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So there we were, three floors up in Narvik's harbour office, wondering what the bearded gent with the scrambled egg on his shirt was going to do with us - would we get the diving permit? Would we be sent packing?
As true englishmen, after telling him our business, we talked about the weather. Not at all kind to us on Friday, we said, and wasn't his harbour difficult to moor in for small yachts? He busied himself with a large computer, perhaps looking for the surveillance pictures for the last 24 hours to see what we had really been doing. He pressed a button - a printer zipped quietly. Out popped a sheet of paper. He held it up to read it.....
"Well", he said, "You will have better weather for the next days here in Narvik", and presented us with a graphical 5-day forecast of wind speed and direction, rainfall, temperature and barometer. So far so good - "Now then, about the diving permits: first of all, you must fill in this form". All of us or just one? "You are in charge of the boat: you are responsible" he said to JK. JK, remembering the recent court case at Lake Garda where the guy who had signed the papers ended up in jail, quaked a bit. So I filled in the short form he had given me, signed a statement in Norwegian that I couldn't understand, handed over 75 Kroner (£7), and that was that! No checking of identities, diving experience, insurance etc. No requirement to be diving with a Norwegian, or being sponsored by one. Then he gave us an english language copy of the form I had signed, a map of the harbour with the wrecks named, a description in english about each one and a town plan, pointing out the locations of the two best pubs. We left the office with our tails up - the tales of difficulties getting permits was evidently more in the mind of the teller than in reality.
Most of the ships sunk in Narvik harbour and all the ones we were planning to dive were sunk in the three-day period after the Germans offered their services to Norway "to protect the Norwegians from the aggression of Britain". What was actually going on was that the Germans were trying to secure their supply line for iron ore for their war requirement for steel. The iron ore is mined in Sweden, and travels by train the relatively short distance to Narvik, where it is loaded onto ships that come down the norwegian coast and go either to the German north sea ports or else to customers of other nationalities. During the war, we all wanted the iron ore, and also wanted to deny it to our enemies. So the Germans had sent a squadron of destroyers to Narvik together with an invasion force, and the day they arrived, April 9th 1940, they disabled the two old norwegian dreadnoughts that were on coast watch, and landed the troops. On April 10th the British arrived and there was a big sea battle, during which several ships of the German force were sunk, as well as some of the iron ore ships that were lying in the harbour either full, or waiting to dock to be loaded. From the pictures in the war museum, the harbour after a couple more days was a real mess!
The German destroyers had been sunk near the quays in inconvenient positions from the point of view of later port operations, and so in the sixties, they were raised to the surface and re-sunk in about 25m of water just to the west of the airport - three of them, more or less side by side. The four transports were on the western side of the harbour and were a nuisance to traffic, so they had their superstructure chopped off but were otherwise undisturbed.
We got back to Voltair from town, had a lunchtime snack and decided we would dive the destroyers first, as they were nearest to our marina. However, the weather thought otherwise and blew up to a good force 5 again from the west, which made it really rough in the vicinity of that site. So we made over to the western shore and decided to dive the two ore-ships lying near eachother, a Swedish ship called the Strassa (8855 tons), and a German one called the Martha Heinrich Fisser, 8276 tons. Trevor was having neck seal problems so wanted to dive last to give his aquasure the maximum time to cure, so JK and Simon were first in. A smaller sailing yacht with dive flag up and inflatable behind was already near the navigational mark that marks the wrecks, tied up to a blue plastic buoy which might or might not be the marker buoy actually tied to the wreck. Two divers went down as we approached. To find out if he was, indeed, tied up to the wreck buoy, we hailed him, but got rebuffed with "We have divers down - you must keep clear of us!". This seemed to be the only english he admitted to knowing, since he kept repeating it. So, a little puzzled, we stood off and our divers got kitted up. We made a short swim over to the bow of the other yacht and went down the line, which was, indeed, the one on the midships section of the Strassa.
The decks were at a depth of about 15m, and a lot of soft coral growths were decorating rails and hard edges, making the ships look quite colourful. The odd huge dahlia anemone in purple and white added to the scenery, while pollack, some really big ones, hung in the shadows. We didn't bother with the holds but made straight for the end of the ship to the north, which turned out to be the stern, to which was chained the big navigation mark. A few green plumose anemones decorated the stern and rudder, and there was a nice swimthough between ship and rudder, the two huge prop-shafts, bare of propellors, over our heads. Drifting up to deck level again, we saw some horizontal ropes running away from the ship, which we presumed went to the other ship, and followed them. 40m or so of swimming brought us onto the second wreck, and once again we made for an end, finding a second stern.
This one had a much lusher growth of anemones, and the single propellor was still in position. A beautiful soft arch between rudder and ship, with one upright prop blade about 8ft long, made a stunning sight, every surface enhanced by the filigree fronds of the anemone forest.Simon got some good photos but then his strobe went wrong, denying us a picture of JK posing in the prop-gap, surrounded by plumes. Up we went, encountered some more flatties on the deck and pollack in the holds and made it to the bow of this ship before, low on air, it was time to surface.
While we had been planning the trip, we had been drawing from the experience of Frank Bang. His name had been given to JK in Bodo as the person to talk to about Norwegian wrecks, particularly those of the Narvik area, and his website itself had lots of interesting information about the various ships. So, we were lucky to find him free for a couple of hours on Saturday evening, and he came over to Vassvik to share some of our excellent rare roast beef and tell us more about his interests and experiences. He is mainly interested in shooting the wrecks themselves, the structures, shapes and atmosphere of the ships as they are today, and did not share Simon and Trevors enthusiasm for photographing the fauna in great detail. We were having a bit of confusion between the big blue catfish (big conger-like face with chin barbel and no protruding teeth) seen the next day on the Anton Schmidt, and the wolf-fish (big ugly face without barbel but with teeth). Frank advised us to cut the head off underwater when taking one to eat, and not to get fingers anywhere near the mouth. That's the kind of naturalist he is!
The next morning we set off early for the destroyers - deciding to make these our last Narvik dives. Simon and Trevor got some excellent atmospheric shots of the wrecks, one of which, the Anton Schmidt, is lying on its side, while the middle one, the Wilhelm Heidkampf has an impressively fine bow right down to the seabed. Unfortunately, they missed the large blue Catfish which the Johns saw on the Schmidt during their 3-ships-in-one-dive marathon, hanging about his lair, so, once again, no Catfish/Wolf-fish photos.
You also might be interested to look at Frank's pages for the ships, Wilhelm Heidkamp, Anton Schmidt
Leaving Narvik, we set off to the west with a moderate breeze against us and a target of making Lodingen for the night which was 35 miles west. Spotting a wreck symbol on the chart in a bay to our south, we made a pass over it, established there was a pile of something down there, and Simon and Trevor dived it, finding yet another german destroyer, this time the Erich Koellner, while the surface team caught saithe for supper. By the time we made it to Lodingen it was pretty late, but at least we had successfully extricated ourselves from the long sock-shaped fjord without big problems from the weather, and notched up four german destroyers in one day. There's a nice write-up about the Koellner on Peter Mitchell's website. (Remember him? - He wrote "The wrecker's guide to south-west Devon". Ask Steve at Sound Diving to tell you about him.)
The next part of the trip would be to see what diving was like in the even more crystalline waters of the Lofoten Islands and to make back to Bodo, 80 miles south, to conclude the cruise. This card will be coming shortly!
Best wishes from John G, Simon, Trevor and JK
If you missed part one click here to be redirected
Part 3 is now available, from every good arctic postcard shop, or you can click here.