This German armed trawler sunk by British aircraft off Guernsey in 1944 has taken JOHN LIDDIARD’s fancy. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
AUGUST’S WRECK TOUR IS A NICE little armed trawler with a difference. The Dr Rudolf Wahrendorf was in German service with Kriegsmarin registration V209, and was escorting a convoy when it was attacked by British aircraft, sinking in the approaches to St Peter Port in Guernsey, in the Channel Islands.
The wreck is so close to St Peter Port that you need to check with port control when it is safe to dive, and follow its instructions.
The highest point on the wreck and the starting point of our tour is the deck-house at the stern. The pillar (1), fixed through this deck-house and reaching above it, is actually the support for an anti-aircraft gun platform.
Behind the deck-house on the main deck at 28m is the trawl-winch (2). The hull and deck to the port side is broken, but immediately behind the winch the reinforced area of deck is intact.
This leads to a rounded gate (3) for trawl cables to slide over the stern without chafing. While originally built in Finland as the fishing trawler Prince Rupert, in German military service this winch and gate would have been used for mine-sweeping cables.
Beneath the stern, the rudder (4) is turned to starboard and part-buried in the sand at 33m. The propeller has been salvaged to leave the usual stub of shaft.
The starboard side of the hull is in better condition. Back on the main deck, the hull is colonised by pink sea-fans and red fingers, a skinnier relative of the better-known white and yellow dead men’s fingers, with a red trunk and pink-to-white polyps.
A pair of bollards (5) is located behind a gap in the gunwale. The walls of the deck-house are partly rotted, allowing glimpses inside, but a little further forward an open doorway (6) provides an easier way to poke a head inside and have a look.
Fallen into this doorway is a conical pintle-mount for a smaller gun, perhaps something machine-gun-sized.
Another small winch spans the forward end of the deck-house. Immediately forward of this, the engine is buried beneath debris, though some parts of the top of it remain exposed. On the port side, the deck and side of the hull is again broken (7), showing that the air attack came in from the port side of the ship.
The next structure forward is the remains of the wheelhouse (8), easily accessible as the sides have mostly decayed. Inside, the helm has fallen among debris, the partly broken spokes and hub of the ship’s wheel still attached. A steel-framed hole in the deck contains a ladder leading down to the engine-room.
Another winch is mounted immediately in front of the wheel-house, then a small coaming (9) on the main deck provides a narrow entry to the forward hold.
Across this small section of intact deck is another conical gun-pintle fallen flat on the deck, then a reinforced platform that would have mounted another large anti-aircraft gun (10), which has been salvaged. Forward of this, the corresponding gun shield (11) rests face-down on the deck.
Our tour has now reached the bow. In service, this was covered by a shelter-deck. All that remains of this is a wide arch of steel (12), which provides a nice little swim-through.
The anchor-winch is partly sheltered beneath the back of the shelter-deck. Then, in the centre, a tubular footing for the forward mast descends through the main deck.
The port side of the bow is well broken at main-deck level (13), which is just a mess of debris, providing a home for some large conger eels. No anchors are in place or on the seabed, so these too have most likely been salvaged.
Returning aft along the starboard side of the bow, steps (14) that would have reached up to the top of the shelter-deck have decayed, and slipped down to rest halfway up the bulkhead.
Small vertical holes have rotted through the steel hull between the ribs, getting slightly larger and becoming a much bigger fracture (15) just forward of the wheelhouse. With all the attack damage on the other side of the hull, this fracture is probably a result of the weakened hull settling on the seabed.
Back on the main deck, any time remaining can be spent looking in more detail around the wheelhouse or engine debris (16), before returning to the shotline to ascend.
Close to the harbour entrance, staying on the shotline is critical to safety. You wouldn’t want to drift off into the path of a big ship, a high-speed ferry, or even one of the hordes of yachts or gin palaces that crowd the approaches to the harbour on a nice day.
