The site that greated us when we decended on the HMS Defence is something I’ll never forget
Finally, after descending the anchor line, we are laying in the middle of the HMS Defence wreck. We can see long rows of cannons on both sides of the hull; the cannon barrels still point out over the railing as though they are scouting for the enemy. In reality, she has been laying on the seafloor for over 100 years and went down with 903 men after the largest naval battle in history.
A Little History
This titanic battle took place in 1916 during World War I. The combatants were the British Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy, and the action took place around 80 miles from the coast of Jutland, Denmark. The German goal was to break, for good, the English blockade that had cut off foreign trade, while the British wanted to knock the threat of the German High Seas Fleet out of the war.
Two-hundred forty-nine ships took part in the battle that raged over two days. The butcher’s bill ended up with 25 ships sunk and 8,500 sailors dead. Despite the Germans being outnumbered in heavy warships, they succeeded in sinking more ships than they lost. From this point of view, the Germans considered themselves the victor of the battle, even though the German fleet remained in port during the rest of the war and the blockade remained unbroken. The results could best be described as a German tactical victory but a strategic defeat.
The violence of Jutland can be seen here on the SMS Seydlitz, which survived the battle
An Epic Expedition
I had the honor of being part of an expedition to dive and photograph these wrecks. Stef Teuwen from Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques (CMAS) organized the expedition to draw attention to the 100th anniversary of the battle. For our diving platform, they booked the ship Cdt. Fourcault, a diver’s dream. The ship is 180 feet long and comes with a helicopter, pressure chamber, three RIBs, two cranes, and it can accommodate up to 32 tech divers.
The expedition lasted for three weeks, with new participants coming in every week. In all, 15 countries were represented during the expedition. All the participants were tech divers diving mainly on rebreathers with only a few on open circuit.
CMAS, which is also known as the World Underwater Federation, is the world’s oldest diving organization. They are at the forefront of technical and scientific research and development. For this expedition, they worked with UNESCO to conduct research about the state of the wrecks, and to determine how they have deteriorated since the last dives conducted in 2009. Moreover, the expedition was also a solemn memorial to the people who lost their lives during the battle.
Propellers are something that all wreck divers look for, and they make great photo subjects
Historian Tamás Balogh from Hungary was on board to help with the research, and he organized daily briefings and meetings where we divers could discuss, in a structured way, what we had observed underwater. Tamás helped divers interpret the wrecks and the objects from the videos and still photos they returned with. All this information was for use by researchers in the future. It was exciting to take part in a structured scientific expedition, and we were more than happy with the feedback we got from him. I am a longtime wreck diver, but never have I learned so much about the ships I dive in such a short time.
Although it is far offshore, the battle site in the North Sea is surprisingly shallow. Of course, shallow is a relative term, but most major naval battles took place in waters thousands of meters deep. It is so rare to find a famous battle fought in depths that divers can reach. I had the privilege of diving on several wrecks during my time with the expedition. Here are the highlights of those amazing dives.
A lantern found in the wreckage of the HMS Defence
SMS Frauenlob: German light cruiser (1903)
Frauenlob was of an older design with a ram style bow
During the night of the battle, the Germans encountered the English at a distance of 2,600 feet and they opened fire. The Germans focused their searchlights and fire on the first two ships, killing 89 men as their fire raked the ships. In return, the English launched a torpedo attack. One of these struck the Frauenlob and she capsized and sank.
We went down the rope and hit the wreckage at around 154 feet. The conditions were very disappointing—dark and incredibly bad visibility. At most, we could see six feet, which made it difficult to get an overview of the wreck. The number of divers on the wreck also didn’t help, as she sits on a mud bottom where it was very easy to kick up silt. Despite the poor conditions, we found cannons, shells for a variety of guns, and intact portholes. As a wreck diver, it was very interesting, but as a photographer, it was a disappointing dive.
Coming back up after a dive in perfect North Atlantic conditions
SMS Lützow: German battlecruiser (1914)
Big, modern, and very heavily armed, the Lützow was one of the best ships the Germans had
Lützow was one of the best ships in the German fleet. She was armed with big 12-inch guns in turrets along her centerline. These turrets were swaddled in thick steel armor, but the forward turret took a pounding during the peak of the battle. It was hit with 24 shells and the entire bow area was torn apart. She was pulled out of the fight as flooding began to increase, but in the end, there was too much water for the pumps to handle. The other ships evacuated the crew and she disappeared below the sea, with six men left trapped in the bow.
The wreck looked dreadful at first sight, maybe because of salvage. However, the visibility was much better than on the Frauenlob. Then we began to see shells, and not just one or two, but dozens of them stacked three and four layers deep. We swam across the wreck and found many small objects that cast light on the life of the crew. Finally, we reached the engine room wreckage. Here, we found various steam engine parts such as the boiler and a lot of brass casings, both empty and with Cordit (detonation cord used to set shells to explode at a certain time). There were also piles of brass lids. A little further down, we passed through the steam turbines and a recoil absorber to one of the 12-inch guns that was in the stern. Before we could turn around, we saw one of the propeller shafts. Due to equipment and organization problems, plus bad weather, we only managed one dive on this wreck.
Imagine the force required to break that thick steel tube
Row upon row of shells still ready to be fired after 100 years
HMS Queen Mary: English battlecruiser (1913)
The Queen Mary, one of the British battlecruisers that had a bad habit of exploding
Equipped with 13.5-inch cannons, the Queen Mary was the pride of the fleet. During the battle, she got locked into a duel with SMS Seydlitz. For a time, she performed well and the ships traded body blows, but then two more ships locked their sights on her. The uneven match meant that she went down with a powerful explosion taking her crew of 1,266 with her to the bottom.
