ABOVE THE WRECK SITE of the Oost Vlaanderen, we sit awaiting slack water, slowly cooking in the hot sunshine. The Channel Islands have massive tides and we are on springs. Just half an hour ago the mv Maureen had been aided through the Doyle Passage at the north-east corner of Guernsey by a visibly strong following current.John Liddiard travelled to the Channel Islands on mv Maureen from Dartmouth, 01803 835449 or 0860 571012, www.deepsea.co.uk/boats/maureen
The current is still forming a wake about the shot buoy and slack water is a little later than predicted. We are all dressed up and ready to go, prepared to jump in as soon as the current drops to a diveable speed.
It doesnt take long to get down to the wreck. The reasonably intact remains of this 421 ton vessel sit upright in 30m.
On 26 May 1943 the Oost Vlaanderen was part of a German convoy on the way from St Malo in northern France to St Peter Port in Guernsey, carrying a cargo of guns and cement for the German fortifications. Just 1.5 miles outside St Peter Port, it was attacked by RAF aircraft and holed at the waterline on the port side.
The wreck is a fairly conventional steam-powered coaster. On a ship this small, the engine room is at the stern with two holds forwards. As I swim from the stern towards the bow, I find no trace of the ships armament or the guns carried as cargo. They have all been salvaged, and some are on display in Guernsey museums.
Filling the bottom of the holds, bags of cement remain solidified. Locally the Oost Vlaanderen is known as the Cement Wreck. On the port side of the forward hold there is some damage at deck level, but none extending down the outside of the wreck. I suspect that the fatal hole is now buried beneath the silty seabed.
The Channel Islands occupy the unique historical position of being the only part of British soil occupied by German forces in World War Two.
When France surrendered on 14 June 1940, the British government announced that the Channel Islands would not be defended as they were of no strategic importance.
About 30% of an overall population of 104,000 was evacuated to the UK mainland, including nearly all the children of the islands. By the end of June the Channel Islands were occupied by German forces, without any of the devastation that would no doubt have resulted from an active defence.
Hitler obviously didnt agree with the British government about the strategic importance of the Channel Islands. Over the next few years, millions of tons of cement and steel were used to build defensive fortifications. Many miles of tunnels were dug to provide storage, barracks and hospitals for the occupying forces. Most of this work was conducted by slave labour drafted forcibly from eastern Europe, living and working under concentration-camp conditions.
With the successful Allied invasion of Normandy, the Channel Islands were cut off from support and bypassed for the remainder of the war. The fortifications were never used to defend against a seaborne assault. The occupying forces surrendered the day after Germany fell, 9 May 1945.
For the visiting diver, the wartime history of the Channel Islands provides an interesting reversal of roles. Rather than Allied shipping sunk by German U-boats and aircraft, as found in the North Sea and English Channel, wartime wrecks in the Channel Islands comprise many vessels in German service sunk by allied aircraft and motor torpedo boats.
Another wreck just outside St Peter Port is the armed trawler V209, Dr Rudolf Warhendorff. This 381 ton steam trawler began life as the Prince Rupert, working out of Bremerhaven in 1928. In December 1939 it was taken over by the Kriegsmarine and armed for use as a light escort and patrol boat.
On 24 July 1944, the V209 was escorting a supply convoy into St Peter Port when it was attacked by Avengers of 850 squadron, Fleet Air Arm. The wreck is so close to St Peter Port that permission is needed from the Harbourmaster to dive it.
Timing for this dive is critical. Slack water today is just a few minutes after a Condor super-ferry leaves the harbour, and we have to be clear of the water before the next one arrives. Like the Cement Wreck, Dr Rudolf Warhendorff now sits upright in 30m. At first a wreck this size seems crowded with 12 of us on it at the same time, and it takes a while for the divers to disperse far enough from the shotline for me to have room to take photographs.
Among the engine-room debris, I line up to photograph a large battery, then realise that it has nothing to do with the wreck and is actually an old shot weight!
Again, the guns have been removed, but there is plenty of evidence of where they were once fitted. A pillar rising above the stern would have supported a gun platform. Further forward, an armoured gun shield lies in front of reinforced deck housing above the hold.
The divers on board are a mixed group of BSAC instructors and mv Maureen regulars from all over the country. Bob, the Southern Regional Coach, is diving on an Inspiration rebreather and teaching a Dräger rebreather course for Jim, the BSAC Technical Manager. Bob collects rebreathers and, between dives, I pick his brain for ideas on enhancements to my own Dräger Atlantis.
I am one of the few divers on board not wearing a Weezle undersuit. Paul and Hillary from Weezle are on board and measure me up, just in case I get chilly this winter. In between dives they are running their business by remote control, using a Nokia Communicator.
Others include National Instructor exam candidates getting some last-minute practice in before the following weeks exam, and past and present NI examiners who are coincidentally just there for the diving.
In between dives, the conversation naturally turns to the nature of NI exams, and one diver commits the faux pas of reminiscing about giving orals on the rear deck.
Further south, off Jersey, we dive the wreck of the Schokland, a 1113 ton Dutch steamship of 1915 vintage, again taken over by the Germans and used as a supply ship to the Channel Islands.
There are two stories of how the Schokland sank on 4 January 1943. The first is the sort of tale that comes from a Fantastic War Stories for Boys type of comic book.
The tale recounts 200 German officers on board for an evening champagne party, with the local skipper deliberately driving onto a reef off Noirmont Point. The captain and crew then escaped by taking the only lifeboat - and the Germans all perished.
