If you’re looking for a tour off Sussex, JOHN LIDDIARD knows just the torpedoed steamer to recommend. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
THE SUSSEX COAST HAS BEEN NOTICEABLY ABSENT from Wreck Tour to date, so I set out to do something about it.
The Gascony was sunk in January 1918. At the time there was some confusion as to whether its end was brought about by a torpedo or a mine, but post-war examination of U-boat records confirmed that it was a torpedo fired by UC-75, a submarine of the same class as UC-70 (Wreck Tour 10, December 1999).
My first dive on the Gascony was not particularly easy. It was a spring tide, slack was short, visibility was low and some of the details I had read in various guidebooks seemed to be either out of date or back to front. I managed to get the wreck half-sketched, Alex Poole added a few details from his own sketching, other divers on the boat commented and added a few notes, but completion was a long way off.
A couple of weeks later I had the chance of another dive. Spring tides again, but the visibility had improved and I already had the basic layout sorted out. This time I had no trouble getting the rest of the sketch together and checking the details of my previous work. All this, together with some earlier sketches from Tony Dobinson’s logbook, and I felt confident in the final sketch.
The largest high point of the wreck is just aft of the boilers, so this is where the tour begins, at a depth of about 25m (1).
With the Gascony virtually upside-down, then collapsed to starboard to leave the port side more exposed, getting your bearings is difficult. My trick in these circumstances is to take a compass bearing on the lay of the shotline before descending, and to assume it will be reasonably similar by the time I hit the bottom. To get to the more interesting port side of the wreck, head to the north or north-west side of the wreckage.
The port side is marked by intact bits of railing and other deck fittings (2). Heading aft, the jumble of metal hull-plates and railings is broken by the remains of a mast (3). The depth of the seabed is pretty constant at about 30m throughout the dive.
Continuing aft, the next section of upright railing (4) marks the point where the stern is slightly more intact and rises above the seabed. Rounding the stern, the last scrap of metal lying just behind the main body of the wreck is the rudder (5).
Wow, the first half of this month’s Wreck Tour has been over pretty fast, and all we have seen so far are a few railings, a mast and a rudder! Perhaps I should have mentioned earlier that my plan was to get to the stern reasonably briskly, then tour the wreck systematically forward at a more leisurely pace.
The stern (6) is reasonably intact and almost completely upside-down. The propshaft protrudes from the keel, but the propeller has been salvaged and, as already noted, the rudder lies on the seabed below. A few plates have rotted through and fallen clear to provide some holes to look inside, but nothing big enough to fit through comfortably.
Descending the slope of the hull back towards the port side, you will see a large hollow triangular section standing upright and a box section resting next to it (7). Interesting shapes, but not things that I could identify as particular bits of the ship.
It is just forward of these that the most interesting part of the wreck can be found, the remains of a cargo of gun-carriages (8). The heavy-duty spoked wheels are getting on for 1m across, some broken, but many intact and some even still attached to their axles.
From here to the area of the engine-room consists of a fairly featureless mass of collapsed metal, though you might spot a lobster or conger eel hiding among the wreckage.
The engine-room area (9) is quite interesting. Tucked back beneath the plates is the remains of the propshaft-tunnel and the crankshaft from the engine, together with the usual scraps of grated decking.
Before you get to the boilers, a broken cylindrical tube with coiled pipes inside is the remains of a condenser (10), a component that was often one of the first bits to be salvaged from wrecks of this age, but for some reason was never removed from the Gascony.
The four boilers are clear of hull-plates and two are tilted at unusual angles (11). When the Gascony sank she went down by the bow and was seen to break her back before disappearing beneath the surface. This would explain how the boilers are clear of wreckage from the upturned hull, and how the tip of the bow has noticeably twisted back relative to the line of the wreck, but more of that later.
The area where the hull has collapsed in on the forward holds again has little in the way of notable features, though there are some large shoals of fish milling about the wreck: the usual mixture of bib and poor cod and a few pollack.
I would recommend following the port side of the wreck forwards, past sections of railing and bollards (12) and the forward mast (13). A little way into the wreckage from the base of the mast lie the broken remains of a cargo-winch (14).
Continuing forward along the port side of the wreckage, the bow has broken clear and twisted to the starboard side of the rest of the wreck (15). It has also twisted almost 180° on the axis of the ship, because it is actually resting on its port side and you are suddenly on the starboard side of the keel!
