Wreck Tour 120: HMS Moldavia

Wreck Tour 120 HMS Moldavia
Wreck Tour 120 HMS Moldavia

Believe it or not, it's Wreck Tour's 10th birthday! That's 120 tours and the recent book, with movies, interactive video games and Wreck Tour On Ice to follow (only kidding). Celebrating in style this month is the original team – JOHN LIDDIARD explores a famed Channel liner, while MAX ELLIS shows us what this huge wreck would look like in perfect vis

HMS MOLDAVIA WAS A 9505-TON P&O LINER converted to an armed merchant cruiser for World War One. Back when he was diving, it was one of wreck guru Kendall McDonald's favourites, and Kendall has been asking me ever since we started Wreck Tour when a Moldavia tour would appear.

HMS Moldavia
HMS Moldavia

But the Moldavia is a big and complex wreck. The odd dives I made on it over the years had convinced me of one thing; there was no way I could simply dive and sketch it without help.

So I asked Andy Baker at Poseidon Adventures, and he assembled a team to make the whole project possible. More of that in our companion feature about how a Moldavia is made – watch out for that in the March issue.

So onto the start of our tour of one of the most inspiring wrecks in sport-diving range in the English Channel. The usual point to shot the Moldavia is near the stern.

Steve Johnson on Channel Diver consistently dropped the shot in right next to one of the 6in guns (1), so that is where our tour begins.

Eight of these guns were fitted when the Moldavia was called up for military service, four forward and four aft.

The Moldavia lies on its port side, with the deck almost vertical near the stern. The single gun still in place on the starboard side (1) points towards the surface, with the top of the barrel at about 36m.

Starboard anchor capstan and chain
Starboard anchor capstan and chain

Standing into the current, it is painted in jewel anemones and hydroids and is an impressive sight for those who just want to see the shallowest part of the wreck and venture no further.

Nevertheless, most divers will be venturing further, so our route stays on the starboard side of the hull while eyesight and physiology get used to 38m.

Just below the gun is an open hatch in the hull. This is nothing to do with the gun; it's just a coincidence that the gun was fitted above it.

Heading aft past two rows of empty portholes, as the hull begins to curve away at the stern it's time to turn “down” towards the keel to see the two propeller-shafts and the rudder (2). Like the gun, these stick out into the current and are home to some nice anemones. Both props were salvaged many years ago.

Rounding the stern to join the main deck, keep an eye out for big pollack that like to hang out just below the stern. The upper layer of hull-plates and the main deck have fallen away to leave splayed hull ribs arranged about the usual bollards and fairleads, which are mostly still in place (3).

A curved compartment at the stern houses the steering. Low on the outside wall is a small telegraph secured through the wall (4). The rudderpost rises through the middle of this compartment (5) and the steering engine extends from the rudderpost to the side of the compartment.

Docking telegraph mounted through the wall of the steering compartment
Docking telegraph mounted through the wall of the steering compartment

A big deck-plate has fallen from above to rest upside-down against the curved wall of the steering compartment. Below it, the second starboard side 6in gun is still attached, hanging from its mounting (6).

Dropping deeper to the seabed at 47m, below this gun is the conical mounting for the corresponding port side gun (7).

The gun itself is missing, either salvaged or buried beneath the debris from the upper decks that has fallen nearby.

A couple of metres out on the seabed is a small cargo winch (8), and then the aft mast (9). The gun's mounts were fitted in this area because this part of the hull and deck were already strengthened to accommodate the mast and winch.

Cargo winch, by the aft mast
Cargo winch, by the aft mast

Back on the wreck, most of the decks above the main deck have fallen in a cascade. The lower decks, being stronger and heavier to support the decks above, have not fallen as far (10).

Much of the original wooden decking remains on the decks.

Looking up, the first gun on our route (1) may be silhouetted above in the usually excellent visibility. Buried somewhere under these collapsed decks and debris is, I suspect, the corresponding gun and mount from the port side of the deck. But with a trawl-net dragged into the wreck, everything in this area is partly obscured and difficult to see.

Trawl-net caught over the port forward gun
Trawl-net caught over the port forward gun

Halfway up the wreck, a tube protruding from the deck (11) is the lower part of the mast we encountered earlier. Forward of this at main deck level is a big bathtub (12), high-sided to prevent water escaping as the ship rolled. Nearby is a hand-basin, buried among the debris of what was probably a First Class cabin.

