WORLD WAR ONE was conducted on an industrial scale and wrought many changes in the way warfare was conducted, including the war at sea. Such a huge proportion of our popular wreck-sites originate from those four years of conflict.
Here we round up the last five months of 1914 and the first five months of conflict from a wreck diver’s point of view, with a mixture of better- and lesser-known wrecks in our home waters and worldwide.
HMS Amphion – first Royal Navy loss
As soon as Britain declared war on Germany, on 4 August, 1914, the passenger ship converted to minelayer SMS Konigin Luise left Emden to lay a minefield off the Thames Estuary.
HMS Amphion was one of a flotilla of Royal Navy light cruisers and destroyers to intercept and sink the Konigin Luise, but only after the German ship had laid that minefield and was on her way home.
Returning to port on 6 August, at 6.45am HMS Amphion struck first one and then a second mine and sank.
The wreck of this warship is designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, so while divers are permitted to visit we are not allowed to interfere with it in any way.
A few years ago I was on a trip based in Lowestoft with Dave Ronnan, skipper of Dive 125. The trip was blown out, but Dave and co-skipper Sylvia then got a dive in on HMS Amphion while moving the boat back to Eastbourne.
“We had the only decent visibility of the trip,” says Dave. “The bow and stern are broken off. The centre section is upright and intact with the starboard row of guns visible and no surrounding turrets left. The port side was under a sand wave.”
Asking further afield, Stephan Panis says: “It’s about 45 miles out from Belgium. Last year the wreck deteriorated through trawling.”
City of Winchester – first shipping victim
Earlier that day and a quarter of the way round the world off Oman, the German cruiser SMS Königsberg captured and then scuttled the 6601-ton steamship City of Winchester, making her the first ship sunk in the Great War.
Steve Dover wrote about a 1997 expedition to dive the wreck in divEr in 1999. After buying the wreck for £1, and describing the difficulty of organising and running the expedition, he wrote of his first dive: “From the huge prop, we glided above the shaft tunnel over the collapsed decking and rails crumpled about the hull.
“We passed over the crew’s quarters, towards the great shadow of the triple-expansion engines amidships. Hard corals bedecked the twisted remains, and the huge engine-block was festooned with iridescent soft corals swaying in the breeze of the fish and our fin-strokes.
“From the top of the engine we flew down over the crumpled bridge, between the three boilers and condenser.”
These days the wreck is on the itinerary of liveaboards from Oman. At a depth of 28m in tropical water, the City is within the reach of most divers.
The Königsberg continued to raid merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean until, on 20 September, 1914, her last victim was the light cruiser HMS Pegasus, caught at anchor off Zanzibar.
The Königsberg subsequently suffered an engine problem. Prevented by the British blockade from returning to port in Dar-es-Salaam, the cruiser hid in the Rufiji river delta.
The Royal Navy blockaded the delta channels for almost a year until two shallow-draught river gunboats were brought in to sink the Königsberg.
At the bottom of the river, the wreck remained in German-held territory. The crew managed to salvage many of the guns and built improvised field carriages, serving as artillery with the German East African army until 1918.
There is nothing of the Königsberg left for divers, but the story inspired author Wilbur Smith’s novel Shout at the Devil.
SMS Emden – Cocos Keeling
At the other side of the Indian Ocean, the German cruiser SMS Emden was one of the most successful raiders, sinking 31 ships in the first few months of the war. That run ended on 9 November when she was cornered at Cocos Keeling by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney.
The Emden had sent a party ashore at Direction Island to destroy the wireless station. HMAS Sydney was escorting a troop convoy nearby. With bigger and longer-range guns, the Sydney pounded the Emden until the captain was forced to beach the ship at Pulu Keeling and surrender.
Nigel Holder, owner of the Old Harbour Dive Centre in Weymouth, spent a few seasons working at the dive centre on Cocos. “It’s a national park and the dive centre needs to apply for a licence for each visit. It’s over the horizon from the dive centre across open ocean and out of radio range, so for safety they will only go with a minimum of three boats. Every trip is an expedition.”