I can’t imagine how the wreck could have collapsed this way, so the damage must have happened at the time of sinking. The wreck went down bow-first, so perhaps the bow was broken loose as it hit the seabed, with the rest of the wreck then rolling in the opposite direction as it sank.
Within the break lies the anchor-winch, and a large pile of anchor-chain. On the far side of the wreck as we look at it (16), there is a swim-through beneath the upturned hull, coming out across the wreck from the winch (17). I couldn’t find anything of significance in there, but swim-throughs can be fun just for the sake of it.
Having made that diversion, going back to the bow and past the break on the far side (18), an anchor is lying on the seabed above what is confusingly the deck. If you don’t need to return to the shot, the bow is good and solid, with enough projecting bits to tie onto and launch a delayed SMB to ascend.
THE MASTER WAS RIGHT
Everyone at the Court of Enquiry into the sinking of the 3,133-ton British steamer Gascony assumed that she had been mined. Everyone, that is, except for her master, William Melville, who persisted in saying that she had been torpedoed in her port side just behind the bridge, writes Kendall McDonald.
Melville had heard a hiss just before the explosion, and to him it sounded like a torpedo run. The enquiry, however, concluded that the Gascony, which had been carrying guns on carriages, hay, charcoal and other Government stores from Southampton to Calais for the British Army in France, had hit a mine, and that in any case the captain should have been zig-zagging.
Later, it emerged that Captain Melville had been right. He had been torpedoed at 11.18 pm on 18 January, 1918, by Oberleutnant Johann Lohs in UC-75. A huge wall of water from the explosion crashed over the decks, the engines ground to a standstill, and the forward holds and engine-room started filling.
Melville ordered his crew of 39 and the naval gunner of the big old stern gun into the boats and over to their patrol-boat escort, HMS P-12.
But the 108m Gascony refused to sink in the dark. She was well down by the head, but at dawn, when she seemed stable, the captain, the mate and four volunteers reboarded her and at 8am took lines from two tugs. She was pulled slowly towards the Sussex shore, but at 1.45pm she suddenly broke in two and sank like a stone.
GETTING THERE: For Littlehampton marina, take the first road towards the sea off the A259 between Littlehampton and Bognor Regis. Coming from the Littlehampton direction, the marina can be seen from the bridge across the Arun and the turning is about 500m further on. For Bracklesham, from the A27 Chichester bypass take the A286, then the B2198. The slip and car park are at the end of the road where it hits the beach. For East Wittering, turn right about 300m before Bracklesham beach.
DIVING AND AIR: The hard boat Voyager operates from Littlehampton marina. Air and nitrox are available from the dive-shop in the marina complex. Wittering Divers provides RIB diving from the beach at Bracklesham, with air, nitrox and equipment rental from its shop in East Wittering.
ACCOMMODATION: Camping is available at both Littlehampton marina and the Ship & Anchor marina (01243 551262). For details of pub accommodation and bed & breakfast, contact Littlehampton tourist information or Chichester tourist information.
TIDES: Slack water is essential and occurs 1.5 hours before high water and 1 hour before low water Portsmouth. Slack can be delayed by a high-pressure weather system.
HOW TO FIND IT: The GPS co-ordinates are 50 39.46N, 0 39.66W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The wreck lies with the bows to the south-west, so a north-west to south-east search pattern is most likely to cross it.
LAUNCHING: The slips at Littlehampton marina and into the river are wet at all states of the tide, though entering and exiting the River Arun is unsafe close to low water. At Bracklesham a slip descends onto a hard sandy beach. Other slips and beach launches are detailed in Dive Sussex.
QUALIFICATIONS: The Gascony is suitable for a reasonably experienced sports diver or equivalent. A maximum depth of 30m makes it ideal for nitrox.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 1652, Selsey Bill To Beachy Head. Ordnance Survey Map 197, Chichester And The South Downs, Bognor Regis And Arundel. Dive Sussex, by Kendall McDonald. World War One Channel Wrecks by Neil Maw.
PROS: Small enough to see in one dive, with some interesting cargo.
CONS: Visibility varies from good to very bad. Slack water can be short and unpredictable on spring tides.
Thanks to Alex Poole, Tony Dobinson & Paul Childs
Appeared in Diver, April 2001