Sheer scale of a sleeping dreadnought
LEIGH BISHOP captured some fine images of the WW1 Dreadnought battleship HMS Audacious.
A hundred years after her loss, he has returned to the site of what he reckons is one of the greatest wreck dives on Earth
OF ALL THE NAVAL WEAPONS of World War One, perhaps the most diabolical was the sea-mine. Floating silent and invisible beneath the ocean surface these marine bombs, each carrying 160kg or more of high explosive, could rip open any vessel’s underside.
Laid in fields of 25-100, mines turned wide stretches of strategic sea-lane into hideous death traps.
On 27 October, 1914, the newly built 23,000-ton Dreadnought battleship HMS Audacious struck one such mine.
Her early loss triggered a wave of “mine-itis” panic among the British Grand Fleet staff. “It will be pure suicide taking the fleet out without sweeping, and I simply have nothing with which to sweep,” wrote Admiral Jellicoe.
One hundred years later on an overcast October day off Malin Head in north-west Ireland, I am doubting if I’ll succeed in capturing ambient-light images of this awesome battleship 65m below.
I have been here before with an old friend. Back in the mid-1990s we swam around these amazing wrecks off north-west Ireland like excited school-kids at the start of the summer holidays.
Because this was some of the best wreck-diving we had done in the British Isles, and perhaps remains so to this day.
One aspect then stood clear in my mind,. The brilliant light levels and clear waters suggested that this was no territory for strobe-assisted photography – it was ambient-light country, and crying out for big-time exposure shots.
Colour images add a spark in their own way but don’t emphasise a shipwreck’s true story, especially that of a victim of war such as Audacious, with mother guns and turrets the like of which you’ve never seen before!
I had read conflicting reports about the quality of the Audacious experience, and the only way to find out was to make the splash myself. Some divers turned their noses up: “Not interested in an upside-down wreck” was a frequent theme.
But one of the Irish lads who had originally investigated the wreck spoke highly of it, and I took him at his word. After all, the dives those guys were pulling off were way ahead of their time.
This is a large wreck with several key features spread over a great distance, so bringing a DPV is a good idea.
What those without scooters see on their dives will probably depend on where their skipper places his downline.
On one memorable dive on an overcast day I found myself amidships, which was a result because I intended to photograph the awesome 13.5in guns. The gun turrets are so big and the visibility was so good that I could see them on my way down the anchor-line only seconds after leaving the surface.
A few moments later, my tripod and camera were set up across a rocky seabed with those guns framed up nicely. All I had to do was wait for the odd diver to arrive inside the viewfinder, because a little scale is always handy.
Eduardo Pavia and friends had travelled from Italy to dive these great wrecks, but where were these pasta connoisseurs when I needed them?
It wasn't long before an intrigued quartet came into sight sniffing around the turret in the background, while my late friend Carl Spencer added scale to
the foreground. I started working overtime, and rightly so, because a few frames later they had all moved on to other parts of the wreck.
I later discovered that my 36 film exposures had captured some very moody images, and I was happy.
UNKNOWN TO THE GERMAN command the British Grand Fleet was using Loch Swilly in north-west Ireland as a base while the main base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands was having its feeble anti-submarine defences improved.
On 27 October, 1914, Vice-Admiral Warrender took the Second Battle Squadron, consisting of the “super-Dreadnoughts” Centurion (the flagship), Ajax, Audacious, King George V, Orion, Monarch and Thunderer, out of port on a gunnery exercise.
Two weeks earlier the German converted liner Berlin had been active in the area. Navigation problems stopped her reaching her target area, so she reverted to laying her 200 or so mines in the nearest shipping lane – which happened to be near Tory Island and the Grand Fleet’s secret base.
Just before 9am, Audacious turned onto a new course and struck a mine on her port side, just forward of the aft engine-room bulkhead. It was not clear what had happened, but as she stopped turning without righting correctly the order to close watertight doors was given.
As the flooding spread the central bulkhead, which had initially contained the flooding, began leaking.
Water was spreading into the central compartments, and by 10am the central engine-room was deep in water.
Fearing possible torpedo attacks on the other ships, Jellicoe ordered the fleet to evacuate the area, leaving the light cruiser HMS Liverpool and a number of small vessels to assist the damaged ship.
At 10.30am Titanic’s sister-ship the White Star Line’s ss Olympic was sighted and ordered to help evacuate the Audacious crew. By mid-day all but 250 essential crew had been taken off and arrangements made to try to tow the damaged battleship to safety.
HMS Fury succeeded in attaching a cable between Audacious and Olympic, and by 2pm encouraging progress was made westward and then south-south-east for home base.
By 5pm the quarterdeck of Audacious was awash and a decision was made to evacuate the remaining crew. With heavy weather and deteriorating conditions Audacious was abandoned altogether, and by 6.30pm all crew had been taken aboard Olympic and Liverpool.
This was fortunate, because at 9pm there was a massive explosion aboard Audacious in the vicinity of the forward magazines serving A and B turrets. In moments the great battleship had capsized and sunk stern-first.
