|WHEN IT COMES TO FAMOUS DIVE SITES, the remains of the World War One German Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow has to top the British list, both nationally and internationally. There are enough battleships and deeper cruiser wrecks for a week of first dives, followed by second dives on the shallower cruisers, destroyers and blockships. |
But by looking for the sort of wrecks that make Scapa Flow such an exciting destination, what comparable possibilities present themselves in the southern part of Britain
BEFORE WW2 AND THE ASCENT of the aircraft-carrier, big-gun battleships formed the nucleus of the fleet.
They were created to steam in formation and slug it out against the enemys battleships. Their guns fired shells 12in in diameter and were protected by belts of armour up to 24in thick. Any less massive ship would be blown out of the water by a single hit.
Naval strategy was based on meeting and beating the opposing fleet in a frenzy of annihilation. Yet only one such decisive battle ever happened, during the Russo-Japanese war of
1904-1905, when the Japanese battle fleet ambushed the Russians in the Tsushima Strait.
Sunk off Folkestone in a collision with SMS Konig Willhelm in 1878, the German ironclad SMS Grosser Kurfürst was thought of as a battleship at the time, though armour and armament were more appropriate to a cruiser.
The construction of iron armour bolted onto a teak ship has survived to leave a wreck that is inverted and rising 10m from a 30m seabed.
Off the Dorset coast, the most intact and diveable battleship wreck is HMS Empress Of India, a Royal Sovereign class vessel of 14,150 tons (Wreck Tour 70, December 2004).
Commissioned in 1891 at the Navy yard in Pembroke Dock, Empress of India represents the generation of battleships that preceded the Dreadnought-era ships of the German fleet in Scapa Flow. She was obsolete by the time she was sunk as a gunnery target in Lyme Bay in 1913.
The wreck is upside-down, so although the hull rises to just past 30m, the best dive is close to the 46m seabed.
Here the casemates from the secondary guns are accessible, though the barbettes of the main guns are buried beneath the wreck.
Amidships, the hull has been blasted open to salvage the condensers from the pair of triple-expansion steam engines, providing an easy swim through the middle of the hull and routes to explore fore and aft.
At the stern, the propeller shafts and rudder are intact, but the propellers were removed before the sinking.
Two other once-diveable battleships in the area are now off limits. HMS Hood conflicts with the approaches to the Portland harbour fuel jetty, and HMS Formidable is a war grave.
While none of the Royal Sovereign class saw action, ships in the subsequent evolution to the Majestic class did.
HMS Majestic was torpedoed and sunk off the Dardanelles in 1915, and several of the successful Japanese battleships in the Tsushima Strait
were built in the UK as an export development of this class, including the flagship Mikasa.
Further down the coast in Mounts Bay, the 27,500 ton Dreadnought-era battleship HMS Warspite was blown aground off Prussia Cove while under tow to the breakers in 1947.
Too badly damaged to continue, she was re-floated and beached off St Michaels Mount. The wreck was scrapped; only scattered debris remains.
Our final battleship is another pre-Dreadnought evolution of the Sovereigns. The 14,272 ton HMS Montagu of the Duncan class ran aground in fog at the south-west of Lundy island in 1906.
The wreck was salvaged in-situ, with plenty of metal remaining at 5-15m, though the site is better known as a place to play with seals than for wreck exploration.
IN ADDITION TO SUPPORTING THE BATTLESHIPS, the cruisers role was to range over the high seas, often unsupported and far from home, capturing or sinking enemy merchant shipping, protecting friendly trade and generally waving the flag.
Cruisers would be optimised for range and speed, with big enough armament to out-gun any lesser-ranged ship, and fast enough to evade any ship that out-gunned it. Perhaps it is this operational role that has left us with so few cruiser wrecks in the South of England.
Nevertheless, one of the most popular wreck dives off Sussex is an armed merchant cruiser. These vessels were created by attaching guns and other military bits to the deck of a fast merchant ship, often a converted passenger liner or banana boat.
Before WW1 the 9505-ton Moldavia was a P&O passenger liner. Then, fitted with a battery of 8 x 6in guns, she entered service with the Royal Navy as HMS Moldavia.
The wreck lies on its port side in 50m, torpedoed by UB57 in 1918 while transporting US troops across the Atlantic. The stern rises to just past
30m and the bow is also partly intact. Amidships, the rest of the wreck is more collapsed.
Further east off Sussex, the remains of the 11,000-ton heavy cruiser HMS Ariadne lie in 20m off the Royal Sovereign shoal, torpedoed by UC65 in 1917 and dispersed over a quarter-mile area. The remains are sometimes dived as a drift.