The trawl-net encountered earlier has been dragged right through the wreck. Next to this and close to the centreline of the deck are two water tanks (13). Perhaps one of these supplied hot water for the bath.

Water tank aft of the aft hold
Water tank aft of the aft hold

Immediately above the tanks, the hull of the wreck has been cracked open to salvage the condensers. Two of the Moldavia's seven boilers have fallen on end into the space created (14)(15). I suspect that the remains of the engines are buried below them.

Boilers have fallen aft and on end where the hull was broken open to salvage the condensers
Boilers have fallen aft and on end where the hull was broken open to salvage the condensers

The starboard and upper side of the hull now continues forward pretty much unbroken, with two rows of portholes (16).

Heading deeper again, the main deck is beginning to separate from the hull, though a section of the upper deck is still attached (17), and the whole structure is still almost vertical. The reason for the improved strength of this section is soon obvious, as a pair of small lifeboat-derricks lie flat against the upper deck.

Heavy-duty lifeboat-derrick
Heavy-duty lifeboat-derrick

Looking carefully at the side of this cabin, metal rungs provide a ladder that crew could climb to access the derricks.

Forward of this section of intact cabin the upper deck ends, and the angle of the main deck changes to about 30° off horizontal, where it has slid from the hull.

From the starboard side of the deck at 42m, the overhanging hull can be seen above. Now broken from the deck are a pair of winches (18)(19), with another water tank between them.

Water tank by the forward hold
Water tank by the forward hold

Forward of these, a rectangular coaming on the deck (20) would have supported the aft of the Moldavia’s two funnels.

Funnels are typically made of thin metal compared to a ship’s hull, so it is no surprise that none of the actual funnel structure remains. Anything to do with the flue connecting to the boilers has decayed away or been hidden where the deck has slid out from the wreck.

The winches (18)(19) would have served derricks to either side (21)(22). Unlike the gracefully curved lifeboat-derricks, these are squat and rectangular, with multiple pulleys contained within them, routeing cables to lower and raise larger boats.

The derrick on the starboard side of the deck (21) has fallen over, while the one towards the port side (22) is upright.

I suspect that there is a second derrick on each side, level with the winches, perhaps hidden beneath the trawl-net that has pulled in beneath the winches, or buried beneath debris.

Forward from here, our route passes another cabin (23), again with curved lifeboat-derricks on the upper deck, but this time with much of the framework that would have supported a sun-shade over the main deck remaining intact, particularly on the port side.

Now we come to another rectangular coaming on the deck (24), which would have supported the forward of the Moldavia’s two funnels. To the starboard side, the overhanging hull has sagged a little and is now closer to the deck, above a pair of mooring bollards.

To the port side, a corresponding pair of bollards remains attached to the deck, as does a short section of railing.

Out on the seabed, another large water-tank (25), still attached to its mounting-plate, lies pointing out from the wreck.

Staying on the seabed, a T-shaped box section (26) has fallen closer to the port side of the deck, next to another pair of mooring bollards. Immediately forward of these is the mounting (27) for one of the four forward 6in guns, though there is no sign of the gun nearby.

Just inboard from this is an open frame from the superstructure, and resting against that is the corresponding 6in gun from the starboard side, fallen from its mount and upside-down (28).

The remains of a bulkhead cross the deck, with the stub of a doorway in the centre and facing forwards (29) and the outline of a porch on the deck behind it.

This would have been the main access from the deck about the forward hold to the wheelhouse above.
To the starboard side, another T-shaped box-section lies on the deck (30), identical to that encountered off the port side (26).

I am at a loss to identify these features. Were they part of the structure of the wheelhouse and bridge? Or part of the cargo-handling equipment?

Definitely for that purpose is the jib of a crane (31) lying across the area of the forward hold. Above this, hanging from the starboard side of the hull, is a gun-mount (32), from the fallen gun passed earlier (28).

Mechanism exposed where the deck has broken away, beneath the forward starboard gun-mount
Mechanism exposed where the deck has broken away, beneath the forward starboard gun-mount

In the centre of the forward hold area is another large water tank (33). Just above this, the forward starboard 6in gun has fallen upside-down (34), complete with the gun-mount torn from the hull.

