Gigantic discovery off Sardinia
25 JULY 1943: Both the Allied and the Axis powers are at full stretch to see through operations against their enemies, to maintain supplies to their frontline units and gain aerial supremacy in order to better control strategic areas.
During this torrid summer, after a prolonged and difficult meeting, the head of the Fascist government finally voted against Mussolini, and Il Duce was arrested a few hours later. Many Italians rejoiced that day, in the belief that “Mussolini’s War” would end shortly.
The collapse of Fascism was a deep political and social change that would indeed lead to military defeat by 8 September, although the Italian people’s suffering would not end there.
Diving the wreck of a huge German warplane, a Messerschmitt Me323 Gigant, reminded us of this significant episode of the war, because the crash occurred the following day.
It’s amazing how sunken ships, submarines or planes can stir so many emotions through reminders of those who lost their lives at the site.
Late on that Monday morning of 26 July, as many Italians were celebrating the perceived end of the war, in La Maddalena and Caprera Islands off the Italian island of Sardinia only a few radio-owning families would have been abreast of the momentous news.
The wind was unusually calm. Suddenly, the loud noise of aircraft engines broke the silence.
People assumed that it was a bombing operation, because the local naval base had frequently been targeted of late, and they looked for cover.
The few eyewitnesses would later report that, rather than a bombing operation, what they were hearing was an overhead battle between long-range British fighters and two big German cargo planes and their escort, en route from Sardinia to Pistoia in Italy.
THE SIX-ENGINED Messerschmitt Me323 Gigant was the biggest cargo plane used in WW2.
Twenty-eight metres long, with an impressive 55m wingspan, it could carry 15 tons of supplies, up to 130 troops and even light vehicles. It was flown by a crew of five.
The two Gigants desperately attempted to escape the assault, but their low speed and poor manoeuvrability gave them little chance against the eight twin-engined Beaufighters from 144 Air Squadron.
However, historical accounts are not clear about exactly how the encounter ended. Hitler’s air-crews did their best to deploy their machine-guns against the British, and someone later reported that a Beaufighter had crashed. This was not confirmed in official reports, although it does seem that only seven of the RAF aircraft found their way home.
Who knows, perhaps one of them sustained only limited damage in the battle that later worsened, or there was a mistake in the documentation.
What we do know is that both Gigants crashed, but in different ways.
The first attempted a forced landing on La Maddalena, into an area named Mongiardino close to a farmer’s house.
After a tremendous impact the plane burst into flames, and despite rescue attempts by local people, many of the German troops aboard died. Others, injured in the crash, were treated at the local hospital. Some of the fallen were later buried in La Maddalena cemetery.
The second Gigant hit the sea a few miles east of Caprera Island, although the pilots had been attempting an emergency landing as close as possible to the shore.
The impact was hard but not devastating – as we would discover when we saw the wreck some 70 years later.
Maddalena’s National State Park is a marine protected area is well-known to scuba divers. It offers many dive sites in crystal-clear water with generous quantities of marine life, and generally good weather and temperature conditions, especially in summer.
The only disturbance comes from the Mistral, intermittent in summer but a regular buddy in winter, when divers need to find spots sheltered from the north-west wind.
Unfortunately, the Gigant site is not one of those diving spots. Well out to sea, it is very exposed. There is also a strong probability of currents, sometimes quite strong, and the wreck lies on an undulating seabed between 62 and 65m deep.
On the plus side, fishermen’s nets are not a problem and visibility is good, but this is a technical dive reserved for experienced divers used to descent/ ascent and deco stops in currents.
THE PLANE RESTS on a clear sandy bottom, surrounded by small rocks and reefs. The upper part of the wreck reaches up to about 58m and so is well-exposed to the nutrients carried by the currents. This is therefore the best-populated section, with its colourful sponges, soft corals and more.
The aircraft gives the impression of having landed on that clear bottom, because it’s in such good shape, with its impressive wings intact. The tail rudders are still recognisable, as are the two hatches in the fuselage.
But what really amazed us was the condition of those big French-made Gnome-Rhone 1150hp engines. Only one is folded down, with its propeller buried in the sand, but all the others remain in place, one with its original chassis-cover for the 14-piston engine.
We were using closed-circuit rebreathers to explore and record the wreck site, allowing us bottom times sometimes longer than 40 minutes, but we still had to dive several times to obtain good stills and moving images of all the various parts of this big wreck.
Every dive enabled us to locate or recognise some new detail, such as the cockpit with its instruments and controls, or the big wheels – one of them still clear of the sand.
UNFORTUNATELY, AS WITH MANY OTHER WRECKS of this era, wooden parts and fabric covers have disintegrated, and many loose objects have probably been hidden in the sand forever, including the machine-guns with which the crew tried to defend themselves.
But close to the cockpit we saw a gas-mask, a couple of fire extinguishers, a metal fuel-can, a big compressed gas cylinder and other small objects.
Some big scorpionfish and ling-cod had made their homes in these metal parts, and were happy to appear as actors in our film.
All of our dives and exploration, and the pictures we took, were carried out without removing any artefacts, and with due respect for those who lost their lives fighting for their country.
The 25 and 26 of July 1943 were important days of World War Two, and this aircraft wreck in Sardinian waters is a living monument to those times.
Gabriele and Stefano dived with Scuba Point Palau, www.scubapoint.info