Malta's tale of two sections
“I’LL DROP YOU OFF HERE so you can drift onto the shotline,” said Jay, our boatman, as he manoeuvred the RIB to a point where I could barely make out the marker buoy.
I know that I take some time to handle my camera kit for entering the water, but this is ridiculous, I thought.
As soon as I went over the side, however, I appreciated the logic, because I found myself hurtling towards the shotline. Thankfully, I just managed to grab the buoy before being swept away.
I should have known better, because Jay had warned us to expect strong currents, and he is never prone to exaggeration.
His warning, “Don’t be heroes, guys – just abort the dive if it’s too much” rang in my ears as I struggled with the buoy.
As I fumbled to take the cover off my dome-port, I had to let go of the shotline for just a second and immediately regretted it. I had a hard time finning as fast as I could to regain the line.
A back-tank, two side-mounted stage-tanks and an underwater camera rig create a considerable amount of drag, and I felt I was losing the battle. In the end, I had to grab the tank of Piero (my dive-buddy, who was hanging grimly onto the shotline) to crawl back to the line and begin our descent.
Despite instructions to avoid pulling on the rope, we ended up having to do the exact opposite and pull ourselves into the depths. The current just refused to let up, and eased only once we were well past the 45m mark.
My previous dives on the wreck of the bow section of HMS Southwold had never been this extreme but this area, some two miles north-east of Malta’s St Thomas Bay, is well known for its unpredictable strong currents.
This is definitely not your ordinary tourist wreck-site, and tackling it requires careful preparation and training. For experienced tec divers, however, this wreck is a gem, and a serious contender for my preferred tec dive in Malta.
HMS Southwold now lies on a sandy bottom. She sank in two parts, a reflection of her tragic end, which takes us back to World War Two, one of the darkest and most heroic chapters in Maltese history.
AT THE TIME THE ISLANDS were besieged by Axis forces, which completely surrounded them and were pounding the inhabitants with constant air raids from bases just 60 miles away in Sicily. This earned Malta its George Cross medal (henceforth proudly flown on the Maltese flag) and the unenviable label of being the most heavily bombed location during the war.
Of course, a prominent component of the Axis’s aim was to starve the islands into submission by sinking any attempts at resupply. But Malta’s strategic location commanding the central Mediterranean was vital to the Allies. Sorties from Malta were crucial in ending Rommel’s campaign in North Africa by cutting off his supply-lines from Italy.
Britain’s Admiralty spared no expense in ensuring that at least some ships would get through to keep Malta fighting. It was an ugly, brutal conflict that left many casualties on both sides.
HMS Southwold’s role in this scenario was that of a convoy escort in the most dangerous marine theatre of the war. She was a Type II Hunt-class destroyer commissioned in 1941 and designed primarily for anti-air and anti-submarine warfare. She was quite fast, capable of reaching 27 knots.
Her main weapons were three twin 4in gun turrets, a battery of four 2lb pom-pom guns, and two 20mm Oerlikon machine-guns. She also carried 110 depth-charges in three racks, and two depth-charge projectors.
On 21 March, 1942, Southwold joined the escorts of a four-ship convoy that attempted to resupply beleaguered Malta from Alexandria. This convoy was intercepted by the Italian fleet and forced to steer south into the Guff of Sirte.
The escorting cruisers and destroyers put up a brave defence, despite being heavily outgunned by the Italian fleet, which included the battleship Littorio.
The detour cost the convoy the cover of night in its approach to Malta. The British fast tanker/supply ship Breconshire was detached from the convoy and sent off towards Malta, escorted by the destroyers Southwold and Beaufort.
IN HEAVY SEAS, they came under intense air attacks that disabled Breconshire just off the coast of Malta and set her drifting onto defensive minefields.
Her precious fuel had to be saved, and Southwold tried to save the tanker from running onto the minefield by coming alongside. It was this manoeuvre that cost her dearly, because she struck a mine, killing one officer and four ratings.
An attempt was made to tow Southwold to the docks in Malta, but her structural integrity had been severely compromised and she broke in two. The bow section now lies 68m down, while the stern is slightly deeper at 72m. They are about 300m apart, so the two sections can’t be covered on a single dive.
Unlike wrecks scuttled to entertain tourist divers, these genuine wrecks tell poignant stories. A characteristic of both sections of the Southwold are the numerous empty 4in shell-cases that litter the decks of both sections.
I can’t help but picture the frantic activity that must have occurred shortly before the ship sank. Navy gunners must have been loading all these shells into the gun-turrets and desperately firing them at enemy aircraft as these swooped to unload their deadly cargo on the Breconshire.
