This is a big steamship, torpedoed off south Devon in 1918 but still in impressive condition, says our tour-guide JOHN LIDDIARD. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
COMING UP TO OUR FIRST CENTURY of Wreck Tours, I am beginning my celebrations early by thinking “big“.
The Elsa was a 3,581-ton steamship, torpedoed off Dartmouth by UB31 at the start of 1918. The torpedo struck the stoke hold, breaking the Elsa in two, with the two parts sinking just 10m or so apart and the boilers spilled between.
For some perverse reason, it is much easier to hook a shot into the aft part of the wreck. A shot dropped on the forward part tends to slide off into the scour.
And it’s a big scour, getting on for 10m deep into the surrounding bank of silt, down to just past 50m. If you find that the shot is off the wreck, just head downhill and you’ll end up at the bow or stern.
Anyway, for the purposes of our tour I will assume that the shot has caught on just aft of the break (1), on the boat-deck at 39m. The deck here is above the engine-room. Heading aft, a deckhouse with small ventilation-hatches on the roof (2) stands above, downward access now blocked by silt and debris.
Behind this is the hatch for the number 4 hold (3). The Elsa has five holds and this is the first one aft. The hatch to the hold spans the middle third of the deck, so there is quite a bit of deck to either side, then a high coaming around the hatch. Look inside and you see that the hold is filled with silt.
If the visibility is limited, a tip for orientation is that holes rotted through the decking run across the ship, and can be used to navigate between the holds and deck machinery, which is generally along the centre-line, across the deck to the sides.
The aft mast has fallen diagonally forwards and lies pointing off the starboard side. Big cargo-winches run across the deck forward and aft of the foot of the mast (4).
Behind the second winch a railing runs across the deck, with steps either side down to the main deck (5) at 42m. The Elsa has an extended boat-deck that runs from the bridge and wheelhouse all the way back past number 4 hold. Like the previous hold, the aftmost number 5 hold is filled with silt.
Behind the hold, a small derrick hangs over the hatch, then the stern rises back up to 40m with steps to either side (6). Doorways lead inside to a silt bank in the crew’s quarters.
The stern deck has the usual fittings of big mooring bollards to either side, with smaller fairleads round the stern. In the centre of the deck is a small deckhouse (7), then behind it a big steering quadrant (8).
Dropping over the side, the overhanging stern cuts out what little natural light there is, and everything becomes very black. It’s well worth a look, however, because the big rudder and propeller are still in place (9). The seabed below is the deepest point of the scour at 54m, though you don’t have to go past 50m to see the propeller.
To avoid a few metres of up-and-down at the stern, our route follows the hull back up the port side and forward at 42m to rejoin the main deck (10). Then it’s back up the steps and past the railing to the boat-deck, and forward along the side of the deck (11), past number 4 hold and on above the engine-room to the break (12).
The break runs across a pair of skylights in the deck that would have seated ventilation-hatches above the heat of the boilers.
At this point, I have to confess that I didn’t complete the Elsa in one dive, so while our tour continues by dropping back to the seabed to find the boilers (13), this is probably the point at which to split the wreck into two dives.
The boilers are partially buried in silt at 48m. The scour is right down to the rocks at the stern, but there is 6m by the boilers.
It’s not an unusual pattern to have the scour deeper where the current rushes round the end of a wreck. What is unusual is the sheer scale of it.
Following a straight line past the boilers should lead to the port side of the forward part of the wreck (14), about 10m from the stern section. Back at boat-deck level, a pair of rectangular cuts in from the break are the other ends of the skylights encountered on the aft side of the break.
Forward from these, a metal frame runs across the deck (15), originally the supporting structure for a wooden deckhouse and the lifeboat-derricks.
A short pair of masts in a goalpost configuration form part of the structure, with a smaller winch across the deck just forward of them to serve number 3 hold (16).
While I have not ventured inside, this hold appears to be free of silt, which suggests that there is a significant way out somewhere below – perhaps through the break, or maybe there is another break in the side of the hull.
