THE BALTIC SEA IS SHOWING ITSELF AT ITS BEST for a day in May. Its flat and glittering blue. Under water it also looks good. We are coming down in very clear water, with at least 20m visibility. But theres no mistaking it for the Red Sea - its cold, so cold my heated underwear in the drysuit is a blessing.
We are using nitrox. The shotline has missed our target and we end up on the flat bottom, 40m deep. My compass and intuition takes me in a certain direction and then I see the bow of a big ship. The sun penetrates all the way down and we can view the whole thing. Its a magnificent scene.
Approaching along the bottom, the bow looks enormous as it rises above us. The two big anchors are still in place, draped in trawl-nets. We swim over the rail on to the foredeck. It is very clean and in amazingly good condition.
The teak deck is intact. For some reason, algae is growing only on the caulking between the teak ribs, creating a beautiful pattern. Two huge anchor winches are standing on the deck.
A scene like this could probably be witnessed only in the Baltic. The proximity to the main trading route between eastern and western Europe; the relatively shallow depth in open sea; the fact that because of darkness, cold, low oxygen levels and lack of woodworm, wrecks are extremely well preserved - all this makes the island of Oland, at the south-east corner of Sweden, one of the most interesting marine archaeological sites in the world.
With the excavation of the Kronan, a 17th century man-of-war, came the realisation that the conditions for diving in deep water in the open sea outside Oland are excellent. Visibility deeper down is often like tropical waters, though the light can be poor because of plankton at the surface.
In shallow, coastal waters the wrecks get eroded by currents and storms. Soon only a heap of timber or a clean steel hull remains. But deeper down, the wrecks are intact. And I mean intact, up to the funnel. In many you can swim into the captains cabin and sit down at his desk.
THE FIRST SPECTACULAR FIND WAS MADE IN 1982. These were vessels that were the victims in the E-19 massacre.
A group of divers got a tip from a fisherman about a big object on the seafloor 10 nautical miles south of Oland. It was the wreck of the German steamer ss Nicomedia. Research into its history revealed a fascinating forgotten story from World War One.
The English submarine HMS E-19, under the command of Lt-Cdr Francis Cromie, was the last of five subs to slip through the small strait of Oresund and enter the Baltic Sea in September 1915. Its task was to disturb the iron ore traffic through the Baltic that was vital to the German war effort.
Cromie had a bad time in the south Baltic on 10 October. He attacked the German steamer Lulea, but not one of four torpedoes had worked, and one had changed course and missed E-19 by only 15m. He had had to write off the action - but the next day he would make up for it.
Lying south of Oland at 8.30am on 11 October, Cromie sighted ss Walter Leonard, a 1261 ton freighter carrying iron ore and pulp to Germany. After identifying her as German, Cromie politely asked the crew to man the lifeboats, requested a passing Swedish ship to pick them up and at 11.15 sank Walter Leonard with explosives.
Another ship, ss Germania, spotted Walter Leonard going down and tried to flee, but ran aground on the coast. The crew abandoned her and E-19 went up alongside.
For an hour they looted Germania and, after placing theirexplosives, went out to sea again. It was now 1pm.
IMMEDIATELY CROMIE SIGHTED A NEW TARGET, ss Gutrune, an impressive combined cargo and passenger steamer of 3039 tons, heading for Germany with iron ore. E-19 intercepted her, and once again the crew were asked to leave their vessel, to be picked up by a passing Swedish ship. Gutrune was sunk by opening the bottom valves. Only an hour had passed.
While checking the nationality of another ship that turned out to be Swedish, E-19 sighted a fourth German ship, the 1683 ton ss Director Reppenhagen, laden with iron ore. The by-now familiar procedure of evacuating the crew before opening the valves was repeated. Time: 3pm.
Just before dark, Cromie sighted his final victim, ss Nicomedia, a steamer of 4391 tons.
The same procedure was repeated but only after the boarding crew had been invited to share a glass of beer, and a barrel of beer had been sent to the rest of E-19s crew! All to no avail - Nicomedia suffered the same fate as the other four vessels. The crew managed to reach shore in their lifeboats.
The beer story doesnt end there. When diver Stefan Fransson found cases of the beer on Nicomedia, he found that it was still drinkable! The idea arose to extract the yeast organisms and brew the same beer again. It was a success, and the special Wreckbeer can now be bought in Sweden.
SO THE ENGLISH SUBMARINE E-19 had managed to destroy five German ships in one day, without using torpedoes and without anyone getting hurt! The sinkings made the front pages in the local papers. But because they were all foreign vessels in international waters, they were never put in any registers in Sweden and not noticed by wreck-searchers.
The wrecks were forgotten until 1982, when divers Torleif Nilsson and Sten Lindgren were tipped off by a fisherman about a big object on the seafloor south of Oland. They found a wreck and a bell with the name Nicomedia. That name gave up the story.
Their research also gave the approximate positions of the other wrecks. With more help from fishermen they were able to locate all four, with Director Reppenhagen and Walter Leonard found on the same day.
The wrecks are first-class dive sites and attract divers from all over Sweden. Leaving Oland, you can reach Nicomedia in an hour.
Built in 1901, 4391 tons and 117m long, its deck is at 25m, making it the shallowest of the wrecks. The hull is completely intact, and a visit to the engine room is a must. It has a complete workshop with lots of tools and a nice engine telegraph on the wall. May it continue to rest in peace!
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL AND ROMANTIC OF THE WRECKS is Gutrune, 97m long. When visibility is 20m, as it often is in May and June and sometimes even in July, when the pictures here were taken, it is heaven for the wreck photographer. It all depends on the time and the extent of the plankton bloom, which in turn depends on light and water temperature.
The midships building is only a shell, though standing upright. The sunrays passing through it create a beautiful light show.
On Director Reppenhagen, 80m long and lying in 35m, the most remarkable sight is Captain Spiegels cabin. All the wood is in good shape, with intact panels and furniture. Until last year there was even a nice intact porcelain stove, though this has, sadly, now collapsed.
Walter Leonard is more eroded than the other wrecks but the stern is beautifully intact, with the big spare steering wheel nicely draped in algae. It is the only wheel remaining on the four wrecks.
The bloodless massacre off Oland marked the end of Cromies luck in the Baltic. E-19 and the other British submarines continued to operate from Russian bases in the Baltic, but without any more big victories. The E-19 was scuttled outside Helsinki in April 1918 to avoid it falling into German hands.
Francis Cromie ended his days as marine attaché in Petrograd. He was shot on 31 August 1918 when Bolsheviks attacked the English embassy.