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.
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!

  • Find out more about lExpedition Scyllias on the website perso.libertysurf.fr/scyllias

  • The
    The U390
    Time out to inspect a propeller
    Conger eels have made the front torpedo hatch their home
    placing flowers in the conning tower
    a 20mm Oerlikon gun lies on the seabed


    What happened to U390
    U390 was commissioned under Oberleutnant zur See Heinz Geissler on 13 March 1943 at Kiel. A Type VII C U-boat, she displaced 864 tonnes submerged and was 220ft long with a 20ft beam. Powered by two MAN 3200CV diesel motors and two 750CV electric motors, she could reach 17.6 knots at the surface and 7.6 knots submerged. Maximum depth was 220m.
    Her first mission was at Bergen with the 7th U-Flotilla. She then took part in a wolf pack off Ireland until Admiral Doenitz dissolved it early in 1944, leaving U390 to operate alone.
    Later that month, south-west of Rockall, she fired five torpedoes at a four-ship convoy but failed to hit anything. She was spotted and depth-charged during a chase that lasted several hours, but escaped.
    U390 joined the Sturmer wolf pack and returned to St-Nazaire in February to be fitted with a snorkel. In June 1944 she embarked on a mission to bring arms to the troops defending Cherbourg against the Allied landing forces.
    The U-boat was attacked by an aircraft but managed to escape, despite being unable to dive because someone had left a boilersuit lying around and it had jammed the rear dive plane!
    Fortunately the aircraft, probably short of ammo, did not mount a second attack. A counter-order sent U390 to Brest, but four days later she was back out in the Channel again.
    Commander Geissler and his crew were under no illusions about their likely fate in closely observed waters now full of anti-submarine chasers. But with the help of her snorkel, the U-boat avoided enemy attention until 5 July, when she spotted a little convoy north-east of Barfleur.
    In its first and last moment of triumph, U390 torpedoed the patrol boat HMS Ganilly and damaged the US steamer Sea Porpoise. But now it faced the destroyer HMS Wanderer and the frigate HMS Tavy. Doenitzs lone wolf had no chance of escape, particularly in relatively shallow water, and she was quickly picked up by the British Asdics.
    Tavy fired depth charges and followed up with hedgehogs, striking U370 a mortal blow. Several compartments were quickly flooded, killing the crew.
    Obermaschinist Erich Stein (right) was in the central compartment with Geissler and some seven other men, prisoners in their own boat, with water coming in.
    The submariners put on their rebreathers, the famous Dräger Tauchretter. It was their only chance. They had to wait for the inside and outside pressures to equalise before they could open the panel over the conning tower. They had trained for this situation which they had had hoped would never occur.
    The noise of the British warships propellers grew ever louder and everyone was quietly braced for the next depth-charging. A glance at their comrades, a last farewell and the moment arrived - but only Stein succeeded in crawling out of the conning tower and reaching the surface, unconscious as he rose.
    He was picked up by one of the British vessels, while the other laid 30 depth charges to be sure that U390 was well and truly finished.