Though built in 1898 as a heavy cruiser, by WW1 Ariadne was obsolete and had been converted to mine-laying. This meant a reduced crew, but 38 were still killed in the explosions.
A cruiser of similar vintage was HMS Hermes, converted into a seaplane-carrier just before WW1 and torpedoed off Calais by U27 in 1914.
The wreck lies partially inverted in 38m and permission to dive is required from the French authorities.
Getting into trimix territory, halfway between Poole and Cherbourg the German cruiser Nurnberg was used as a gunnery target in 1922, sinking in 62m. The Nurnberg was a Konigsberg-class cruiser, like the Karlsruhe in Scapa Flow.
WW1 SAW THE ROLE OF FREE-RANGING CRUISERS preying on merchant ships largely subsumed by the submarine, and it is in submarine wrecks that our southern alternative to Scapa excels.
In both wars German U-boats attacking shipping were in turn sunk by Allied anti-submarine escorts.
Outside wartime, submarines sank accidentally in training, or deliberately as sonar practice targets. Then, at the end of their operational life, a surprising number managed to slip their tows and sink on the way to the breakers.
Innes McCartney lists 121 sub wrecks in his book Lost Patrols - Submarine Wrecks Of The English Channel and more have been found since. Thats before we round Lands End and start counting subs in the Bristol Channel.
The Holland 5 was one of the Royal Navys first operational submarines. While under tow to the breakers in 1912 she sank in 35m off Beachy Head.
The identical Holland 1 is displayed at the submarine museum in Gosport, providing a rare opportunity to studya site before diving.
Holland 5 is in good condition and a protected archaeological site that can be dived by contacting the Nautical Archaeology Society.
Also in 1912, HM Submarine A3 sank in the Solent following a collision with HMS Hazard, was re-floated and used as a gunnery target off Lulworth. The wreck sits upright and intact in 38m.
Moving on to WW1, the German submarine UC65 is slightly deeper off the Sussex coast at 44m. Caught on the surface by HM Submarine C15, UC65 swerved to avoid the first torpedo and was hit by the second. Five crewmen survived.
UC-class boats were mine-layers, with distinctive vertical mine-laying tubes along the centreline of the forward part of the hull. After laying their 18 anti-ship mines they would stalk ships with their torpedo and gun armament. It was a torpedo from UC65 that sank the cruiser HMS Ariadne. C15 survived the war to be scrapped in 1922.
A mine barrage across the Straits of Dover and associated patrols managed to sink many U-boats in both wars. Off Folkestone, UB55 was sunk in 1918 after the aft ballast tanks were ruptured by a mine, and is upright in 35m with periscopes extended.
Many famous WW1 U-boats were lost, but others survived to be handed over to the Allies after the Armistice.
UB86, UC92, UB97, UB106, UB112 and UB128 were all stored at anchor in Falmouth bay, destined for use as gunnery targets. A winter storm in 1921 drove the derelict U-boats onto the rocks beneath Pendennis Point.
With much of their hulls standing clear of the water at low tide, the wrecks were scrapped to leave confused debris in the gullies just below the low-water mark. Nevertheless, this is a significant collection of easily shore-diveable
U-boats, shallow enough for beginners or even snorkellers to explore.In deeper water, UB130 sank off Beachy Head in Sussex while under tow to the breakers and lies broken in 38m.
One of our most dived submarine wrecks from between the wars is the aircraft-carrier M2, lost during a training accident in 1932 (Wreck Tour 5, July 1999). The M2 is intact and upright in 35m to the east side of Lyme Bay.
Nearby, at 51m off Portland Bill, the German U772 was a type VII-C U-boat sunk by Allied aircraft in 1944, hours after it had torpedoed a Liberty ship.
The torpedo broke this vessel, the Black Hawk, in two, the stern sinking only a few miles away and the bow being beached in Worbarrow Bay.
Further up the English Channel, U480 is another type VII-C U-boat that struck a mine off the Isle of Wight and is now upright and relatively intact in 58m.
A particularly nice type VII-C wreck is U1021, in 51m off north Cornwall between Newquay and Padstow.
In 1945, Allied code-breaking uncovered a plan for German subs to stalk the inshore channel. A deep minefield was laid as a trap, and U1021 was one of the U-boats caught.
Submarine wrecks are not only British and German. During WW2 the ex-US submarine S24 was operated by the Royal Navy under Lend-Lease as P555. With little point returning such an old submarine to the USA after the war, P555 was sunk as a sonar target in 45m west of Portland Bill.
