THE BATTLE OF JUTLAND was the biggest naval confrontation of World War One. In the space of two days, 14 British and 11 German warships were sunk, and although the British sustained the greatest losses it was the German High Seas Fleet that was effectively incapacitated.
Undertaking a diving expedition to this isolated place was a real venture.
Two years ago I booked a trip with a team from England to dive the wrecks of Jutland, but we had to cancel at the last moment because we hadn’t secured the correct permits to go so far out to sea with passengers.
This year we got a second chance. A diving team from Ghent in Belgium was fully prepared for a trip and looking for more divers to cover the cost of hiring a suitable boat.
The intention was to take a total of 30 divers. The 60m Cdt Fourcault, owned and skippered by Pim de Rhoodes from the Netherlands and with her home port Antwerp, was chosen as our expedition vessel. I had been to Scapa Flow on this boat in 2006 and knew that she met all our requirements. She was equipped not only with a recompression chamber but with a helicopter for emergencies.
A seaworthy ship with a good crew is vital when you’re venturing as far as 90 miles from the nearest port.
The date for the expedition was fixed as 22-29 August. About 14 days before departure a hurricane was blowing along the shore of the USA and influencing weather in the North Sea all the way to Denmark. High winds alternated with storms, and we were naturally concerned.
On Thursday, 21 August we travelled to Denmark, where the Cdt Fourcault was waiting at a fishing port called Thyboron.With high winds continuing we were forced to spend two more days in the harbour.
On Sunday evening a break in the weather was forecast, and Captain Pim decided to take the risk of sailing out to the distant wrecks.
We would try to dive those located to the south first, because the weather forecast was a little better there, and only after that think about the deeper wrecks in the north.
After a restless night we started our preparations to dive the British cruiser HMSBlack Prince. When she had caught fire under heavy bombardment her ammunition store had exploded, causing her to sink immediately.
THE BLACK PRINCE lay at a depth of 47m, and after the weeks of bad weather the visibility on the wreck was about 5m, but we enjoyed a beautiful dive and experienced no problems.
After our decompression we were able to use the fast auxiliary motorboat to return to the Fourcault and board easily using the diver-lift.
Our second wreck of the day was the German light cruiser Elbing. I had it on good authority that this wreck was almost intact. It was a quite big, with a length of 140m and tonnage of 4320.
On the descent it was apparent that visibility was a little better and that the wreck was in better condition than the Black Prince, with many objects lying untouched all around it.
All over the site we could see portholes, as well as china and glassware. Big cod swam around the wreck, something we rarely see on wrecks off the Belgian coast. After about 45 minutes I started the long decompression.
The weather was a lot better, and the forecast for the rest of the week was good, too. The aim for the next day was another German light cruiser, the Frauenlob, built in 1902, 110m long and 2700 tons.
During the battle Frauenlob was taken under fire by the British flagship HMSSouthampton under the command of Commodore Goodenough, and almost immediately hit by a torpedo.
Her engine-room seriously damaged, the ship submerged so quickly that not one of the 320 crew survived.
We descended the buoyline, and at the bottom my computer indicated a depth of 48m. Visibility was about 5m and the water was still milky. Taking pictures, it was easy to lose sight of my buddy.
As on the other wrecks there were a lot of portholes, and I could distinguish the different parts of the steam engine. I saw
a thick plate that had clearly been hit by three shells, bending the steel inwards dramatically at the points of impact.
WHEN I MOVED UPWARDS, fellow-diver Erik Billiau swam alongside me, and a few moments later was shaking his light violently. He signalled in the direction of an object in a gap between the plates.
I own some antique diving helmets, so I immediately recognized the object as a copper Siebe Gorman. The temptation to bring this special object to the surface was great but these are protected war graves and naturally have to be treated with great respect, so we left the helmet where it was.
It was however noteworthy that the helmet should be an example of English workmanship found on a German wreck. Of course, it’s possible that this wreck is not the Frauenlob but an English cruiser, – I have no idea why the name Frauenlob came to be linked to this wreck.
That same day, we dived the Lutzow. At 26,000 tons and more than 200m long, this was the biggest wreck on our list.
I will always remember the big cannon lying in the wreckage – it was difficult to estimate, but I think it must have been about 15m with a bore of 1m at its widest.
The following day we dived another giant, HMS Queen Mary – almost as big as the Lutzow and lying upside-down, as so many of the big battleships do because of the weight of their big cannon.
It was obvious that a lot of salvage work had been carried out on this vessel.
With a calm sea and the sun radiant, we could now move on to the more northerly locations. The first wreck in our sights was HMS Indefatigable, a British battle-cruiser of about 19,000 tons, and we found it in ruins.
The salvors had done their worst, but it was amazing for us to have visibility of more than 10m here, with such an enormous wreck field to cover.
ON THE PENULTIMATE DAY of the trip we were excited at the prospect of diving HMS Defence. On my descent I could already see the wreck below me from 20m away – conditions were ideal, with a calm sea and a lot of sunlight.
From a distance I could make out two powerful engines still standing up, and further on some Yarrow boilers. The cannon were also still upright, an unforgettable sight.
We came to the bow, with the anchor-windlass and chain. Everywhere we found portholes, and in the bottom of the bore of one of the cannon we could make out shells ready for firing.
At 170m long, this beautiful wreck was rather large to cover adequately, and time soon went by. HMS Defence was the second dive of the day and for me was the high point of a week of fantastic wreck-diving. I can hardly wait to go back.