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Gustloff Shipwreck online article
| Team | The
Amber room | wreck
images | Findings
| Gustloff main page | scale
model | Historic images | German
Gun Boat | The sinking
IN SEARCH OF THE AMBER
The sinking of the Nazi ocean liner Wilhelm
Gustloff cost the lives of more
than 7700 people. And aboard the ship, it was rumoured, was an incomparable
Russian treasure. Leigh Bishop
travelled to Poland to photograph the rarely
dived Baltic wrecK.
|Immersed in a cool 6°C, I was more than happy to break
the surface after my first wreck dive in the waters of the Baltic
Sea. Not too far off, I could see the small Polish vessel picking
up other divers and knew I must wait my turn. The short wait
allowed the emotional part of my mind to try to engage with
the historic event that had led me to this part of the Baltic.
Closing the rebreather mouthpiece off, I gasped some fresh air
as I passed the loop over
my head. The sea was calm and the sun high. How could I really
imagine what it must have been like on a freezing January night
here 58 years ago? This was the location that
| witnessed the world's worst maritime disaster,
with the loss of more than 7700 people. Below me at 45m lay
the wreck of the 25,484 ton liner Wilhelm Gustloff, a legendary
ship built by the Nazis. Once it had proudly displayed the swastika,
on flags and moulded into its huge single-funnel stack. It was
as if my dive on this rarely visited shipwreck had put me in
physical touch with the old Nazi ³Strength through Joy²
way of life. Diving on the Wilhelm Gustloff had been banned
by the Polish government in recent years, after a reporter published
images of a section of the wreck accidentally pulled up with
an anchor during a filming project. The Polish
were understandably protective of this, the biggest war grave
of them all, even if those who perished had been Nazis and their
fleeing families.The Baltic visibility lived up to its hype.
It was easily 30m, with plenty of ambient light, but the cold
was something else. With the wreck so
shallow, I had hoped to get some decent bottom times in and
see a substantial amount on a single dive. However, with temperature
gauges reading only 3°C on the bottom, 30 minutes was more
than long enough on the
wreck. Several of our team had dived in Norway and Jutland,
but we had never experienced water this cold.
The 25,480-ton ocean liner Wilhelm Gustloff
at dock. The great ship would fly the swastika through her
'Strength through joy' years.
|After 10 minutes I had lost the feeling in my
fingers. Underwater photography became a new ball game and,
bizarre as it sounds, I had to look to see that my hands were
on the correct controls. Waiting to be picked up, I thought
of those who had jumped into the Baltic all those years ago,
as snow and sleet were driven across the sinking ship's decks
by the howling wind. Those unfortunate people were said to have
survived no longer than four minutes in the water.
||My cozy C-Bear 250 thinsulate undersuit had kept
me warm throughout the dive, so I was happy to wait another
four minutes though some dry suit gloves would have been nice.
We had discovered the Wilhelm Gustloff lying across a white-sand
seabed,listing to port and with decks extensively collapsed
to that side. The amidships section had almost certainly fallen
victim to a salvage attempt. At the shallowest point atop the
wreck, many starboard davits remained in position, with their
working mechanisms and surrounding deck winches.
|Nothing compares to the preserved decks of the
Gustloff. The Baltic Sea has preserved much of its wooden construction,
including the elegantly oval-shaped tops to the safety rails,
which look as new, especially at the stern. This section is
perhaps the most intact and well-preserved. A staircase remains
in place, leading down onto the beautifully preserved teak poop
deck. Again the safety rails are present as you swim around
the stern to see the words Wilhelm Gustloff standing out in
large gothic lettering.
Until now it had been unclear whether the wreck had been salvaged,
but when I dropped to the seabed to starboard of the stern the
evidence was clear only the empty prop shafts remained. While
staying in north-western Poland I asked local people if they
of any salvage on the wreck. All agreed that the Russians had
almost certainly been responsible, soon after the war ended.