BOMBED BY THE BRITISH
DR RUDOLF WAHRENDORF, armed trawler. Built 1928, SUNK 1944
BUILT IN 1928 by G Seebeck in its Wesermunde yard in Germany as a steam trawler for Finnish owners, this ship was launched as the Prince Rupert. But the Finns soon sold her to the German Grundmann Groschel of Geestermunde, which changed her name to Dr Rudolf Wahrendorf, gave her the official fishing number PG383 and registered her home port as Bremerhaven, writes Kendall McDonald.
The 381-ton trawler, 148ft long with a beam of 25ft and a draught of 12ft, then set off, driven by a three-cylinder steam engine, on a successful fishing career that lasted until the start of World War Two.
The German Kriegsmarin took over the tough trawler on Christmas Eve, 1939. Arming her with a 40mm gun at her bow and a 20mm at her stern, it made her a Verpostenboot (guard ship) with the official naval number of V209.
By July 1944, she was an armed escort trawler based at St Peter Port in Guernsey. She had been fitted with bigger stern guns but, like most German shipping after D-Day, she never travelled alone in the Channel, or in daylight hours.
When seen, she was usually the lead escort to small merchant ships, and kept company with two or three other armed trawlers.
On the evening of 24 July, 1944, five Grumman Avenger aircraft of 850 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, 19 Group Coastal Command from Perranporth in Cornwall, were on anti-shipping patrol. Their flight plan took them over the Channel Islands in the early evening and they passed close over Guernsey.
The three-man crews of these big US torpedo-bombers saw three small merchant ships being escorted out of St Peter Port harbour by three armed German trawlers. The Dr Rudolf Wahrendorf led the way and the others provided close escort to the rear of the little supply convoy.
The Avengers at once swooped low to begin their bombing run. They had no torpedoes aboard; instead, the bays each held four 500lb bombs.
The first two bombers attacked Dr Rudolf Wahrendorf and the merchant ship behind it. Huge flashes showed direct hits.
The second ship in the line, a merchant ship of about 1000 tons, was also hit, and bomb flashes were seen on her deck. She was soon covered with clouds of smoke, and flames leapt 60m above her. She looked as though she was slowly sinking.
Later reports said that this ship was seen beached north of the harbour.
There was no doubt about the fate of Dr Rudolf Wahrendorf. She was gone from the surface and, apart from two bodies floating in a pool of oil, there was no sign of her. Guernsey reports said that 26 of her crew were killed.
In May 1970, the Plymouth Clearance Diving Team discovered the wreck and removed hundreds of 20mm and 40mm shells, together with some twenty 4in shells. Divers lifted the bow and stern guns, and these are now on display outside the Guernsey Underground Occupation Museum.
The other Avengers attacked the two remaining armed escort trawlers, which put up a curtain of anti-aircraft fire as they withdrew into the shelter of the harbour. One Avenger was hit, and believed lost.
However, the next day it reported that it had landed, damaged, on an American airfield in Normandy. Its crew were all safe.
HOW TO FIND IT: GPS co-ordinates are 49 27.381N, 002 31.046W (degrees, minutes and decimals).
TIDES: Slack water is one hour after high water and one hour after low water St Peter Port. There are lengthy slacks at neap tides. Time of diving may be further restricted by shipping traffic (see below).
QUALIFICATIONS: Fairly straightforward wreck for PADI Advanced Open Water with a Deep Speciality, or BSAC Sports Divers.
LAUNCHING: Slip at St Peter Port in Guernsey.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 3654, Guernsey, Herm & Sark. For diving safety in the vicinity of the harbour, contact the Harbour Duty Officer 01481 712422 during office hours to discuss dive plans and for full details of diving procedures, then confirm with port control on VHF channel 12 before diving. Port traffic tends to be lowest early in the morning and late in the evening.
PROS: Very convenient for a quick trip out and back from St Peter Port.
CONS: Located in the approaches to the harbour, so diving may be restricted by shipping and ferry traffic.
DEPTH RANGE: 20-35m
Thanks to Mike Rowley and Richard Keen.
Appeared in DIVER August 2009