Preserving America’s Underwater Battlefield: British Splendour

This year, Scuba Diver Life and NOAA are partnering to profile 12 different ships in the Graveyard of the Atlantic. This month we visit the British Splendour.

From January to the end of August 1942, German U-boats attacked more than 285 vessels in North American waters. Just off coastal North Carolina, the remnants of many of these ships are scattered on the ocean floor. The remains of this little-known battlefield serve as the final resting place for 90 ships and nearly 1,700 men lost during the Battle of the Atlantic. Over the course of the battle, eight Allied convoy vessels, 78 merchant freighters and tankers and four German U-boats sank off North Carolina’s coast. Each shipwreck tells a unique story; today we visit the British Splendour.

British Splendour sinks

Laden with 10,000 gallons of gas, merchant tanker British Splendour left Houston, Texas, on its way to Nova Scotia in early April 1942 to rendezvous with a British convoy. The tanker’s cargo was important for the war raging in Europe. Unfortunately, British Splendour never arrived at its destination.

As the ship cruised off the North Carolina coast, HMS St. Zeno (FY 280) and HMS Hertfordshire (FY 176) escorted the tanker. Aware of the dangers lurking in the waters, all of the armed vessels stationed lookouts. The vessels’ crews knew German U-boats could be in the area.

On April 7, U-552 silently and patiently prowled the North Carolina coast under the cover of darkness. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., U-552 fired a single torpedo that hit British Splendour with a devastating blow on the port side near the engine room. The torpedo immediately disabled the ship, and 12 crew members were killed instantly. Fire spread quickly, and when it reached the storage areas, the gas cargo engulfed the ship in a violent blaze. British Splendour’s captain ordered the crew to abandon ship and the 41 surviving men made it safely into lifeboats.

After two hours, the ship sank. The survivors were rescued and taken to Norfolk, Virginia.

Diving British Splendour

Resting upside down with its hull plating facing the surface, British Splendour lies about 100 feet (30 m) underwater. The remains of the ship are mostly contiguous, with a small section of high relief located at the vessel’s stern. The prevailing current runs from bow to stern, but site conditions vary during the year. Shifting sands and variable currents create an ever-changing environment in a dynamic zone.

“The great visibility usually found at the site provides a fantastic view of the ship’s stern twisted on the seafloor,” says Tane Casserley, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary maritime archaeologist. “The sheer amount of machinery exposed and the hull laid open speaks to the power of the torpedo that exploded there 77 years ago.”

Marine life is abundant at the wreck site, and divers can often see stingrays and schools of blue runners feeding on swirling baitfish. Amberjack, spadefish, and barracudas, along with occasional nurse sharks, also visit the wreck site. 

To learn more about British Splendour and other World War II shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast, click here, and to check out a 3-D model of the wreck, click here.

An expanded sanctuary

In an effort to honor the service and sacrifice of those lost during the Battle of the Atlantic, NOAA in 2019 will release a draft proposal to expand the boundaries of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary to include a nationally significant collection of shipwrecks that currently have little or no legal protection. The expansion would also establish the largest area designated as a World War II battlefield anywhere in the world. British Splendour is one vessel included in the proposal.

To learn more about the proposal, click here.

By Shannon Ricles, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary