AFTER DIVING WITH A COUPLE OF UK CLUBS out of Newhaven a while back (Newhaven, New Identities, January 2010), a few weeks later I take the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe to join the French club GCOB Plongée for a long weekend.
The club is based in Rouen and keeps a large Zodiac RIB in the marina at Dieppe for its local diving throughout the year.
Like many such trips, it all began with a prospective Wreck Tour. GCOB Plongée member Alan Waite dangled the bait of HMS Daffodil, a train ferry used as a landing-craft transport ship for D-Day, and subsequently used to take supplies across La Manche.
Of all the wrecked ships I have dived, a train ferry would be something new. And this train ferry was in military service, so would have the bonus of guns. Train-sets and guns on one wreck – who could resist
The crossing with LD Lines Transmanche Ferries brings back memories of holidays with my parents when I was barely a teenager, though the standard of ferries has improved considerably, and the crossing is now a faster four hours.
In Dieppe, everything has changed. The ferry terminal is now at the mouth of the harbour. Further in, where it used to be, is the marina where GCOB Plongée keeps its RIB.
We start not with HMS Daffodil but with the WW1 wreck of the Norwegian steamship Oifjeld. On a day of perfect sea conditions, the club divers decide it would be a shame not to take advantage and go a bit further.
Waiting for the tide to slacken, the club’s wreck experts fill me in on the story. Most speak a little English, and while it’s better than my French, it’s easier for all of us if they speak French while Alan translates.
On the night of 24 November, 1916, UB18 stopped the 1998-ton Oifjeld with a warning shot.
While the Oifjeld’s crew abandoned ship, the shot had been noticed further afield by a herring fleet. Its escorts Mira and Caille moved to attack, and forced UB18 to dive. Five minutes later, the Oifjeld was sunk by a single torpedo.
The seabed from Dieppe is remarkably flat and shallow. Even 20 miles away and about 10 miles offshore, the wreck of the Oifjeld is only 27m to the seabed and 22m to the deck.
The French system is to anchor the RIB to the wreck with a grapnel. Divers go down the line and come up it.
The first pair down make sure we are firmly hooked on and set a strobe to assist relocation. The last pair clear the hook and send it up on a lifting bag, either decompressing on a dangling loop of the line, or using a delayed SMB.
The last pair stay on board until the first pair are back. Even so, on the best neap tide of the year, we all get to dive as long as gas and decompression allow.
My buddy is RIB captain Dominique, who knows the wreck well and also has a twin-set and deco gas, so can match the sort of dive I do on a rebreather. Most of the others dive on single 15- or 12-litre cylinders with H-valves, pretty much standard kit for French club-members.
Dominique wears a drysuit, but most of the others are in wetsuits. Only a few year-round divers use drysuits, explains Alan, and even then, only in winter.
With the Oifjeld following the usual steamship layout it’s an easy wreck to navigate, though it gets a little confused by the forward hold, where the bow has fallen to starboard.
All in all, it’s a good wreck and a good start, though not that different to many others; ‘different’ will come with the second slack of the day on HMS Daffodil.
First, we return to port for air and, more importantly in France, a leisurely lunch at one of the pavement cafés that surround the harbour. I go traditionally French with a selection of cheeses, while the most popular meal among my connoisseur hosts is burger and chips.
We get so settled into enjoying the day and talking about the dive that Dominique has to remind us to get a move on to do it.
It’s easy to find. The RIB heads for a west-cardinal buoy marked “Dafodils” and the wreck is 75m to the south-east, standing 5m from a 20m seabed and showing up nicely on the echo-sounder.
I already have a good idea of what the wreck is like, thanks to club-member Jean-Luc, who over lunch showed me his extensive file of photographs and deck plans. He is also an impressive wreck artist, and his illustration of the wreck was part of the bait Alan dangled earlier in the year, so I have had a few months to study it and think about how I can add detail.
HMS Daffodil was originally built during WW1 as Train Ferry 3, to carry wagons of supplies to Dunkerque. TF3 was then used for a freight service to Zebrugge, returning to the Royal Navy in WW2 as HMS Daffodil.
For D-Day, Daffodil carried landing-craft on trolleys on the train deck, to be pushed off the stern for the invasion. Returning on 17 March, 1945, she struck a mine, sinking the next morning at 5.20. Nine of the crew were lost.
To get me orientated, Dominique leads me on a quick length of the wreck, pointing out key features. I then return to the shot at the bow at a more leisurely pace, trying to see as much as possible of a deceptively complicated wreck.
I say deceptively because, at first glance, it is just a big open cargo deck with railway tracks, broken in two just forward of the boilers.
But the Devil is in the detail. Gun positions, winches and other machinery are scattered round the edges of the deck at either end.
