around Britain, wrecks are usually well storm-splattered, if not torn apart by divers fresh from their oxy-acetylene-cutting courses. According to expat Bob Howard, who has enjoyed diving the Baltic for some years, the Germans higher standard of living leads them to concentrate on diving in more exotic places, leaving their local wrecks to British ex-soldiers and a few others in the know.
At Kiel on our first evening we visited the intact U-995, displayed in all her glory on the beach beneath the tall U-boat memorial erected after World War One.
We were able to explore this wonderful submarine from cramped engine room through cluttered control room all the way up to the bow with its torpedo tubes. But what we would have liked to do - and did not have time for - was dive one of the three or four known U-boats still out on patrol in the Baltic.
During breakfast the next morning the Zuversichts nav fax started chattering away, issuing a navigational warning about a ship that had sunk recently, not far from Kiel.
Ready Paul ripped the report from the machine and looked up to see a group of fully kitted divers tapping their fins on deck and wanting to know: why the delay The police gave their permission, and locating the Eisvogel was easy: its mast was standing some 3m out of the sea. Beneath the surface the green gloom parted to reveal the foggy apparition of the cutters mast pointing us down towards the wreck.

At about 10m I buttoned off on my BC, and could see the black and white hull next to me. We sent up a heavy mooring line by lifting bag so that the Zuversicht could moor up in safety, and continued our dive.
All wrecks have a pathos about them, but a new wreck especially so - its something to do with the fresh-looking paint. After my release from the tangle of ropes, we finned past broken windows along a companionway, and found a door ripped from its hinges.
Swimming into the large deck cabin, I saw the green carpet bubbling up into strange humps. An oil lamp swung softly on its gimbels above broken ashtrays and music cassettes spewing their magnetic ribbon around beer glasses and stems. Drinks manufacturers flags hung like ghosts, advertising their liquid messages to the fish.
Magazines opened their pages as if the sea itself were reading them, and a plastic radio appeared, in such immaculate condition that you felt you could tune it in and have some music for the dive. Which was of course absurd, because its batteries were lying beside the radar equipment!
The lack of cabin roof testified to the force of the sinking, as did the jagged glass everywhere. Swimming out of the cabin, over a propane gas cylinder that in time would corrode and explode, my buddy and I dropped to the seabed at 14m.
A heavy winch control box hung over the side, suspended above the seabed by its wires. And a blue plimsoll lay on the sand.
It seems that a prospective buyer had been trying the boat out with a crew-member when for some unknown reason it took on water and sank. The Eisvogels engine room was in an even worse mess than the rest of the vessel. Wires, cabling and polythene piping decorated an area of grease and oilcans. A boilersuit nearly scared me silly, and I found myself carefully arranging the tools that had been scattered everywhere, as the boat sank stern first.
Floating rags, blobs of escaping oil and freshly splintered timber decking planks formed an impenetrable jumble.
The great loops of rope that hung in this oil-blackened cauldron soon spooked me out of the confines of the engine room, and I contented myself with examining the two-bladed propeller and rudder for the rest of the dive. The Eisvogel put me in mind of a scrapyard. I remember thinking that I preferred exploring an older wreck that had become part of the seabed; perhaps in another 20 or 30 years this would be a better wreck!
I had not long dekitted after our second dive on the Eisvogel when cries of All hands on deck! announced the need to get our sails up once more. We moored at Heiligenhafen, after which the weather closed down and the wind howled through our schooners halyards.