But what was the Russian interest in a Nazi liner carrying refugees
fleeing the Red Army as the Eastern Front broke down? It's no
secret is that the Russians searched extensively for the famous
Amber Room shortly after the war. Described as the eighth wonder
of the world, this palace room was constructed by Frederick
I of Prussia
The gothic letters spelling Wilhelm Gustloff
are clearly obvious on the ships stern section.
One of History's greatest missing works of art
the famous Amber Room.
and completed in 1709.Its decoration consisted of 55sq m of
carved amber paneling, set in polished mosaic. In 1941, as the
Nazis advanced on Leningrad, the Russians had no time to dismantle
the Amber Room and left it at the mercy of the looting Nazis.
The amber panels were last seen in Königsberg two days
before the Wilhelm Gustloff sailed and, while some say they
are hidden deep in German mine, others are convinced that the
Amber Room sailed
with her. Whether the Russians salvaged the wreck in search
of the amber said to be worth $300 million is unknown. Our Anglo-American
expedition was led by US wreck-diver Mike Boring, who defined
the trip as exploration in every way including our stay in Poland
|On arrival at the Bay of Danzig on the Polish-Russian
border, armed immigration officers spent hours interrogating
our drivers before deciding to impound the vehicles. We were
faced with a mass of paperwork and extended phone calls to the
embassy before we could recover them. In the end it turned out
we were in the wrong with not the right paperwork and was in
a country where none of us could speak the language. We learnt
the hard way, although in the end all of the local polish divers
we met were very friendly with us.
Mike Boring expedition leader.
The name of the town in which we stayed seemed appropriate it
but the Wilhelm Gustloff lay 24 miles north of a small town
Finding suitable safe dive-boats to reach it proved to be one
of our more
difficult tasks. Ziemowit Kierkowski, a local technical diver,
joined us on our dives. He said we were lucky with the weather,
as he and his colleagues had managed to get onto the wreck only
twice in past years.
Each day our boats would be boarded by armed officials, so we
knew that diving this wreck was being taken seriously. Our second
and subsequent dives saw us better prepared as to how long we
could last under water, filming and photographing as we went.
A huge number of portholes lay around the site, many in the
vast hull-plates that draped huge sections of the wreck. We
grew accustomed to landmarks such as the prominent lifeboat
davits, the mast lying across the seabed to port, and particular
deck areas. With navigation becoming more effective, we were
able to make more sense of how the wreck lay. Mike Boring swam
to the tip of the bow and provided further evidence of salvage,
in that the anchors were nowhere to be seen!None of us saw any
human remains, something that had preyed on our minds in the
build-up to the trip. This expedition was a photographic project
and none of the team penetrated the liner, deep within which
the remains of many of those victims probably rest.
After each day's diving we were able to establish more of the
wreck as we
watched the digital film shot. Paul Dixon had his video on his
circumnavigated the wreck. Chris Hutchison chose to film while
free-swimming, wisely leaving his collection of DPVs in his
van, safely away
from a Polish dive-boat! Writer and photographer Brad
Sheard had travelled from Maryland and did the same as me,
setting his stills camera and tripod up on the 45° decks.
The Polish divers reckoned it was bizarre they said we looked
like two wedding photographers!
Hold-hatches and their combings are often obvious on ocean liners,
were seen on the Gustloff because of the array of twisted and
wreckage amidships. If the Amber Room still exists deep inside
any team would have difficulties even knowing where to start.
I had studied a scale model at Kiel Museum in Germany and was
able to locate
where the ship's bell would have been, but found only an empty
later discovered that the bell had been raised years ago as
a memorial by
|The Gustloff 2003 expedition team led by
Mike Boring included Dan Stevenson,
Andy Aston, Tim Elley, Brad
Sheard, Paul Dixon, Chris Hutchison, Mike Cross
and Leigh Bishop.
Meet the team here.
Right: A diver swims
across the poop deck of the Gustloff wreck.
Back to Gustloff Main