A great South Devon favourite, this Belgian steamship went down packed with provisions in 1945. JOHN LIDDIARD takes us on a zig-zag wander. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
LOCATED HALFWAY BETWEEN SALCOMBE AND PLYMOUTH, the World War Two wreck of the steamship Persier is one of the classic South Devon wreck dives. The reason it has taken so long to appear in a Wreck Tour is that there is only one per month, and the Persier has simply had to take its turn.
The wreck is fairly well collapsed, with just a section of the bow, the boilers and the stern standing significantly out from the seabed. Most skippers like to shot either the boilers or the stern, and as the stern is my preference, that is where our tour of the Persier will begin (1).
The stern has fallen to port, but still rises a good 6m from the 29m seabed. Inside there is just room to swim through between the tangle of girders and the rudder-shaft. Tucked below the rudder-shaft close to the deck is an iron bathtub.
The rudder-shaft itself is intact but bent and contorted. At the top is the steering-quadrant (2), while at the bottom the rudder lies flat against the seabed (3).
Just out from the steering-quadrant is the reinforced box-like structure of a gun-mount, though no gun. Behind the rudder, the propeller has been salvaged, leaving a short section of shaft pointing forward before it breaks.
The propeller-shaft resumes a little further forward, with a flange and section of shaft sticking out of the propshaft tunnel (4). As tunnels go, this is enormous. If it were not for the shaft and bearings, there would be enough room to drive a small car along it. Even after many years of diving the Persier and swimming through the tunnel, I still have visions of an underwater version of The Italian Job.
The swim-through is about 10m long through a clean and unobstructed tunnel all the way. It’s all good fun, and I have bumped into some enormous congers on the way through here.
On most Wreck Tours, I tend to plan a route along one side of a wreck then go back along the other side. I’m afraid that, with the Persier, I prefer to zig-zag from one end to the other.
From the front of the tunnel (5), you need to double back slightly and towards the deck-side of the wreck to find the spare propeller (6). It is partly buried by a deck-plate, and one of a pair of winch-spindles rests against the tip of one blade (7).
Forward through the general debris of the broken number 4 hold, the next easily recognisable structure is the aft mast, fallen at an angle slightly towards the stern (8). As with many South Coast wrecks, the Persier is swarming with bib and pollack, and some of the biggest seem to hang out along this mast.
It is cracked open in a few places, leaving nice residences for more of the fat conger eels that inhabit the wreck.
Forward of the mast is a more intact winch (9), before the wreckage again degenerates into the general debris of the collapsed number 3 hold.
The field of jumbled steel is broken by a row of three boilers (10). Heading towards the keel, all that remains of the Persier’s engine is a section of crankshaft (11).
The whole wreck has collapsed to port. With the bows to the south, this leaves the western side of the wreck mostly hull-plates and the eastern side mainly deck-fittings. Even so, it is worth venturing out onto the hull-plates (12) for the forests of gorgonian sea-fans that spread perpendicular to the gentle current that washes across the wreck.
On the forward side of the boilers, all the fire-holes are now at the top of the boilers, showing that they have rolled 180° before coming to rest in their present orientation (13).
Out from the wreck in a location that would originally have been above the boilers, a section of superstructure provides an open box big enough easily to swim through (14). This is another favourite of the bib.
Forward from the boilers, the wreck is again a general jumble of steel debris from the number 2 hold. Useful navigation checkpoints are a section of cargo derrick, followed by an obvious two sides of a hold hatch-coaming lying flat against the sandy seabed (15).
The forward end of the hold is marked by an intact winch (16) and the forward mast (17), again a good place to find a monster conger.
It is somewhat unusual that the base of this mast is closer to the bow than would be expected in a classic four-hold steamship. There doesn’t seem to be enough space for the number 1 hold.
Close to the bow are some tangled coils of cable (18), perhaps a tow cable that would have been stored inside the forecastle. Nearby, the anchor-winch has fallen from the bow deck and lies intact on the seabed (19).
The bow itself looms above the anchor-winch, the deck broken, and the anchor hawse-pipes exposed (20). What is really unusual is that the bow points back towards the rest of the wreck.
