The North Sea and English Channel hunt for the WWI battle of Jutland shipwrecks, the U-20, which sank the Lusitania; the WWII troopship, Leopoldville; and the CSS Alabama. May/June, 1984.
This was NUMA’s most ambitious project yet. With Bob Fleming’s able help on the research along with the cooperative people at the British Admiralty and Danish Fisheries, I put together an expedition to search for nearly thirty ships. Talk about a ‘cockeyed optimist’.
I charted our faithful boat and crew from the ’79 Bonhomme Richard expedition. Good old Jimmy Flett returned as skipper, along with quiet John the first mate, and Colin Robb the cook. Good Scotsmen tried and true. No shipwreck search operation ever had a better crew.
We rounded off the team with Bill Shea, my good friend from Brandeis University, who ran the side scan sonar. Bill is a great asset to any project. A genuine nice guy, his wit is second to none.
After five days of waiting for equipment to arrive and a force 8 gale to blow itself out, we finally left the port of Aberdeen, Scotland and headed south to search for the HMS Pathfinder, the second ship to be torpedoed by a submarine (the USS Housatonic was the first) and the first by a German U-boat. In this case the U-21 skippered by WWI’s most famous submarine commander, Lieutenant Commander Otto Hersing, who later took the U-21 into the Mediterranean and sank a score of ships including two battleships.
The Pathfinder plunged into the North Sea in September of 1914, taking nearly 260 of her men with her. Since we had discovered the Housatonic we thought it would be nice to make a one/two hit on the unlucky but historic ships.
On the way, however, we spent a successful three hours looking for the U-12, which had been rammed by the HMS Ariel in October of 1915. Though a British sonar sweep in 1977 had failed to find her, we had an excellent recording of her two miles from the Admiralty position.
We then moved further south to sweep for the Pathfinder. We recorded indications of her wreck on the first pass. We ran over her several times and found her badly broken up at 150 feet. Made an excellent sonar reading that was lost and a echo sounder recording that pins down her site within a hundred feet.
We were then going to try for another U-boat, but the weather kicked up, and we plodded through the increasing swells back to Aberdeen.
While we were at sea, our underwater camera, backup EG&G sonar, and the Schonstedt gradiometer finally showed up, and we were ready to shove off across the sea to the Jutland peninsula of Denmark.
Just before we departed, the British customs officials came aboard. They considered us a highly suspicious group, as did every other country we visited. They couldn’t figure out why we were using a yacht for an archaeological survey instead of a work boat. Shea’s guess was they thought we were smuggling drugs from Scotland to Denmark. Not a likely route for cocaine traffic. This was not the last time we got into trouble by appearing dumb.
On our way to Denmark we paused and searched for the British cruiser HMS Hawke, torpedoed by the U-9. We found her very close to the reported Admiralty position, one of the very few times this occurred. The wreck outline was distinguishable and the calculated dimensions were on the money. Her hull was intact, but the superstructure badly decayed. Also tried for the HMS Defence, HMS Warrior and German cruiser Wiesbaden. Struck out on the first two but found a large broken target on the Wiesbaden site.
Docked in the fishing port of Thyboron. Weather turned bad so we spent the next few days conferring with Danish fishermen and local archaeologists.
Finally went out in heavy fog combined with rain squalls, lightening and thunder. Next day everything clicked despite a rising sea, and we struck the British battle cruiser Invincible on the third pass. A huge target, she was broken in two, a reading confirmed by the fact that she had blown up and sank in two sections.
Next we found the German destroyers S-35 and V-48. Both readings were confirmed by Danish fishermen and are known to be the only wrecks in a ten square mile area. We topped off the voyage with finding a British destroyer, the HMS Shark. Winds at gale force so we beat it back to Thyboron.
Headed out again and found the HMS Defence, an immense battleship. The wreck appears to be partially silted over, confirming Danish fisherman recordings. Once again, bad weather beat us back to port.
