|For once the English Channel was friendly. Bright June sunshine forced ambient light deep into the tranquil water below. As I swam peacefully alone along the huge wreck, my eyes quickly adjusted to the dark emerald-green water. Using the spotting lights within each sub-strobe, I carefully chose photographic subjects that would best describe the condition of this once-proud ship. |
Warships are difficult to photograph. Their machinery and features can seem dull compared with, say, liners. But I was soon confronted by a twin 4.5in gun turret, still within its mounting as if ready for action. The barrels pointed west towards the sand/gravel seabed, behind coarse and fine elevation wheels that once accurately manoeuvred them into position.
Considering the circumstances of her loss, the wreck remains in remarkable condition, making navigation simple. HMS Charybdis lies on its port side across the tide, its bow at the far northern end of the site.
My dive was comparatively long for a depth of 83m, but while 30 minutes soon passed I managed to cover the distance aft of the bridge to the stern and back. I hoped to have 36 exposures showing the battle-cruisers spotting lights, structural sections, ready ammunition and those guns.
My job was to bring back the first images of the tragic Charybdis, lost in World War Two off the northern French coast. This was one of 14 dives I made with the Charybdis 2001 team this summer.
HMS Charybdis packed a lot of action into her short life. Cruisers, heirs to the frigates of Nelsons day, were expected to operate independently or with a fleet as required. The Royal Navy had 57 cruisers in 1939, but their number was reduced to only 26 by the end of the war.
Charybdis was a Dido-class cruiser, one of a series of 11 built during the 1930s and commissioned in 1941. After working in Scapa Flow, she covered mine-laying operations in the northern approaches before heading for the Mediterranean in spring 1942.
She took part in Operation Harpoon, a convoy run to Malta, and Operation Pedestal which, after three days of intense fighting against German and Italian forces, saw only three of 14 merchant ships through to Malta, but with supplies that would help to save the island.
Then came Operation Tunnel. This was activated from Plymouth on 23 October, 1943, when intelligence indicated that the Germans were running an important convoy along the French coast. It brought together a mixed bag of six destroyers, with Charybdis as command ship. None of them had worked together before.
The Germans had an excellent radar chain along the coast, good liaison between their ships and a strong force of Elbing-class destroyers to protect the convoy. These would draw any attacking force away while the convoy withdrew to the heavily protected coastline. At close quarters the destroyers would fire a salvo of torpedoes before withdrawing at high speed.
The British force, a rigid column three cables apart, swept westward along the likely route of the convoy before heading back north, but the ships were being tracked by German shore-based radar.
Charybdis picked up vessels on its radar some seven miles ahead, but it was not equipped to detect German radio communications. Meanwhile British Hunt-class destroyer HMS Limbourne had its radar masked on ahead bearings by Charybdis, but picked up German radio transmissionsindicating that at least six naval units were close by.
These two vital pieces of information were not exchanged, so Charybdis knew that the enemy was present but not its numbers, while the other vessels knew that six enemy destroyers were close by, but not where.
At 1.38am the German Elbing T23 sighted Charybdis a few miles north of the Sept Isles off northerm Brittany. Charybdis had picked it up and was swinging to port but was hit by a full salvo of six enemy torpedoes. As the British destroyers came into sight, they too were fired on, with Limbourne being struck before yet another torpedo tore into the Charybdis.
The German force proceeded east, leaving the British in confusion. Both the senior officers ships were sinking and incommunicado, and the rest were charging round at high speed. The first torpedo had struck Charybdis on her port side, flooding a boiler room and resulting in a 20 list to port.
The second struck aft, wiping out electrical power and taking the list to some 50.
Charybdis took an angle by the stern until almost vertical, staying like that for about half an hour before the bulkheads gave way. She sank at 2.30am. Only 107 of the crew could be rescued - 460 lives were lost, the biggest single Channel loss of the war.
The torpedo that had struck Limbournes forward magazine had destroyed the forward section of the ship, though she would remain afloat as long as the bulkhead held. It was later decided to sink her, to keep her out of German hands.
With 40 of Limbournes complement dead, the action had cost 500 lives in all. A well-drilled enemy force had reduced a superior British task force to equality in minutes and made its convoy safe, without firing a gun or taking any losses.
This is an abbreviated version of the tragedy - the British had made so many errors, both ashore and afloat, that the incident was to be used at the Royal Navy tactical school for years to come to illustrate what not to do.
Keith Morris, a pioneering mixed-gas diver, led the Charybdis 2001 team, which also included Andy Heatherton, Tim Bach, Toby Herbert, Roy Smith and Ian Taylor. Each member had some special task, whether photography as in my case or location, gas logistics or communicating with the French authorities.
