|Hoovered almost to a polish, the high concentration of warship wrecks of Scapa Flow remain highly popular with British divers. However, another collection, equally impressive, exists not far from our more accessible South Coast.
Protected by French law from removal by divers, the artefacts in the warship wrecks around the Normandy coast can in places be found liberally scattered throughout cabins and holds. This of course includes the unsurprising hazard of live ammunition, and larger ordnance. Vessels have gone to the bottom here over many centuries, but most wrecks date from the two world wars, in particular the D-Day landings of WWII.
THE HAY RUN
Having crossed the Channel overnight, the first port of call for our dive boat, mv Maureen of Dart, was Cherbourg, a major port for shipping through both wars. As the boat was carrying an assortment of divers and clubs, skipper Mike Rowley sensible decided to start with a gentle 25m dive on ss Ussa.
This 2066 tonne British steamship was only four years old when she sank in May 1917, having sailed from Manchester to Cherbourg with 1000 tonnes of a commodity vital to the war effort - hay. Whether pulling wagons or artillery pieces or carrying cavalrymen, horses were vital to the war effort, but after three years of warfare the frontline trenches were a quagmire, with no grass for forage.
With a German U-boat suspected of laying mines outside the harbour, the Ussa was told not to risk entering at night. Afraid of being a sitting target for a submarine attack, she steamed around until just before dawn, which was when an explosion occurred. The Ussa was holed aft of the engine room area on the starboard side.
The 30 crewmen escaped in boats. Was the Ussa sunk by torpedo fired from a hunting U-boat, or by a mine No one knows for sure.
Jumping into the sea through a small doorway on the port side of the dive boat, we surface-swam to the buoy our skipper had deployed. Viz was a standard 3m, water temperature a comfortable 16C.
The currents encountered when diving wrecks around the Normandy coastline are complicated and few areas enjoy slack water, so it is important to ascend the shotline after a dive. The last few divers onto this wreck were faced with a spoked wheel of distance lines radiating out in all directions.
The Ussa is quite broken up, though the dozen railway wagons she was carrying along with the hay are easy enough to locate. These were secured to the main deck, their metal wheels prominent. The sight of a propeller on any Channel wreck is unusual, though this one was iron. Two boilers could be seen amid the jumbled plates and bent deck supports.
There were very few fish, though many edible and spider crabs. Daisy anemones provided welcome splashes of colour, but the splendid gorgonian corals ruled the fauna.
COFFEE IN THE RAIN
The following day, a Sunday, the clouds bubbled like boiling lead, while a steady drizzle encouraged us to clutch our steaming mugs of coffee that bit tighter. I enjoy rain while diving from a hard boat - it makes it cosier in the saloon before a dive, and washes the salt off your kit after it!
Our first dive was on LST (Landing Ship Tanks) 523. Built in Indianapolis, this 328ft vessel was launched as USS Carbonelle in February 1944 to take part in Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe.
LSTs were larger than infantry landing craft and operated by beaching themselves. The bow doors would open, allowing the cargo of tanks, armoured cars, bulldozers or lorries to drive off, and the LST would then wait for the flood tide to float it off again.
Displacing 1635 tons and capable of 11 knots, LST 523 made several trips across the Channel, carrying Sherman tanks to reinforce the British forces. She finally hit a German mine on the morning of 19 June while fully loaded and, heavily damaged in the bows, turned over and sank in just two minutes, in waters 29m deep.
I finned down, eager to catch my first glimpse of this large ship and its historical cargo. The forward area was so tangled, it defied orientation. The aft area was intact but, because the vessel lay upside-down, looked darkly menacing.
Probing the topsy-turvy jumble of wreckage, I spotted the parallel lines of tank tracks. I had found an M4 Duplex Drive Sherman. These mass-produced, 69 ton tanks had been made amphibious with the help of a British invention - a huge canvas skirt and propeller.
The debacle of the US assault on Omaha beach is now, through such films as Saving Private Ryan, well-known. Less well-documented was the American refusal to use such tanks, for whatever reason. Ironically, those on LST 523 were arriving when their amphibious ability was no longer required, because the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword were by then taken and secured.
The tanks turret and 75mm gun were thoroughly embedded in the spaghetti metalwork of the shipwreck, but I found where the Duplex Drive propshaft came out. The prop had gone. We found another such tank lying among the rubble of decking and girders.
Parts of the wreckage of LST 523, especially the aft area, rise some 7m clear of the seabed, which means up to three deck levels to explore. Big shoals of pollack and bib sweep in billowing clouds over, through and around the ship, and a large conger eel was spotted.