A year after sinking the Lusitania, the U-20 grounded in heavy fog on the west coast of Jutland. She was abandoned by her crew without loss of life and later blown up by the Danes in 1925 on or near Vielby Beach.
We met with Danish diver and marine archaeologist Gert Normann Anderson, who searched for the U-20 in ’79. He and another diver had zeroed in on the sub’s location at that time. Working with Gert, we positioned it in ’84. Its remains were almost entirely exposed. She lies a good two miles north or her former recorded site. A photo of the dive in my files shows landmarks on the shore.
We then made a side scan survey of the coast for the Danes who had ballpark locations for a number of shipwrecks, but no equipment other than a grapple for looking for them. We swept back and forth with our sonar and found a number of targets, four of which Gert later identified as the Odin, a Royal Swedish steamship that ran aground in 1836; the Alexander Neuski, a Russian steam frigate which stranded while carrying the crown prince in 1868; the Kirkwall, a British steamship that ran aground in 1874; and the Arctic, a British steamship that stranded in 1868 with the loss of all hands.
Weather turned terrible once more. Decided to leave Denmark and head for Bridlington, England. Time has run out for the Jutland wrecks and we have other sites to check out before he must make our way south to Cherbourg and the Alabama.
Headed west straight into a Force 8 gale. Our indomitable Scots crew and the bonny Arvor II saw as through while listening to MAYDAY distress messages all around us.
After thirty hours of being bashed around the sea the winds decreased, enabling us to search for the U-21 and German battle cruiser Blucher. Though we were exhausted, Bill had one foot in the grave from mal de mer, the stabilizer was gone and the autopilot dead, we dropped the sonar fish and began our grid lanes. Got a vague picture of the Blucher in correct Admiralty position. No great feat since the ship has been salvaged over the years. A wonder the sonar recorded anything, the sea was so awful.
Thankfully it calmed considerably by the time we reached the U-21 area. Found one other wreck in nearby but too large for submarine. Four hours into search sonar produced nice little reading of sub with correct dimensions. Admiralty and Danish records off by about one mile. A nice find, the first German Uboat to sink a warship. If only we had found the Hunley.
Reached Bridlington under a bright blue sky on calm seas. Provisioned and rested up for a few days and then made a two day try for the Bonhomme Richard. We searched about 27 miles out. No particular site in mind except an area marked by psychics. Why I never give up on this gig is a mystery. Sonar gave us trouble so other than wiping out a five square mile area we accomplished very little.
NUMA’s illustrious attorney and secretary, Wayne Gronquist, arrived from Texas, so we bid a fond farewell to Bridlington and sailed for Cherbourg and the sunny beaches of Normandy. If Only I had known the mess we were about to encounter, I’d have ordered Jimmy to keep right on going and steer a course for the Riviera.
It seemed both the Alabama and Leopoldville rested in the middle of the French navy’s submarine exercise ground, and they were about to test their latest nuclear sub. For over a month, half the intelligence agencies around the world had been in Cherbourg, setting up their cover to monitor the tests. The CIA; KGB; the British, Israeli, German and Italian secret services, all were represented and covertly stationed around Cherbourg harbor.
Naturally, with my incredible talent for timing, who should show up with all flags flying but jolly old Clive Cussler along with his merry band of pirates and a boat load of underwater detection gear.
To say the excretion struck the oscillator is putting it mildly.
After we moored in the yacht basin, a squad of French customs officials tore the boat apart, helicopters hovered overhead while photographers shot pictures of us making obscene gestures back, navy frogmen sneaked around under the hull, several spotters around the area observed us through binoculars, and the bastards even planted bugs all over the boat.
In our ignorance we marshaled all our forces and went over to the attack. Susan Wynne and Admiral Bill Thompson struck in Washington at the French embassy and friends in the navy. Wayne Gronquist took the train to Paris and worked through the U.S. embassy on our end. Meanwhile I struggled to no avail with the French Commander of Civilian Maritime Affairs.
