BACK WHEN YOU COULD COUNT the number of trimix divers in the UK on the fingers of two hands, I began working on a list of important shipwrecks made accessible by this new diving technology.
The wrecks had to be naval and of significant historic importance if I was to invest time in looking for and diving them. Among the notables was the British submarine M1, which I found in 1998. However, one of the most important, HSK Komet, remained undiscovered for more than a decade and took much effort to track down. As the second largest (after HMS Charybdis) naval war-grave in the Channel, it was a great reward finally to locate the wreck and put it back on the map. An Auxiliary Raider, Komet was one of nine merchant ships that Germany’s Kriegsmarine converted for military service in 1940-41. It was following in the footsteps of the Imperial German Navy, which had enjoyed much success with raiders in World War One. The Captains of raiders such as Moewe and Seeadler became world-famous for their exploits. The Raider program was simple. The idea was to convert merchant ships into powerful warships that looked like innocent freighters. They would have the ability to change disguise to look like any number of foreign-flagged merchant ships, and the hidden armament of a cruiser. Their purpose was equally simple – to sink as much enemy merchant shipping as possible, while avoiding encounters with hostile navies.
HSK KOMET HAD ALREADY COMPLETED a successful foray into the Pacific when she was sunk in the Channel. Her first patrol had lasted 512 days and accounted for 42,000 tons of shipping. Remarkably, when she sailed, Russia was a German ally and Komet was escorted through the icebound northern route around Siberia into the Pacific, a rare feat for which the vessel is remembered in navigational circles to this day. However, her successes were not to last. By the time Komet was readied for a second foray Russia was an enemy, so she had to break out into the Atlantic down the Channel. By late 1942, Allied naval power in home waters was building fast, shifting to an offensive footing and providing the capability to attack German supply shipping on the French side.
Despite the impregnable raider codes, the Allies were reading much German naval radio traffic from other sources, which hinted at an attempt to pass a major naval unit down the Channel. So, on 13 October, 1942, Operation Bowery was launched to trap and destroy the Komet. Travelling across the Baie de Seine, Komet was sighted from a Swordfish aircraft. The Royal Navy sent 10 destroyers and a flotilla of motor torpedo boats to find and destroy her. Force A, the destroyers HMS Cottesmore, Albrighton, Quorn, Eskdale and Glaisdale and MTB 236, intercepted the convoy escorting Komet off Cap le Hague shortly after 1am on 14 October.
THE ONLY WAY TO CONFIRM what happened to Komet was to dive the wreck. Yet when I looked into doing this in 1997, it became clear that nobody knew where the wreck lay. This was mysterious, because the Channel is well surveyed and much dived. Most of its larger wrecks were at least charted by then, if not yet dived. Moreover, the historic position for the sinking, given in contemporary Admiralty reports, plotted the wreck in around 50m, within air-diving range. There was no point in looking for Komet until better information came my way. I was researching shipwrecks in the Public Records Office in 2005 when I came across some eyewitness reports of the battle. They seemed to indicate that the wreck was very much landward of the Admiralty position. This gave me something to work on.
Upside down 20mm flak gun
ON A FLAT, SUNNY JULY AFTERNOON we descended through green, yet clear, Channel water to the top of a wreck. It was clear that it was upside-down. The first items I recall seeing were the four-bladed propeller and rudder at the stern. As I landed on the keel and swam down onto the starboard side of the wreck, two things struck me. Firstly, this was a virgin site, because portable items lay scattered everywhere. Even in French waters, where artefact collection is prohibited, this is a rare sight. There was something else. There was no marine growth, no concretion on the portholes, no crud on the wreck. The answer, of course, was that the vicious tides simply polish off any growth.
BY NOW THE NEWS OF KOMET’S DISCOVERY had begun to drift out and, as is always the case, more information about the ship begun to surface. Over four days we dived both halves of the wreck, and were able to get a good idea of what was there. The stern section was around 50m long, upside-down and listing to port. The break was right in the area of the bridge, and fairly clean. Little debris could be seen on the seabed around it. Yet 300m due east lay the bows, which were very different. The bow section was also upside-down, but much the more damaged. It took me two dives to work out what was there. When I located the two forward flak guns, I was astonished to find decking above and below them.
Gallery of images on the next page…..
A sketch I made of the wreck in 2007 (not to scale). I am no artist, but was trying to depict bow the bows are twisted completely around on themselves. This phenomenon was unique in my experience until I saw similar in the area of the Admiral’s day cabin on the wreck of HMS Hood this summer. All the main features we saw are highlighted (Innes McCartney).
The one seriously niggling question I have is why the wreck points to the east? No witness accounts state that Komet turned back for Cherbourg. It is a real mystery.
Dr. Innes McCartney – Nautical Archaeologist, Naval Historian and 26 years a Wreck Diver.