Photographer Pete Atkinson tells me: “Over two expeditions I spent a total of 13 weeks on Cocos and only got to the Emden twice.
You can’t plan a two-week holiday in CK and be sure of getting up to Pulu Keeling.
“The wreck’s shallow, broken up and a lot has been salvaged, so you’re just looking for things that are recognisable, like the props and shaft struts and guns. It’s interesting, but not a really good dive. It’s shallow and exposed, so even on a calm day there is surge.”
HMS Pathfinder – first torpedo victim
While most nations involved at the start of the war had submarines, their use in combat was completely untested. For Germany, the first month of the war had been discouraging, with U15 becoming the first U-boat casualty, rammed and sunk by HMS Birmingham off Fair Isle.
That all changed on 5 September, when U21 easily torpedoed the light cruiser HMS Pathfinder in the Firth of Forth, within sight of land. Following a magazine explosion that tore off the bow, HMS Pathfinder sank in four minutes, leaving only nine survivors.
Afraid of the public losing confidence in the supreme power of the Royal Navy, the government forbade any publication about the disaster. This action proved futile, because The Scotsman had already published an account and the writer Aldous Huxley was an eyewitness from St Abbs.
I have written about HMS Pathfinder for divEr several times, most recently in April. Standing upright at 56m to the main deck and 63m to the seabed, it’s one of my favourite dives in that part of the country.
Scapa Flow-based wreck researcher Kevin Heath tells me that the wreck of U15 has yet to be dived.
HMS Hogue, Aboukir & Cressy
Later that month, on 22 September, the Royal Navy light cruisers HMS Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy were torpedoed and sunk in the southern North Sea by U9.
At 6.45am the U-boat fired a single torpedo at HMS Aboukir, striking the port side amidships. As the Aboukir began to sink, it was at first thought she had struck a mine, and the other two cruisers were ordered in to assist. Realisation that it had been a torpedo came too late, and from 300 yards U9 fired a pair of torpedoes to claim a second victim.
At this stage U9 briefly broke the surface – firing torpedoes leads to a sudden change in buoyancy.
The U-boat used another pair of torpedoes to cripple the Cressy and another to finish her off.
“The three wrecks are close together, so it can be hard to tell which wreck you are diving in advance,” says Dutch wreck photographer Vic Verinden. “They’re about 25 miles out from Ijmuiden by charter-boat.
“I dived the Aboukir. It lies upside-down in 30m and was heavily salvaged in the 1950s and ’60s, so is well-broken. There is still a lot of ammunition on the seabed. Visibility can be very good.”
Dave Ronnan has dived all three:
“We dived them from Taurus when Steve Howland owned it. It was a three- or four-day trip based out of Sheveningen,
a nice marina and very helpful local divers who assisted with fills. All three are very similar and very broken up in 30m.
“There is loads of ammunition and cordite cases,” says Dave.
German and Turkish warships fall to British subs
To dispel the impression that the submarine war was one-sided, on 13 September the British submarine E9 had torpedoed and sunk the German light cruiser SMS Hela off Heligoland.
A few weeks on, E9 torpedoed and sank the German destroyer S116.
Two months later, on 13 December, Royal Navy submarine B11 navigated the currents and minefields of the Dardanelles to torpedo and sink the Turkish battleship Mesudiye.
Commanding officer Lieutenant N D Holbrook was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross.
Diving film-maker Savas Karakas informs me that the Mesudiye turned turtle in shallow water, the masts and upper works digging into the seabed. Welders from Istanbul cut into the upturned hull to rescue all but 34 of the trapped crew.
“After the war, the wreck was heavily salvaged and scrapped,” says Savas. “Only her ribs and a few shells can be seen littering the seabed.
“It’s an easy dive at just 14m, but rather than a shipwreck it is a junkyard.”
“During my dive I was always thinking of the men trapped inside the hull, and those who were saved later became the first anti-submarine watchmen. They had learnt what Allied submarines could do by living it.”