4.7in gun, intact and pointing towards the surface
4.7in gun, intact and pointing towards the surface

The corresponding port gun (35) is still in place, barrel down into the seabed with only the breech showing.

A complete trawl-net is dragged into the wreck here, complete with rubber protection about the footrope and an otter board, a vane used to hold the mouth of the trawl open.

The net runs up the back of the bow and is held aloft by floats. In the typically good visibility it is easy to avoid, but please bear the presence of this net in mind when launching a delayed SMB.

The bow deck is upright again, split away from the hull. An anchor-handling derrick (36) for swinging anchors onto the deck stands in the centre of the deck, with the derrick angled downwards and back into the trawl net.

Either side of this, the anchors are handled by a pair of capstans (37). The chain is still in place, leading along the guides and down through the hawse pipes.

Some of the port side of the bow has split from the starboard side to become debris on the seabed below the bow deck (38). Looking carefully below, the shaft of the port anchor can be seen on the end of the chain.

The corresponding starboard anchor remains in place (39), tight into the starboard side of the bow.

Looking inside the bow, the hawse pipe is broken, with sections hanging from the chain that leads back to the deck and capstan. For the chain to run out like this, it must have run freely, suggesting that the damage happened soon after the Moldavia sank, perhaps even with the bow hitting the seabed hard as the vessel went down.

To end the dive, the highest point of the bow (40) is at 40m. Depending on how the current is picking up, this may not be the safest place to release a delayed SMB, as it is right next to the trawl net.

On a neap tide, I actually made my deep stops ascending the net, and released a delayed SMB from the top of it (41) at 25m.

Most divers will want three dives to see everything in this Tour and explore a bit for themselves. The first two dives can best be summarised as both starting at the gun (1). The first dive could cover the wreck aft of the split and end at the boilers (14)(15).

The second dive then heads forward from the split and ends with a delayed SMB somewhere on the way forward.

For a third dive, get the skipper to drop the shot on the bow and work the route back from the bow towards the stern.


HMS MOLDAVIA, armed merchant cruiser. BUILT 1903, SUNK 1918

JOHANN LOHS CONNED UB57 OUT from the First Flotilla base in Bruges and into open sea at Zeebrugge on 20 May, 1918. His mission was to go down-Channel and sink as many Allied ships as possible, writes Kendall McDonald.

By the afternoon of 22 May he was nearing his favourite killing ground near the Owers Lightship off Sussex. As he did so, HMS Moldavia entered the Channel and headed east.

Moldavia and her sister-ship Mongolia were the first of the famous P&O M-series passenger liners. Built at Greenock by Caird & Co, she was 521ft with a 58ft beam. Of 9505 gross tons, she was a huge, fast and beautiful ship. Her builders’ only criticism was that her 1000-plus portholes rendered her sides “unduly perforated”.

She cost the equivalent of £30m today when launched in 1903. On 11 December that year, she made her first scheduled voyage from London to Colombo, Melbourne, and Sydney, proving that her 12,000hp engines could easily maintain 18.5 knots with the help of 18ft-diameter twin propellers.

This top speed and generous passenger space for 348 First and 166 Second Class passengers made her a great favourite on the Australia run. But her cruising days ended in 1915, when she was commandeered by the Government.

HMS Moldavia was an armed merchant cruiser fitted with eight 6in guns, but it was her speed rather than gunnery that saved her in several close calls during her war service.

In May 1918, she steamed fast up-Channel at night, all 1000 portholes blacked out. There were 907 men of the 58th Regiment of the US 8th Infantry Brigade on board. These “doughboys” had boarded her at Halifax, Nova Scotia, some of the million and a half who would cross to France's battlefields after the USA declared war on Germany.

Lohs surfaced and stopped UB57’s engines once the 182ft U-boat was concealed on the “blind” north side of the Owers Lightship.

Incredibly, most of the Great War lightships went unmolested, continuing to warn both friend and foe of natural hazards to navigation.

U-boat commanders learned early on to use them as markers. The merchant ships on which they preyed used the lightships as course indicators, so the submarines rarely waited in vain.