Apparently there are also spare props for the DD tanks, although given the lack of props on the tanks, and bearing in mind the date of the sinking, I cant help wondering if the original props had simply been removed and stored elsewhere on the ship.
Our afternoon dive could have been on any of dozens of wrecks off the invasion beaches, but our chosen site was the USS Meredith, a 2200 ton destroyer capable of up to 34 knots, launched in 1943.
The wreck lay in a maximum depth of 20m. Because of the prevailing south-westerlies in the exposed Baie de Seine, we stayed in sheltered waters nearer shore until ready to dive.
I was overjoyed to be in a depth sufficient for reasonable exploration of this 376ft vessel, and respectable 6-7m viz would allow us to appreciate it.
First sight was of one of the two smokestacks, and my next discovery was of a large reel of 35mm film - a movie to be shown to off-duty sailors, or film for a gun camera
POPULAR WITH RAZORS
During the early hours of 6 June, the Meredith escorted troopships to Utah beach, and provided support for the landing forces with her six 5in guns. The next day, while laying smoke to screen other shipping, she was hit just aft of the engine room by one of Germanys experimental gliding bombs, which were radio-controlled.
Seven crew were killed and 50 wounded, and some two hours later the rest of the crew abandoned ship and were rescued. Two days later an attempt was made to tow the stricken Meredith inshore, but she broke in two and sank, nearly dragging a tugboat down with her.
The wreck was inhabited by at least two lobsters, plenty of starfish, bib, whiting, pouting, crabs, sponges, and even blennies. And there were an unusual number of razor shells around the hull.
Peering under some rusty metal plates, I saw a huge,barnacle-covered lobster shell, apparently the remains of a banquet dragged by some mighty scavenging crab into its loathsome lair. My buddy knelt and stuck his arm into the narrow confines of this den, careful not to disturb the beast huge enough to have pulled this monster lobbie into its hole.
Just as my buddy was dragging the shell to the mouth of this marine cave, it came to life. The lobster awoke, lashing out with both crusher and scissor claw and snapping its tail up to propel itself away from its tormentor.
I thought my buddy was going to have a heart attack there and then, and laughed so hard that my mask flooded. I was in real danger of spitting out my own DV.
The grip on it released, the gargantuan creature fell onto my buddys legs. It was as if the bell had been rung to commence round two. A flailing of limbs, both endo- and exo-skeletal, climaxed in a miniature explosion of man in one direction, and mother of all lobsters in the other.
Perhaps this was what clawed the Meredith in two and caused it to sink. It seemed to have enough barnacles on its back to have lived through several wars!
The wreckage here sometimes reaches a good 7m off the seabed. The 5in guns provide good photographic opportunities, though beware of live munitions. What we at first thought was brass turned out to be shiny aluminium boxes of live ammo for both the 5in guns and the 40mm anti-aircraft guns.
The sun was low in the sky when we surfaced, and trying to spot surfacing divers in the swelling, reflective sea was difficult. Using some form of tall standing decompression marker or SMB is strongly recommended. All aboard, we headed for shore and followed the coastline east. With the sun setting behind us, we could see a huge area of the Normandy countryside gleaming brightly back at us. I asked about this shining oddity, and was told that it was the cemetery behind Omaha beach. The dive boat went quiet as the horror of the invasion sank in.
That night we put into the sleepy town of Port-en-Bessin, where the only welcoming faces were those of fellow Brits on holiday. We were told of a local French diver who dives the Normandy wrecks regularly, robbing them of whatever he can find, and flaunting his activities by charging entrance to his own private museum of plunder.
The French, it seemed, could enjoy immunity to their own laws, though British divers clearly do not. Hefty fines, kit confiscations and even prison sentences await those who get caught lifting artefacts from these wrecks.
At the quayside, a group of local lads seemed interested in our dive kit, draped all over the deck. Later a concerned local told us that he was the elder brother of one of the gang, and that they were probably intending to rob us.
We put most of our kit in our cabins, but could not stash everything away safely, so mounted a watch. Sure enough, some of the gang returned at around 2am but were spotted by Frank the Yank from the wheelhouse. Nothing was taken.
The Landing Ship Infantry Empire Broadsword was built in Wilmington, USA in 1942, gross tonnage 7177 tons, and given to Britain as part of Lend Lease. Capable of 15 knots, this 417ft ship helped to land British troops but on 2 July, two and a half miles off Omaha beach, she was struck almost simultaneously by two mines dropped by U-boats. The crew abandoned ship and she went down, her back broken.
The wreck lies on a sloping seabed with only about 5m covering its bows, while the stern is accessed between 23 and 28m, depending on the tide. This large, exciting wreck is all but on its starboard side at around 80, still marked to show that it is a danger to any large vessel. With the sun in the east, it makes an ideal morning dive.