Author of the Dardanelles wreck guide Selcuk Kolay advises that dive centres in Canakkale have permits to dive the wreck if you want to take a look.
ss Glitra – first merchant U-boat victim
While we all think of the carnage U-boats wreaked among merchant shipping through both world wars, it’s surprising how few merchant ships fell victim to U-boats in 1914. The first was not sunk until 20 October.
The 866-ton ss Glitra was carrying a cargo of coal from Grangemouth to Stavanger in Norway. Approaching the Norwegian coast, U17 surfaced and ordered the ship to halt.
Sailors from U17 boarded the Glitra, ordered the crew to abandon ship and scuttled it some 14 miles out from Skuesnes.
Unlike the unrestricted operations later in the war, at this time U-boats operated in strict accordance with prize rules when attacking merchant ships.
The sea off the Norwegian coast is a few hundred metres deep, so the Glitra is not a wreck for divers.
Baron Gautsch – the first liner
During 1914 considerably more ships fell victim to mines than U-boats, and mines are indiscriminate.
On the afternoon of 13 August, an early victim was the 2069-ton Austrian liner Baron Gautsch, making the short return journey from Cattaro and Losinj along the Croatian coast to Trieste. The passengers were a mixture of holidaymakers returning home and refugees.
The captain was sleeping in his cabin and the bridge watch had been handed to the second officer so that the first officer could take afternoon tea with the First Class passengers when the Baron Gautsch entered a newly laid Austrian minefield.
The minelayer Basilisk tried unsuccessfully to give warning.
The ship struck a mine and sank, taking many of the passengers with her as burning fuel oil prevented them from escaping.
The wreck now rises to 28m from a 40m seabed and is reported by Croatian divers to be the finest in the north of the Adriatic.
The wreck site is protected, and diving is restricted to a few licensed dive centres.
HMS Audacious – RN loses a capital ship
With a U-boat threat to the fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow now apparent, on 18 October the fleet was moved to Lough Swilly in Ireland.
On 27 October the 2nd Battle Squadron left Lough Swilly on a gunnery exercise off Donegal. At 8.45am the 23,000-ton King George V-class battleship HMS Audacious struck a mine, the explosion occurring beneath the port engine-room.
After counter-flooding to reduce the list, attempts were made by the White Star liner ss Olympic to take the ship under tow, but under the weight of the flooded battleship the line parted. At 9pm the Audacious rolled over and sank with an explosion tearing out the keel, possibly from shells falling in a magazine.
As with HMS Pathfinder, the Admiralty tried to cover up the loss of Audacious, going so far as to keep the ship on the order of battle – a somewhat ridiculous prospect, as American passengers on board the Olympic were even taking photographs of the sinking ship.
The loss was only officially announced on 14 November, 1918, after the war had ended.
“We boarded mv Salutay in Stranraer before steaming across to Malin,” says Justin Owen. “My primary dive light failed on the descent, but the water was so clear I could see by the ambient light and take in the scale of the wreck.
“The hull is upturned. Watching my buddy swim between the rudders and props was an awesome sight. On our ascent, a 3m porbeagle shark stayed with us for a few minutes.”
Blockships for Scapa Flow
To protect the anchorage at Scapa Flow from submarines sneaking in, the Admiralty sank blockships across some of the channels.
First was ss Aorangi in Holm Sound on 4 September, followed later that month by the ss Urmstone Grange, Doyle and then the Gobernador Bories in Burra Sound, to form the core of the blockships that have become a regular dive for visiting divers.
I have always been amazed by the excellent visibility found when diving the blockships of Burra Sound. Despite being conveniently shallow, the short or non-existent slack water and screaming currents mean that these are not dives for beginners or the faint-hearted.
On my last trip to Orkney I was introduced to the eastern blockships, made obsolete by the Churchill barriers of WW2. These wrecks are even shallower but not subject to current, making them suitable for absolute beginners.
From the north end of barrier 2 you can cover seven ships in one long dive. Only two, the 1589-ton Teeswood and 1185-ton Argyle, were scuttled in 1914, the remaining five having been added at the start of WW2.
