A favourite with divers in Devon is this anemone-covered steamship that sank at the close of WW1. JOHN LIDDIARD reports, Illustration by MAX ELLIS
ALL PARTS OF OUR COASTLINE HAVE THEIR own “signature” wrecks, the ones that are easily accessible and which everyone likes to dive. Off the East Devon coast, this honour falls to the steamship Bretagne. Although listed as a World War One wreck, the Bretagne was actually sunk by a collision in fog on 10 August, 1918.
Our tour of the Bretagne begins on what remains of the superstructure (1) at 20m or so, simply because that is where the shot hit last time I dived it. To get your bearings, factors to consider are that the starboard side is the more broken, with the main deck having collapsed further than the port side, and that the hole for the funnel (9) is forward of the engine-room ventilation-hatches (8).
Anyway, for now I would recommend leaving things like the engine-room alone and heading towards the stern. The direction becomes apparent when you pass a fairly intact winch almost as soon as you drop to main deck level (2). Ignoring the aft hold for now, as you near the stern the spare propeller is secured flat to the deck (3). If you instead come to more winches and another hold, you are heading towards the bows.
At the stern, a gun-platform, with the pedestal still in place and the gun removed, is covered in plumose anemones (4). The 12-pounder anti-submarine gun was salvaged by divers from Bristol Aerospace Sub-Aqua Club in 1972 when they cut through the mount with explosives. BASAC owns the wreck and it has been something of a club project.
The recovered gun was later shown to one of the gunners, who happened to be living in Torquay. He is reported to have remarked: “I never expected to see the bugger again; I only ever polished it once.”
Back on the Wreck Tour, descending over the stern reveals the rudder turned slightly to port and the propeller still in place, though a couple of blades are damaged (5). As with most of the Bretagne, the propeller and rudder are covered in a thick cloak of anemones.
Now at the deepest point of the dive, at 30m, I would recommend staying on the seabed and following the starboard side of the wreck to the point at which the hull is split open (6), just aft of the engine-room bulkhead. This is the split made by the bows of the Renate Marthe in the collision that sank the Bretagne.
If visibility is reasonable, the aft hold (7) can be entered through this cut. With plenty of light coming in from above, the inside of the hold can be explored and lumps of the Bretagne’s cargo of coal found in the silt. With a gentle current running through the wreck, this area is often full of large pollack and poor cod.
From the back of the hold, I have heard that it is possible to get in below the gun-mount and view the steering gear, though I have not done this.
From the front of the hold, the bulkhead has decayed to the point at which it is possible to enter the engine-room and swim around the top of the three-cylinder steam engine (8). Exits are available through the sides of the superstructure or the open ventilation-hatches above.
If visibility is not so good, or you prefer not to enter the wreck, ascend back to deck level and have a quick look in the hold (7) from above, before continuing forward past the starboard side of the engine-room (8).
The deck has collapsed into the ship’s coal-bunkers here and there are still many lumps of coal strewn among the wreckage. Out in the open and cleaned by the current, this coal is not covered by thick silt like that in the Bretagne’s holds.
In front of the engine-room, the funnel above the boiler-room is missing, leaving a nice large circular hole down to the boiler (9). On a newer wreck, such a route will often come to a dead end because the internal ducting from the boiler to the funnel would still be in place, but here the ducting has rotted away, making the route practical.
If you are wearing slim equipment like a single cylinder with pony, it is possible to exit the boiler-room through the square ventilator-hatches in the roof or between ribs in a decayed bulkhead at the front. With anything larger, it is necessary to retrace your way back out of the funnel hole.
At the sides of the boiler-room, small rectangular hatch surrounds mark the coal chutes for loading the coal-bunkers (10). The forward part of the superstructure, including the wheelhouse, has been wire-swept, although not that thoroughly, because the remains of a large box structure still hangs over the side of the wreck (11).
The Bretagne has two forward holds and one aft hold. Continuing forward, the decking has rotted away and the ribs have become detached from the starboard side of the hull, allowing the deck to drop almost one level so that it slopes across the holds (12). Between the holds is a pair of cargo-winches (13), though no sign of the mast.
Passing the forward hold (14), still on the starboard side of the ship, a small curved hut to the side of the deck houses one of the most memorable features of the Bretagne, which is an anemone-covered toilet (15).
