For some, the magical moment when wreck diving occurs when a skeleton ship materializes beneath them, ghostlike, out of a previously empty ocean. For others, it’s the perfect symbiosis of a manmade structure reclaimed by nature becoming a home for marine life. For most divers, though, the biggest thrill of wreck diving is the feeling of traveling back through time, of revisiting the history that caused the ship to sink in the first place. Some wrecks are the product of human error or inclement weather; others are scuttled intentionally to create an artificial reef or point of interest. Perhaps the most fascinating wrecks of all, however, are those that sank as a result of conflict, for these have the greatest story to tell. Here we’ll take a look at three very different, but equally fascinating, wartime shipwrecks from around the world. They have been chosen for their remarkable history, and for their accessibility to recreational divers.
S.S. Thistlegorm, Red Sea, Egypt
Often described as the world’s best wreck dive, the S.S. Thistlegorm started life in 1940 as a British Merchant Navy freighter ship. After being drafted into military service during World War II, the privately owned vessel was fitted with an anti-aircraft gun and a heavy-caliber machine gun for defensive purposes. In June 1941, it set sail from Glasgow, Scotland, bound for Alexandria, Egypt. Loaded with supplies for the Allied Forces in Egypt, its cargo included cases of ammunition, Bedford trucks, Universal Carrier armored vehicles, Norton 16H and BSA motorcycles, Bren guns, radio equipment, rifles, aircraft parts and railway supplies. In an attempt to avoid the German and Italian navies in the Mediterranean, the Thistlegorm sailed via South Africa and reached Safe Anchorage F in the Northern Red Sea in September 1941.
It was there that it fell victim to two German bomber planes one month later, who mistook it for an enemy troop carrier rumored to be in the same vicinity. The Thistlegorm suffered two direct hits and sank soon thereafter, causing the deaths of four crewmembers and five Royal Navy gunners. It went down with most of its cargo still aboard, and remained forgotten on the seafloor until its discovery by Jacques Cousteau in 1955. Several decades passed before the ship became the mainstay of Red Sea diving that it is today. The reasons for the wreck’s popularity are many, from its accessibility to recreational divers thanks to a maximum depth of 100 feet (30 m) to its large size and impressively intact wartime cargo. At over 400 feet (120 m) long, you’ll need several dives to fully appreciate the S.S Thistlegorm. The wreck is accessible by day trip from Sharm el-Sheikh, and is a highlight of most Red Sea liveaboard itineraries.
S.M.S Cöln, Scapa Flow, Scotland
After World War I ended with Allied victory, the 74 ships of the German High Seas Fleet were interned at Scapa Flow in Orkney, Scotland, while they waited for their fate to be decided under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. On June 21st, 1919, the initial deadline for that decision passed, and, unaware than an extension had been granted, German Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter chose to scuttle his fleet rather than allow it to pass into British hands. In what would go down in history as the largest-ever intentional maritime loss, the British Navy sailors serving as the guardians of the imprisoned vessels were forced to watch helplessly as the majority of the fleet sank beneath the waves. Amazingly, no lives were lost in the mass sinking, although nine German sailors were killed as the British opened fire in an attempt to stop the scuttling. These nine sailors were allegedly the last fatalities of the Great War.
Nowadays, just seven vessels of the German fleet remain unsalvaged at Scapa Flow. Together, they offer arguably the world’s best cold-water wreck dives. Of the seven, choosing just one as a standout dive site is difficult. The three König-class battleships are the most impressive in terms of their size and history; all three were veterans of the famous Battle of Jutland. The wreck that offers perhaps the most memorable dive experience, however, is the light cruiser S.M.S Cöln, both for its relative accessibility and for its intact appearance. Launched in October 1916, the Cöln was one of only two ships of its class to be completed. It spent most of its war years mining and patrolling in the German Bight, and now lies in 119 feet (36 m) of water, with the shallowest point at 72 feet (22 m). Lying on its starboard side, the ship is in such excellent condition that only a little imagination is needed to see it, as it would have been in its prime. The most impressive features are the stem and armored control tower.
Shinkoku Maru, Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia
Once known as Truk Lagoon, this sheltered body of water and the many islands and islets that surround it comprise Micronesia’s Chuuk State. During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Navy used the lagoon as its main base of operations in the South Pacific, and its waters were home to an impressive fleet of battleships, aircraft carriers, destroyers, cargo ships, submarines and more. This safe haven was breached in 1944, however, when the United States took possession of the nearby Marshall Islands. On February 17th, the Americans launched Operation Hailstone against the fleet anchored in the lagoon, an offensive that lasted three days and claimed 12 warships, 32 merchant ships and 275 aircraft. Although the Japanese fleet’s larger warships had relocated to Palau prior to the attack, Operation Hailstone irrevocably changed the course of the war, and simultaneously created the world’s most famous wreck-diving destination.
One of Chuuk’s most famous wrecks is that of the oil tanker Shinkoku Maru. With depths ranging from 40 to 125 feet (12-38 m), it is also one of the lagoon’s more accessible wrecks, and the preferred choice for those divers that wish to explore Japan’s ghost fleet at night. Built in 1939 as a commercial tanker, the Shinkoku Maru was converted into a fleet oiler by the Japanese Navy, and participated in the famous attack on Pearl Harbor. It experienced its first brush with the enemy in 1942, when an American submarine torpedoed the ship, and during Operation Hailstone it suffered two aerial torpedo hits before eventually succumbing after two days under attack. Nowadays, the wreck boasts some of the most impressive coral cover of any of the Chuuk Lagoon wrecks. Its main attractions include guns to the fore and aft and a largely intact engine room, galley and operating bay, each complete with an array of fascinating artifacts.