Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Wreck of the U-534

The menace of the unterseeboot (underwater boat) of the German navy in the First World War became one of the biggest concerns for the war at sea, even more so when the Second World War broke out in 1939. By this time Hitler’s military might had grown considerably and these formidable submarines were out in full force and already picking targets on their new enemy. 

The U-534 was one of these vessels, a Type IXC/40 submarine launched in September 1942 and in her first missions she was used as a data-gathering platform for weather conditions in the Atlantic Ocean. Hardly a life that would propel her into the history books, on 27th August 1944 she was using a schnorchel for the first time when poisonous fumes consumed the sub and several crew members collapsed. Upon surfacing she was attacked by aircraft in which U-534 succeeded in shooting one down.  

On 5th May 1945 Admiral Donitz agreed a partial surrender of all German forces in both their own country and Denmark, the U-534 sailed that day and headed north of the 56th parallel where the surrender hadn’t come into effect. Not far from the island of Anholt she was spotted by two RAF Liberators who went in to attack her on the surface.

#While the submarine was able to shoot one of them down, the second one dropped depth charges which exploded and seriously damaged the stern of the vessel, forcing her to abandon their sub as it was now flooding and would not have long left on the surface. All 52 crew members managed to escape the sinking, but three of these would not make it to be rescued.

The wreck was discovered in 1986 at a depth of 67 meters by a Danish wreck hunter named Aage Jensen and soon after a team of salvors had sponsor from a media millionaire named Karsten Ree who funded an expedition to raise the sub in the hope that the rumours of lost Nazi treasure would bare fruit. 

On 23rd August 1993 the Dutch salvage company Smit Tak finally brought the wreck of U-534 to the surface with cheers and headlines to capture the moment. But it may have been a complete waste of their time, for no treasure was found – instead they unlocked the secrets of a U-boat that was like a time capsule of World War II. An Enigma machine, sailor’s possessions, boots and even an ensign were among the things found, along with dozens of condoms. These were used to fill with air and let go attached to metal strips to confuse enemy detection equipment.

With no use for a rusty relic of the war, she was sold to a company in Liverpool which brought her to the UK on a barge in 1996 where she went on display in Birkenhead along with the Oberon class submarine HMS Onyx and the Rothesay Class frigate HMS Plymouth. In 2000 during a visit to the city I went aboard U-534 and was amazed at the condition she was in after almost 50 years submerged on the seabed. Entering through the hatch at the stern we moved forward as a group through the darkened compartments where no photographs were allowed until we had got right to the other end and exited back into the bright summer day. It was only a short visit but it was very much worth it.

So how sad it was that this company, Warship Preservation Trust, ceased trading in 2006 and all the hard work had to be disbanded. Plymouth was sent for scrap as was Onyx, but thankfully U-534 was saved and taken over to a specialist museum built just for this vessel. Cut up into five sections with two put back together, she was then placed in her four sections around a courtyard while a building told the story of her life and crew, displaying her artefacts. Each section of the wreck of U-534 was preserved with glass panels allowing the visitor to see inside the vessel, information boards pointing to areas of interest. 

My second visit to her was in 2012 and despite my misgivings about cutting up a piece of history they have done an excellent job of doing it in order to save her from the scrap yard. It is pleasing to see that such effort has gone into making sure this unique museum tells the story of the war at sea, especially since the very docks where you now stand were the destination of many a ship that they would never reach, the convoys becoming victim to the U-boats like the one right here. This is a story that continues to fascinate anybody interested in maritime history and it is a museum that I would highly recommend to all ages.

With 75% of Germany’s fleet of U-boats lost in the Second World War, bringing one back from the depths and telling her story is the best tribute that can be done for such a unique piece of history.


Monday, September 14, 2020

Loss of the Cargo Ship Rema

In the early hours of Saturday 25th April 1998 a broken distress signal was picked up by Humber Coastguard on the VHF channel 16 from the Belize registered single-deck cargo ship Rema which was en route from Berwick in Northumberland to Holland with a cargo of stone chippings. The ship reported at 0321 hours that she was around 22 miles off the coast of Whitby and taking on water.

The ship was built in the Netherlands in 1976 and was owned by a company in the Bahamas, 195 feet long and was 748 Gross tons. She had been christened Pergo until 1987, then Fival, until 1995 she was finally renamed Rema.

With four crew on board, the ship seemed to be in distress in clear weather and calm seas, the RNLI lifeboats from Teesside, Whitby and Scarborough raced to the scene along with any ships in the area and two helicopters. Within the hour the first helicopter arrived on scene but the ship was nowhere visible. The two lifeboats arrived within a few hours more but by now dawn was breaking and there was no sign of the Rema.

Humber Coastguard continued to relay the message to all ships to look out for a vessel in distress but it soon became clear that the Rema had gone down when the helicopter found an oil slick and a liferaft, there was no sign of her four crew.