One of the rewarding thoughts for most single male divers is that here stands a lavatory with even more life growing on it than the one in their bathroom at home!
Having examined the pipework, I deduce that the plumbing on the Bretagne was not that advanced. The toilet emptied straight over the side of the bow. Other small huts on the deck cover a hatchway below decks (16) and the rigging store (17).
The anchor-winch (18) is intact, though at the bows both anchors are now gone (19). Even so, it’s worth having a look at the outside of the bows, if only to admire yet more anemones.
Having seen the entire wreck, there is a good selection of ribs exposed to secure a reel and launch a delayed SMB to make an ascent. With the depth of the deck being just 20-22m, a dive is more likely to end from lack of air than because of decompression limits, unless you are wearing a twin-set.
RAMMED IN THE FOG
On 10 August, 1918, the 1,439 ton schooner-rigged, single-screw steel steamer Bretagne steamed slowly east through thick fog along the mine-swept lane off the Devon coast, carrying 1,888 tons of coal from Barry for Rouen, writes Kendall McDonald.
The Bretagne, 70m long with a beam of 10m, had been built in Oslo in 1903, and fitted with a 106hp three-cylinder triple-expansion engine, but could also hoist 185sq m of sail if needed. Norwegian-owned, she had been requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport in 1916 and fitted with a 12-pounder stern gun. This had been fired six times, but never in anger.
At 10.30 that morning, the fog was pierced by the bow of the French steamer Renate Marthe. She rammed the Bretagne on the starboard side, near the stern. The bows of the French steamer crumpled but, after she backed off, she was still seaworthy.
Not so the Bretagne. Her steering gear was jammed to starboard, her stern holed, and she was taking in water fast. Optimistically, Captain J W Johannesson accepted a tow from two Torbay trawlers after most of his crew had been taken off.
He stayed onboard with his first mate and a naval gunner, but the water kept rising and, as it lapped the decks, the captain ordered the men into a boat.
The mate insisted on going below to get his money. It was a fatal mistake. A wave swept over the deck, slamming a door behind him. That same wave sent the Bretagne nose-diving 25m to the bottom.
The Bretagne is the property of Bristol Aerospace SAC, which found it in September 1969. It bought the wreck for £30 soon afterwards and has raised both the gun and bell.
GETTING THERE: From the end of the M5, continue on the A38 towards Plymouth and turn left almost straight away on the A380 to Torquay and Brixham. After a few miles, turn left again on the B3192 to Teignmouth. On entering Teignmouth turn left, then immediately right, downhill to the commercial docks. Turn left behind the dockside warehouses to the public car park. Teign Diving and the public slip are opposite the car park.
DIVING AND AIR: Teign Diving Centre can fill air and nitrox and provide equipment rental and hardboat charter for individuals. Other dive-centres and charter-boats on the East Devon coast operate from Exmouth, Torquay, Paignton and Brixham.
TIDES: Tides are never that strong on the Bretagne, so slack water is not essential for diving.
LAUNCHING: The slip next to the Teign Diving Centre is usable at all states of the tide except very low springs. Other slips are available at most ports along the East Devon coastline.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 29.50N, 3 22.70W (degrees, minutes and decimals). I am not aware of any transits. The wreck points to the south-west, so a south-east to north-west search with an echo-sounder presents the best chance of success.
QUALIFICATIONS: With the highest point of the wreck at 20m and some current, the Bretagne is suitable for Sports Divers and the equivalent upwards, with plenty of holes to keep more experienced divers interested.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 3315, Berry Head To Bill Of Portland. Ordnance Survey Map 192, Exeter And Sidmouth. World War One Channel Wrecks, by Neil Maw. Dive South Devon, by Kendall McDonald. Bristol Aerospace SAC’s website contains a detailed history of the Bretagne.
PROS: The Bretagne is a very pretty wreck shallow enough for most divers, with plenty to explore. Accessible when south-westerly winds make the South Devon coast too rough.
CONS: Visibility can be low, especially after heavy rainfall.
Thanks to many regular divers with the Teign Diving Centre, also to Andy Wallace, Alex Poole & Wendy Skinner.
Appeared in Diver, November 2000