One of Scapa Flow’s legendary giant battleships, it’s too big to hurry, but JOHN LIDDIARD explains how to get a good overview. Illustration by MAX ELLIS
THE KRONPRINZ WILHELM IS AN ENORMOUS WRECK. On the cruiser wrecks of Scapa Flow it’s possible to find your way round fairly easily, but on a battleship this large and complicated it can easily take a few dives before you get the feel for it.
The route I have chosen to describe is quite a long dive, involving a bit of a fast swim along the wreck to get the overall layout with diversions to see the main features. Even so, if you don’t want to spend that much time under water and decompressing, it can easily be split into a series of dives.
Local dive-boats usually maintain a couple of buoys on the Kronprinz Wilhelm, one at the stern and one amidships. I recommend the stern-line, because if you start amidships and go down the wrong side of the wreck, you will lose several minutes of valuable bottom-time working your way to the open side. Like many other divers, I’ve done exactly that.
The buoy-line is attached among a jumble of debris where the hull has been blasted open just above the rudders (1). Salvage has removed the propellers and presumably the shafts to get at the bearings. Following the slope downwards, the debris ends and a more intact area of the hull continues to the seabed (2).
Go on down to the seabed and start swimming with the hull on your left-hand side. That way, wherever you hit the seabed you will end up on the open port side of the wreck, rather than the starboard side that rests in the silt.
Just forward of the rudders, a number of hull-plates have come loose, providing easy access to the huge gear-wheels that drove the stern anchor-capstans, now buried in the silt below (3). Cabins in this area were the officers’ accommodation, nice and comfortable away from the main machinery.
Back outside, a gap soon appears, growing between the deck and the silt. You could start exploring under the deck at any time, but an easy way to see the main gun-turrets is to wait until the gap between the deck and the seabed is a few metres high before turning in beneath the wreck (4).
It’s easy to miss the main gun-turrets because they are so huge. I have found myself swimming alongside a turret and thinking it was just a wall of steel plate until I followed it up to the circular base.
Gun barrels for the 12in main guns could be mistaken for sections of propshaft or mast, until you suddenly realise just what it is you’re looking at. Find one that’s clear of the seabed and try hugging it to touch your hands on the opposite side, and you’ll see what I mean.
The inside bore might be 12in, but the barrels are well over a metre in diameter at the base.
At the back of the number 5 turret is a gap between it and the deck. The turret base is still firmly attached to the deck, but in the lip at the back of the turret is an open hatch, originally leading upwards into the turret.
Now you can poke your head and dive down for a look inside at the breech mechanisms of the guns.
The number 4 turret was superimposed on number 5, being raised above it and just forward of it on the original ship. Turn this image upside-down and it’s easy to find the guns for number 4 turret resting on the seabed below number 5, with the turret itself resting in the silt. The hatches at the back of this turret are firmly closed.
Following the deck above the turret back out to daylight, the first two of the secondary 5.9in guns are accessible (5), with the armoured casemate broken open to give a view of the breech mechanisms.
If you had not already seen the main turrets, these would be impressive in their own right, as big as the guns on the nearby cruiser wrecks. Here they are merely features of minor interest.
The main gun-turrets have supported the hull in this area, keeping it clear of the seabed, but further forward the hull has twisted to bring the secondary armament level with the seabed.
Moving forward again along the port side of the deck, debris from the hull obscures much of interest, but poking in and out of the wreck where the gaps are large enough should reveal more of the secondary armament (6).
The number 3 main gun-turret, situated amidships, is well buried beneath the wreck; obscured by the tangle of debris left from salvage work on the boilers and condensers (7).
About two-thirds of the way forward, lying perpendicular to the hull, lies a mast with observation platform (8).
Just forward of this, the foremost two secondary gun-turrets are accessible beneath a pair of fallen hull-plates (9). Now well forward of the engine- and boiler-rooms, debris from the salvage work is less of an obstruction, but the deck is closer to the seabed.
The number 2 turret is buried, but with a 1-2m gap between the deck and the silt there is just enough room to venture underneath again to see the number 1 main gun-turret. The guns stretch forward, half-buried in the silt (10).
Resting on top of one of the gun-barrels is a length of anchor-chain. Built on obviously battleship-sized proportions, each link is as big as a truck tyre and too heavy to shift even slightly.
Towards the edge of the deck are a pair of mooring bollards and a fairlead (11). The bows have collapsed almost flat to starboard, leaving two port anchor hawse-pipes close together on the upper surface of the wreckage (12). The single starboard hawse-pipe is hidden beneath the collapsed bows.
By now anyone diving on air will be well into decompression, and anyone diving on nitrox will be at their no-stop time. Rather than end the dive and ascend from here, a convenient way to move slowly shallower and get the most from a dive-computer is to follow the hull back to the midships area, slowly making your way up the hull.
On the way in, there is access into internal corridors through gaps in the side of the hull (13), but be extremely careful, because these are heavily silted.
