Prolific wreck-finder the Sea War Museum Jutland in Thyborøn, Denmark, has solved a World War Two mystery with its discovery in the Skagerrak of the controversial German troopship Pionier.
Claimed to have been torpedoed by a British submarine, the ship’s sinking was the most serious loss suffered by the German occupation forces during their five years in Denmark.
The 3285-ton vessel, built as a refrigerated ship in 1933, carried bananas from Cameroon to Europe until in 1940 the German Kriegsmarine seized it to ferry troops between occupied Denmark and Norway.
On 2 September of that year Pionier was heading across the Skagerrak from Frederikshavn in Denmark to Frederiksstad in Norway in high seas, with 823 infantrymen, naval officers, air-crew, nurses and crew aboard.
North of Skagen a violent explosion occurred, and fire broke out.
The ship listed to port and went down at the stern, but the fire and large quantities of leaking oil at the surface prevented other ships being able to do anything but pick up survivors from life-boats and the sea. The vessel sank rapidly with the loss of 338 lives.
Britain claimed that a torpedo from its submarine HMS Sturgeon had sunk the troopship, but the Nazi propaganda machine insisted that she had either hit a mine, been sabotaged or suffered a boiler explosion. The latter was an unlikely claim, says the museum, because Pionier was a motor ship with a large six-cylinder diesel engine.
Because of the debate, the wreck became one of the most sought-after by international scuba divers in Danish waters – but now it seems that they were always searching in the wrong locations.
On an expedition in Skagerrak the Sea War Museum Jutland located Pionier 15 nautical miles from Skagen at 057° 58.368N, 010° 51.551E – much further east than previously assumed, and lying beyond normal diving depths at 177m. And HMS Sturgeon’s claim appears to have been vindicated.
“Our scanning of the wreck supports the British reports,” said Gert Normann Andersen, the museum’s Director. “The aft part of the ship is missing, and everything indicates that the ship was torn apart by a torpedo. The aft part sank in all probability immediately, while the forward part drifted further east, before it sank.
“We did find the wreck in international waters, but so far east that it is lying in the Swedish Exclusive Economic Zone.”
The ship is a regarded as a war grave, but it is now hoped that the nature of its cargo can be established.
HMS Sturgeon went on to take part in the pursuit of the Bismarck, and served for nearly two years until the end of the war in the Dutch navy under the name Zeehond.