War wrecks off the coast of Heligoland
On 28 August 1914 four German warships sank in the North Sea in the battle against the British navy. Scavenger divers plunder the wrecks – something underwater archaeologists now want to prevent.
SPIEGEL online by Julia Köppe
At one point, no one knew at whom he was actually firing. Near Heligoland, on August 28, 1914, German and British warships met – in extremely poor visibility. The First World War had just begun and both countries were fighting each other, for the first time, in a sea battle. The battle became a disaster for the German Imperial Navy.
In the morning of August 28, British submarines lured several German destroyers and torpedo boats, stationed off the coast of Heligoland, in an ambush on the North Sea. The German ships were clearly inferior to the British; they could not count on the German battle cruisers to help as they were stuck in Wilhelmshaven, due to low tide.
When the fog became thicker, chaos reigned. The British even approached their own ships because of the poor visibility. However, at the last minute, they noticed their mistake and could finally carry out an attack on the German torpedo boat “V-187” and sink it. Shortly thereafter, the German small cruisers “Mainz”, “Ariadne” and “Cöln” also sank through torpedo impacts. 760 soldiers perished on the four German warships.
Since then, almost nobody is interested in the sunken ships. Presumably, this would be the case until today if Florian Huber had not seen a video of the wrecks on YouTube – a hundred years after their demise.
“The wrecks are extremely vulnerable.”
In the video, you can see how Dutch divers plunder the wrecks, they even dissembled a four-meter long anti-aircraft gun. “That annoyed me considerably”, says Huber. He is an underwater archaeologist and knows how valuable sunken warships are for research; they testify to historical events such as the First World War. “In addition, they are war graves. I would not knock down the iron crosses of gravestones on a military cemetery,” said indignant Huber.
He filed a report with colleagues. Legally, the ships are still owned by Germany and it is illegal to exploit them. However, scavenger divers are not worried about this, complains Huber. The video on YouTube clearly shows what damage they have already caused. Huber and his team, therefore, decided to document the situation of the lost warships off the coast of Heligoland and have raised money from sponsors for this. “This year we have investigated the torpedo boat “V-187”, says Huber.
Using sound measurements, the researchers first scanned the seabed and actually encountered a wreck; the location and dimensions of which, corresponded exactly to the torpedo boat “V-187”. To make sure that this was the ship they were looking for, the archaeologists had to dive to the site at a depth of forty meters – a difficult task.
Due to the tide, the researchers only have one hour per dive, otherwise the current is too strong. Moreover, visibility in the North Sea is extremely poor. “Usually we can only see one or two meters – if you see anything at all”, says Huber.
“Then we were certain.”
During the dives the researchers documented the state of the wreck with high resolution cameras. In addition, they secure various artefacts such as a porcelain plate and the cover of a signal pattern from the First World War. “Only then were we sure we had found the right wreck”, says Huber.
The “V-187” has fallen apart in the middle and is badly damaged. Of the original three torpedo tubes on the deck there is only one left. The others are probably stolen.
Archaeologists have not encountered any bones yet. “They are probably in the ship and diving inside would be too dangerous”, says Huber. In any case, the divers should exercise extreme caution. The North Sea off the coast of Heligoland is full of old fishing nets, in which they can easily be caught.
How a stoker survived alone.
The archaeologists compare their research results with written recollections. Time after time they come across personal stories such as those of Adolf Neumann, who served as a stoker and was the only one of 500 soldiers who survived the sinking of the “Cöln”.
Neumann spent three days in the North Sea before being rescued. He had clung to the wreck of a dinghy along with other survivors but the soldiers went down one after the other until only Neumann remained, he said after his rescue.
“It is our job to preserve the wrecks and the related stories”, says underwater archaeologist Huber. That is why he and his team are going back next summer. Archaeologists can look forward to a further success; the police have searched the houses of the Dutch scavengers and secured various finds from the war wrecks at Heligoland. They are now going to the Military Museum in Dresden.
In summary: During the First World War, on August 28, 1914, four warships of the German imperial navy sank off the coast of Heligoland. Time and time again they were pillaged by scavengers. Underwater archaeologists now document the condition of the wrecks to capture as much information as possible.