Off the North-east of England, this Wreck Tour ventures deeper than ever before, but it’s to explore an unusual wartime casualty and is well worth the effort, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
TO DATE, OUR WRECK TOURS have stayed within air-diving limits, occasionally pushing the boundaries, but not venturing far enough that trimix is a requirement for the dive. In general, that is how they will continue.
Nevertheless, every now and then I dive a deeper wreck that is just begging to become a Wreck Tour, where the type or the state of the ship offers something special. The sort of wreck I dive and simply have to think: “Wow!”
To kick off 2008 we tour just such a one-of-a-kind wreck, the Fighter Catapult Ship HMS Patia. The depth of the seabed at 63m puts it comfortably into the trimix range, though I am sure there are some who will have dived it on air.
Our tour begins with the shot hooked across the forward hold (1). With luck, this will start the dive in the 56m range or so, avoiding the 63m seabed for a while.
Moving forward and towards the centre of the ship brings us to one of the main features of the dive, the aircraft launch-catapult rails (2).
The last section of the rails has fallen into a recess on the main deck although, rising onto the forecastle and heading out over the bow, they are straight and intact.
Fighter catapult ships were a quick and temporary fix for the lack of air-cover for convoys in the middle of the Atlantic. A single Hawker Hurricane aircraft could be launched from the rocket-powered catapult to shoot down or chase away German long-range reconnaissance and bomber aircraft.
After the flight, a lucky pilot might have found himself in range of land. More often, an unlucky pilot would have to ditch in the sea and hope that one of the convoy escorts could pick him up.
In the long term, small aircraft-carriers were built in sufficient numbers to take over this role, and the catapult ships saw brief and limited use. In the case of HMS Patia, the catapult saw no action at all, because the ship was bombed on the way to collect its first aircraft.
Following the rails forward, a small curved cuddy can be found to either side, covering hatches leading below deck (3). HMS Patia is a war grave, so scuba divers must not attempt to enter the wreck or take or interfere with anything.
Beside each cuddy is a pair of mooring bollards and a cleated fairlead at the side of the deck. The catapult rails continue forward above the anchor-winch (4) to overhang the tip of the bow. Either side of the bow, both anchors remain tightly held in place in their hawse-pipes (5).
Heading aft to the other end of the catapult rail, there are small winches to either side of where it has fallen to the main deck (6).
The first hold is decked over, with a short mast and a small winch (7) located to the back of the wooden deck.
Between the forward holds, a large cargo-winch is recessed into the main deck (8). The second hold is then open.
Behind the second hold, steps lead up to the amidships superstructure and boat-deck. The deck of the wheelhouse is raised one deck above the general level of the boat-deck (9). Spent small-calibre ammunition from anti-aircraft guns is littered about the boat-deck, though the guns are no longer there. I suspect that they have fallen over the side, but I didn’t bounce to the seabed to confirm this.
It might well have been a gunner from one of these guns who shot down the attacking Heinkel He 111, just as it dropped the fatal bomb that broke the Patia‘s back.
To either side of the deck are pairs of davits from the ship’s boats, stalks on frames that could easily be confused with anti-aircraft guns.
The deck rises another level above the boilers (10) with the base for the funnel in the middle of the deck. This is the shallowest part of the wreck, at 50m on a low-water slack.
Next we come to the ventilator hatches above the engine-room (11), a structure that expands into a small deckhouse as the level drops again to the boat-deck, with a further set of boat-davits on either side (12). A toilet and bath can be seen through the open door and decaying walls of this deckhouse, but please remember that entry is prohibited.
Behind the superstructure, the wreck is broken clean across where the main deck would have joined the superstructure (13). The forward part of the wreck is upright, but the aft is tilted heavily to port.
The aft holds are again open, with a conventional arrangement of a pair of winches on the main deck between them (14). The associated mast has fallen outwards and aft across the port side of the deck.
The deck again rises at the stern, with steps and bollards to either side (15). Immediately in the middle of the deck, a square tower is the mount for one of two 6in guns fitted to the stern of the ship (16). Be careful here, because a net is caught across the wreck and is still held up slightly by attached floats (17).
The mount for the second gun is at deck-level (18), so that the first gun could fire over it. The 6in gun itself has fallen to the seabed below (19) at 63m.
Rounding the stern, the propeller and rudder are still in place (20), though by this stage in the dive few will have the time left to view them closely.
To ascend, the starboard side of the stern rises to 50m again where the hull has tipped up from the break (21), a comfortable point to launch a delayed SMB and begin a long decompression schedule.
FROM BANANAS TO BOMBS
HMS PATIA, fighter catapult ship. BUILT 1922, SUNK 1941
ALTHOUGH SHE STARTED OUT as a 5355-ton steamship, built by Cammell Laird in Birkenhead in the peaceful days of 1922, the Patia was to end her days as a British warship in a bloody fight with a German Heinkel He111 bomber, writes Kendall McDonald.
The Patia was owned by Elders & Fyffes, and spent the years until the outbreak of WW2 bringing fruit cargoes, mostly bananas and pineapples, to be sold in Britain’s greengrocers.
The fact that she was also reliable was probably why the Admiralty hired her in October 1940 as an ocean-boarding vessel, and then made major alterations to turn her into a proper warship.
HMS Patia emerged from the yard as a fighter aircraft catapult ship with two 6in guns, and the ability to protect convoys by propelling a Hawker Hurricane fighter into battle.
On 27 April, 1941, HMS Patia made her maiden voyage with a convoy and was steaming north to pick up her first Hurricane fighter. She was about four miles off Boulmer, Northumberland, and was making slow speed because of a faulty radar set when the Heinkel dropped out of the low clouds, spraying the Patia with fire from four of her five 7.9mm machine-guns.
The attack took most of the ship’s crew by surprise. The German crew followed the gunfire with two of the four 551lb bombs the aircraft carried in internal racks. Both fell short, but four Navy crewmen died from the machine-gunning.
The Germans turned for a second run, dropping the two bigger 1102lb bombs carried externally, but the approach was too low and too straight.
The Patia‘s gunners scored a direct hit, knocking the bomber out of the sky. But one of the two bombs had also scored a direct hit, and the massive explosion killed and injured many of Patia‘s crew. The ship started to sink rapidly and was abandoned.
Commander DMB Baker, captain of HMS Patia, seven officers and 31 ratings were killed. Three of the five-man crew of the German medium bomber were among survivors.
GETTING THERE: From the south, follow the A1M and A1 north, then take the B3142 to Seahouses. From the north turn off the A1 on the B3140 to Bamburgh and continue along the coast to Seahouses. Once there, just follow your nose to the harbour.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 55 31.432 N, 001 26.108 W. The wreck stands more than 10m up from a 63m seabed, with bow to the north-west.
TIDES: Slack water is essential and occurs approximately two hours after high water and low water Seahouses. On spring tides, slack can start as late as three hours after high and low water. Low-water slack is obviously the better time to dive a wreck this deep.
LAUNCHING: There is a slipway in the harbour at Seahouses.
ACCOMMODATION: B&B with Sovereign Diving
QUALIFICATIONS: Normoxic trimix
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 156, Farne Islands to the River Tyne. Ordnance Survey Map 75, Berwick-Upon-Tweed & Surrounding Area. Dive North East by Dave Shaw & Barry Winfield. Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, Volume 3, by Richard and Bridget Larn. Northumbria Tourist Board, 0191 3753000.
PROS: A unique type of ship and one that is virtually intact.
CONS: Too deep for the majority of divers.
Thanks to Andrew Douglas.
Appeared in DIVER January 2008