A week passed, and though we failed to get permission to search for the shipwrecks, I was told later we became a cause celebre and the darlings of the French news media.
My son, Dirk, and Derek Goodwin, old friend and correspondent for the New York Times, arrived and added to the uproar by their antics and routines in town.
Knowing it was useless to search for the Alabama (the French would be on our stern in less than ten minutes because of their underwater sensors picking up our sonar pulses), I made the decision to make a stab at the Leopoldville with our echo sounder since it wouldn’t be overly obvious. It was a long shot, but I figured the troopship was large and we might get lucky and pass over it.
We sneaked out of the harbor early. Actually every intelligence agency in the world observed our departure. We then cruised around as if we were fishing, fooling nobody. After two hours, I was ready to throw in the towel, but as with the Keokuk in Charleston. We passed over the Leopoldville at the end of the final run.
We tried to throw in the sensor for a fast sonar reading, but it wasn’t tuned up and the target was very vague. The French, of course, radioed for us to return to Cherbourg immediately. I looked at Skipper Jimmy Flett, who’d been torpedoed twice in WWII and had little love for the ‘frogs’. He smiled, reached up and nonchalantly flicked off the radio.
Then we beat it across the channel to the English port of Weymouth.
A wise decision. I found out later that if we’d returned to Cherbourg, we’d still be locked up. It seems the French were so shook, so sure we were spies, they postponed their nuclear sub trials for six months. And don’t think the other intelligence agents weren’t pissed off too. Their month long preparations to establish a cover went down the dumper.
Oh well, knowing the French, their submarine was probably made out of cardboard anyway. Our only satisfaction was pelting a French naval frigate moored outside of Weymouth with Irish potatoes every time we passed in and out of the harbor.
We found two more wrecks off Weymouth, but were unable to identify them. Locals thought one might be a lost treasure ship, but I’ve never been into that end of the shipwreck business.
We had traveled the North Sea and Channel for six weeks and found, surveyed and positioned 17 wrecks with our old EG&G sonar and Schonstedt gradiometer and positioned them.
We bid our good Scots’ crew goodbye and took the train to London where we rested up for a couple of days before heading for home.
Word later came to me through devious channels from the CIA, requesting that I notify them when I launch another expedition so their people can be on the other side of the world.
British scout cruiser. Second ship in history to be sunk by a submarine, first by a German U-boat. Badly broken up. Her remains lie at 56 07′ 21 by 02 09′ 15″ in 160 feet.
First German U-boat in history to sink a warship. Only second submarine to do so. Had a long and illustrious career under Lt. Commander Otto Hersing, sinking several warships including two battleships and many merchantmen. Hersing and the U-21 survived the war. He scuttled her when on her way to England in 1919 to be impounded and scrapped, defiant to the end. We located this historic ship at 54 14′ 30″ x 04 02′ 50″ in 150 feet of water. We also struck a target to the west, but it was much larger and had the appearance of a freighter.
Read the full Story of the U-21 >>
Infamous submarine that sank the luxury liner Lusitania, off Kinshead, Ireland, in 1915. The sub was under the command of Lt. Commander Walter Schwieger. He was a very successful undersea raider, sinking a score of ships before he was lost in 1917 while captain of the U-88. The U-20 ran aground on the Jutland coast in fog during 1916. It was abandoned by the crew and oddly blown up by the Danes in 1925. Her scattered debris and lower hull and engines lie at 56 35′ 00″ x 08 07′ 50″ about 400 yards from the beach.
Belgian troop transport that was torpedoed five miles west of Cherbourg on Christmas eve of 1944. She went down with two hundred men of the 66th Panther Division. A further 600 died from drowning and exposure. A great tragedy that has been swept under the rug. We found her massive target at 49 45′ 57″ x 01 36′ 20″.
