The sinking of this British cargo vessel, sunk by German E-boats off Sussex in 1944, could have been prevented, but for extended-range divers it has plenty to offer, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
WITH THE STERN CLOSE TO THE 46m seabed and the forward half of the wreck intact and rising to 36m, a shot on the shallower part makes for an awkward profile if you want to see all 1,813 tons of this steamship in one dive.
A more convenient location for the shot is as close to the small intact part of the stern as possible (1). This makes it realistic to do a quick tour of the stern close to the seabed, then ascend through the remains of the aft hold to the amidships superstructure.
The stern has fallen to port, broken at the bulkhead to the aft hold. A cargo-winch (2) that would have served the now-broken hold spans most of the width of the stern.
Below the winch on the seabed is the stern gun (3). This was originally mounted in a walled enclosure (4), though this would have been more to prevent the gun-crew from falling overboard and give limited protection from shell splinters than to provide any real armoured protection from a direct hit.
The stern has collapsed over the propeller to bury it, leaving the rudder bent out flat to the seabed (5). Returning to the deck, there are pairs of mooring bollards to either side (6).
Forward from the stern, the torpedo explosion weakened the hull about the aft two holds, so that the sides of the hull have collapsed outwards and all that remains are piles of the steel cargo, including bar ingots and rolls of steel sheet (7).
Continuing forwards, the wreck starts to regain some structure, the sides of the hull rising in broken steps to main deck level. Within the more intact sides, the deck has collapsed so that a pair of cargo-winches (8) are tilted steeply into the middle of the ship.
Above these, a pair of anti-aircraft gun positions (9) remain just about at main deck level, but still tilted towards the centre and aft. The walls surrounding these positions are square and high enough to offer some protection for the gunners to shoulder height, though it’s no more robust than the protection of the larger gun position at the stern.
The pillars for mounting the guns are still in place, but the small guns have fallen off and some parts can be seen among debris inside the gun positions.
Between these positions, a mast (10) has dropped and leans forward against the steel superstructure. The entire boat-deck with superstructure has collapsed, although it remains level and has not fallen as far as the main deck. The highest point around here is at about 36m.
The next part of the superstructure is above the engine-room, although the usual ventilator hatch and skylight has collapsed and is filled with debris. To either side are the fittings where the ship’s boats would have been stowed, with pairs of small crossed bollards and a fallen davit (11) to the starboard side to mark the location.
The next section of the superstructure is tilted forwards, with an oval hole (12) to mark the location of the funnel.
The steel wheelhouse (13) is intact and enclosed. Even some of the windows are intact, and peppered with jewel anemones.
To the port side, a fallen pedestal with a forked support at the top would have held a signal lamp, or perhaps a searchlight (14).
Inboard of this, a small cargo-winch (15) is tilted inwards to match the angle at which the deck has collapsed. The corresponding winch to the starboard side is also tilted inwards, with the beam and net from a trawler draped across it (16).
The two forward holds are an intact contrast to the devastation of the aft holds, although the sides of the hull are rotting through between ribs.
Between the holds (17) is a gap wide enough only for an empty mast-foot with no winches, suggesting that the cargo-winches on each corner about the superstructure might have once had corresponding derricks to load and unload cargo.
Forward of the holds, the aft part of the forecastle has begun to collapse (18), but the strengthened deck to support a reel of mooring cable (19), pairs of bollards to either side, the forward mast (20) and the anchor-winch (21) remain complete at 36m. The latter is unusual in being raised high above the deck on a frame.
The anchor-chains are broken. Over the bow, the hawse-pipes (22) are empty, with both anchors missing. A scrap of trawl-net is caught on the starboard side of the bow.
With good visibility, it might just be possible to see a small bow bulge below at the seabed (23), although there is little motivation to descend another 10m at this point of the dive. The forward mast (20) makes a convenient point to ascend a little, before releasing a delayed SMB.
GETTING THERE: From the A27, take the A259 through Pevensey towards Eastbourne from the east. Sovereign Harbour is on the left. Turn left at the roundabout for Asda and the retail park, then straight across the mini-roundabout for the car park closest to the boarding pontoon.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 38.350N, 000 25.498E (degrees, minutes and decimals). The bow points to the west.
