Almost a year has passed since I last looked over the Channel and watched the sun setting behind Les Sept Iles in northern Brittany. Unsettled as the month of June can be, it was this time 12 months ago that our diving team ventured 83m down into these waters to bring back the first images of HMS Charybdis (The Charybdis Catastrophe, Diver, December 2001).Find out more on the survivors website, www.charybdis.limbourne.cwc.net
Now, as Jubilee celebrations continue on mainland Britain, we are back - not to dive Charybdis but to track down the wreck of HMS Limbourne, lost in action alongside Charybdis on 23 October, 1943.
What is also different about this years expedition is that survivors from both ships have joined us on site, in the hope of witnessing the first images of Limbourne being brought to the surface.
Neil Wood was a radar operator aboard Limbourne the night she was struck by a German torpedo. The other survivor, Steve Keeling, was a ships diver attached to Charybdis throughout the cruisers career. On the night of her sinking, he had stood firm at a starboard gun platform.
Three divers await slack water, heavily kitted for an 80m trimix dive into a Force Five sea. Steve Parker, Mark Bullen and Chris Hutchison are making the dive to verify that we have the correct position. Only 10 minutes pass before they return with the news that the wreck below is almost certainly that of a warship.
They have examined what appears to be a broken-away stern section. A large, offset portside prop stands out, and reports of a transom stern give early indications that this is the wreck we seek. Depth-charges still lie in racks to both port and starboard, the divers report. Then the wreck breaks down somewhat before they find a 4in gun turret with its barrels facing north-west, and end the dive.
The expedition is led, as was last years, by Keith Morris, but this time he has employed Weymouth skipper Ian Taylor to drop the divers onto the wreck. Taylors purpose-built dive vessel Skin Deep, a 36ft catamaran capable of almost 30 knots, provides the ideal platform.
Jersey-based wreck-researcher John Ovenden and his colleague Paul Haslam have done much of the groundwork aboard their vessel Deep Seeker. They spent days before our arrival searching the area, and it was a promising set of sonar side-scan images that provided Ian Taylor with his first target.
The following day, the sea state appears unchanged. Continuous rain dampens our enthusiasm as an 11-man team prepares to dive the wreck.
I will not be first in. Strapped inside my twin 20 litre cylinders, I eagerly check the settings on my deepwater camera system while Keith Morris and Tim Bach carry out one of the more important jobs, lashing the grapnel to a sufficiently strong section of wreck to secure a positive path for the rest of us.
A marker appears at the surface, indicating that all systems are go. Toby Herbert and Roy Smith rapidly set up the deco station on their descent. Then, pair by pair, the divers are deployed from Skin Deep.
I follow the shotline down, pausing at 30m to switch from nitrox to my back-mounted trimix of 16/40. The lower set oxygen percentage and added helium allows me to breathe the gas which will see me safe at 80m.
As the wreck appears through the gloom, my eyes quickly adjust. I can see that the line is temporarily lashed to a rotary gun turret covered in the bland encrustation so typical of deep wrecks in the Channel.
I spare a moment to adjust my camera settings and shoot several frames before moving on to find an area of less-disturbed water. At first the wreck appears confusing. The bulk of the structure appears intact but what looks like deck superstructure has collapsed over the hull. Cables, gantries and all manner of unrecognisable machinery hampers navigation, although as time passes an exposed engine block allows me to make a bit more sense of the scene.
For a deep-wreck photographer, time is the worst enemy. Second to that is finding the subject matter to produce understandable images, but perhaps my luck is about to change.
My VR3 mixed-gas computer indicates that, including decompression, 70 minutes must pass before I can surface, Today Im happy to spend more than two hours down here, so I press on. Dropping off the edge of the hull, I begin to recognise what appear to be sections of collapsed bridge superstructure. If Im correct, the wreck is listing to port and Im heading towards the bow section.
My intention is to inspect this section thoroughly. The water is undisturbed and, looking back, the faintness of the torch beams tells me that I am alone. Working through a small debris field that scatters coarse sand, my light picks out an intact telegraph, then a ships clock, junction boxes - and then the Limbournes heart, her main bridge bell.