The only explanation I can think of is based on the history of the sinking. The Persier was originally torpedoed several miles away out towards the Eddystone. The ship was then abandoned, sinking by the bow with the stern out of the water, and drifted off into the night pushed by force 7 winds.
Perhaps the bow hit the seabed first pointing towards the shore, then broke off as the rest of the Persier twisted round it as it sank. Coincidentally, this would account for the location of the forward mast being out of keeping with the rest of the wreckage, because the forward hold would have been broken and folded back.
SOUTH DEVON TAKEAWAY
She was a ship that died in the night, and nobody saw her going. Or knew where she was, although her cargo of food, which had been intended for the starving in newly liberated Belgium, now rolled and tumbled in the backwash on beaches in South Devon, writes Kendall McDonald.
Waxed packets of powdered egg, jars of meat concentrate, tins of sausage and wooden boxes of much bigger tins packed with meat and ham, sealed emergency rations of biscuits, chocolate, Horlicks tablets, chewing gum, cigarettes and boxes and boxes of Sunlight soap – all were there, with bales of blankets, for the taking. And much was taken with thanks by the locals.
Even so, the ship, which had been torpedoed off the Eddystone on 11 February, 1945, remained undiscovered until May 1969 when four divers from Plymouth Sound BSAC hooked into what they thought would give them a new reef to dive. They found the intact wreck of the 5,832-ton Belgian steamer Persier.
When she had been launched as a British Standard Ship at Newcastle in 1918, she had been named War Buffalo. The bell still bore that name when those first divers recovered it.
The Persier had sailed from Cardiff with convoy BTC 65 on 8 February, was torpedoed on her port side by U1017 three days later, and started to list at once. Abandon-ship drill took only six minutes, but it went terribly wrong.
Number 1 lifeboat was lowered while the ship had too much way on her, and spilled everyone into the water. The engines restarted themselves and lifeboat 3 was drawn into the ship’s propeller and was chopped to pieces. Lifeboat 1 was now righted, but that too went into the still-spinning prop.
Of the 63 men aboard, including convoy commander Commodore Edmund Wood and his staff and three signallers, 20 were lost. The survivors were those who managed to scramble onto Carley floats and were picked up by other ships that, against convoy orders, had stood by the Persier in mountainous seas and force 7 winds.
The Persier was last seen drifting into the night, stern high, bow down. Tugs called out from Plymouth searched for her in vain.
GETTING THERE: The Persier is almost midway between Salcombe and Plymouth. From the M5, continue on the A38 to Plymouth. For other locations turn left on the A384 to Totnes and A381 to Kingsbridge and Salcombe. Hope Cove is a sharp right at Malbrough village, just before Salcombe. For Challaborough, take the A379 from Kingsbridge towards Plymouth, then turn left on the B3392.
ACCOMMODATION: Liveaboard on mv Maureen. Salcombe tourist information.
TIDES: The Persier can be dived at any state of the tide.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates at the stern are 50 17.115N, 03 58.138W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The bow is to the south. It’s a big wreck but only the bow, boilers and stern stick up significantly. If you find something big running from north to south, you could be on a nearby reef that runs to the west of the wreck, so double-check by looking a little to the east.
LAUNCHING: At Salcombe the slip at Shadycombe is usable throughout the tide. Both Hope Cove and Challaborough have slips that are wet for just an hour or two either side of high tide. At other times both have firm sandy beaches that are suitable for launching with an off-road vehicle. In Plymouth there are large slipways at Mountbatten and Queen Anne’s Battery.
QUALIFICATIONS: Best suited to Advanced Open Water / Sports Divers and above.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1613, Eddystone Rocks To Berry Head. Ordnance Survey Map 202, Torbay And South Dartmoor Area. Dive South Devon by Kendall McDonald. The Wreckers Guide To South Devon Pt 1, by Peter Mitchel.
PROS: One of the classic South Devon wreck dives.
CONS: This is a good wreck for getting impaled on someone else’s descending shot as you swim past the boilers.
Thanks to Mike Rowley, Andy Wallace, Tim Walsh, and other members of UBUC.
Appeared in Diver, June 2003