U18 – the first U-boat into the Flow
Approaching the Pentland Firth at night, U18 was guided by the Pentland Skerries lighthouse. Waiting for daylight and with batteries fully charged, on 22 November the U-boat navigated through Hoxa Sound into Scapa Flow to find the anchorage empty.
Exiting the flow again through Hoxa Sound, U18’s periscope was spotted and the U-boat rammed by the minesweeping trawler Dorothy Gray.
While badly damaged and with little control of depth, U18 continued her escape, alternating between striking the seabed and breaching the surface.
Next to ram the U-boat was the destroyer HMS Garry. U18 surrendered, the crew abandoning ship and scuttling their boat in the Pentland Firth.
I asked Kevin Heath about the wreck and he tells me that while he has not dived it himself, U18 lies at 70m in a trough between sand waves and is a difficult dive to plan because of the fierce tides of the Pentland Firth.
The wreck is reported to be remarkably intact, standing upright with the deck-plating rotted through and a large gouge at the stern where the ramming took place.
On 23 November U16 also entered Scapa Flow to find the fleet absent but, unlike U18, managed to escape undetected.
HMS Hood – the Portland blockship
The first all-metal constructed battleship to bear the name HMS Hood was a modified variant of the 1889 order of Royal Sovereign-class battleships.
While the other seven ships mounted their guns in barbettes, Hood was fitted with heavier turrets and had a lower freeboard. This in turn reduced seaworthiness, and led to her serving mostly in the Mediterranean.
By the early 1900s Hood was so obsolete that she was placed in reserve and then used as a receiving ship, moored at Queenstown in Ireland. In 1911 Hood was towed to Portsmouth and modified with “secret” underwater bulges to be tested as a means of torpedo protection.
On 4 November, 1914, Hood was scuttled across the southern channel to Portland Harbour.
As an easily accessible battleship in only 16m, the wreck of the Hood became a very popular dive-site from Weymouth and Portland.
I enjoyed diving the wreck numerous times up until the privatised Portland Harbour banned diving to clear the approaches for a new fuelling jetty.
HMS HERMES – the first aircraft-carrier
With the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the WW2 aircraft-carrier HMS Hermes has gained popularity among wreck-divers. Less well-known is that she was the second aircraft-carrier to carry that name.
The first HMS Hermes was built as a protected cruiser in 1898. In 1913 the forward turret was removed and a platform added to launch seaplanes. Aircraft could take off from the deck, then land alongside the vessel to be winched back on board.
After successful trials through 1913 the ship was paid off in December 1913, but recommissioned at the end of August 1914.
On 31 October HMS Hermes was returning from delivering a load of seaplanes to Dunkirk when she was torpedoed by U27.
Again I approached Dave Ronnan, as he is a diver who knows this side of the country.
“It’s very tidal and you’re meant to call Gris Nez traffic when diving, but on my trip we had no reply from them,” he told me.
“The wreck’s upside-down in 30m. You can see some of the guns, but I never found
“I think we’ll be visiting again some time, as divers who have visited the second HMS Hermes in Sri Lanka are wanting to complete the set,” says Dave.
|THE WORLD AT WAR|
Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip.
Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia. Russia mobilises.
EVENTS AT SEA
HMS Amphion sunk by a German mine.
Steamship City of Winchester captured and scuttled off Oman by German cruiser SMS Königsberg
U15 becomes the first U-boat casualty, rammed and sunk by HMS Birmingham off Fair Isle. The Admiralty becomes aware of the risk U-boats pose to the fleet in Scapa Flow.
Austrian liner Baron Gautsch runs into a newly laid Austro-Hungarian minefield while returning to Trieste.
17 August - 7 September
British and Japanese forces capture Tsingtao in China, Vice-Admiral Graf Spee’s base for the German East-Asia squadron.
The German squadron is at sea and sets about raiding across the Pacific.
Royal Navy cruisers and destroyers ambush German cruisers and destroyers in the Heligoland Bight. Three German light cruisers and one destroyer are sunk for light damage to British ships. As a consequence, the German fleet is held safely in port.
SS Aorangi sunk in Holm Sound as the first of many blockships at Scapa Flow.