Dives continued, ports came and went. But the most memorable experience was also the most profoundly upsetting.
You need to know the background.
At the start of 1945 Germany decreed that none of its concentration-camp prisoners should fall into Allied hands. The Verdammten section of the SS, dedicated to the execution of concentration-camp victims, was charged by Himmler with a dirty job made more difficult by the sheer number of victims and the speed of the Allied advance.
On 21 April, with the Allies closing on Hamburg, the SS was ordered to disperse inmates from a camp at Neuengamme. Ferried out into Neustadt Bay, 40 miles north-east of Hamburg, to the passenger liner Cap Arcona went 2300 prisoners.
Kapitain Heinrich Bertram at first refused to allow this grisly cargo aboard; then an SS unit arrived with a warrant for his execution and a requisition order for his ship. Bertram relented.
On 2 May, the Cap Arcona took aboard 100 tons of fuel oil. Without a serviceable engine, why it should have received so much flammable liquid is unknown.
That day more prisoners arrived to be crammed into the 27,500-ton Cap Arcona. This three-funnelled liner, the former flagship of the Hamburg-Sud Line and nicknamed the Queen of the South Atlantic, had seaward-facing cabins for the viewing pleasure of its passengers. But these had been designed to take one or two, and now each held some 20 emaciated prisoners.
Antagonism between the crew and the 500 SS guards on board is recorded, as is Kapitain Bertrams petition to have his ship painted with red crosses, or at least illuminated, so that it might be recognised as a hospital ship. These requests were denied.
On 3 May Group Captain Johnny Baldwin was in the cockpit of his Hawker Typhoon, leading 198 Squadron over a Neustadt Bay teeming with military targets - among them the Cap Arcona. At 205m long, the liner was easy to spot. The five aircraft dived and fired their rockets before embarking on strafing runs with their 20mm cannons. It was the squadrons last action, and the pilots could never have guessed at the carnage they were wreaking.
If the prisoners in the crammed, exposed cabins did not die in the attack, they were soon burning or drowning in their capsizing prison. But incredibly, a few hundred men and women made it to the water and swam the mile or so to the beaches.
Unfortunately for them, the Verdammten SS were there first, and machine-gunned them down as they crawled out of the surf.
Of the 4750 prisoners aboard the Cap Arcona, only 350 are reported to have survived, most picked up by trawlers. Sixty-four of the 80 crew died, but only 100 SS guards.
Overall, during the Neustadt Bay action at least 8000 people of 24 nationalities were killed, 23 vessels were sunk and a further 113 were damaged. Among these craft were open-topped barges crammed with yet more concentration-camp prisoners, newly arrived from Russia.
An hour after the air raid the German forces surrendered without a fight in Neustadt. In another 44 hours all hostilities had ceased. You find yourself saying: If only... quite a lot after a dive here.
Unlike the Cap Arcona, the 21,000-ton liner Deutschland was being painted up as a hospital ship prior to the attack. There are unsubstantiated reports that it was to take German troops to Norway to conduct diversionary terrorist raids. However, only one cross had been applied before the crew ran out of paint, and it is said that it was not on the side visible to the attacking pilots.
The Deutschland went down with the other vessels. When we dived it we found plenty of wreckage on the seabed, but none more than 3m or so above the silt. There was plenty of evidence that two other vessels had sunk on top of this huge passenger ship, and as one was a wooden ship, the wreckage was easy to tell apart from the rest.
Our dive here was noticeable for the absence, apart from many mussels, of marine fauna, when compared with nearby sites. I did see one small cod, but this had an ugly cancer-like growth on its side. We found holds containing an oily black substance that became visible only after we had fanned the silvery film off the top.
In water with a maximum depth of only 18m, I could well understand the authorities wanting to level the Deutschland, as such a large mass of wreckage would pose a major hazard to shipping. But why, having reduced the hazard as much as possible, did they seemingly compound the problem by sinking not one but two ships on top of it And why are they still working on it
As many bodies as possible were recovered from Neustadt Bay after the action there, but as late as the 70s they were still being washed ashore. There are unsubstantiated reports, too, that canisters of Zyklon B, the gas used by the Nazis in the concentration camps, have occasionally been washed up, or found in fishermens nets. On the day we put out of Neustadt to dive the Cap Arcona, the sea was calm and cobalt-blue. We passed many Russian trawlers, converted to take home secondhand European cars, white goods and furniture for sale.
Wispy mares tails airbrushed the sky, and not a breath of wind ruffled the tell-tales in our rigging. We dropped into the bay and drifted down through the water until a seabed of gently undulating silt hills and metal plates rose to meet us at 18m.
There was no solid mass of wreckage to explore, just a peppering of small items. We saw a jackboot, shoes, block and tackle, and a crushed tin box. Later, as our eyes become more accustomed to the gloom, we were able to make out a thigh bone here, a pelvis there.
An eerie thalassic mist surrounded us. Then, in stark contrast to the brown out of this dive, I saw white teeth, the enamel gleaming as it must have done when they were last used more than 50 years ago.
Charred wooden deckboards had no buoyancy left in them. The graceful curve of a lifeboat davit made me stop and think a while. The lifeboats themselves, or their manila lowering ropes, had been consumed by the numerous fires, so launching them during the attack had not been an option. Broken grey floor tiles stuck out of the mud, and a large iron box defied all efforts to open it.
It was a strange, sad, numbing dive. As we surfaced, a lone lions mane jellyfish pulsed. It occurred to me then that I had seen not a single fish around the wreckage.
Some say that birds still refuse to sing over the Somme battlefield, and when you experience such a phenomenon you do find yourself shivering involuntarily. I put my feelings down to the tragic story rather than the site itself, but later discovered that my fellow-divers had felt the same way. One went so far as to say that he would never dive that site again.
This is the real mud and guts of an ugly history hidden from all except divers. I have dived wrecks where there has been a massive loss of life before without feeling the horror I felt in Neustadt Bay.
Sometimes the enduring experiences and memories are not the happiest, but then diving can be a really serious business.

Diving in the Baltic is in its infancy, simply because Germans dont dive it. For British divers, the next few years at least offer the possibility of an exciting period of exploration and discovery.
Marine life on the Baltic floor seems less colourful or prolific than that found around British seas, though we did notice beautiful tiny blue starfish and a prolific red weed. But the combination of reasonably shallow depths, so many intact wrecks and constant slack water is
alluring. Visibility of 15- 20m or more is comparable with that of Scotland, and definitely better than Britains south coast most of the time. Water temperatures are between 10 and 14C.
A major attraction is putting into a different German harbour each night, and exploring different towns. My weak willpower soon exposed, I grew fond of roaming the bars and pubs with my fellow-divers and sampling the superb range of home-grown beverages.
It seems odd that while some divers are pushing themselves to new physiological limits, not to mention financial ones, to dive deeper and deeper in search of new wrecks, there are so many in the Baltic all but untouched!

Divernet Divernet Divernet Divernet


By air:
BA flights from London to Hamburg cost£129-139. You can be met and driven to the boat.
By ferry:
Dover to Ostend Hoverspeed Holyman ferries run five times a day and cost from£169 for a car and up to five passengers, depending on the season. Book well in advance, tel 0990 595522. The 600-mile drive to north Germany can be gruelling, even with the autobahns. An alternative is to make the 20-hour crossing from Newcastle or Harwich with Scandinavian Seaways. This costs£350 in mid-season if travel dates are on weekdays (450 at weekends) for a car and up to four passengers in a four-berth cabin. There are usually two crossings a week from each port (tel 0990 333111).
DIVING :Paul Simpson, Pro-Aqua, Willebadessen, Germany, tel: 00 4956 468331.
Start a Forum discussion on this topic