A U-boat victim in the last year of WW1 off Devon, this largely intact steamer provides an interesting challenge, says JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
SOME CONFUSION IN THE PAST has resulted in the wreck at this location being identified as the Elsa, and the wreck at the Elsa’s position identified as the Greatham. However, the Elsa has been positively identified as the other wreck, and the wreck at this position matches the size, engineering and damage sustained by the Greatham, so Greatham it is. The wrecks are less than one-third of a nautical mile apart.
Our tour begins at the forward end of the amidships superstructure (1) at a depth of 36m, where the intact stern part of the wreck gives way to the broken number 2 hold. To see the whole wreck, our route travels first to the bow, as this requires the deepest part of our dive, crossing the hold.
From the port side of the superstructure, follow the broken hull down and forward (2), where maximum depth will touch 48m.
The debris can then be followed along the hold and across towards the starboard side, where the deck and hold coaming are twisted down into the hold (3).
Ascending again to the general level of the main deck at 44m, the lower section of the forward mast stands a few metres above the deck between the holds (4), with a single attendant cargo-winch immediately in front of the mast foot.
Behind the mast is a small hatch with railings arched either side, and the broken stub of a ladder dangling into the hold below.
The coaming of the forward hold has split in the aft starboard corner (5), but the gap is only a metre or so, and easy enough to cross, even in the poor visibility.
The hold is full of fine silt from the river Dart, banked up away from the split.
Forward of the hold, anemone-plastered steps (6) lead up onto the forecastle and bow deck at 40m.
Between the steps, an open doorway leads inside, but with the fine silt that dominates the area, entering would mean a zero-visibility exploration.
The railing along the sides of the bow and across the back of the forecastle is remarkably intact, with small gaps so that the crew could secure ropes over pairs of bollards. To the centre of the deck, an aft-facing cuddy guards a hatch below (7).
Forward of this is an anchor-winch, complete with brake handles, then a small derrick for lifting anchors onto the deck (8). The starboard anchor is missing, most likely buried in the silt at 50m, but the port anchor is still tight in its hawse pipe.
To return to the aft part of the wreck, our route follows the port side of the deck aft (9), past pairs of bollards until the break in the hull drops away below.
Then follow the broken port side of the number 2 hold down (10) and aft to the bulkhead to the stoke hold.
Rather than ascend immediately to the deck, now is the time to shine a dive-light through the gaps in the bulkhead (11) to have a look at the ends of the boilers.
Now rising to the boat deck, you’ll see curved lifeboat derricks that have fallen onto the deck (12).
Behind these, an open hatch provides a swim-through above the boilers. It’s silty, but the damage to the hull and bulkhead has prevented this cabin filling up with the stuff, so there’s a chance to poke your head inside and see the boilers below.
Behind this cabin, an oval hole (13) would have supported the funnel. To either side, angled ribs would have supported a wooden upper deck or an awning.
Next aft is the greenhouse-like ventilation hatch above the engine-room (14). The engine space is well silted, though some parts of the top of the engine can be picked out below.
Another nice intact railing crosses the back of the boat deck (15), then steps on either side lead down to the main deck (16) at 44m. The section of deck leading to number 3 hold is open ribs, so perhaps it was originally wooden decking that has now rotted away.
Alongside the hold, the steel deck resumes and is fairly intact. The hold is full of fine silt.
Between the holds, two cargo-winches span the deck, with a mast-foot between them (17). Pairs of mooring bollards are located to either side.
The aft number 4 hold is similarly filled with silt, then steps either side (18) lead up to the quarterdeck.
Hatches beside the steps lead into very well-silted cabins and instant zero visibility, as in the forecastle.
Rather than ascend the steps (18), or for those who don’t mind a bit more depth towards the end of the dive, now is the time to make a brief excursion to the propeller and rudder (19) at a maximum depth of 51m to the seabed, although a couple of metres could be shaved off this depth.
The rudder is slightly to port. Ascending the stern past an intact railing to 40m, a steering bar (20) attached to the top of the rudder-post is likewise rotated to port.
Along the centre of the deck, a small box with sloping cover (21) is the ammunition locker for the Greatham’s 12-pounder gun. An aft-facing cuddy guards a hatch below.
The braced box of the gun platform (22) is intact, with the stub of the gun pintle in its centre, but there is no sign of the gun, which has presumably been salvaged.
The nearby railing makes an ideal point at which to release a delayed SMB and ascend to decompress.
COALED AND HOLED
THE GREATHAM, armed steamship. BUILT 1890, SUNK 1918
THE 2338-TON SMALL BRITISH schooner-rigged steamer Greatham left Grimsby on 16 January, 1918. Her orders were to carry her cargo of 3100 tons of coal to Blaye, near Bordeaux, writes Kendall McDonald.
Though the Greatham was described as “armed” – there was a 12-pounder gun on her stern, and two naval gunners to serve it – her master Robert Harrison was very pleased that his ship was also under the protection of many other guns. These were aboard the Royal Navy escorts of the small convoy he joined as soon as he left harbour.
He would have been less pleased had he known that, as soon as the convoy started to cross Start Bay six days later, the ships were spotted by a U-boat waiting near Dartmouth to sink any traffic using that port.
Oberleutnant Theodor Beber, commanding UB31, found it easy to keep up with that convoy on the morning of 22 January.
It consisted mostly of old ships which, though travelling at their top speeds, made slow progress.
The Greatham was one of the oldest of all, though far from the slowest. She had been built in the Hartlepool yard of W Gray & Co and launched in April 1890 as Bussorah.
The 290ft ship, with a beam of 38ft, was renamed Greatham that same year, when she was bought by the Middlesbrough shipping firm Coombes, Marshall & Co.
She was worked hard, but her triple-expansion engines gave her a top speed of 9 knots, which she could keep up for hours. When war came she was given the signal letters LORP.
At 1.55pm, with the convoy three miles south-east of Dartmouth, Bieber brought the submarine up to periscope depth and fired both his bow torpedoes. The port-tube torpedo went wide of the convoy, but the starboard one hit Greatham in the aft part of no 2 hold, causing extensive damage.
As his ship started to list heavily, Captain Harrison ordered his mixed crew of 26 (17 British, two Russians and seven Arabs) and the two gunners to the boats. Seven died when the ship went down 35 minutes later.
The naval ships started depth-charging at once, but Bieber and his crew escaped with little more than a slight shaking.
GETTING THERE: From the M5 and then A38, turn left onto the A380 and A3022 for Torquay.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 18.284 N, 003 30.422 W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The Greatham lies across the tide with its bow to just south of east in a scour a good 6m deep.
TIDES: Slack is three hours after high water Devonport or two hours before high water Devonport, with the best visibility usually coming after high water.
ACCOMMODATION: Tordean Hotel, 01803 294669.
QUALIFICATIONS: An advanced air dive suitable for PADI Divemaster/BSAC Dive Leader or equivalent with advanced nitrox and deco procedures.
LAUNCHING: Slips at Paignton, Brixham and Dartmouth.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 3315, Berry Head to Bill of Portland. Ordnance Survey Map 202, Torbay & South Dartmoor Area. World War One Channel Wrecks, by Neil Maw. Dive South Devon, by Kendall McDonald.
PROS: Apart from the broken number 2 hold, the wreck is reasonably intact, and mostly shallower than 45m.
CONS: Visibility can be low, especially after heavy rainfall.
Thanks to Steve Mackay, Andy Micklewright and Rick Parker