At the stern we found a raised gun platform for one of the ships 20mm AA guns. There was no gun, but we discovered a 4in AA gun forward of the platform, pointing nearly vertical. In the decks below, shells were stacked in readiness for action.
The superstructure had mostly fallen off, lying upside-down on the seabed. Most of our dive time was taken up by freeing a tangled lobster and edible crab from a mass of monofilament netting, while trying to avoid getting caught ourselves.
LUMPY FOR COMFORT
Our next wreck started life as the Western Ally in Seattle, but after two name changes and only three trips was sold to Norway in 1942 and renamed ss Norfolk.
She sank in 20m and makes a pleasant dive, with large, upright chunks of wreck to enter and explore in relative safety. The novice wreck diver will not be spooked, as no torch is required inside much of this wreckage.
The soft seabed around it is home to thousands of razor shells, living and dead. Sea mice also inhabit the sandy seabed, and among the wreckage it is easy enough to find lobsters, along with some very big crabs, starfish, pouting, whiting and bib. The ship does not seem to exist as a recognisable single piece of wreckage, so orientation might be difficult, even though viz is usually a respectable 5-10m.
We spent the night in St Vaast La Hougue, reinforced by quantities of cheapish Gallic alcohol. The following day, with a force 7 making the sea too lumpy for comfort, we decided to stay put.
Diving is probably the ultimate exploration experience, but couple a diving trip with a visit to an area of historical wealth, and the whole excursion can be truly memorable.
We hired a car and drove through a landscape which showed clearly why the fighting here in 1944 became known as the Battle of the Hedgerows. We lunched at St Mere Eglise, where US airborne divisions had dropped in.
When one parachutists canopy was caught on the church spire, he was forced to feign death. He survived, though enduring severe deafness long after because of the church bells. The D-Day museum is well worth a visit, and the dummy parachutist on the churchtower is quite a landmark.
DEATH AND SUNSHINE
Forty miles on we found Bayeux, home of the tapestry, and another large museum housing relics from the more recent invasion - a chance to see artefacts similar to those you are likely to find under water.
We drove to the war cemetery we had seen from the sea a couple of days before. We walked out over the overgrown trenches and shell-pocked gun emplacements, stumbled down embankments, and found ourselves on Omaha Beach. No one said anything. No one needed to say anything.
Next day we steered east across the Baie de Seine. Woodwork creaked gently in the galley; water lapped softly. Shining onto soporific clouds, the sun transformed the white horses into champagne and diamonds. This dive trip was becoming one of the best of my life.
Then it was action - the clatter of fins on decking, the shouting of half-understood commands and the revving of engines as the shotline went overboard.
The USS Susan B Anthony, built in 1930, was an 8183 ton troop carrier taken over by the US Navy in 1942 to transport troops to North Africa. She was involved in the invasion of Sicily and, from August 1943, carried troops to Britain in preparation for Operation Overlord.
On 7 June 1944, she struck a mine beneath No 4 hold and took on water. A tug managed to secure a tow line but when fire broke out the troops were taken off by landing craft. The Susan B Anthony sank without loss of life in 29m, just 7.5 miles north of Port en Bessin.
My over-riding memory of this dive is of the daisy anemones all over the deck and hull. In glorious 8-10m viz, cargo derricks, deck winches and masts took on a new splendour, cloaked in white and yellow. Large chunks of this wreck stood a good 10m proud of the seabed. Two guns on the bow were of 4 or 5in calibre but we saw several 20mm AA guns, and other divers reported finding 40mm AA shells - very much live.
Weed-covered rope dangled from immense goalpost masts. Block-and-tackle begged our attention as much as the lobsters and crabs. Though not on an even keel, the upright aspect of this wreck made it more enjoyable than others lying on their sides or turned turtle. The usual pouting and whiting were joined by wrasse in holds 1 and 2. A biggish conger eel cavorted around plates covered in dead mens fingers.
We even found a porthole to photograph, and I found myself wondering if the pathetically enforced laws designed to protect it would be sufficient.
Six hours later we were on a wreck 28 years older than the Susan B Anthony. The 4331 ton, single-engined freighter Strathalbyn was built in Scotland in 1909. In December 1916 she sailed from New York for Le Havre, carrying railway wheels, axles, tyres and great coils of barbed wire, only to hit a mine and sink in about 30m just two miles north-east of Cherbourg. The wreck is upright with its deck at about 22m, its bows pointing towards the French coast.
With no slack water, the advice was to descend as rapidly as possible once the shot was well stuck inside the metalwork. It is nigh impossible to get down here without pulling on the shotline or at least steadying yourself against the current.
