THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA IS A SILENT witness to catastrophes that have taken place on its surface over past millennia. During the last World War it became yet again the theatre of bloody battles, not only on the water this time, or even under it, but also in the air.
Countries involved in the struggle experienced great successes and spectacular losses. Both the Allies and the Axis states lost thousands of planes. Some disappeared without trace, but with others we know pretty well where they hit the surface.
Although their final resting places are often inaccessible even to technical divers, because of the depth of the seabed, in the case of some of these aircraft we can look history in the face.
The Mediterranean hides several dozen more located wrecks, including huge B-17 Flying Fortresses, nimble Spitfire fighters, Hurricanes or German Junkers 88s, Heinkels and Focke-Wulfs. And there are many more warbirds waiting to be found.
This type of light RAF bomber was used by numerous squadrons stationed at the Maltese airfield of Luqa. Unfortunately, to date it has proved impossible to determine the history of this particular plane.
The wreck is located barely an hour's drive from Malta's Divewise dive centre. Calm, transparent water made it possible to see it clearly on the descent from 20m away, lying on the seabed in 39m.
From on high I was able to admire the huge wings with the enormous bulges that housed the Bristol Mercury radial engines. The right-hand engine was still crowned by a triple-blade propeller.
Directly beyond it was the control stick and the base of the pilot's seat, sticking out of the floor. Unfortunately, the remainder of the front fuselage section had been completely destroyed.
The middle part of the Blenheim was also missing, while the wing section (fin and tail-planes, together with the tail-wheel bogey) lay in front of the aircraft and facing it.
This had been the outcome of an unsuccessful attempt at raising this part of the aircraft several years back, one that led to its further destruction.
The relatively shallow location enabled me to circle the bomber's wings a couple of times and become familiar with its structure and construction. The last of my photographs were taken while I was already on the way back, allowing me to fit the entire silhouette of the plane into the frame.
Divewise Services, www.divewise.com.mt
The SM-79 was one of the most popular Italian Reggia Aeronautica bombers during WW2. Taking off from the Greek islands controlled by the Axis states, the aircraft raided the Red Sea and the eastern part of the Mediterranean.
This particular plane was probably shot down in 1941, although opinions vary. It lies off the town of Kas.
A very strong current made it a struggle to reach the correct side of the underwater rock on the slope of which, 61m down, the bomber wreck lies. But I did, and after a while the current ceased, allowing me to get my bearings.
Below me there materialised three engines, one on top of another, the third one slightly to the right. They were well-preserved, with beautifully contrasting propeller blades, rusted and covered with underwater growth.
Between them, elements of the aircraft construction were scattered on the seabed. Only some pipes, spars and bunches of electrical cable remained from the front part of the fuselage.
I passed the engines and hovered above this wreckage. Few elements could be discerned as aircraft components. Wooden wing spars were dilapidated after 60 years of salty immersion.
Further on, down along the slope, the situation was better, because the fuselage was made of metal. I couldn't see the tail section, though I am told it is well preserved. The tailfin lay at around 70m. I turned back towards the engines and, hanging above the wreck, cast a last glance at it as my bottom time ran out.
Kas Diving, Kas, Antalya, www.kas-diving.com
The Italian two-engined bomber designated MM21503, piloted by Tenant Catalano, took part in a morning raid on Toulon. Shot on its way back on 13 June, 1940, by a French Dewoitine D520, it landed on water near the town of San Stefano, on the Ligurian coast.
Only two of the five crewmen survived. The wreck was found in 2001 by Technical Diving Centre divers.
Because of the strong current, this diving was not easy. To reach the aircraft, which was lying at 47m, required a constant struggle against the rushing water, made no easier by the long arms to which the camera flashes were attached.
Things were not much better at the bottom, with visibility of around 12m leaving much to be desired. The wreck itself, however, looked splendid. It was lying flat on its belly, making observation easier.