Keith had employed renowned wreck-hunter Graham Knott with his vessel Wey Chieftan II to locate and fix a line onto Charybdis. The vessel displaced 7500 tons, so seemed an easier prospect to find than some of the U-boats that lie with the tide but which Graham has located in the past.
We were not the first to dive the Charybdis. In 1993 two divers, Michel Cloatre and Joel Guizien, had descended on it using air. The Frenchmen had recovered a large empty artillery casing from near one of the turrets to identify the wreck, which had been located by their friend Alain Launay.
More recently, Jersey-based wreck researcher John Ovenden had produced a side-scan impression, which gave Graham Knott a smaller box in which to search. Ours would be the first team to investigate the wreck thoroughly and determine its true condition.
Over the past decade technical divers have revealed many stories and images of maritime tragedy that would otherwise have been lost forever. But with political pressures over diving such sites in mind, we were well aware of the need to tread lightly over this Mount Everest of war graves. Keith Morris had been in touch with the Charybdis & Limbourne Survivors Association, members of which return each year to Guernsey to pay their respects to colleagues lost.
Some of their shipmates were washed ashore in France and some in Jersey. Neil Wood was radar operator aboard HMS Limbourne on the fateful day and is the associations secretary. He had become a friend of ours, and he and the other survivors were looking forward to seeing the first images of the lost ship in 58 years.
We arrived at the site with the late-afternoon slack already over. Ian Taylor and I were to explore the forward section of the wreck, and decided to run a less intense bottom time, cutting it back to 25 minutes on the wreck which, after decompression time, would see us out of the water by sunset.
One of the wonderful aspects of technical diving is how decompression theory has developed. At one time all tech divers signed up to the same unproven tables; now we do our own thing, and were using a wide range of custom-designed tables to suit our personal physiological requirements.
The bow of Charybdis remained very much intact, but a short distance aft on the starboard side of the hull, significant damage appeared. As we dropped off the tip of the bow to seabed level and swam along the wreck, we could see numerous portholes, all with heavy-duty deadlights securely fixed shut.
We were then confronted by the forward twin gun turrets, both intact. A little aft of midships, where Charybdis had broken its back, the two sections lay at an acute angle to each other. The bridge section, lying on its side across the seabed, was the most impressive, with its solid reinforced construction.
Large portholes had fallen free and inside all manner of instruments, electrical fittings and cables were visible.
Ready ammunition appeared in bulk lots with little or no marine growth on it, a striking reminder of Charybdiss anti-aircraft capabilities.
The area of unknown damage aft near the bow on the starboard side was only a few metres past the housed anchor. It covered some 15-18m and made for confusing navigation among the twisted wreckage.
At first I believed this could be where at least one of two torpedoes struck, but Neil Wood and fellow-survivors reckon both torpedoes struck aft of boiler-room B on the port side, an area out of sight for divers.
So with the starboard hull intact elsewhere, what could have caused this mysterious damage in the forward section
Ian Taylor and I felt we were opening a can of worms. Ian raised the possibility of some unrecorded salvage attempt, or that the bulkheads and framework below this area had perhaps become weakened, causing the sections above to collapse over the years.
Or perhaps, if two torpedoes struck the after port side, another had struck to starboard in the confusion The only remaining theory was that depth-charging during the last years of the war was responsible for the damage.
It was a hot topic of conversation at the associations subsequent annual get-together, and is something that requires further investigation.
As our short but successful stay in the Sept Isles came to a close, we agreed that Charybdis was one of the finest examples of a warship in waters reachable from Britain that we would ever see.
The following day we made the 80-mile journey back to Weymouth before the weather turned for the worse. Next summer, with the backing of the survivors association, we intend to complete the picture by searching for and imaging the Limbourne.
|A diver examines an elevating wheel fixed to a 4.5in gun |
|a porthole lies in the damaged area forward of the bridge |
|a loudspeaker fixed behind the turret of one of the guns, once used to deliver gunnery orders |
|one of the Charybdis portholes in the starboard bow area of damage |
|shell cases stored ready for action on the aft quarter turret |
|Expedition diver Toby Herbert uses the stern elevation lift to come aboard Wey Chieftan II |
|compressed air tanks once used to start generators |
|this huge spotlight has fallen free of its gantry and lies on the seabed on the port side, close to the aft mast |
|the Charybdis 2001 team |
|A diver investigates deep inside the damaged forward starboard hull of HMS Charybdis |
|the guns are pointing out towards the seabed on the port side |
|the stern mast runs out over the seabed behind the aft funnel. The ladder running aloft is clearly visible |