IT’S IRONIC THAT, after all those attacks, it had to be a British mine that sank HMS Southwold. It must have struck just aft of the forecastle, by the funnel, because that’s where the tear occurred.
The ship looks as if it was eviscerated at that point, showing a tangle of pipes, girders, and torn metal-plates. All of these can be seen easily while approaching and touring the wreck, because of the visibility of Maltese waters.
Of course, all divers love to see the gun-turrets pointing skywards, the loaded depth-charge racks and the mine-launchers, but I also like to see aspects of ordinary life on board.
The ship’s galley still has shelves loaded with tinned food – probably bully beef! Other items include rusted cases, kitchen utensils and containers.
For divers who have a fixation on lavatory fittings, there is a rack of toilet bowls within the bow section and the odd urinal on the stern section. It never ceases to amaze me how some divers manage to locate a loose ship’s toilet bowl within a wreck and then proudly place it in a prominent position for all to enjoy. It reminds me of my cat bringing a dead mouse into the house and expecting praise for her achievement.
Some of my dive-buddies have distinct preferences as to which section they like to dive. I find both equally appealing, but may have a slight preference for the stern, as this is where most of the armaments are located.
Unlike the bow, the stern section stands proudly upright. A plank with the ship’s name has been placed right at the back of the poop deck. I have been told that some divers found this in the debris field, and it’s quite possible that it was part of a gangway allowing sailors to come ashore.
The name-plank straddles two depth-charge racks that still contain several pieces of ordnance – please fin with care!
Further along, the depth-charge projectors and the stern twin 4in gun-turret make an awesome sight, well worth the seemingly interminable deco stops at the end of the dive.
The X-deck (an elevated deck between stern and funnel) has lost its 4in gun-turret but the bearing mount is clearly visible. The turret is now on the sand just where the tear occurred, and the pom-pom gun is also located in this area.
Empty 4in shell-cases, pom-pom ammunition, bottles and a variety of other debris litter the site. Much of the decking has gone at this point to reveal a tangle of pipes, beams, machinery, cases and other material needed to operate a warship. A lot of this material has spilled onto the sandy bottom and it’s easy to visualise, at this point, how the ship was torn apart.
One can spend hours going through this site but, of course, time is extremely limited at this depth and every minute spent here has to be paid for by lengthy decompression times.
The bow section rests on its starboard side with an intact twin gun-turret. Parts of the forecastle have been badly damaged but it is possible to enter some areas.
A row of toilet-bowls can be seen on the upper port side of this section, found at 58m. Guess what, some enterprising diver found one of the urinals and placed it in a prominent position for others to enjoy!
THE PROW OF THE SHIP is still intact, and I love to shoot photos and video there. Of course, any attempts at penetration have to be undertaken carefully, as there are a lot of cables, wires and metal protrusions to snag an unwary diver. Even the outside of the wreck contains many potential snags, including lost fishing-gear.
On this particular dive to the bow section, I was keenly aware that we would have to battle the strong currents again as we ascended, so we had to be prudent with our bottom time. Piero and I checked the shot-line and started our ascent.
Sure enough, the current kicked in at about the 45m mark and became progressively stronger as we ascended.
Quite a few minutes later we were in the last 10 minutes of our decompression at 6m when I felt pressure building in my ears. The computer showed that I had gone down to 10m, so I pulled my way further up the line back to 6m.
A few seconds later, I discovered that I was back at 10m, though still holding onto the same section of the line. Imagine my concern as I looked up to see the 30-litre buoy on its way down while collapsing under the pressure.
The current was so strong that we had exerted enough drag to pull down the buoy! My normal practice is to be slightly negatively buoyant while decompressing to minimise the risk of shooting to the surface. This was clearly not working on this occasion, so we had to inflate our BCs to allow the buoy to return to the surface. I almost felt like a human helium balloon blowing in the wind!
After surfacing, Jay told us that he had been tracking our bubbles on his echo-sounder and saw that they were rising steadily until they reached 45m. Once there, they were swept away by the current to surface some 300m further down.
As we made our way back to St Thomas Bay on the RIB, I was wondering whether it had been wise to dive in such conditions. On this occasion we were tested, but we met the challenge and completed the dive. Next time, however, I think I may be more cautious and wait for better conditions.
Both sections of HMS Southwold are awesome wreck-sites and I feel privileged to be one of the few divers who has dived this wreck regularly. I need to stress that, while I am not sure whether any sailors were trapped in the wreckage, we still consider Southwold to be a war grave.
As such we do not lift any “souvenirs” or any other items of interest – just take photos and videos. Seventy-four years on, HMS Southwold still deserves our thanks and respect.