Once down on the divers playground, it is also advisable to remain tight to the ship, out of the current constantly sweeping over it.
For those who make the effort, rewards come thick and fast. Gorgonian corals stood out like crash barriers for the plankton and detritus that course over the hulk. Mantles of dead mens fingers, studded by entrancing Devonshire cup corals, looked like an ermine robe laid out over a scrapyard.
A torchbeam played into the cavernous yawning chasms of cargo holds would shatter like an exploding chandelier, while silver fry splintered and splashed off into the deeper gloom.
WE LOST A DIVER
We found coils of hose, iron railway wheels, loose quarry tiles and a lot of coal, presumably once destined for the single steam engine that also powered the single prop found next to the rudder. Red wrasse, pouting, whiting and starfish shared the rusty plates with lobsters and spider crabs.
Even after half an hour the tide had picked up so much that we seemed to be surfacing horizontally, our exhaled air rushing parallel to the sea floor!
As the sun bounced against the horizon, the wind picked up - and we lost a diver. The reasons were obvious but no less stupid. We had all been advised to take distance lines to tie off from the shotline on the wreck. When the last diver returned to find no more lines tied off, he freed the shotline and sent up the weight by lifting bag.
What he could not know was that one diver, having chosen to dive alone, had also decided not to use a distance line, and got himself into a decompression commitment, whether by design or because he could no longer find the shotline.
He was carried by what was now a 3-4 knot current out into the Channel.
The swells climbed to at least 2-3m, and with the reflected light from the low sun I thought there would be little chance of us locating him. Fortunately, Mike Rowley calculated the speed and direction of the current and we did manage to find him.
It was a lesson to all that diving any Channel wreck is a serious undertaking.
Our last day started with an early departure from Cherbourg. Soon after 6am we had left the fog-cloaked surface and were descending the shotline as fast as we could. At about 36m we bottomed out on the port side of the largest wreck yet - the 11,509 ton ss Leopoldville.
Built in New Jersey, the 492ft liner was launched in 1928, carrying 360 passengers for the Cie Maritime Belge Company. Before Belgiums occupation she was sent to Britain and refitted to transport troops to North Africa. Two days after the initial D-Day landings she made her first Channel crossing, and in 24 trips ferried some 50,000 Allied troops to France. Despite one collision, she survived until Christmas Eve.
Alongside another troopship, the Cheshire, she was carrying 2235 US infantrymen from Southampton when her escort, three destroyers and a Free French frigate, detected what could have been a U-boat, and dropped depth charges.
If there was a submarine, it would have alerted others in the vicinity. Another U-boat, 486, ambushed the small convoy outside Cherbourg harbour and launched two torpedoes at the Leopoldville. The first missed, but the other detonated on the starboard side.
The liner dropped anchor as the destroyers began hunting their prey, but incredibly no SOS was ever sent. She began listing to starboard. Some of the 228 French-speaking crew were already abandoning ship, but, 15 minutes after the hit, the captain had still not informed his escort of the seriousness of the situation.
Worse, he gave the order in French to abandon ship, and the troops were unaware of what was happening.
SINKING TOO FAST
HMS Brilliant returned to the scene to find the sinking Leopoldville almost crewless. She came up alongside the much larger vessel and, though the seas pounded them together and split some of Brilliants plates, Captain John Pringle managed to rescue some 1500 infantrymen before having to stand off.
He radioed for assistance from Cherbourg, just five miles away, where the rest of the escort had gone with the Cheshire, but half an hour on there was still no response - Christmas celebrations seemed to have intervened.
With no more room on the tiny warship, she set off to offload the rescued men in Cherbourg to make room for more.
But even before the Brilliant reached Cherbourg, the Leopoldville had turned on her side and sank. Other rescue vessels eventually plucked more men from the icy seas, but the final death toll included 802 soldiers and six crewmen, including the captain. It was a colossal disaster that did not make much news at the time. More troops might have survived had they been issued with lifejackets.
The wreck of SS Leopoldville is considered a war grave, but is an excellent dive. It lies in deep water with a slack-water window of just 30-60 minutes, depending on whether it is a spring or neap tide. The wreck is mostly intact but lies squarely on its port side. It is very dark, so a couple of torches are a must.
The starboard side of the hull is an immense area of metalwork, and if you are not careful you can use up most of your bottom time just finning across to the main deck area. With empty lifeboat davits, rows of portholes, and a great deal of superstructure to photograph, our short decompression dive didnt really do this wreck justice. Perhaps next time.
For more information on sailing on mv Maureen, contact Mike Rowley on 01803 835449
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