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Malta’s S-31 Schnellboot



At the end of last year, I managed to scoop an exclusive on Malta’s new tech wrecks. Using side-scan sonar, the hand-picked team discovered more than 100 sites with only 30 percent of the coastal waters surveyed. I spoke to the project leader, Dr Timmy Gambin, who invited me on a 3D mapping dive of a German World War Two Junkers 88 bomber lying at a depth of around 60m.

The plane was in surprisingly good condition considering its age, with wings, engines, tail section, fuselage and machine guns on display. Back in his office at the university campus, Dr Gambin showed me some video footage of other exciting new finds, which when released will undoubtedly make Malta a ‘must do’ destination for any serious tech divers.

 S-31 Schnellboot Lee, Steve
S-31 Schnellboot Lee, Steve

Having experienced this awesome teaser-taster, I was keen to return and carry on with my tour of Malta’s new tech discoveries, but alas politics and egos seem to be hindering the release of the first batch of 16 wreck sites, meaning the exact co-ordinates are still being withheld and dive centres have not been authorised to visit the sites. Dr Gambin said there would be an official release date announced ‘a few weeks’ after I contacted him in December, but here I am still waiting.

My flights, courtesy of Air Malta, were already booked, so I had to find some tech wreck alternatives pdq. The Junkers 88 was my very first German World War Two wreck, so I wondered if Malta could offer any more dive sites with a similar pedigree. I had already had dealings with Alan and Viv Whitehead, the owners of Techwise based at St Julian’s, and was impressed with their set up and range of services offered. Alan suggested if I wanted to see more German metal, the S-31 Schnellboot would probably do the job.

The wreck was originally discovered back in September 2000, so I checked out some videos uploaded on YouTube just to see what the site has to offer. The deepish maximum depth of 67m had discouraged most of the trophy hunters (but not all), so there were still some interesting features left to photograph. I was well and truly hooked. Alan arranged a dive boat, courtesy of Jeffrey Pappalardo, and prepped the gas mixes.

S-31 Schnellboot Crew
S-31 Schnellboot Crew

The Schnellboot, aka E-Boat, was as a fast motor torpedo boat (MTB) used to attack and destroy Allied shipping during World War Two. S-31 was built by Lürssen at Bremen-Vegesack, Germany, and launched in 1939. The hull was constructed of an aluminium framework with a mahogany wood outer skin and measured 33 metres long with a five-metre beam, and weighed approximately 100 tons.

Powered by three Daimler Benz, 16-cylinder, MB502 diesel engines delivering around 1,320 bhp each gave the boat a very respectable top speed of 38 knots and an operational range of 1,500 km (a derivative of the same engine was used to power the Hindenburg-class airships). Later Schnellboot versions were fitted with the MB501 20-cylinder 2,000 bhp engines, which increased top speed to 44 knots. Armament included two torpedo tubes with four torpedoes, one 20mm mounted gun and several smaller-calibre machine guns.

S-30 through to S-37 were originally bound for China, but at the outbreak of World War Two, the boats were impounded and reassigned to the Kriegsmarine (German Navy). Under the command of Lt Heinrich Haag, S-31 saw plenty of action. In the North Sea, as part of Two Flotilla, the MTB severely damaged British destroyer HMS Kelly. Two Flotilla moved to Ostend in August 1940, and during an Allied raid which blew up the torpedo storage facility, four boats – including S-31 – were caught in the explosion.

After repair work had been completed, S-31was transferred to Three Flotilla under the command of Friedrich Kemnade. The white hull was repainted with a blue/grey camouflage on a white background and a flying fish insignia added. While on a mission in the Baltic Sea, S-31 and S-59 successfully attacked the Russian destroyer Storozevoj. British forces operating from Malta were causing severe disruptions to Rommel’s supply lines in North Africa, so Schnellboots S-31, S-34, S-35, S55 and S-61 were redeployed to a base at Augusta on the east coast of Sicily and tasked with laying minefields off the Maltese coast.

S-31 Schnellboot Bow
S-31 Schnellboot Bow

On 9 May 1942, a Luftwaffe reconnaissance plane spotted HMS Welshman heading up the Mediterranean towards Malta. The Abdiel-class minelayer was loaded with vital supplies, including ammunition, food, medicines, new Spitfire engines and ground support crews. At 10pm on 9 May, seven Schnellboots were ordered to engage. They had planned a two-pronged assault, with four boats – S-54 through to S-58 – waiting for the incoming warship up the coast, while the other three boats -S-31, S-34 and S61 – laid a surprise minefield outside Valetta Harbour.

The minelaying was completed at around 4am on 10 May, but just as they were leaving the area to rendezvous with the other four MTBs, S-31 exploded – probably hitting a mine that had just been laid! The blast sank the boat and killed 13 of the crew, which technically makes the dive site a war grave. Normally Schnellboots carried a crew of 24, but on this operation, there were 26, including two Italian military observers. Both survived, as did the CO, Lt Heinrich Haag.