TODAY AUDACIOUS lies with bow south-east and stern north-west 17 nautical miles north-east of Tory Island, a relatively short 13-mile steam from the nearby shelter of Lough Swilly.
The dictionary defines “audacious” as bold and daring, and seeing this monster for yourself it’s clear why the Admiralty used the name.
A magazine explosion has blown the engine-room wide open and it is here that the visiting diver can see huge Parsons steam-turbine engines and machinery of all kinds.
As you swim across the upturned top section of this wreck you can quickly become disorientated, if only by the immense devastation.
This isn’t a war grave but neither is it a site for souvenir-hunters, unless you plan to drive home with a 640kg projectile strapped to your roof-rack! Audacious should be treated as a site of historic interest.
The explosions left munitions and projectiles scattered all around the seabed as well as among the damaged wreckage.
OK, I’ve mentioned that the wreck is inverted, featureless in visible artefacts and heavily damaged at the shallow levels, so what makes me think that it’s a world-class wreck-dive?
It’s those distinguishable features that stick in the mind of anyone who visits. Everything here is on a massive scale; the shells themselves are quite a sight, not to mention the huge guns and stern section.
And visibility at this site is astounding – the clean seabed and clear Atlantic waters provide some of the best conditions I’ve seen anywhere.
Swim north-west and you eventually arrive at the stern. Rest on the seabed on the port side and take in the breathtaking view of the propellers still in situ. This section is intact, apart from the stern tail, which has broken off, perhaps under its own weight or as a result of seabed impact when the ship sank stern-first.
Have a look at the tail while you’re down there, with its unusual design and twin rudders still pointing towards the surface. Four props are attached to exposed shafts that can be followed along the keel.
Note that the starboard shafts appear extremely bent but the port props are in remarkable condition. Use the mid-day sun and high ambient light to silhouette these magnificent props against the wreck itself.
PIONEERING BLACK-AND-WHITE underwater time-exposure work on shipwrecks, I made an adapter that allowed me to fix my camera and housing to a heavy-duty tripod.
With long exposures and some serious depth of field I was able to bring some “big-time” images of Audacious home with me.
Two massive gun-turrets are visible forward of amidships, one to the side of the wreck with its barrels pointing at right angles to the hull, the other within visible distance more into the wreckage itself.
It’s the 35m-plus visibility here that sets the scene, with those twin 13.5in barrels resting upside-down across the seabed and the turrets shadowing them like houses in the background.
A short swim to a position facing down those barrels reveals a 4in gun again on the seabed. From here before reaching the already-visible bow section there is a small break. Twin anchors remain in their natural positions.
The bow tip has, like the stern, broken clean off and is sharp in design. There is also an immense pile of chain here, and mooring cleats twice the size of those on any other wreck I’ve seen.
THE SINKING OF AUDACIOUS became quite a controversial issue, and an embarrassment for the British.
Olympic disembarked the rescued Audacious crew at the nearby base and for security reasons was ordered to remain out of sight of the Grand Fleet, so that any passengers with pro-German sympathies would be unable to observe military activities.
In fact there were quite a few German-born Americans on board Olympic who witnessed the demise of Audacious, and it was clear that they could not be relied on to stay silent. It was not possible to arrest them as they were US citizens, but they could at least be detained for questioning.
The interrogations were naturally unrushed, but despite the Admiralty’s cover-up attempts, speculation into the sinking of Audacious would not die down.
The authorities had gone out of their way to assist in the deception, even to the extent of modifying the ss Mountclan to resemble their lost battleship, but the large number of witnesses made keeping the secret all but impossible.
It was difficult to persuade the neutral Olympic passengers to remain silent, but even some of the crew were less than discreet. Matters came to a head when the editor of the Daily Mail published a letter from a reader complaining that a masseur from the Olympic had openly boasted to his barber of seeing Audacious sink but been ordered to remain silent.
Anxious relatives of the Audacious crew may well have flooded the Admiralty with enquiries, but because none of the crew had been lost the Admiralty could reply with a degree of honesty that “according to the latest information, –––– is well and serving with the fleet”.
Captain Dampier of Audacious later assumed command of the battleship
HMS Superb while his crew were transferred to the newly commissioned battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth.
I HAVE RETURNED TO AUDACIOUS with pioneering technical diver Alan Wright, who discovered the site and is also an authority on wrecks off Malin Head.
I’m amazed by just how much there still is to see on a dive on the wreck.
A single descent will never be enough – a couple of visits during a single week’s diving is almost certainly required.
The site also sets the scene for a classic scooter ride, and on my most recent visit
I took my new lithium-powered Suex XJoy, which easily circumnavigated the wreck more times than I could have hoped for.
But Audacious is not a dive to take lightly. Atlantic swells and the 65m depth mean that only experienced divers should undertake a dive here, and preferably using trimix.
Qualified divers can dive Audacious as part of a liveaboard holiday along the north-west Irish coastline aboard Alan Wright’s charter-boat Salutay, www.salutay.com