A first class British cruiser. 360 x 60 feet. Sunk by the German submarine U-9 in October of 1914. Only 49 men saved out of 500. She lies at 57 47′ 05″ x 00 11′ 50″. There was some doubt about her position as there was thought to be a substantial wreck nearby. We determined that the second target was actually two ships, the largest only 120′ in length. Their position is 57 48′ 45″ x 00 10′ 48″.
One of Germany’s earliest U-boats, the U-12 was rammed and sunk by HMS. Ariel in October of 1915. She lies in 180 feet of water at 56 04′ 30″ by 02 18′ 00″.
British battle cruiser sunk at the Battle of Jutland in May of 1916. A lucky shot blew up her magazines. We found her mass on the bottom at 57 03 00″ x 06 04′ 45″.
German destroyer sunk during battle of Jutland. Wreck located at 57 02′ 00″ x 06 01′ 00″.
German destroyer sunk during battle of Jutland. Wreck located at 56 54′ 22″ x 06 06′ 28″
British destroyer sunk during battle of Jutland. Found at 56 58′ 30″ x 06 03′ 00″
German light cruiser, sunk off Jutland. Wreck shows at 57 00′ 05″ x 05 53′ 37″
British battle cruiser blown up during battle of Jutland. Massive partially silted over wreck found at 56 58′ 02″ x 05 49′ 50″.
German heavy cruiser sunk during battle of Dogger Bank in 1915. Located at 54 33′ 30″ x 05 27′ 50″.
A Royal Swedish steamship built in 1832 ran aground off Thyboron, Jutland, with the Swedish prime minister aboard in 1836. Suspected vessel lies at 56 42′ 60″ x 08 09′ 20″.
A Russian steam frigate that stranded off Thyboron in 1868 while carrying the crown prince. The wreck is only 300 yards from shore in 60 feet of water. Location is 56 41′ 00″ x 08 08′ 30″.
Not content with looking for America’s most elusive shipwreck, I had to try for number two, which should indicate to those who don’t know me that my mind lies somewhere left of delirium and right of monomania.
The story of the Hunley has been told and retold many times since her disappearance in 1864. Constructed by the Confederacy in Mobile, she was later shipped to Charleston in an optimistic hope of breaking the Union blockade. Despite the fact she dispatched four of her crews, she was quite advanced for her time.
The Hunley took up the banner left by David Bushnell’s Turtle and blazed the trail for future underwater warfare by becoming the first submarine in history to sink a fighting ship during war. She gained her everlasting fame when her crew of nine propelled her out with the tide on the evening of February 17th, 1864, and laid her spar torpedo under the side of the new Union navy sloop-or-war, Housatonic.
Robert Fleming, a fine guy and one of our great maritime researchers came up with the lion’s share of the data. He went two steps past the other archivists and found the Naval Board of Inquiry record into the sinking of the Housatonic. The 115 pages were, of course, written in longhand and the wax seal was still unbroken on the folder.
Testimony by the ship’s deck officers indicated that the Confederate torpedo boat had backed off at least fifty feet and perhaps as far as a 100 after implanting her explosives into the aft starboard hull of the Housatonic. This suggests to me that she survived the blast and is not buried under or inside the remains of the Union ship.
Also, in November of 1864, Admiral Dahlgren ordered a survey of the wreck. The salvage officer reported that he had dragged the seabed for 500 yards around the Housatonic and found no trace of the torpedo boat.
Several salvage projects in the next forty years could not find the hulk of the Hunley either.
Oddly, the evidence that seems to be consistently ignored came from Lieutenant Colonel Dantzler, Commander of Battery Marshall, the fortification where the Hunley was based. Historians assumed he was trying to cover his tail for neglect with the following report.
‘I have the honor to report that the torpedo boat stationed at this post went out on the night of the 17th instant (Wednesday) has not yet returned. The signals agreed upon to be given in case the boat wished a light to be exposed at this post as a guide for its return were observed and answered. An earlier report would have been made of this matter, but the officer of the day for yesterday was under the impression that the boat had returned, and so informed me ….’