This will eventually bring you up to a depth as shallow as 12-15m, depending on the tide. Ribs left poking into the gentle current are home to long and delicate anemones (14). Forests of tunicates decorate intact plates, with carpets of intertwined brittlestars writhing on the deeper plates.
Although there is another buoy-line here, you might not find it, so a delayed SMB could be necessary for decompression.
Further aft, the hole where the machinery was salvaged (15) provides a separate destination for a subsequent rummage dive.
The wreck of the Kronprinz Wilhelm is so immense and complex that you will need several dives before you even begin to feel you know it. A wreck this size could merit a week’s diving by itself, and whether you can spare that with all the other Grand Fleet wrecks and the blockships to explore, only you can decide.
FINAL DAYS OF THE BIG SISTERS
She was one of the biggest warships in the world. After her launch at Kiel in 1914, the Kiel Canal had to be widened to get the huge Kronprinz Wilhelm through to fight Britain’s equally massive Dreadnoughts, writes Kendall McDonald.
The Kronprinz Wilhelm weighed 25,388 tons, with her main armour-plate over a foot thick around her turrets and fire-control tower and another 4in of armour covering her decks. She was 175m long with a beam of 29m and a draught of more than 9m. Into this was packed huge firepower from ten 12in guns, fourteen 5.9in guns and eight 3.4in guns, including anti-aircraft guns.
The Kronprinz Wilhelm even had five 20in torpedo tubes (one in the bow and four in the beam). And despite all this weight, her 46,000hp turbines could give a top speed of more than 21 knots.
The battleship came through the Battle of Jutland undamaged, having kept up fast and accurate fire on the British Grand Fleet from her position in the van with the Third Squadron of the German High Seas Fleet.
Later she was torpedoed by the British submarine J1 while providing heavy back-up for the rescue of Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger, the man who sank the Lusitania, and his crew of U20, which had been stranded on the Danish coast.
The torpedo from J1 left a huge hole in the side of the Kronprinz Wilhelm. Only her watertight compartments and cork packing made it possible for her to limp back to port.
Repairs in dry dock took months and the ship was to fight no more. At the end of 1918 when she was ordered to sea her crew mutinied, joining the rest of the German Fleet in refusing to obey orders. After the Armistice, she was one of the battleships surrendered at Scapa Flow.
The Kronprinz Wilhelm was given an anchoring position “three-quarters of a mile north-east of the Calf of Cava”. Close by were her sister-ships König and Markgraf, each with caretaker crews of about 200 Germans on board.
At 11.15pm on 21 June, 1919, the Kronprinz Wilhelm went down quietly and upright to the seabed in 36m, to be joined a few hours later by her sisters. These and four other Scapa Flow wrecks were recently scheduled for protection under the Ancient Monuments & Archaeological Areas Act 1979.
GETTING THERE: Ferries to the Orkney Islands run from Scrabster, Invergorden and Aberdeen. The longer ferry routes cost more, but have the advantage of shorter road journeys. The Scrabster-to-Stromness ferry has a system for carrying dive-gear for foot passengers, so you can easily leave your car on the mainland. Coaches from Inverness to Scrabster are scheduled to fit in with the ferry sailings. It is also possible to fly in to Kirkwall.
DIVING AND AIR: Try Jean Elaine skipper Andy Cuthbertson. Most diving in Scapa Flow is from large hardboats, many offering liveaboard “floating bunk-room” accommodation. Air is provided by on-board compressors. Nitrox can be mixed onboard most boats for an extra charge. Air, weights and cylinders are usually included in the price, so travelling light and using the boat’s equipment is always an option.
ACCOMMODATION: Sleep on board the boat, or stay ashore in a local hotel or B&B. There is a campsite in Stromness, but I would not recommend camping in the Orkney climate. Check Orkney Islands tourist information.
LAUNCHING: If you want to ferry your own boat across, there are a number of small slips in Scapa Flow. The nearest to the wrecks is at Houton. Scapa Flow is a working harbour and you will need to arrange permission to dive in advance with the Harbourmaster.
TIDES: The Kronprinz Wilhelm can be dived at any state of the tide.
HOW TO FIND IT: Chart co-ordinates are 58 53.64N, 3 09.79W (degrees, minutes and decimals). The Kronprinz Wilhelm is easy enough to find with a GPS and echo-sounder, especially as there are usually two small buoys attached.
QUALIFICATIONS: Experienced sport divers who are capable of doing some decompression, ideally with nitrox.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Admiralty Chart 35, Scapa Flow And Approaches. Ordnance Survey Map 6 Orkney – Mainland, Ordnance Survey Map 7 Orkney – Southern Isles. Dive Scapa Flow, Rod Macdonald. The Wrecks Of Scapa Flow, David M Ferguson. The Naval Wrecks of Scapa Flow, Peter L Smith.
PROS: Probably the best of the battleship wrecks, shallower than the Markgraf and more intact than the König.
CONS: Like most battleships, it landed upside-down.
Thanks to Matt Wood, Andy Cuthbertson and many of the members of Tunbridge Wells BSAC.
Appeared in Diver, November 2001