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Battle stations: Expedition Jutland

HMS Defence SternHMS Defence as seen from the stern – the deck has collapsed and the capstan is standing free in the background

It was the crucial sea battle of the First World War. One hundred years later René B Andersen explores the wrecks from this bloody encounter

The Battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle of the First World War. It was fought between the British and Germans and took place 128km (80 miles) off the coast of Jutland in Denmark. Germany’s aim was to break Britain’s blockade to allow German naval vessels access to the Atlantic, while the British wanted to keep Germany’s forces at bay by destroying the German fleet. 

The battle lasted two days, over 31 May and 1 June 1916, and 249 ships took part. In total 25 ships sank (14 British and 11 German) and 8,500 people died. Both countries claimed victory  – the Germans had destroyed more ships, yet the British blockade remained in place and the German fleet didn’t leave port for the rest of the war. Even today, there is a debate over which country, if either, was the victor. 

A century later, I was to see the effects of the conflict first-hand on an expedition to dive the shipwrecks in commemoration of what was the most costly of First World War naval battles. 

Our expedition leader was Belgian Stef Teuwen and the expedition comprised three, week-long trips on the Commandant Fourcault with divers from all over the world taking part. The ship was a diver’s dream: 55m in length, equipped with a helicopter, pressure chamber, three RIBs, two cranes and she can accommodate up to 32 technical divers – a little more advanced than your average liveaboard!

Setting sail, Monday 22 August 

We were to sail out of Thybøron in Jutland. Fortunately, the weather forecast was looking good – it’s not unusual for trips to the wrecks to be cancelled because of poor weather – and we were in high spirits. 

We boarded at 7pm and were allocated rooms and space for our equipment. With 32 technical divers on board, the space soon filled with sodalime, tanks, scooters and other equipment. 

At last we set off, many of us taking advantage of the final 20 minutes ofmobile network coverage – after that, it would be seven days without a phone signal or access to the Internet. 

20160824 190752A helicopter made it easy to access the mainland some 80 miles away 

SMS Frauenlob, Tuesday 23 August

We sailed overnight and when we awoke, the ship had already dropped anchor close to the first wreck, SMS Frauenlob, a German light cruiser built in 1903 that was sunk by a torpedo during the battle

After breakfast, we received a dive briefing. On boardwas wreck enthusiast Tamás Balogh from Hungary, who although not a diver, had remarkable knowledge about the shipwrecks and had made impressive drawings of some of them.

With 32 divers in the water, we had to be organised, and with some divers starting to come up before all the divers were down, it was busy on the rope on the way down to the wreck. Fortunately, there was no current and we reached the wreckage at around 47m. Conditions, however, were disappointing – it was dark and visibility was no more than 2m, so it was difficult to get an overview of the wreck. 

DSC 4262A diver waits for the ‘Go’ signal for his RIB pickup

BSC 1325
Divers gathering around the crowded deco stop 

Our first dive had a run time of 90 minutes. Back at the surface we returned to the ship and were recovered from the water by a cage that was lifted by a crane. Unfortunately, water had got into my Shearwater rebreather controls, so I had to skip the second dive, which would have given a better insight into the wreck. 

While we dined that evening, the ship made its way to our second wreck, SMS Lützow.

SMS Frauenlob Porthole
One of the portholes on SMS Frauenlob

Cordite Containers Brass Lids
Brass lids for cordite containers. The containers and the iron on the lids have rusted away, leaving only brass

SMS Lützow, Wednesday 24 August

A German battlecruiser built in 1914, SMS Lützow was one of the most modern German ships in her class, with a 12-inch cannon tower along the centre line. During the battle she fired 380 grenades and was hit with 24 grenades in return, which resulted in serious damage at her bow. According to German naval archives, casualties numbered 128 men. Ordered to withdraw, she attempted to sail home accompanied by four other ships, but as she was taking on too much water, the crew was evacuated and she was sunk by torpedoes fired by one of her escorts. 

Having had a bad run the previous day, we were feeling tense as we made our entries into the water. But on the way down the rope, things looked better, with visibility and light both reasonable. 

At first there was little to see, but as we got deeper we could see stacks of grenades in layers three or four deep. The grenades were huge – certainly too big to be lifted by one person. We swam towards the stern, where we were able to see engine parts such as the boiler, and lots of brass casings and piles of brass lids.