Over the next few hours a number of items were located including a zodiac rubber boat, several pieces of lifesaving equipment, rafts and other random wooden wreckage.
The Trinity House Vessel Patricia was on scene later that day and began a search for the wreck on the seabed, giving her last known position and the location of the wreckage it was just hours later that a large object was located and confirmed to be the missing ship.

An investigation was launched and it was found that the ship had been involved in several minor collisions with both a bridge and a jetty in the 13 months prior to her loss, but these had been repaired. She had also been detained twice during eight separate port inspections, five of these found deficiencies but only two warranted action to prevent the ship sailing until rectifications were carried out.

Two months after the Rema sank the wreck was surveyed by the Goosander which lowered remote cameras to the remains and began to explore the wreck. A fair amount of her cargo had emptied via a forward hatch and now lay around the ship, they saw various damage to the bow and accommodation area but they found nothing that could positively explain why this ship suddenly sank.

In their final report, the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch concluded that the Rema had sunk due to the slow flooding into the cargo hold but they could not conclude what had caused this to happen or how long it took.

The four crew of the Rema were never recovered and are now forever on board the wreck which still lies upright on the seabed, one of many thousands of wrecks of the Yorkshire Coast and one more mystery to be added to the history books.

Monday, September 7, 2020

An Interview with a Shipwreck Hunter (Part 1) - James Delgado

There are so many people around the world who have discovered, explored, tracked down and shown to the world some of the most amazing shipwrecks known to history. These wrecks have now been examined by enthusiasts from the four corners of the globe in books and television documentaries that continue to fascinate and inspire. 

In the first of several interviews, I am speaking to those who bring us that history and work hard to get the forgotten stories brought to light. We will start first by welcoming James Delgado. 

James has been featured on many TV specials and published several books. 

Could you explain what drove you to pursue a career that involved shipwrecks?

I had a fascination with the sea and boats from an early age; both grandfathers had boats.  My interest in the archaeology of ships came in May 1978 with the uncovering of the buried ship Niantic at Clay and Sansome Streets in San Francisco’s Financial District.  Several blocks from the sea, it had been beached and converted into a storeship – a “tenement moored in the mud,” according to a contemporary account of 1850 – and then burned to the waterline and filled over in 1851.  The remains of the ship and goods stored inside it saw me shift my professional interests to maritime archaeology.

What has been your most “wow moment” in your career?

It has come more than once; the “wow” comes from connecting with people who were connected to   Among those have been the wrecks of the slave ship Clotilda, Titanic, USS Arizona, USS Nevada (right), USS Conestoga, U-215, USS Saratoga, USS Arkansas, HIJMS Nagato, the Japanese midget submarines involved in the Pearl Harbor attack, veterans from both sides at Pearl Harbor, at the atomic tests at Bikini, from the Battle of the Atlantic, and many more.  As an archaeologist, what compels me to continue what I do are people and their stories.
that ship, either personally, as members of a crew, as survivors, or as family members of those who were lost.

How many shipwrecks have you investigated and/or dealt with?

Over a hundred.

What, in your opinion, would you say was your most important discovery either at sea or in the archives and why?

That depends – some ships and their stories have different meaning to various groups, and for different reasons.  The most important have been those that connect to people past and present; as a scholar, I feel the work I’ve done on the California Gold Rush’s maritime aspects, the archaeological analysis of early submarines, the maritime archaeology of World War II and the Cold War, and the maritime cultural landscape and wrecks of the Arctic and Panama are the ones that stand out to me as achievements I’m proud of.

Do you still get speechless when making new discoveries today?


What was your last project and what did you achieve?

It was the forensic identification of the slave ship Clotilda (right) in the Mobile River in Alabama.  Identifying the ship and connecting with the descendants of those brought to America in it was profound.  The identification of the actual remains continues to have positive results in the community.

What are your hopes for your future discoveries?

My greatest hope is that we can continue to share the discoveries and what they represent to as wide an audience as possible; that the work inspires young people to go into the fields of ocean science, exploration, archaeology, or interpretation, and that we add to the pages of history while also revising history to more accurately reflect that which was, especially in finding the voice of people whose stories and contributions were supressed or forgotten.

Is there anything else you would like to share that would interest the reader?

The great age of discovery in the oceans has just begun.  There is much more to find and to learn from.  I often think, especially for younger people, that here, at home, on this planet, our final frontier is the ocean and all that it holds as secrets.  The oceans are the key to life’s origins and our ongoing survival as a living planet.  Exploration and the opportunity to learn that comes from it are a paramount goal, not simply to find that which we can exploit, from minerals, fish or “treasure” but in terms of that which needs to be carefully studied and protected. 

James Delgado continues to investigate shipwrecks and has published a number of books. He lives in Florida and is currently the Vice President of SEARCH Inc.