Therefore, our first expedition to Charleston to find the Hunley concentrated just off the beach line. From there, we worked out to sea about a mile before we had to break off the search attempt and head for Virginia.
Doc Edgerton came down with his side scan sonar and confirmed that anything that sank outside of Charleston Harbor quickly settled and was covered over by extremely soft silt. Our divers found they could easily push their arms into it up to their shoulders.
It came as no surprise when we discovered the remains of the Housatonic totally buried and quite scattered. Our divers extensively probed the debris area outside her boilers and found mostly shattered bits and pieces. No intellectual giant was required to conclude that the Hunley lies elsewhere under four to ten feet under the mud.
We used two boats for our preliminary, data finding search. Our smaller Zodiac with Bill Shea operating a proton magnetometer, Dirk Cussler at the steering arm of the outboard, and marine archaeologist Dan Koski-Karell taking the navigating chores, slipped over the bar at Breech Inlet and ran search lines up and down the surf line, moving out with each lane. Our second boat, a thirty-two footer with twin Chrysler engines called the Coastal Explorer, doubled as a search vessel and dive boat.
Forgive me for dwelling on the CE and her crew. The skipper, I beg his forgiveness for losing his name, was a really nice guy. His two crewmen, whom I referred to as Heckle and Jeckle, were students at Charleston’s Citadel academy and a genuine pair of Southern characters. Barnum, Bailey and the Ringling Bros. couldn’t have outshone the acts that took place on the Coastal Explorer.
The skipper’s parents screamed at each other nonstop twenty-four hours a day. The boat’s engines broke down like clockwork. We almost all died from the heat, humidity and flies. We struck the breakwater while trying to take a shortcut, holed the bottom and had to bail like madmen or we’d have gone down in the ship channel. Even Doc Edgerton jumped into the water with myself and the skipper to help shove her into deep water. We ran out of gas a hundred yards from the dock on two occasions. Peter Throckmorton and I fought on a regular basis. Karen Gestla, our resident psychic, sat entranced on the bow, doing a creditable job of predicting the weather but striking out on the Hunley’s location. Debbie Sharp, Wayne Gronquist’s girl friend, made quite a hit with the crew, sprawling her six foot, barely bikini clad body in front of the windshield so the helmsman could not see over the bow. Ralph Wilbanks, archaeologist with the University of South Carolina, also greatly added to the festivities with his down home dance routines.
However, strange as it seems, the expedition was efficiently carried out. The Housatonic was discovered and briefly surveyed, we also found the dual-turreted citadel ironclad, Keokuk, and the monitor, Weehawken, with our trusty Schonstedt gradiometer.
Our shoreline crew did not go home dry either. They discovered the Confederate blockade runner, Rattlesnake, that had run aground off Breech Inlet. But their greatest triumph was saving the lives of three children who were swept out to sea in a tidal current. If Bill, Dan and Dirk had not been nearby when the mother and people on shore frantically screamed, the children would have surely drowned.
So, though we didn’t come close to finding the Hunley, the sites of four historic shipwrecks were discovered and three children are walking around today who came within thirty seconds of receiving premature funerals.
Note: Location and survey details on our wreck discoveries will be covered in the next section, the June 1981 report on NUMA’s Siege of Charleston expedition.
After wrapping up the Charleston end of the expedition, we bid the Skipper, Heckle and Jeckle, and the Coastal Explorer a fond farewell, packed up our equipment and headed for Norfolk, Virginia, where we intended to check out the possibility of a later expedition to find the famous Confederate sea raider, Florida, and the Union frigate, Cumberland, which was sunk by the Merrimack, or Virginia as it was known to the South.
Derek Goodwin, our esteemed Washington correspondent and his talented wife, Susan, had arranged for a large, nineteen-twenties built yacht to carry us up and down the James River to look for the two Civil War ships, resting in unknown graves on the mud just off Newport News, Virginia.