Steam Turbine SMS LutzowInside a steam turbine on SMS Lützow

Further down, we passed large machine parts from the steam turbines and another large object which turned out to be a recoil absorber for one of the big 12-inch guns that was at the stern. Just as we were about to turn around, we saw one of the propeller shafts. At that point, there was a lot of line to take in, but luckily my partner was generous enough to take on the job so that I could concentrate on taking pictures.

I was in deco as I watched the others slowly head for the surface. When it was my turn to surface, there were still a couple of divers on the line waiting to be picked up. With choppy waves at the surface, I went down to 6m and  kept an eye on the divers above. It took an extra 25 minutes to get back on the ship, but eventually I was back on board. Sadly, the second dive had to be cancelled due to bad weather conditions and a defective RIB. It was disappointing, because the wreck was worth another dive, but at least there was the prospect of HMS Queen Mary the following day.

Ship Crane Recovers Divers
An expedition ship crane recovers a diver after a dive 

HMS Queen Mary, Thursday 25 August 

A battlecruiser built in 1913, HMS Queen Mary was equipped with 13.5-inch cannons and was the pride of the fleet. At one point during the battle, Queen Mary had engaged in a duel with SMS Seydlitz and had scored several hits while being hit herself. Then SMS Derfflinger, which had been firing at another ship, turned its cannons on HMS Queen Mary and within three minutes and at least two salvoes hitting her, she went down with 1,266 of her men. According to the accounts of nine survivors, there were two explosions on the ships. Objects were scattered over more than 100 metres. 

Blue Print of HMS Queen Mary
Viewing a blueprint of HMS Queen Mary

Because the wreckage lies in two different spots, we were divided into two teams, each with a RIB. Our team decided to dive the stern first, as it looked more intact. 

At 60m, this was the expedition’s deepest wreck, and although it was very dark and the wreck lies on a mud bottom, visibility was good. The wreck is very damaged and it’s difficult to identify features, but we found a 13.5-inch turret lying upside down and then later the lower part of the turret. We made a small detour when we bumped into two Italian divers who had found part of one of the propellers sticking out of the bottom, which was later confirmed when we saw the shaft. From here it was somewhat messy, and when we reached the anchor line, we went the other way. We saw portholes, a few of which a few were loose. However, the wooden deck was still intact in large parts. We returned to the surface and after lunch prepared to dive the stern. It didn’t look too promising judging from the sonar image. And conditions weren’t any better when we reached the bottom: dark, muddy, limited visibility, and smashed-up wreckage. It was here where the two magazines had exploded. 

HMS Queen Mary
A dive on the battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary

We reached into what appeared to be a large piston with teeth on the one side, which our wreck expert Tamás thought could be something from the cannon tower. After that, we saw a bollard and several anchor chains and finally the first grenade on the wreck. We also saw a part of the superstructure. The best way to describe the wreck is as loose iron parts and twisted plates. An overview is impossible especially when the area is 40m by 80m, so after reaching the surface, everything was made ready to sail further north towards the next wreck, where we then anchored for the night. Subsequently, after reading Innes McCartney’s much- recommended book Battle of Jutland, I realised we had been unlucky with the route we took on both parts of the wreck, as we didn’t see several grenades that should have been there. 

HMS Queen Mary 2
Although unconfirmed, this  wreckage on HMS Queen Mary could be a steam piston

HMS Defence, Friday 26 August 

HMS Defence was a 150m-long battlecruiser built in 1907. During the battle, her commander attacked the disabled SMS Wiesbaden, leaving the ship exposed to attack from German battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger and four battleships. HMS Defence was hit by two salvoes and she exploded and sank with the loss of all 903 men. 

The wreck looked impressive on the sonar image. We could even see the gun turrets on the image, and we were excited at the prospect of a dive on the wreck. 

The rope was tied at amidships, so when we got down we were almost on top of a 7.5-inch turret and we were enjoying the best visibility we had seen up until then. It was impressive to swim along the deck and see one turret after another on both sides. On some of the turrets, the top had been blown off and inside we could see grenades still standing along the walls ready to be loaded into the cannon. 

