Germany sends army truck to confiscate WWI items at Groningen dive team

A German army truck will soon stop at the door of Henk Bos to seize archaeological objects that dive team De Zeester took from a German WWI wreck. This report is received from lawyer, Jan Maarten Pol, representing the dive team from Groningen.  The dive team have been in conflict with the German state for three years over archaeological objects from the shipwreck of the German cruiser Mainz. The cruiser sank during the First World War during the Battle of Heligoland, a German island in the North Sea.

Dagblad van het Noorden (more pictures)
7-9-2018 – Frank von Hebel

The German government confiscated the items and threatened the dive team with legal proceedings. Pol said, “It is very complex who that wreck actually belongs to, because the then German empire had to hand over its fleet to the Allies after the war. I am very curious what judgement a judge would have given, but then we would be three years and thousands of euros further. This is the best solution for everyone.”

How it started

June 2015: The ship De Zeester with its home port in Lauwersoog, floats in the warm sun on the North Sea near the German island, Heligoland. Henk Bos of the dive team, that bears the name of the ship, puts on his suit. Below is the wreck of a warship that they discovered in 2004 but they still do not know which ship it is.

During the Battle of Heligoland, the first naval battle of the First World War, the British sank a number of German cruisers. Maybe they will find out today?

Captain Klaas Koch drops a line 35 meters down, that two divers attach to the wreck. Bos climbs overboard and pulls himself along the line to the seabed. The water is 18 degrees and feels warm. After a minute he is down. He has about 25 minutes for his search before needing to resurface.

He cautiously gropes around. The visibility is about six meters. He sees crabs and lobsters. After ten minutes he discovers a cannon, covered by a fishing net. Something is hanging in the net. He swims closer and touches the object; a rifle scope! Probably pulled from the cannon by the fishing net. Perhaps it provides an indication of which ship is located here?

Carefully, he cuts it loose and resurfaces. On the deck he cleans the rifle scope and figures appear under the lime. It says: 10.5 centimeters. He grins. Which ship had guns of 10.5 centimeters? He knows the answer. The Mainz! It is not conclusive evidence, but still. They take photos and put them on Facebook.

And with that the misery began.

German justice demands the return of the items the dive team, from Groningen, took out of the wreckage of the German cruiser.

Three years later, the rifle scope is in a cardboard box that Bos stores in his home in Uithuizen. Bos said “On Wednesday, a German army truck is pulling up to pick up all the items we have collected from the Mainz. In total, there are seven objects. Seven! What is this all about?” A truck for seven objects? ”There is also a cannon with it.”

The German State demands the objects are returned. They belong to Germany and are illegally obtained, according to their reasoning. The first claim from the German side, came three years ago. “A German archaeologist had seen the photos on Facebook and called in the government”, says Klaas Koch. He wears a dark blue polo shirt with ‘kappie’ and ‘Zeester’ on it.

“The man claimed that the German wrecks were being robbed by the Dutch. It was considered to be desecration of graves. Pfffffffff. Please.” Bos rolls his eyes and leans forward. “Desecration of graves? The Cöln was also sunk during the Battle of Heligoland, in which hundreds of men died.  In the late seventies, the German government wanted to use the iron.  With great force, they pulled up parts of the wreck. Then they processed it into scrap. But we did not break anything at all. We do take things with us, but they do not end up in our attic rooms. These items will end up in our continuous exhibition space in restaurant, Het Booze Wijf, in Lauwersoog. If requested we will also give objects, on loan, to museums.”

‘They even searched the room where our grandchildren were staying at that moment’

The dive team enters into dialogue with the German state. Bos says “We wanted to return the objects but we did set a few conditions. For example, we wanted them to go to a museum. We had not heard from them for a while, until May this year when I was at work and received a phone call from my wife. She asked if I could get there as soon as possible because there was a police officer and a bailiff waiting for me. ‘Where are the objects?’ they asked. Well, at that moment I did not know exactly which member of our dive team had what objects. They searched everywhere; they even searched the room where our grandchildren were staying at that moment. The bailiff was sniffing in the bushes in the garden. Maybe the cannon was there? Seriously?”

All the items are now at his house, except for the cannon. In one of the boxes there is also a rusty dagger with a plastic handle. Bos said, “It seems to me very unlikely that it descends from the First World War, but that thing was in the Mainz so they wanted it too. Okay fine.” Koch points to a rusted diving helmet. Koch said, “A really special thing; that is an escape helmet. If the ship sank, you could set it up and then you had five minutes of air to swim to the surface. Without us it was still down there, but now it ends up in a museum in Dresden and that’s all we wanted. So in the end we are happy with this outcome, but I do not understand why they have dealt with it like this.”

Bos nods. “This whole thing costs them thousands and thousands of euros. If they had just asked us nicely, they could just have those items.”