Kicking off in the Shetland Islands, on 2 January the steamship Gwladmena was sunk at anchor in a collision with the Fora. The only enemy involved was darkness and crowding of the anchorage.
Crowding in the Shetland Islands? The natural anchorage south of Lerwick was an assembly point for convoys, for which the old, slow Gwladmena was carrying a cargo of coal.
The water here is non-tidal and typically clear, making the wreck a joy to dive. An interesting anomaly is the top part of the engine, now upside-down and in front of the boilers, perhaps dragged there by another ship’s anchor.
The bottom half of the engine remains in the usual place. The propeller-shaft tunnel still retains some of its wooden covering. At the stern the gun is just off the starboard side.
Beware of crumbly white chunks of phosphorus. Even a smudge on your gloves will spontaneously ignite when exposed to air.
Even further away from our home waters, a trip that really inspired me was to Aland, the chain of islands in the Baltic between Sweden and Finland.
Finland had been a Duchy within the Russian Empire since 1809, gaining independence in 1917, though in turmoil with civil conflict through 1918. Sweden could best be described as neutral with Germanic sympathies.
The telegraph on the Hindenburg.
On 9 March, 1918, the ice-breaker Hindenburg was leading a convoy of German merchant ships home from Sweden, laden with much-needed supplies. Despite Russia being out of the war, a Russian mine frozen in the ice brought the convoy to a halt as it exploded beneath the bow of the Hindenburg.
The ice-strengthened hull prevented more damage than many ships would have sustained. All but three of the crew stepped off onto the ice and walked to the next ship in the convoy.
At 43m in nearly fresh water with low oxygen and close to freezing, the wreck has barely decayed. As well as shiny features like the steam whistle, I was amazed by little details such as the intact wooden plate-racks in the galley.
Operated by the London and South Western railway, the passenger ferry South Western ran a regular service to the Channel Islands. On the night of 16 March, off the back of the Isle of Wight, the South Western was torpedoed by UB59.
Firebox on the South Western.
At the time I dived the South Western, it was an unknown. One of the divers found a teaspoon bearing the railway-line crest that unequivocally identified the wreck as the South Western and un-identified a wreck previously thought to be this small steamship.
If you have travelled to the Scilly Isles on the Scillonian, you will have some idea of the layout – holds forward, passenger cabin aft, bridge between the two.
Having previously been an unknown, there is a lot still to find on this wreck. For example, the mount for the 13-pounder stern gun is still there, but not the gun.
It could easily be in the sand nearby.
For ships not in an escorted convoy, steaming close in to shore was one measure used to avoid U-boats, but that strategy failed to save the 3073-ton Baygitano.
On 18 March a single torpedo from UC77 created a popular wreck just to the west of Lyme Regis.
Considering that it is only 18m deep on a spring tide and about as close as the South Coast gets to my home in Bristol, I don’t know why it was getting on for a decade into my diving career before I dived the Baygitano. Everyone else had dived it. Many have made their first open-water dives on it.
The wreck lies spread across the tide and, like most wrecks in the area, is a fish-magnet. For a wreck that’s so well broken, there is quite a lot to see.
Typically good visibility, shallow water and a grid of hull ribs makes navigation easy, apart from where the aft holds sometimes disappear beneath shifting sands.
The role of escorting convoys was often fulfilled by armed trawlers. On 13 May HMT Balfour was escorting a small convoy across the Channel to Dieppe.
A tale of errors and heroism began when the steamship Nidd ran over a U-boat. The submarine surfaced astern of the Nidd, and the Balfour turned hard to port to join the action, in the process crossing the Nidd’s bow and becoming impaled.
The Balfour’s crew climbed across to the Nidd, with one quick-thinking seaman taking the time to disarm racks of depth-charges first. If left armed they would have blown the bottom out of the Nidd as the Balfour sank.
The Nidd’s gunners had meanwhile opened fire on the U-boat, since identified as UB74, and claimed a hit.
