|FIVE DAYS OF HOWLING WINDS HAD CURTAILED DIVING in all but a few shallow, protected areas around the Maltese islands. On the ferry across to Malta from the island of Gozo, where my buddy Roger and I were staying, we constantly expected a rising wind and subsequent heavy sea, but we arrived to find the sea dropped flat - ideal.|
Edward Camilleri, our dive guide, runs one of the very few specialist diving centres in Malta catering for experienced divers who want to avoid always diving the same old places.
I had waited three years and 10 trips to Malta for the chance to do this mornings dive. Three miles out, at a depth of 55m, the wreck of His Majestys Submarine Stubborn awaited.
Stubborn, commissioned in February 1943, was 217ft long and displaced 900 tons submerged. Powered by two 1900bhp diesel engines and two 1300hp electric motors, she could do almost 15 knots at the surface. She carried a crew of up to 48 and was armed with six 21in torpedo tubes at the bow and one at the stern, a 3in Mk 1 gun and a 20mm Oerlikon gun. Stubborn also had a brief but eventful history.
My second pleasant surprise of the morning came when I recognised our skipper, Clive. We had met the year before when, following a wreck dive, we had reported over the R/T the illegal shooting of wildlife on the nature reserve of Filfla. The culprits had scanned our message and chased our dive boat, but fortunately they couldnt match the speed of Clives RIB. They had been arrested as soon as they stepped onto dry land!
Out from the confines of St Pauls Bay, Clive opened the throttle. We passed the site of the Imperial Eagle off Qawra Reef, relying on GPS and sonar to guide us to anchorage above the wreck.
The shotline went down, and decompression staging with spare air tank, reg and octopus was positioned. We followed it down into the clear blue as quickly as possible to maximise our bottom time.
At 45m the seabed was in view and we levelled out. I had never dived to a submarine wreck before but there was no mistaking the faint dark shape appearing through the gloom. I closed on the casing amidships, level with the base of the conning tower at 50m, trying to imagine what life had been like serving aboard one of these World War Two subs - especially on the day of Stubborns first sinking.
On the morning of 11 February 1944, off the Norwegian coast, Stubborn sighted a convoy of seven ships escorted by four trawlers, a whaler and an aircraft. She fired four torpedoes at three of the escorted vessels before taking avoiding action at a depth of 45m.
The counter-attack began half a minute after the last torpedo detonated. There were two light explosions, probably bombs dropped by the aircraft at the end of the torpedo tracks, and an initial shower of 15 depth charges, all distant. The hunt was taken up by two trawlers and a minesweeper, which dropped 36 depth charges close to Stubborn 15 minutes later.
Stubborns after-planes jammed on dive, a tank flooded through its outboard vent and the starboard screw was fouled. Smoke was seen, and the main motor was stopped.
Stubborn sank to 120m before its descent could be halted by blowing main ballast, and she drifted for a time at 60-90m.
At 1410 hours she broke surface, but on sighting one of the whalers two miles away dived again, levelling out only at 150m. Ten more depth charges were dropped but, surprisingly, no close attack followed.
In an attempt to escape detection, and with much difficulty in maintaining trim, Stubborns commander decided to make a run for it through a minefield. With its bow up, the S-Class sub managed to maintain a depth of around 110/120m until, some 35 minutes later, her rate of rise got out of control and she again broke surface.
With the minesweeper visible 1.5 miles away, all main ballast was blown. Stubborn touched 150m and continued down, out of control. She bounced four times onto an unexpected and uncharted bottom, with the depth-gauge needle pointing off the scale!
During the next fifteen minutes, 16 depth charges exploded very close indeed, causing both the ASDICs and hydrophones to flood.
From 1930 hours, when it would be dark above, attempts were made to surface, but it was not until 2225 that Stubborn began a slow ascent.
After examining the damage, it was decided that Stubborn had no choice but to remain drifting on the surface, her rudder swinging free.
An attempt to rig a sail in heavy weather proved unsuccessful. It was not until 16 February, five days after the action, that two British destroyers were sighted.
Stubborn had survived one of the worst attacks of the war, despite the loss of her aft hydroplanes and rudder, and had carried out the deepest-ever dive at the time, to an estimated 165m!
HMS Scourge towed her into Lerwick and, following repairs, she went on to see action in the Pacific against the Japanese.
In 1945 she could be found in the Mediterranean and then, on 30 April 1946, Stubborn submerged for the last time, this time without crew, to be used as a bottom ASDIC target in her current resting place.
view at the bow
Deepest part first, Edward had said. We finned along level with the deck on the port side, toward the bow. I was taking shot after shot - I knew I wouldnt have long.
Three minutes into the dive, I settled onto the sand at 56m to savour the curve of the bow, with its three torpedo tubes showing on the port side. I could see past the forward hydroplanes (port side raised - starboard extended) to, on the limit of visibility, the darker blue shape of the conning tower.
The effects of 55 years submersion were apparent from the rusting of plates and fittings and the sponges and soft corals encrusting much of the superstructure. However, Stubborn was still very much intact and in a remarkable state of preservation.
I rose over the bow and finned back toward the conning tower. Roger was ahead, taking pictures of the conning tower, and Edward hung just off the wreck on the starboard side, keeping a watchful eye.
A circular plate was attached to the hull where the forward gun had once been, and behind the conning tower a small hole signified where the snorkel-tube had been removed - both before Stubborns sinking.
like a gnat
I dropped a few metres near the stern to shoot the rudder and props at around 55m. My first stop was indicated at 9m and I was down to 100 bar. Edward had 120 (he breathed like a gnat) and Roger, with a 15 litre tank, 110. We finned back along the port side and, after a bottom time of 15 minutes, our slow ascent up the shotline commenced.
Eye fixed firmly to a viewfinder throughout the dive, I had seen little in the way of marine life, but both Edward and Roger had seen tuna, very large amberjack and grouper on the wreck site. This had been a 10 out of 10 star-rated dive.
Can the Stubborn be entered In theory yes, though only by removing ones cylinder and carrying it - definitely not recommended at a depth of 55m on a very limited bottom time. Anyone who has been inside a submarine knows how confined a space it is and how easily one can become entangled in loose gear and machinery. Stay out, and live to dive another day.
Our thanks to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport.
|The front of the conning tower |
|the point where the rear gun was positioned |
|looking back at the rear of the tower |
|aft fins deeply encrusted on the starboard side |
|Edward on top of the casing at the rear of the conning tower |
GETTING THERE On flights from the UK to Malta, Air Malta provides a free additional 10kg baggage allowance if you say you are a diver when booking. Malta Direct Travel, an Air Malta Company, can arrange packages, 020 8785 3233.
DIVING: Specialist wreck dives are offered by Underwaterworld Specialist Diving, which can provide trimix and nitrox, 00356 431955, e-mail: email@example.com
ACCOMODATION: A wide choice of hotels and self-catering apartments. David Oldale stayed at the St Patricks Hotel in Xlendi, Gozo.
COST: A one-week package including flights and accommodation, costs from £176. Underwaterworld charges £25 a head for 10-12 divers on specialist wreck dives.
WHEN TO GO: From late May to the end of October it is hot and sunny, with little or no rainfall. Winters are usually mild.
LANGUAGE: Maltese and English.
MONEY: Maltese Lira. Corner shops or mini-markets offer a better rate of exchange for sterling than hotels and banks, with no commission.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Malta Tourist Office, London, 020 7292 4900, www.tourism.org.mt