WINTER FOR ME IS A TIME FOR TRAWLING THROUGH THE ARCHIVES and dreaming up a packed schedule of future dives on submarines in the coming summer.Find out more about lExpedition Scyllias on the website perso.libertysurf.fr/scyllias
The resulting schedule may look good in winter, but the new season soon brings a reality check. The weather is capricious, when it isnt abominable. I have spent so many hours leaning on bars during torrential rains and violent winds, waiting for the sun to shine. By then we may be into a period of bigger tides and treacherous currents, or the plankton will suddenly have appeared and all hope of good visibility is lost.
Then a boat or an electronic device breaks down at exactly the wrong moment, when the only person who can help us out is away on holiday, or the part we need is out of stock and has to be ordered from Makhdumnagar. Am I exaggerating No.
Anyway, we had been thinking for several years about diving U390, the history of which is told here, but each season various such annoyances had forced us to dive on more favourable sites.
Our Brittany-based team, lExpedition Scyllias, includes two exceptional divers, technical manager and expedition organiser Jacques le Lay and Christophe Moriceau, who is second to none in searching French and foreign archives to reconstruct the stories of disappeared vessels and their crew.
Last June, our efforts to organise this trip were finally rewarded, though unfortunately Christophe was already involved with another dive. At dawn, Jacques and I boarded the boat of a friend of ours, professional diver Antoine Couppey. He knew the wreck site well. It lay about 20 nautical miles out in the Channel from St-Vaast-la-Hougue on the Normandy coast.
The sky was a little overcast but the sea was only slightly ruffled by a breeze. Travelling at 7 knots, we had time for a snack - its incredible how a nice piece of farmhouse bread served with a succulent slice of smoked ham can embellish a boat trip.
Almost immediately on arrival we saw an echo on the sounder. Antoine made two passes to be sure of the U-boats orientation before marking the spot with buoys. It was out of the question to drop anchor, because the heavy currents and numerous freighters and tankers that cut across this area mean that a support ship must be free to move quickly to avoid a collision, or to pick up a drifting diver.
Plankton lent the sea an unappealing reddish colour. We were half an hour ahead of slack, so began to kit up while keeping our eyes on the two red buoys. One was half-submerged, while the other wore a thick foam moustache. We fidgeted with impatience.
When it was time to jump in, Antoine brought us close to the stern buoy. We descended into the muddy sea to find visibility increasing as we descended. Though dark, it was about 5m by the time we reached 50m.
The U-boat lay intact, with a list of about 45 to starboard. We started at the stern, where the portside propeller, rudder and dive plane were immediately evident. A few metres higher, we moved towards the conning tower alongside the bridge.
As usual on listed submarine wrecks, the anti-aircraft defences and the Wintergarten, the railed platform at the back of the bridge, had broken off and lay on the seabed in a pile of iron and steel. The rest of the conning tower was, however, astonishingly well preserved.
The sheets of metal used to construct the conning tower, and which gave these grey wolves their characteristic outline, remained in place. We could see the attack periscope, retracted into its housing, with the UZO, the famous U-boot Ziel Optik or aiming binoculars. The sky-search periscope was also visible and I tried to distinguish the lens, but didnt really have time.
The Turmluk, the access panel to the conning tower through which the sole survivor of this sinking had miraculously escaped, lay open. All these items were concreted and protected by a seaweed cocoon. We descended further and headed fast towards the bow, flying over the port side to find that it disappeared into the sand like a gigantic sabre. Time was passing too quickly for our liking - 20 minutes had gone and we had to think about abandoning U390.
During our deco stops, we exchanged satisfied glances, both thinking the same thing - lets come back soon.
But it was not until October that Antoine was able to organise another trip for me and two Russian friends, Kirill Kolosov and Andrei Byziukin. Jacques and Christophe had to work. The sky was gloomy but the sea calm. Despite numerous particles, I could see that visibility was far better than last time I had been here.
At 40m I could already see U390, 10m further down. We began with the little screws at the stern again, but didnt linger.
Kirill circled the radio direction-finding loop, the Funkpeil-rahmen, and stayed above the opened hatch, trying to see through the darkness. I knew he felt tempted to enter but it would be unacceptable to disturb the sleep of those 48 brave souls trapped in this steel coffin for 60 years.
Last time, Jacques and I had spent too long investigating the central part of the submarine, at the expense of the front. So we soon abandoned the conning tower and accompanied the many fish heading towards the bow.
The 88mm deck gun had disappeared, perhaps under a layer of sediment on the seabed. But further on, we were amazed to discover that the hatch used to load the torpedoes into the bow torpedo room was open wide. Why
Erich Stein had escaped through the Turmluk, and the position of this hatch made me wonder whether other crew- members had tried in vain to escape through this one.
Or had the violent explosion from the British vessels onslaught unlocked this panel It seemed unlikely. Its possible that divers had activated the opening handwheel to satisfy their curiosity, but the rust and concretions that had knitted the mechanism suggested otherwise. On a previous dive on a U-boat wreck I had activated such a handwheel which, to my great surprise, had turned perfectly after one or two attempts. German precision engineering, of course !
This opening gave us the chance to peer into the bow torpedo room, well-guarded by enormous conger eels which werent at all shy. Our torch beams disappeared into the sinister darkness.
Then we saw the wound that sank U390. The starboard side and part of the deck were smashed open, metal sheets torn and crushed. She could not have survived such a strike.
Kirill looked to be aiming to enter but was quickly stopped by piled-up severed cables and hanging tubes, a physical reminder that it is forbidden to violate this war grave. We progressed to the bow and turned round to explore the other side of the wreck before coming back to the shotline.
After 25 minutes of diving, we had to ascend, and slack was in any case limited. But we knew we would be back to visit U390, as well as one of its sister-ships lying close by. See you soon, Grey Wolf!