Turret On HMS Defence
One of the seven 7.5-inch turrets on HMS Defence

Divers On HMS Defence
Divers on HMS Defence

In parts, the deck has caved in as a result of the heavy armour and the weight of the guns, so the machinery is visible, and divers are able to swim down into this area. Further towards the stern, we came to the double-barrelled 9.2-inch gun where one of the barrels had been blown off. Beyond this, we found the deck had collapsed and the capstan was standing 5m above the wreck. The ship is tilted slightly to the port side. 

We spent most of this first dive at a depth of 44 to 51m and got to see a large amount of the wreck. In fact, we enjoyed the dive so much that when it was suggested we stay an extra day, there were no objections.

We used scooters on the second dive so that we could see the whole wreck and have time to take photographs. At the bow we saw the boilers and the lower part of the front 9.2-inch double-barrelled gun turret. Unfortunately, the top was gone; the turret was resting on its side and we could see the hoisting system.

Right in front of it, there was a large hole in the wreck that went down to the seabed. This was the location of the main ammunition stock. We then came to the bow, which was lying almost completely across the rest of the wreckage, on its port side. Both capstans were pushed up slightly and we could see where the chain lay. 

As the visibility was so good compared with dives on the other wrecks, we could see the tremendous forces that had been unleashed by the explosion. 

HMS Defence, Saturday 27 August 

So, back to HMS Defence again. I hope my description of the first two dives gives a good idea of the wreck – but there was still much more to see. The wreckage was full of loose objects such as portholes, assorted china and grenades. It was now time to see what was hidden inside the wreck. There were several places on the wreck that were easy to penetrate. Below deck, at the stern cannons, the wreck was broken at both sides – there was good light and space, and we could see the remnants of machine tools, lantern glass, lamps and portholes. 

Glass Carafe in wreckA glass carafe found inside the wreck

Under the deck was a tunnel, where space was cramped and it was littered with bottles. Out on the starboard side lay one of the shafts and a propeller. Under that I found a tunnel with several boxes, the size of suitcases, which had handles and there were holes in them. We were later told they were used to transport ammunition.

Searching around and looking into holes and cracks, we discovered many wolf-fish on the wreck. These, along with dead men’s fingers found at the shallow points of the wreck, were the only marine life we saw.

Wolffish HMS Defence
HMS Defence is home to many wolffish 

The dive ended inauspiciously when the crane that was recovering me from the water broke down. I was only half a metre from the rail but after ten minutes of trying to fix it, they had to give up on it. I was pulled in and had to climb in after taking off a stage tank.

Although we managed four dives on the wreck, there was certainly more to explore.

HMS Invincible, Sunday 28 August 

Completed in 1908, HMS Invincible was one of the world’s first battlecruisers, with a cruising speed of 25 knots and with eight Mk X guns in four twin turrets and several other smaller-calibre guns.

Before the Battle of Jutland, HMS Invincible was on her way to Scapa Flow but had to turn back and join the battle. In the first engagement, she was hit by SMS Wiesbaden, damaging both of her engines. Later in the battle she was targeted by SMS Lützow and SMS Derfflinger. The two German ships fired three salvoes at Invincible and sank her in 90 seconds. Of the 1,031 men who were aboard only six crew survived.

The wreck lies at 50m and, as visibility was good we could follow the others from a distance. We swam for a while over what can best be described as a junkyard. Suddenly, the turret appeared, with the twin 12-inch barrel which still stands on the wreck and points over the railing. I managed to get good pictures before it was swamped with lightsaber beams from all the divers.

Twin Turret HMS Invinsible
The twin 12-inch turret on HMS Invincible 

12 Inch Turret HMS Invinsible
A 12-inch turret on HMS Invincible

The top of the turret was blown off, so you can see that the breach is closed and that there are grenades in the chamber. Afterwards, we swam towards the bow; at about amidships we found that all signs of a ship are gone. It was here that the ammunition stockpile exploded. The only thing you can see beyond iron residue are the ship’s boilers. We didn’t have time to make it to the bow, but if we had had more time there were two other turrets to see, which appeared on the sonar picture, about 100m away from the wreck.

After the dive, the weather worsened, so sadly our final dive was cancelled. But looking back, we were incredibly lucky with the weather. The next team to sail out after us lost two days due to bad weather.

This was a great trip and it was incredible to see the objects we saw. The visibility on some of the wrecks was not good, but sometimes that’s the risk divers have to take. When it came good, it was fantastic.

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