The wheelhouse (17) is forward of this hold, spanning the boat-deck and rising one level above. An original photograph of the Elsa shows this rising yet another level, to give three decks in total to the wheelhouse, though the upper decks would have been built largely of wood.
Forward of the wheelhouse we drop back to the main deck, a set of steps to either side, with an old lobster-pot to the starboard side of number 2 hold (18).
Another pair of big cargo-winches (19) serve the forward holds from the deck between, though there is no sign of the mast as there was further aft – only the footings on the steel deck-plate between the winches.
The first hold (20) is again filled with silt. It runs forward into a cut-out in the forecastle, with about 25% of the hold surrounded by forecastle, steps and railings (21).
At the back of the deck above, a pair of small winches set at an angle would have been used for hauling mooring-lines. Forward of these are six pairs of large mooring bollards (22), set four pairs across the deck, then another pair either side of the anchor-winch (23), which is well forward on the deck.
From the winch, anchor-chains run through the hawse-pipes, with both anchors still in place to either side of the bow (24).
The wreck at this location used to be thought to be the Greatham, also sunk by UB31 just two days earlier. Having dived it, it is very obviously the Elsa, and the Greatham is a wreck listed as unknown only a mile or two away.
ABSENT WITHOUT LEAVE
The 3,581 tons of the 102m steamship Elsa travelled a long way after being built by Tyne Shipbuilding Co of Sunderland in 1904 for the Norwegian African Australian Line of Oslo, writes Kendall McDonald.
Her final voyage was no exception. It began in Calcutta in August 1917, and took her to Sierra Leone for a marine safety inspection. Holds filled with 2,000 tons of coal, 200 tons of coke and 600 tons of general cargo, she joined a convoy at Dakar that brought her safely to Falmouth.
She left Falmouth on 21 January, 1918 and was heading up the Channel when a wireless message diverted her to Plymouth. Captain Johannes Woxholt remained there for three days. Then, to the Admiralty’s surprise, he left Plymouth without any order to do so. Once again, he headed up-Channel.
He didn’t get far. On the morning of 24 January, Oberleutnant Wilhelm Braun, commander of UB31, spotted the Elsa five miles off Dartmouth. He fired one torpedo from a forward tube at periscope depth. The Elsa was hit in the starboard side, about 11m behind the engine-room. The explosion destroyed number 5 hold and blew the hatch covers sky-high.
The torpedo damage started the ship sinking stern-first, and Captain Woxholt ordered his 28 crew into the boats moments later. The Elsa took only 20 minutes to sink. Crewmen were picked up from the boats by two patrol launches and landed safely at Dartmouth.
Captain Woxholt received a severe drubbing for leaving Plymouth without permission. Admiralty agents were also annoyed that the captain’s antics had resulted in all traffic being suspended between Plymouth and Portsmouth, and that his torpedoing had created chaos along a big stretch of the swept channel, holding up shipping for half the day.
GETTING THERE: From the M5 and then A38, turn left on the A380 and A3022 for Torquay or Paignton.
TIDES: Slack is 3.5 hours after high water Devonport or 2.5 hours before high water Devonport, the best visibility being after high water.
HOW TO FIND IT: GPS co-ordinates are 50 18.007 N, 3 30.633 W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The Elsa lies in a scour 10m deep in a generally silty seabed, but scoured down to the rocks about the bow and stern. The bow points just to the west of north.
DIVING & AIR: Jennifer Ann, Torquay, 01803 607704.
LAUNCHING: The closest slip is at Paignton
ACCOMMODATION: Tor Dean Hotel, Torquay, 01803 294669.
QUALIFICATIONS: At the limit of air diving, the Elsa is best dived with lots of gas and a hot deco mix, though it is just within the range of those who don’t want to get loaded up with technical kit.
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: Wonderfully intact apart from the break amidships.
CONS: Visibility can be low, especially after heavy rainfall.
Thanks to Steve Mackay, Andy Micklewright and Rick Parker.
Appeared in DIVER May 2007