TIDES: The Caleb Sprague is best dived on low-water slack, five hours before high-water Dover. On a neap tide this can last as long as one hour, but is considerably shorter on springs. High-water slack is 30 minutes before high-water Dover.
AIR: Our W has an onboard compressor and a limited supply of oxygen for mixing nitrox. If you require large quantities of O2 or any helium, arrange it in advance. Nearest commercial air station is Newhaven Scuba Centre, 01273 612012.
QUALIFICATIONS: An extended-range air dive, best dived on a twinset with a rich decompression mix.
LAUNCHING: Slips at Sovereign Harbour (Eastbourne) and Newhaven.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1652, Selsey Bill to Beachy Head. Admiralty Chart 536, Beachy Head to Dungeness. Ordnance Survey Map 199, Eastbourne & Hastings, Crowborough, Battle & Heathfield. Dive Sussex, by Kendall McDonald.
PROS: A wonderful contrast between the intact forward part and the devastation of the aft holds.
CONS: Scraps of trawl-net could be dangerous if the wreck is dived in low visibility.
RADAR OPERATOR’S DEADLY DELAY
THE CALEB SPRAGUE, armed merchantman. BUILT 1944, SUNK 1944
THE BLIPS OF 10 E-BOATS from the German flotilla based at Calais were spotted on the screens at a Sussex radar station.
They were swooping at 40 knots on a convoy of 19 Allied ships making a steady seven knots down-Channel in the early hours of 31 January, 1944, writes Kendall McDonald.
Standard Navy procedure should have been to issue an immediate plain-language radio warning to the convoy’s destroyer escorts. But the warning that should have been sent at 1.48am was transmitted only at 2.09.
The log of the destroyer HMS Albrighton noted: “The delay in receipt of this vital information was disastrous.” Torpedoes sank three ships before they even knew that they were the Germans’ target that night in “E-Boat Alley”, out at sea south-east of Beachy Head.
Soon the E-boats were weaving in and out of their own smokescreens at such high speed that HMS Pine, one of three armed trawlers minesweeping the way clear ahead of the convoy, never saw the vessel that sank her.
The torpedo blew her bows almost completely off, killing 10 of her crew of 37. Pine wallowed to a halt, but did not sink at once. It was 2.09.
Hunting in small groups, the E-boats were soon attacking the convoy from both sides. At 2.14, the 806-ton Emerald, laden with coal, was hit by a torpedo near her stern. She listed to port and went down swiftly stern-first, taking her crew of 12 and three naval gunners with her.
A minute later, the Caleb Sprague took a torpedo in her engine-room. Amid a shower of sparks the mainmast came down and the ship’s back broke, just astern of the engine-room. She went down at once. Of the crew of 31, which included four Naval gunners, only seven survived.
Chief Officer AH Mackie was one of the seven: “We were bound from Southend to Newport with a cargo of 2305 tons of steel and timber and were armed with one 4in and a Lewis gun.
“We left Southend at 1100 on 30 January in Convoy CW243, which formed up in two columns outside D Buoy. We were the fourth ship in the starboard column.
“The convoy proceeded without incident until we were 10 miles south-east of Beachy Head, steering WNW at a speed of seven knots. Suddenly we were struck by a torpedo. No one in my ship saw the E-boat that fired it. The radio operator said later that he saw flares and the ship ahead fired her machine-guns a few seconds before we were struck.
“I was woken by the explosion. I seized my lifejacket and rushed on deck to find the ship already sinking beneath me. I was taken down as she sank, which could not have been more than 15 seconds after the explosion.
“I surfaced, and for a moment saw the bows of the ship not far from me. I could not see her stern. It seemed that the ship had broken in two abaft the engine-room, with the bow and stern rising in the air as she sank.
“I found two pieces of timber from No 2 hold to support me, switched on the red light on my lifejacket and waited to be picked up.”
Mackie floated for an hour before being rescued by a trawler. By then the battle was over. The E-boats seemed satisfied with their three kills, because shortly after the Caleb Sprague sank they broke off and got back to Calais unscathed.
Had the radio warning been sent out as soon as the E-boats were spotted, those three sinkings might not have occurred.
Thanks to Dave Ronnan and Sylvia Pryer.
Appeared in DIVER November 2008