I realized this sounds farfetched, but the crew of the Sekonit, as the long, narrow old yacht was called, were as dingy as the last batch. Somehow the events fog before my eyes. All I can remember was sleeping in a cabin the size of a dollhouse closet and lying awake all night listening to my sweat drip. God, was it humid. Bill Shea, Walt Schob and my son Dirk had the good sense to stay in a Holiday Inn. My only salvation were the evenings spent dining and drinking on the large canvas covered deck.
The Virginia state archaeologist, John Broadwater, showed up with his assistants, Mike Warner, Dick Swete, Sam Margolin and Jim Knickerbocker, who would later leave the state and form their own marine survey company.
For the next four days we swept back and forth parallel to the piers and shipyard. We hit several targets, but one that especially suggested the boilers of the Florida. Walt Schob and the archaeologists dove and found a wreck which indeed later proved to be the Florida. A few artifacts were brought up, but because of stupid state laws Broadwater threw them back in the river.
My wife, Barbara, and I had to leave at this stage and fly to Boston for the premiere of the motion picture based on my book “Raise the Titanic”. As the old saying goes, ‘I shudda stayed in bed.’ The movie was a disaster, particularly at the box office. But that’s another story.
We wrapped our combination Charleston/Norfolk project of 1980 and headed home, already planning for NUMA’s next adventure in Charleston and another attempt at the Hunley.
Hunt for U.S.S. CUMBERLAND and C.S.S. FLORIDA
The discovery and survey project on the Union frigate, Cumberland, and Confederate raider, Florida. July 1982.
Since we knew where the Florida rested, and had a good idea on the Cumberland site, I felt it was time for a professional survey conducted by a team of expert archaeologists. NUMA then contracted with the four former archaeologists from the state of Virginia, who dove with us during the ’81 expedition. Sam Margolin, Mike Warner, Dick Swete, and Jim Knickerbocker made up the Underwater Archaeological Joint Ventures survey team.
They performed admirably. Rather than comment, I’ll simply let Sam Margolin’s article and the report written by Mike Warner and the others stand alone. After the survey was completed and the artifacts recovered, John Broadwater and the State of Virginia Landmarks Department, who had offered to handle the conservation of the artifacts, backed out and claimed they had no money. At this point all the artifacts were in holding tanks inside rented garage space.
Not wishing to see them disintegrate and be trashed, I worked out a deal with the College of William & Mary to preserve them. They did a remarkable job and charged me far less than originally estimated. I then donated all the artifacts to John Sands, the director of the Newport News Mariners Museum, which has to be the finest and largest in the country.
The museum people built a most attractive display for the viewing public.
Then after about six months, some admiral with the odd nickname of Beetle something or other and Mike Curtin, the rotund, heavy jowled curator of the Norfolk Naval museum marched up to John Sands and demanded he turn over, as they generously put it, “our artifacts”.
Demonstrating arrogance with little grace, they threatened to go to court in order to claim artifacts whose recovery they offered no contribution whatsoever.
Displaying a bureaucratic lack of fortitude, Broadwater and the State caved in. The story is they didn’t want to upset the navy, who was responsible for thousands of jobs in and around the tidewater basin.
So now the artifacts sit in the Norfolk Naval Museum. Though the navy thinks they belong to them, the truth is that all U.S. Naval ships sold for salvage and stricken from commission belong to the General Services Administration.
What thanks did NUMA and UAJV receive for their efforts to preserve our country’s maritime heritage from a grateful government?
Ingratitude, rejection and antipathy.
Is it any wonder many of us no longer vote?
Following the Civil War, there were reports of three abandoned Confederate submarines near their place of construction in Shreveport, Louisiana (Cross Bayou).
This PDF document also contains information about a search for the the C.S.S. Grand Duke and a Free French Air Force B-26 Bomber.