The bell will lead us to positive ID of this destroyer, though now the words HMS Limbourne 1942 can barely be made out through the encrustation.
I take time out to photograph all these rare artefacts. Once satisfied that I have enough exposures, I flash my beam, beckoning other divers across to share this wonderful underwater sight.
I move on, and discover an unusual upright pedestal of substantial size. I dont recognise it - though I later discover it to be a depth-charge launcher - but I photograph it all the same. Another glance at the VR3 indicates 119 minutes before I can surface. A comfortable 25 minutes brings me back to the shotline.
Removing my strobe light and closing down my camera system, I begin to make my way up to the lazy line decompression junction, where I will remove my personal tally. Tallies remaining at the junction indicate the other divers still on the wreck - it will be their final job to release the lazy line to float freely with the tide, allowing the team to decompress in comfort.
On surfacing from any significant wreck exploration, particularly a historic dive such as this, a dive boat is a beehive of excitement. Today is no different. Skin Deep is a hubbub of conversation, and the documentary team following the exploits of this expedition points its camera lenses into every corner.
Keith Morris is happy with the news of the positive identification, though he wont relax until the divers complete their final dive in safety. Neil Wood and Steve Keeling listen as the dive team relate their experiences, and particularly the sighting of Limbournes bell. Its an emotional moment.
As Skin Deep makes for shore, Deep Seeker remains on site for them to pay their respects. Neil Wood now knows that when he lays a wreath in memory of his lost friends, the position is true.
We have all been moved by the story of Operation Tunnel. We had so much help from the survivors association with Charybdis 2001, so the expedition to find Limbourne is for them, says Keith Morris.
The expedition is based at the small French port of Ploumanach, some 15 miles south of the wreck site.
All but one of the team is using conventional open-circuit scuba, which means hours of laborious gas-mixing. The port is tidal, so the team must race against time to decant helium and oxygen into the cylinders before Skin Deep pulls away from the quay. The on-board compressor then pumps the final pressures as a small inflatable ferries the divers back and forth.
In the evenings the team and the survivors alike enjoy watching digital video we have taken of the wreck.
This is when the survivors are able to explain features of the wreck which the divers have been unable to identify.
Despite the bad weather, dives continue through the week, allowing us to piece together the state of the Limbourne.
We determine that both bow and stern have been separated from the main midships. The bow must lie elsewhere, blown off by the Germans, while the stern section explored on the initial dive lies some distance away, though parallel to, the main wreckage. It must have broken away after the Limbourne was torpedoed by our own forces.
Chris Hutchison takes side-scan information and swims alone on a fixed bearing across the seabed at 80m to identify the section that remains in doubt. Filming as he goes, he eventually sees the stern looming out of the darkness. Our speculation is confirmed as the exposed port prop and shaft assembly confront him.
On the remaining main section, the divers film and photograph the warship as it once was, its twin-torpedo-launching turret still intact, torpedoes inside. This platform on top of the midships section once rotated either to port or starboard, to launch torpedoes from high above the water line.
Beyond here, towards the bow, a quadruple two-pounder anti-aircraft or pom-pom gun system with a stack of ammunition ready by its side lends something of a Chuuk lagoon atmosphere to the dives. Both sections of the Limbourne we examine lie across the tide, with the bow end facing west-north-west some 280 from the main hulk, with a slight list to port.
The bulkhead forward of the bridge brings an abrupt end to dives, as there is no other wreckage to be seen beyond it.
The bulkhead has now collapsed, but at the time would have held tight and prevented the Limbourne from sinking instantly, possibly helping to save many lives.
When the expedition is over, Neil Wood writes to the team: It was a very emotional and traumatic time for me, but having had some time to digest it all, I now have a kind of satisfactory feeling in knowing that my lost shipmates and ship have a known grave site. I know the family and friends of those who were lost, as well as my other survivor friends, will be happy to hear about all your efforts.