Another sonar target is the British submarine Sidon which, like the A3, sank twice. The first time was in 1955 in Portland Harbour, following a fire in the torpedo-room. Then, in 1957, she was towed into Lyme Bay and sunk as a sonar target. Due to the controlled sinking, both P555 and Sidon are in remarkably good condition.
With such a concentration of submarine wrecks in Lyme Bay, some local dive centres and charter boats even run submarine theme weeks.
IN 1866, ROBERT WHITEHEAD developed the self-propelled torpedo to enable a small speedboat to damage or even sink a much larger ship. First torpedo-boats, then submarines, were equipped with this potent weapon.
To defend against these, a whole class of bigger, faster and better-armed small ship was created as the torpedo-boat destroyer, a term soon abbreviated to destroyer.
Destroyers developed into small general-purpose warships, scouting for and screening the battlefleet, hunting submarines and taking part in all sorts of small actions in which a bigger ship would be too vulnerable.
But destroyers were still too big and expensive to be built in the quantity needed to escort and protect convoys of merchant ships, hunt submarines and patrol the coastline. Many trawlers were armed with guns and depth charges and used in this role. Their big engines and towing capability also suited them to minesweeping.
In WW2, smaller warships that had been developed specifically for anti-submarine escort revived the old naval classifications of frigate and corvette.
For divers who enjoy smaller warships, the South offers plenty of choice. Used to patrol narrower parts of the English Channel, where larger warships would be too exposed, they were sunk in action against enemy destroyers, torpedo-boats, submarines, aircraft and mines.
Its hardly surprising that we have a concentration of small warship wrecks off the Kent coastline, with countless destroyers and trawlers, so I can name only a couple of fine examples.
The River-class destroyer HMS Blackwater was sunk in 1909 following a collision with the steamship Hero. The wreck is upright in 33m off Dungeness, reasonably intact except for collision damage to the stern.
In 1940 the destroyer HMS Brazen managed to shoot down three Stuka aircraft before bomb damage broke her back. She sank while under tow back to Dover. The wreck lies upright in 30m, banked sand dividing bow from stern.
Off West Sussex, the armed trawler HMS Northcoates (WT77, July 2005) is a great dive with main gun, machine-guns and mine-sweeping gear, at 29m on a low-water slack. Northcoates sank in 1944, foundering under tow.
Behind the Isle of Wight and slightly deeper at 34m, the wreck of the trawler HMS Warwick Deeping also has depth charges on board and the Y-gun for launching them (WT56, October 2003).
Another nice armed trawler wreck is HMS Arfon (WT88, June 2006), located in 35m off Lulworth. The gun has been salvaged and the wreck is more broken than the Northcoates or Warwick Deeping, but it does retain the original shape of a trawler.
Off Durlston Head in Dorset and near the Kyarra wreck, the French submarine-chaser Carantan is equivalent to a British corvette in size and role. In 1943 she foundered in heavy sea while escorting the submarine HMS Rorqual to Portsmouth, and lies partially broken in 29m, resting on its port side.
The bow gun has been salvaged, but depth charges, depth-charge launchers and the ASDIC dome remain.
Among the many wrecks of Lyme Bay is HMS Landrail, a 790-ton gunboat that would have been classed as a destroyer had the term been in common use when she was built in 1886.
She sank in 1906 under tow back to Portland, having been used as a target.
When I last dived the wreck in 1988 it was thought to be HMS Hazard, an 1894-vintage gunboat that was converted to a submarine tender for the Holland-class submarines in 1901. Hazard sank in the approaches to the eastern Solent in 1918 and is well-broken.
Another armed target, the tug HMS Buccaneer (WT58, December 2003) can also be found in Lyme Bay, in 46m.
She sank in 1946, ironically having been hit by gunfire intended for the target she was towing, and rests partially tilted to port. The highest point is the gun on the bow.
Also in Lyme Bay but slightly deeper, the WW2 destroyer HMS Boadicea was torpedoed by German aircraft in 1944. The resulting explosion broke off the bow and the wreck rests upright in 52m.
All these small warships were sunk in wartime but the final one is a frigate bigger than a WW1 destroyer. The Leander-class HMS Scylla (WT64, June 2004) was sunk as an artificial reef in 2004, a mile off the popular wreck of the Liberty ship James Eagan Layne (WT62, April 2004) in Whitsand Bay, on the Cornwall side of Plymouth.