In the Firth of Forth HMS Pathfinder becomes the first warship to be sunk by a submarine launched torpedo, fired by U21.
RMS Oceanic, commissioned as the armed merchant cruiser HMS Oceanic, runs aground off Foula, Shetland Islands.
German light cruiser SMS Hela torpedoed by British submarine E9 off Heligoland.
German cruiser SMS Königsberg sinks the British light cruiser HMS Pegasus in Zanzibar harbour. The Königsberg subsequently suffers an engine failure and hides in the Rufiji river delta, to be blockaded by British cruisers.
Royal Navy light cruisers HMS Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy torpedoed and sunk in the southern North Sea by U9.
SS Urmstone Grange becomes the first blockship in Burra Sound, soon to be followed by the Doyle and then the Gobernador Bories.
THE WORLD AT WAR
Germany declares war on Russia.
Germany declares war on France.
Germany invades Belgium on the way to France. Britain protests against German intrusion on Belgian neutrality and declares war on Germany.
President Woodrow Wilson declares US neutrality.
Ottoman Empire closes the Dardanelles.
Austria-Hungary declares war on Russia.
Serbia declares war on Germany.
Field-Marshal Kitchener becomes Secretary of State for War.
British Expeditionary Force begins deployment in France.
Russia invades East Prussia.
Japan declares war on Germany.
Royal Flying Corps win the first air conflict by forcing down a German reconnaissance aircraft.
Russian army heavily defeated by Germany at Tannenberg.
5 - 10 September
German advance is halted by the first Battle of the Marne. Trench warfare has begun on the Western front.13,000 British, 250,000 French and 250,000 German casualties.
EVENTS AT SEA
Japan occupies Yap, formerly a German colony.
U-boats sighted near Scapa Flow.
Grand Fleet dispersed from Scapa Flow to the Western Isles.
ss Glitra becomes the first merchant vessel sunk by U-boat, captured and scuttled off Stavanger by U17 in accordance with prize rules.
King George V class battleship HMS Audacious sinks after striking a mine off Donegal.
Hospital ship Rohilla wrecked off Whitby.
Seaplane carrier HMS Hermes torpedoed and sunk off Dunkirk by U27.
Vice-Admiral Graf Spee’s squadron sinks the Royal Navy cruisers HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth at Coronel, Chile.
Naval blockade of Germany begins.
A German raid on Yarmouth is ineffective. The armoured cruiser SMS Yorck strikes a
mine and sinks while returning to port.
Obsolete battleship HMS Hood scuttled to block the south channel into Portland Harbour.
Australian cruiser Sydney sinks the German cruiser Emden at Cocos in the Indian Ocean.
HMS Niger torpedoed and sunk by U12 off Deal.
U18 enters Scapa Flow to discover the fleet is away.
On exiting the flow U18 is subsequently rammed and sunk in Pentland Firth.
U16 enters Scapa Flow and escapes.
Battleship HMS Bulwark destroyed by magazine explosion at Sheerness.
THE WORLD AT WAR
14 October - 22 November
First battle of Ypres. Trenches are now established from the coast to the Swiss border.
Ottoman Empire enters the war.
Britain and France formally declare war on the Ottoman Empire.
British forces occupy Basra, securing the oil supply for the Royal Navy.
EVENTS AT SEA
Battle of the Falkland Islands. Vice-Admiral Graf Spee is lured into a trap by a fake telegram ordering him to attack the British base. Royal Navy battle- cruisers sink the German squadron. Only SMS Dresden and an auxiliary escape. Graf Spee is killed.
British submarine B11 navigates the Dardanelles to torpedo and sink the Turkish battleship Messudiye. Commanding officer Lieutenant N D Holbrook is subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross.
German battle-cruisers and cruisers shell Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, killing 137 civilians. Despite Royal Navy attempts to intercept, the German ships return home.
THE WORLD AT WAR
Zeppelins sighted off English coast.
German aircraft raid Dover, bombs drop in the sea.
Combat on the Western front suspended by an unofficial Christmas truce.