Engines are hidden below, and even a bathtub is tucked away below a shelter deck. HMS Daffodil is complicated in the same way that an aircraft-carrier is.
The perfect weather stays with us through the weekend. Some of the divers even thank me for bringing English weather along. The RIB is now fully loaded with 14 on board, so we head out to the local wreck of Sperrbrecher-178, sunk by a torpedo from HMS Whitshed in a battle with British destroyers on 11 December, 1942.
The choice suits me fine, because Jean-Luc had shown me his file and sketches and I’m salivating at the chance to dive it; a Sperrbrecher is another kind of ship I have not dived before.
The name means “pathmaker”.
These ships were extensively adapted merchantmen designed to lead convoys and more valuable naval ships in coastal waters, particularly where there was a danger of mines. Sperrbrecher-178 was converted from the 1236-ton motor ship Gauss.
Just 22m to the seabed, the Gauss is another easy but incredibly exciting wreck, with much of the equipment from its pathmaker role remaining. Most obvious is an 88mm gun on the bow with ammunition stowed below. Also at the bow are fittings for a noisemaker to detonate acoustic mines.
Further aft, the first hold is wrapped with electric cable to generate a magnetic field to detonate magnetic mines ahead of the ship. Corresponding generators are fitted aft of the engine-room.
Also aft are winches for towing sweep-cables to cut a path through a minefield, then finally anti-aircraft gun pintles and ammunition above the stern.
All this is in addition to the hull, diesel engine and other usual fittings of a fair-sized motor ship.

WITH THE TIDES MOVING ON, slack water now restricts dives to one a day. Back on the RIB, there is no rush to return to port. Divers unpack snacks that would put Lunchbox Bob to shame: wild boar paté, cheeses, cold meats and sausages, grapes, croissants, coffee and chilled wine.
Nevertheless, back in Dieppe we still gather in one of the pavement cafés for a social glass after the dive. While no-one had snails for lunch, I learn that the EU classifies escargots as seafood. I warn that they need to keep an eye out for foreign factory trawlers in their gardens.
Another day on HMS Daffodil allows me the chance to explore further, and to help out with some freediving practice.
The sport is more widely supported by French clubs than by their UK counterparts, and GCOB Plongée has a large apnea section.
To coincide with the neap tides, apnea instructor Thierry had booked the club RIB to dive on HMS Daffodil.
As supporting divers, Alan and I attach a buoyline to a shallow part of the wreck, pulled tight to make it vertical. The freedivers practise swimming down the line and pulling down and up it. And on another line clear of the wreck, they practise with a weighted sled, as used in the No Limits record dives.
My final wreck of the trip is Unterseebootjäger 1404. The title means “U-boat hunter”, though in the Royal Navy it would be an armed trawler.
On 5 May, 1940, the crew of the mine-laying submarine HMS Seal, damaged by aerial bombing off Denmark, were taken aboard UJ1404 (then UJ128). Seal remains the only British submarine to have been captured at sea.
Jean-Luc has taken the day off specially to sketch UJ1404. Dominique is back at work, so Denis is captain for the day and, I now discover, is the real hero of the good weather.
Denis had suggested the dates because of the excellent tides and the fact that, in his experience, neap tides late in the season were often accompanied by good weather.
We even have dolphins around the boat while we dive, though under water we only hear them.
Again the wreck is only 20m deep, so there is plenty of time to explore and look for details. UJ1404 is broken in two just forward of the trawl-winch, the parts of the wreck separated by a few metres and out of alignment.
This all suggests that it broke apart before sinking.
During the confused sea battle surrounding the Dieppe raid, the concentrated fire of Landing Craft Flak LCF(L)1, escorting the landing force, peppered the UJ1404, which disappeared amid a large explosion.

ON THE FORWARD SECTION behind the 88mm gun is a stack of shells. On the aft section beside the trawl-winch is the helm. Against the engine-room bulkhead are hot- and coldwater tanks, and behind the bulkhead is the galley stove, sink and shower.
All over the wreck are piles of depth charges. Perhaps it was exploding depth charges that blew UJ1404 apart, detonated by gunfire from LCF(L)1.
I say goodbye to my new French friends in Dieppe. Beneath the superficial differences in diving practices and regulations, they are not that different to a UK club – a bunch of divers enthusiastic about their local wrecks, with a good social scene, a relish of food and drink and enjoyment of their hobby.
I return with cases of wine from the supermarket and a prize bottle of Calvados hooch brandy, a lethal gift from Raymond.
Meanwhile, Alan and GCOB Plongée plan to charter one of our South Coast boats to dive the Sussex side of the Channel. HMS Moldavia is high on their list of wrecks to dive.