Warship wrecks rarely found outside the English Channel are the plethora of landing ships and landing craft used in the Normandy landings.
These range from purpose-built craft to converted passenger vessels and ferries. With so many all along the south coast, well settle for a few highlights.
Off Selsey Bill, HMS Prince Leopold was a Belgian ferry previously damaged by a mine in 1940, then used as a bombing target and rebuilt as an infantry landing ship, finally being torpedoed in 1944. The wreck is canted slightly to port in 30m, and retains 12-pounder and anti-aircraft guns.
In Lyme Bay, LST507 and LST531 were purpose-built tank-landing ships, with decks and holds big enough to transport and land tens of trucks or tanks at once. In 1944 both were participating in Operation Tiger, a practice exercise for the D-Day landings that assaulted Slapton Sands.
In the dark, the exercise fleet was attacked by German E-boats and torpedoes sank both these LSTs, which came to rest within a couple of miles of each other in 50m. LST531 is intact and upside-down, while LST507 is also inverted and broken in two. With each ship carrying hundreds of troops, there was massive loss of life.
Tank Landing Craft 2454 is accessible as a shore dive from Chesil Beach in 12m. Much smaller than the LSTs, this is a simple powered barge with a bow ramp to land one tank at a time. The stern part follows the outline of the craft, with diesel engines and box sections rising 2m from the seabed.
Even smaller than the landing craft were amphibious DD tanks. This adaptation of a medium tank involved fitting a canvas skirt round the body for flotation, and two propellers to the rear.
For the D-Day landings Sherman tanks were converted, but an earlier method used British Valentines, several of which can be found in Poole Bay.
Another oddity from the landings are the Mulberry harbour units. These came in various standard shapes and sizes, built from concrete and steel and destined to be floated across the Channel and sunk off the landing beaches to form new harbours for supplying the forces ashore.
Quite a few failed to make it, becoming permanently sunk at their South Coast storage locations.
One of the largest A1-type concrete Mulberry units now rests in 10m, partly broken off Pagham in Sussex, having broken its back during an attempt to move it to shallower water.
There are no armaments, the wreck being a mixture of concrete and exposed ends of steel reinforcing rods.
Two more Mulberry units can be seen intact in Portland Harbour. Grounded in shallow water, the lower submerged parts are sometimes dived as a training site.
Many of the wrecks mentioned here are covered by the Military Remains Act. Where the lives of military personnel were lost, the wreck may be dived only in a way that does not interfere with it. Even where the wrecks may have been commercially salvaged in the past, divers must not take anything. On some warship wrecks diving is prohibited, and these are identified in the main text.
Just across the Channel off the towns and beaches of Normandy are a host of wrecks from the D-Day landings and their aftermath, many of them warships. Ranging from big landing ships to smaller landing craft, they include supporting destroyers and German U-boats that tried to disrupt the following supply operation.
IN WW2 the waters around the German-occupied Channel Islands saw a reversal of roles from the conflict at sea off England. Convoys carrying supplies and their escorting warships were constantly under attack from submarines, surface and air. Among the wrecks are German armed trawlers and minesweeper warships that had general-purpose roles equivalent to British frigates and corvettes.
DIVER Guides: Kent by Kendall McDonald, Sussex by Kendall McDonald, Wight & Hampshire by Martin Pritchard and Kendall McDonald, Dorset by John & Vicki Hinchcliffe, South Devon by Kendall McDonald, South Cornwall by Richard Larn.
Others: Lost Patrols - Submarine Wrecks of the English Channel by Innes McCartney. World War One Channel Wrecks by Neil Maw. South Coast Shipwrecks off East Dorset and Wight by Dave Wendes. The Shipwreck Guide to Dorset and Lyme Bay by Nigel Clarke. The D-Day Wrecks of Normandy by Mark James.
|Portholes inside the Empress of India |
|Open hatch at the top of the A3s conning tower. |
|the stern gun of HMS Moldavia is intact and pointing to the surface |
|seaplane launch rails on the M2, looking forward |
|small deck bollards broken from the bow of U1021 |
|Front of the conning tower of P555 |
|gun at the bow of the Northcoates |
|engine controls on the armed trawler Arfon |
|handwheels and brake levers for controlling the Buccaneers target winch |
|inside the wheelhouse of the Scylla |
|ASDIC housing on the Carantan |
|Inspecting the suspension of an upside- down Sherman tank on the LST Carbonelle, which lies off Normandy. |
|Take care not to get impaled on the steel reinforcing rods on the Mulberry harbour unit at Pagham in Sussex. |