The victim of German mines in 1940, this big merchant steamer that sank off Pembrokeshire is a good all-rounder, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
WHEN I WAS SHOWN THE WRECK OF THE STEAMER BEHAR by Rachel Whitfield and Paul Nusinov a few years ago, I couldn’t believe I had been diving around Pembrokeshire for so long and never tried this nice easy wreck.
During the dives I spent sketching the Behar, we tied a buoy onto an arch over the propshaft (1), all that remains of the tunnel that would have enclosed it beneath the holds. Dropping a shot on the transits also puts you roughly into this area.
Following the shaft towards the stern, it soon breaks (2), with the continuation supported a couple of metres above the wreck and further away from the keel.
The shaft continues towards the stern through couplings and bearings, before disappearing beneath some hull-plates (3). Off to port are large steel buoys and coils of cable – the Behar was a cable-laying ship.
It is easy enough to follow the line of the shaft back to the rudder (4), still attached but bent to starboard by the fall of the stern. This is the deepest point of the wreck, at about 14m, depending on the height of tide. The overhanging cruiser stern is more intact and has fallen to port. A gentle current feeds a covering of fine anemones and clumps of dead men’s fingers.
On the upper starboard side, a large square hole in the hull (5) provides easy access inside among the steering-gear, with exits forwards through the break or up through a hatch in the deck. A partly intact railing protects the edge of the stern deck (6), with a few pollack patrolling above.
The remains of a deckhouse above the stern and a sturdy post are actually the base of a small gun-mount (7). The barrel and breech have been salvaged, so all that remains at the top are a pair of trunnions.
Just forward of the stern, a second gun-mount in similar condition rests upright on a deck-plate (8). In the intervening space, a large box-structure of springs and rods is tilted forwards on its base-plate. My best guess is that this was part of the cable-handling equipment.
Working forwards from the gun-mount, a mountain of tangled cable is piled across what would have been one of the holds (9).
The main part of the wreck is flattened to the seabed, collapsed to port. I found the Behar atypical in that most of the interesting wreckage is close to the keel (south) side of the wreck as opposed to the deck (north) side, which I would usually find more interesting.
With this in mind, back towards the propshaft and close to where it breaks is a swim-through made of hull-plates resting across more of the steel buoys and the mountain of cable (10). Although not an original structure of the wreck, it is a relatively easy and safe tunnel about 7 or 8m long, with no constrictions.
The swim-through pops out almost on top of the propshaft again. The forward end of the propshaft ends at an unusual engine. First are the remains of a thrust-bearing and broken-open turbine (11), followed by a four-cylinder steam engine (12), neatly laid out across the wreck to port.
From the front of the engine, the shadow of a large section of wreck should be visible forward and to starboard. On the way to this, I am unable to identify the original purpose of a steel box with round holes cut in the faces (13).
It is surprising to find among such a broken-up wreck a big intact section of hull (14). On the corner nearest the engine hangs a chain with metal blocks, clanging against the steel beams.
The outer wall of this section, which would have been the starboard side of the hull, is intact. The less robust inner walls are now a partially open lattice of upright ribs. Considering its location just forward of the engines, I suspect that this sole upright section of the hull was once a fuel tank.
The Behar is listed as having five boilers, but only one remains (15). Others have been broken and salvaged, evidence of their location being the curved flanges on which they would have rested.
When it struck a mine and began to sink, the Behar was deliberately run aground on the rocks off Great Castle Head. It stayed pretty much in position as it was progressively broken up by salvage and weather, so forwards of amidships the depth gets noticeably shallower.
The remains of the first hold forward is another tangled mountain of cable (16). Between the forward holds (17) are the usual deck-fittings, the remains of a mast broken into three jumbled sections and debris from a cargo-winch. The forward hold is similarly collapsed and broken over another mountain of cable (18).
Before the bows are the remains of another mast and port and starboard pairs of bollards (19).
Debris is now well in among the rocks, the bows wedged along a gully and fallen to port, so that the starboard side is now pretty much level (20). In shallow, sunny water this is a natural pecking ground for ballan wrasse.
It is possible to swim beneath and inside the bow, with the anchor hawse-pipes crossed over one another. There are no signs of anchors, chain or anchor-winch. With the ship run aground and the bow well out of the water, these would have been easy to salvage.
Victims of the free-ranging Luftwaffe
The crews of the Heinkel 111H bombers were delighted to find at their briefing that they did not have to run the gauntlet of the massed rows of anti-aircraft guns on Britain’s south-east coast, nor pass over any other large defences. The Germans’ relief was understandable. Gunfire of any kind is the last thing you want when your aircraft’s belly is heavily pregnant with mines, writes Kendall McDonald.
The air crews were also pleased that their missions were not to be long range. The capture of the airfields of northern France had put the busy harbours and ports of the Bristol Channel within easy range. So, on the night of 3 November, 1940, magnetic and acoustic mines parachuted down from the Heinkels into the sea close to Milford Haven. They were well placed and were the first of many in the mining raids that followed.
A Belgian fishing trawler, Van De Weyden, was the first victim of the offensive against shipping using Milford Haven, but bigger ships were to follow. On 21 November, the 6,426-ton Dakotian was sunk by a German magnetic mine and the 3,683-ton Pikepool hit another and sank the next day. On 24 November, the small salvage ship Preserver blew up, and that day too the big steamer Behar hit another mine.
The 6,100-ton Behar had been built in 1928 by Harland & Wolff in Greenock and was owned by the Hain Steamship Company, though operated by P&O.
The steel-built Behar, 133m long by 17m, was carrying 4,770 tons of government stores from the Clyde to Milford Haven when she hit the mine, but none of her crew were injured and they managed to beach her near Great Castle Head. Salvage attempts produced poor results, mainly because of bad weather and more mine-laying by German aircraft. By October the next year all salvage was abandoned and she became a total loss.
GETTING THERE: Follow the M4, A40 and A477 to Tenby, or continue on the A40 to Haverfordwest, then the B4327 to Dale.
ACCOMMODATION: Visit Pembrokeshire Tourist Information for details of hotels, B&B and camping.
TIDES: Slack water is not needed for this dive, but visibility is significantly better on an incoming tide. The best visibility is in the three-hour period before high tide.
LAUNCHING: Launch from the slip at Dale in front of the sailing school. Parking is 50m further back along the road. The way out to the wreck is through the yacht moorings, so take care not to raise a large wake. There is a cafe situated conveniently at the top of the slip and a pub within a few metres.
HOW TO FIND IT: The wreckage intersects the line between the Behar cardinal buoy and the white buildings on Great Castle Head. The buoy is named on the chart and is located at position 52 42.41N, 5 06.98W (degrees, minutes and decimals) – note that this is the chart position of the buoy, not the wreck! From the buoy, follow the transit to the north with an echo-sounder. You should pick up wreckage about halfway to the rocks, rising a few metres from a 14m seabed as you cross the south-east transit.
QUALIFICATIONS: Like the nearby Dakotian, this is an easy and sheltered dive with something for everyone from beginners to experienced wreckies.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 2878, Approaches To Milford Haven. Ordnance Survey Map 157, St Davids And Haverfordwest Area. Shipwrecks Around Wales, Volume 1, by Tom Bennett.
PROS: Easy to launch, easy to find, lots to explore, good for macro life, accessible in all but the very worst weather.
CONS: Visibility can be bad, especially towards the end of an outgoing tide.
Thanks to Rachel Whitfield and Paul Nusinov.
Appeared in Diver, March 2002