A more likely version of the tale is that the Schokland was returning from Jersey to St Malo with 284 troops on board when it struck the reef due to a navigational error. The ship went down almost immediately and 178 of the passengers and crew survived.
A common outcome of both stories is that the captain was imprisoned in France and all German vessels in Channel Islands waters subsequently had to carry local pilots.
Visibility on the Guernsey wrecks had been a slightly bitty 8-10m. Off Jersey the visibility is a very grainy 5m or less.
As I make my way round the wreck I soon find solidified bags of cement in the holds, lending some support to the second version of the story, but if the ship was returning to St Malo, why wasnt the cement unloaded on Jersey
At the stern I find the now usual remains of a gun platform, the gun long since salvaged. Amidships I find the remains of a toilet just forward of the boilers, but miss out on the bath with a pair of jackboots in it spotted by some other divers.
The Maureen continues south towards St Malo in search of better visibility. We dive the wreck of a purpose-built German naval vessel thought to be the minesweeper M343.
The wreck lies in 30m, broken into two parts with the capsized bow section just out of sight of the upright stern section 10-15m away. Amidships, high-pressure boilers stand part-broken and exposed.
Small gun pintles litter the seabed at the sides of the ship. On the starboard side the remains of a light anti-aircraft gun and armoured shield lie just off the wreck. Nearby a small depth charge and spigot lie fallen from a mortar.
Towards the stern a larger gun pintle and trunnions lie across the hold, with the gun fallen to the seabed on the port side of the ship. Winches on deck and mine-sweeping drones indicate the mine-sweeping role.
It is at the stern that the identification of this wreck comes into doubt. The M343 most likely had twin propellers and a single rudder, but this wreck has twin propellers and twin rudders. This configuration was used on later hulls of the same class to improve the turning radius, and several examples are also recorded as being lost in the vicinity of the Channel Islands.
Closer to St Malo, we dive the remains of another armed trawler, the Hinrich Hey, from its designation of V210 a compatriot of the Dr Rudolf Warhendorff. The V210 was part of the escort for a convoy of five ships from Jersey to St Malo attacked by Canadian MTBs in the early hours of 4 July 1944.
It is a dive on which in some ways I wish I was not using a rebreather. Open-circuit bubbles would have been useful to clear the dense shoal of bib that clouds the wreck!
Through gaps in the fish, I estimate the visibility as a good 15m. As Mike and Penny Rowley, who run the Maureen, explain, this is typical of the visibility they have been getting throughout the Channel Islands prior to the storms of the previous week.
On the bow deck, an 88mm gun points slightly towards the surface, intact in its mount. A little further aft, pintles and ammunition for machine guns and rapid-firing anti-aircraft guns lie on the seabed, with a gun and its armoured shield among the debris.
Now heading back to Jersey, we dive the shallow and more broken remains of another trawler just a couple of miles out from St Helier.
A fair amount of structure remains, with bow fallen to port and stern fallen to starboard, winches, boiler and engine in-between. Although referred to as an armed trawler, there are no signs of armament, though one diver reports seeing what might have been a shell case.
Near the bow, an old 10 litre steel diving cylinder lies slowly rusting, minus its pillar valve. I use a rock to chip away at a thick coating of paint and barnacles to find a test date of 11/97. Not that old.
I am diving with Jane Maddocks, BSAC representative on the wreck-diving issue. I point out a toilet inside the bow, because she has earlier told me how amused the Receiver of Wreck was by the large number of toilets declared in the Wreck Amnesty. Jane points out a baby lobster hiding well back in the pipework.
Our final wreck dive in the Channel Islands is on the armed coaster Kronwyck, sunk by RAF aircraft in 1942 and now upside down in 32m. After the good visibility near St Malo and closer to Jersey on the trawler, here again we are diving in a grainy 5m.
The wreck lies completely upside-down and partly collapsed. At the bow I find sufficient intact structure to swim inside past a pile of anchor chain and the Kronwycks cargo of bricks.
The engine room is at the stern, twin engines hidden beneath an intact section of hull. Both propellers are in place, though the starboard propeller is missing a couple of blades.
Just a little forward, the boilers are exposed where the hull has broken across them. Bricks from the cargo are spilled all round.
Unusually for me, this trip is not only about wreck-diving. We also make a couple of good scenic dives at Longue Pierre and Les Vingt Clos, and enjoy sheer and overhanging walls with jewel anemones, cup corals, gorgonian fans and dead mens fingers.
I suffer my usual photographic frustration on such dives. I set up to take scenic photographs, then at Les Vingt Clos find a well-camouflaged nudibranch on a gorgonian. It is one of those days on which a simple Motormarine camera with wet changeable lenses would have been an advantage over my Subal housing. Never mind, perhaps I will be able to use a magnifying glass to pick the nudibranch out from a wide-angle shot of the entire rock.
Its starting to become an annual event for me. On the way back to Dartmouth we dive the Murree, the 18,000 ton Pakistani container ship that sank 22 miles south-east of Start Point in October 1989 (Wreck Tour 16, June 2000).
As would be expected mid-Channel, visibility is excellent, which is a good thing considering the growing quantity of monofilament net strung across the starboard side of the superstructure.
Following the traditional showmans adage give them a good show, but leave them wanting more, there are many more wrecks in the Channel Islands I didnt get to dive, both wartime and others. Ample scope for many weeks enjoyable diving.