The front section, with its two Fiat A80 RC41 1000hp engines and triple-blade propellers, still looked overwhelming, despite the passage of time. The body plating had been completely destroyed, however, to reveal the grating forming the bearing element of the aircraft.
This made it easy for me to glance into the cockpit and see, still located in the upper part of the fuselage, the 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT machine gun on its swivel mechanism. Below it, on the feeder, was the ammunition.
One last look at the plane, lying in the enveloping silence, and it was time to get back to the present day via a 40-minute decompression.
Nautilus Technical Diving Centre, Santo Stefano al Mare, Liguria, www.nautilustdc.com
The most famous German planes of WW2 appeared above this Greek island in 1941, and after being invaded Crete became the base for Luftwaffe fighter and bomber units until the end of the war.
The history of this particular fighter is not known. It lies east of Heraklion, and proved difficult to reach in the strong seas prevailing when we arrived. Even low waves prevented us from leaving the harbour, but finally the weather improved.
The plane, lying in 23m, was actually visible from the surface! Inverted, it retained almost the whole of its wings and the central part of the fuselage.
The huge Daimler-Benz 601 engine had separated from its casing and rested at an angle to the seabed. The propeller lay some 3m further away, its bent blades still attached to the hub.
The cockpit was so deep in the sand that it was impossible to approach it from either wing. I was distracted by finding a big grouper residing under the left wing.
Swimming over the fuselage, we were able to peek into the chassis hatches, which still contained the wheels, drawn in after take-off, and relatively well-preserved tyres.
The plane lies on a sandy patch, surrounded by underwater meadows of tall grass. It is in this grass, some 15m further on at a depth of 30m, that the tail part of the Messerschmitt, separated from the fuselage, can be found.
With so much light reaching the wreck we were able to scrutinise the plane's components in detail, which made the dive especially exciting.
Divers Club, Heraklion, Crete, www.diversclub-crete.gr
This heavy fighter of RAF 272 Squadron crashed into the sea straight after taking off from Ta' Quali airport on 17 March, 1943.
Pilot Sgt Donald Frazee radioed in to report engine trouble and, after alighting on the water, he and his navigator, Sgt Sandery were collected by local fishermen.
Thirty-eight metres down and before my eyes lay Frazee's Beaufighter. It seemed to be coming out of a mist, gaining shape moment by moment, as I approached it from the rear.
The remains of the tail boom, separated from the fuselage right behind the wings, lay some 2m from the main section of the Beaufighter.
The fuselage, turned at 180?, looked to be in very good condition for having spent more than 60 years in sea water.
Torn flaps and ailerons made it possible to look at the wing construction and the internal connectors and pulleys. The left engine (now on the right side of the plane) had no covers, but I could see only a couple of cylinders, topped by the propeller hub and one propeller blade, sticking out vertically.
Undercarriage legs that extended from both engine nacelles retained the remnants of wheels and tyres. The right engine had lost its propeller completely. The bottom of the fuselage, with the nose torn off, showed the mouldings of four fin nozzles.
One last look, and it was time to go back.
Divewise Services, www.divewise.com.mt
Boeing B17 Flying Fortress bomber (Calvi) in 23m
Heinkel He111 bomber (Cap Martin) in 60m
Junkers Ju88 fighter-bomber (Marseille) in 56m
Messerschmitt Me109 fighter (Marseille) in 45m
Republic P47 Thunderbolt fighter (Bastia) in 40m
Arado Ar196 floatplane (Capraia Island) in 44m
De Havilland Mosquito fighter-bomber
(Tyrrhenian coast) in 30m
Handley Page Halifax bomber (Liguria) in 80m
Hawker Hurricane fighter (Sicily) in 27m
Junkers Ju52 bomber (Sicily) in 45m
Macci Mc200 Saetta fighter (Sicily) in 60m
Reggiane Re2001 Falco fighter (Sardinia) in 36m
Boeing B17 Flying Fortress bomber (Vis) in 73m
Bristol Beaufighter fighter (Naxos) in 34m