The blast that sank the Queen Mary tore the ship in two. This created two separate areas of wreckage that could not be dived on the same dive. To address this, we were divided into two teams. She rests at 200 feet deep, the expedition’s deepest wreck. The first impression of the ship is that she is severely damaged. We swam along the railing for some time before we finally saw the massive 13.5-inch turret lying upside down. Unfortunately, the tremendous weight of the turret has pressed the barrels deep into the mud and you can’t see them. The rest of that dive we saw parts of the propellers and some portholes. The wreck was very cluttered until we got out into the wooden deck, which was still intact in large parts.
My second dive was on the stern. We found what appeared to be a large piston with teeth on the one side, perhaps something from the cannon turret. After that, we saw a bollard and several anchor chains and, finally, the first shell. The best way to describe the wreck is simple loose iron parts and twisted plates, a true tangle of mangle that profoundly illustrates the power of the explosion that tore the ship apart.
Queen Mary explodes in a titanic fireball
There is not much left of the Queen Mary, but you can still find plenty of interesting objects
Divers examine artifacts for later identifcation and cataloging
HMS Defence: English battlecruiser (1907)
Defence was fast and had heavy guns, but her armor was thin
The Defence was one of the new battlecruisers employed by the Royal Navy, and she had a length of 492 feet. During the battle, the commander made a mistake when he went for the handicapped SMS Wiesbaden. In doing this, he exposed his single ship to the fire of the entire German battle line of heavy warships. Shell splashes quickly swallowed the ship. One of these penetrated a gunpowder storage locker and the resulting explosion sank the ship and killed 903 men.
When we first descended, we found ourselves almost on top of a 7.5-inch secondary gun turret. The visibility was the best we had seen and the outlook for the dive was fantastic. It was impressive to swim along the deck and see one turret after another on both sides. On some of the turrets, the top is blown off, and inside, there are still shells standing along the walls ready to be loaded. Due to the heavy armor and the weight of the guns, the deck gave in, so the machinery spaces are visible and you can swim down into them.
Glass portholes and wooden decks can still be found amidst the carnage
A large portion of the ship had been blown up, so there is a substantial debris field after you leave the midships area. We swam through this field hoping to find more wreckage further away, and we were rewarded with a double-barreled 9.2-inch main gun where the top and one of the barrels was blown off. Beyond this, the deck has collapsed with only a capstan left standing 15 feet above the wreck.
At the bow, we saw the boilers and the lower part of the front 9.2-inch double-barreled gun turret. Unfortunately, the top was gone and it was resting on its side. The upside to this was that we could see inside where the crew worked, and we could make out the hoisting system used to bring up shells and powder from the storage lockers. Right in front of the turret was a large hole in the wreck which went right down to the seabed. The opening into the ship and the broken up bow revealed a treasure trove of artifacts. There was so much there, it is impossible to describe everything we saw. Portholes, lanterns, china, shells, and dozens of other items spilled out of the ghostly ship. It was an awesome experience.
One of the numerous secondary guns still in good shape on the Defence
The sheer number of artifacts on the wreck is impressive and provides a fascinating glimpse of the past
A glass bottle in perfect condition, likely from the officers quarters
HMS Invincible: English battlecruiser (1908)
The Invincible, as she looked at the start of the war
She was one of the first battlecruisers in the world with a cruising speed of 25 knots and equipped with four 12-inch twin turrets. During the first contact, the British found three German ships in the mist and took them under fire. But after 10 minutes the mist disappeared, and suddenly the Invincible found herself under fire from two heavy German warships. She barely had time to train her guns on them when one of their shells penetrated the relatively thin armor of the battlecruiser and detonated a powder magazine. This was a common theme of the day, and it revealed a fatal flaw in the design of the British battlecruisers.
The wreck sits at 165 feet on a sandy bottom. The visibility was good, so we had no problem navigating the wreck. Once again, the power of the explosion that sank her was evident. The highlight was when we swam off to locate the detached stern area. Suddenly, the turret appeared with the twin 12-inch barrels. The entire structure still stands on the wreck with the top of the turret blown off, so you can see the breech is closed and the guns ready to fire. After our exploration of the turret, we swam towards the bow. The only thing you can see are ship’s boilers sticking up from mounds of twisted metal.
The moment the Invicible exploded killing 1,026 men—including Rear Admiral Sir Horace Hood
The twin 12-inch guns of the main turret emerging from the gloom
The wrecks are not all metal and rust; there are some interesting critters lurking there too
The results of the expedition will hopefully contribute to the establishment of regular observation of the wrecks. This will be used in the future to guide the conservation of these war graves and to identify the causes and progress of the disintegration of the wrecks. This is important because the UNESCO convention on the protection of underwater cultural heritage can permit cultural salvaging after the shipwrecks have completely collapsed.
It was indeed a memorable trip, and it is rare to see wrecks in this class. After the passage of 100 years, it was incredible to see all the objects. If you are considering joining a trip to dive these wrecks, the weather is a crucial factor. Twice I have tried to return to them, but due to poor weather conditions, we failed both times. These trips are also expensive, and the chances of success are not very high, but as they say, “He who dares, wins.” The worst thing about an expedition such as this is that future diving will never be the same again, as the wrecks of Jutland provide a benchmark that is almost impossible to beat.
The North Sea is not your typical dive holiday, but it holds some epic dives
About the Author: René B. Andersen has been diving for two decades. Passionate about technical diving, exploration, and underwater photography, he dives to incredible depths few will dare to venture in search of unique encounters and rare images. If you are interested in learning more about these wrecks, make sure to stay tuned for René’s upcoming book on the wrecks of Scandinavia. You can find updates on his Facebook page or the publisher Fata Morgana Media’s Facebook page.
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