Lohs allowed a full hour before he let his 30 crew out onto the casing in small groups to breathe fresh air, as two officers scanned the horizon with night glasses. He needed only one more big kill to have sunk 100,000 tons of Allied shipping and qualify to be called an “ace”.

But the sky hinted at dawn before the sound of engines to the west sent UB57 to battle stations.
Lohs noted “a merchant-ship convoy of five big steamers guarded by more than one destroyer”.

Abandoning secrecy, UB57 went after them on the surface, quickly reaching her 13.4-knot top speed. Surely the convoy's lookouts would spot its spray or wake, or hear its engines at full blast? But no, as Lohs closed on the rear ships, he ordered “Tauch!”

In 15 seconds UB57’s four bow and one stern torpedo tube were under. Another five seconds and water was foaming around her 8.8cm gun.

Ten more and all 650 tons of the U-boat were below the surface. But diving had cut her speed to 7.8 knots, and Lohs thought he had lost the convoy. Then, just as dawn broke, the ships crossed his bows.

IN THAT LIGHT, SO BIG was the leading escort ship in his periscope that Lohs almost forgot to order a bow shot. He had time to fire only one torpedo.

The escorts were almost on top of him, and it took so long to dive again that he feared the nearest destroyer's keel would rip UB57 open.

The U-boat was halfway down, diving steeply to the seabed, when a muffled explosion told the crew their torpedo had gone home. It was 4.55am. Less than a minute later, down came the depth charges.

On Moldavia’s bridge, the echoes of the explosion almost beneath Captain Arthur H Smyth in her portside amidships still deafened him. But the damage did not seem too serious, and Moldavia carried on under power.

The crew were at battle stations, bluejackets manning each gun as the escorts dropped more depth charges, but they had no target.

The troops mustered on deck, where 56 failed to answer a roll-call. Other badly injured men had been carried up. The missing and injured had been in compartments behind where the torpedo struck. Another man died later.

Moldavia steamed on for 15 minutes before slowing and settling, clearly not long for the surface.

An ordinary seamen later said: “Most of us were in our hammocks when the explosion came. It could be heard and felt all over the ship. Everyone turned out at once. Some came on deck in their night gear. There was no sort of panic. The escorts came alongside in an orderly way and took everyone off.”

The convoy moved on swiftly as Moldavia put her stern gently under. Suddenly, the great ship kicked up her bow and was gone. On the seabed, she rolled over to port. The huge wound from the torpedo still lies beneath the wreck.

UB57 slid away undetected to continue her mission, which would include sinking the liner Kyarra (Wreck Tour 47) near Anvil Point, before returning to Zeebrugge on 1 June. Lohs and all UB57’s crew would be lost during another Channel mission in August.


GETTING THERE: Brighton marina is east of the town centre, off the A259 to Newhaven and Eastbourne. Charter boats board from the west side of the marina, from the pontoon closest to the multi-storey car park

HMS Moldavia Wreck Tour

HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 23.20N, 000 28.80W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The bow points to the south-west.

TIDES: The Moldavia is best dived on low-water slack, 30min before low water Brighton. The tide is also slack 30min before high water Brighton, but the wreck is a few metres deeper.

DIVING: Trip organised by Poseidon Adventures, 01487 843813. Diving from Channel Diver 01273 301142.

AIR: The Brighton Dive Centre is in the marina retail park, 01273 606068.

ACCOMMODATION: B&B can be organised by Poseidon Adventures.

QUALIFICATIONS: An extended-range air dive, best done on a twin-set with a rich decompression mix, or on a weak trimix.

LAUNCHING: Slips at Brighton, Shoreham and Littlehampton.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1652, Selsey Bill to Beachy Head. Ordnance Survey Map 198, Brighton & Lewis, Worthing, Horsham & Haywards Heath. Dive Sussex, by Kendall McDonald. World War One Channel Wrecks by Neil Maw.

PROS: One of the South Coast's most impressive wrecks. Sufficiently offshore for excellent visibility.

CONS: The fame of the Moldavia tends to attract divers who are not ready for it. Net could be dangerous if the wreck is dived in low visibility.

DEPTH: 45m+

Difficulty Rating:

Thanks to Andy Baker, John de Lara, Cathy de Lara, Lawson Everidge, Andrea Everidge, Steve Johnson, Tony Dobinson.


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