A near-miss seems more likely, because UB74 was sunk 13 days later off Portland.
The next-to-aft starboard gun of the Moldavia remains in place, pointing to the surface.
Steaming in convoy, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Moldavia was torpedoed by UB57 on 20 May. The wreck now rests in 50m off Sussex.
As a P&O liner converted to a cruiser, the wreck provides almost everything divers love: big propulsion machinery, cabins with portholes, bathrooms with all their fittings, and no fewer than eight 6in guns.
For me, the Moldavia was the ultimate Wreck Tour project, involving locating all the guns and filling in all sorts of tiny details. A few years ago the Editor asked me to write about my top three dives, and I had no hesitation in picking one of those on the Moldavia.
Just six days after torpedoing the Moldavia, UB57 put a torpedo into another P&O liner, the Kyarra, which was serving as a hospital ship.
With shuttle boats operating from Swanage, charters from Poole and easy launching for RIBs, the Kyarra is for many the go-to dive. Regulars have their favourite spots in which to forage and photographers have their favourite spots for taking pictures.
There have been times in my diving career when a buddy and I have jumped in a car and had a weekend of four dives on the Kyarra, with dregs on Swanage pier in-between. For me it is an ideal wreck for conger eels, lobsters and swirling shoals of bib. As the tide picks up these striped relatives of cod move tighter inside the wreck, providing a fish soup through which to swim.
Boat-derrick on the Kyarra.
At half the tonnage and two-thirds of the length of the Moldavia, and shallower at 30m, the Kyarra is a wreck that can be covered bow-to-stern in one dive without rushing.
The deadly UB57 lasted only two months more. On 13 August her last victim was the City of Brisbane off Sussex. A day later, UB57 struck a mine on the way back to Zeebrugge.
Shelling of St Kilda
On 31 May, U90 entered Village Bay on St Kilda and fired 72 shells to destroy the Royal Navy signal station and associated stores building. The shelling was selective, causing no damage to any of the islanders’ homes. Only one sheep was killed.
U90’s Captain, Walter Remy, must have had a liking for the Scottish islands, because another of his exploits was to regularly stop off at North Rona for fresh supplies of mutton.
The British response was to install a 4in gun overlooking the bay, but the gun was never fired in anger. It is still there, and has become one of the shore attractions for visiting divers.
Berwind and Lake Portage
On 3 August the Berwind was the first of two ships torpedoed by UB88 off the west of Brittany. The Lake Portage soon followed.
The two wrecks are only a few miles apart, and I was fortunate to dive them on successive days in perfect conditions, with flat sea and stunning visibility.
Like many wrecks exposed to the west, both ships are now skeletons on the seabed, the Berwind at 40m and the Lake Portage 10m deeper.
As the Berwind is the larger of the two wrecks, that works out quite well. Both are typical four-hold steamships. The Berwind has a gun at the bow and the Lake Portage was unarmed.
In among all the U-boat activity, the usual shipping accidents continued.
On 10 August in a typical summer sea fog off east Devon, the 1439-ton Bretagne was sunk in a collision with the barque Renee Marthe.
The wreck is upright and intact on a 30m seabed. Beneath the stern, the iron propeller remains in place. On the starboard side of the bow, the remains of a small cabin cover an anemone-encrusted toilet.
For those looking for a warmer summer than that in our home waters, also on 10 August the French liner and troopship Polynesien was torpedoed by UC22 to the east of Malta.
Broken plates in the galley area of Le Polynesien.
The wreck is at the shallower end of trimix territory at 65m to the seabed. The upper parts are just within air range, but I wouldn’t risk it.
A current typically sweeps across the wreck from the west as water flows past Malta into the eastern basin of the Mediterranean. The hull and railings of the ship are encrusted with sponges and provide plenty of colour for photographs.
Amidships to the port side are piles of crockery from the dining-room. Then, a little forward, is one of the most beautiful rows of urinals you could ever dive.