Alan blended a trimix back gas of 18/45 and two stage cylinders of 32 percent and 72 percent O2 for my dive. Lee Stevens and Steve Scerri got lumbered with looking after me and doubled up as my models. Just to make my pictures more interesting, Lee had chosen to use OC and Steve had fired up his JJ CCR. We planned for a 20-minute bottom time with just over an hour of deco stops back to the surface.

Henrich Haag
Henrich Haag

Visiting Malta in January had never really crossed my mind, but most days I awoke to warm sunshine and slight seas. Water temperature hovered around 16 degrees C, so I borrowed an Otter membrane drysuit from Alan’s extensive kit store. Visibility still averaged 20-30 metres and there were hardly any other divers at the sites, which made my job easier. I had packed a couple of pairs of shorts and flip-flops which, in hindsight, was probably a tad over-zealous.

The evenings were cooler than expected, so next time around I will bring a few warmer tops. I booked a room at the five-star Westin Dragonara, which couldn’t have been any closer to Techwise – they are actually located in the same complex. I couldn’t fault the accommodation or the facilities; I really did get a right pampering. My room had a sea view and the hotel gym had more equipment than a classy David Lloyd club! There was also a choice of indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a plush bar with piano player and a lavish buffet-style breakfast ideally suited for hungry divers.

We held a pre-dive briefing to discuss the picture opportunities I had spotted in the YouTube video. Lee and Steve had visited the wreck several times before, so could advise me of any foreseeable problems. We planned to start the dive at the bow and work our way towards the stern, taking in about six set shots. While Lee was posing for me, Steve would go ahead to the next set position and get ready, this way we wouldn’t waste any valuable time searching about.

  S-31 Schnellboot Oil Can
S-31 Schnellboot Oil Can

The deep blue hues of the Mediterranean Sea made a welcome change from the UK’s emerald green tinge. I drifted onto the shotline, descended to 3m for a bubble check and then carried on down. I caught sight of the wreck sitting upright on fine sand at about 45m. The Schnellboot is only a small site, so a 20-minute bottom time would hopefully give me ample time to get my pictures and have a nose around.

We dropped onto the bow at a maximum depth of 67m. I could see the twitching antennae of a massive lobster poking out from the skeletal aluminium framework. The bow somehow reminded me of a great white shark’s mouth, jaws open wide. I took a few shots with Lee posing to one side and then ascended over the bow and finned along at deck level. Apart from a couple of tangled ropes, the site was clear of any ghost netting, which was a relief.

Steve pointed to an oil can which had obviously been found by someone else and left in plain view on the starboard rail, but I wasn’t complaining as it made a nice bonus composition. The starboard side 21-inch torpedo tube had broken away and lay half-buried in the sand. The port side tube was still firmly attached, and with the rear door open, I could see the torpedo still inside. This time I got Steve to hover off to one side just to give some size perspective to my picture.

We paused to look at the armoured bridge that had now collapsed inside the hull. Lee surprised a massive grouper that instantly scarpered off into the blue. There was considerable damage amidships, so I guess this is where the mine had exploded. I stopped by the 20mm gun mounting but alas there was no gun to be seen. Alan said it had been removed and now lay in the sand, but there was no spare time to conduct a search.

We found three cases of live 20mm ammunition scattered over the deck. The wooden boxes had rotted away leaving just the shells all fused together into a cube. I fired off a few shots of Lee looking at shells and a couple more of him next to the gun mounting. I had seen a navigation lamp on the YouTube video, but couldn’t find any sign of it on the wreck. This was the only planned shot I missed.

   S-31 Schnellboot Stern
S-31 Schnellboot Stern

On reaching the stern I descended a couple of metres back to the seabed. I wanted to get a shot of all three propellers, but the rudders stuck out too far and made it impossible for me to get a clean shot. I got down as low as I could and then realised the bottom composition was made of fine silt, which had already started to plume thanks to my misplaced fin kick. I made do with a shot of Lee looking at the starboard side propeller, then moved backwards to get a wide-angle composition of the entire stern.

With the mahogany outer skin completely rotted away, I could clearly see all the internal workings of the steering mechanism. Lee gave me the thumbs-up signal, so we steadily made our way back to the shotline and began our descent. The 20-minute bottom had gone far too quickly. There never seems to be any time for me to savour the atmosphere when I’m always looking through a camera viewfinder, but I felt content knowing we had completed our plan and returned to the surface safely and on schedule.

The S-31 Schnellboot was a memorable dive, especially as I had researched her background beforehand. Admittedly, Maltese historian Joseph-Stephen Bonanno had done all the hard work for me. Joseph contacted Lt Heinrich Haag’s daughter, who gave him the full story, including copies of photographs. Haag survived the war and joined the Bundesmarine in 1956, retiring as a Kapitän zur See. Check out Joseph’s website page for more details.

I think knowing a wreck’s history somehow makes it come alive, and gives it more character. I thought about the crew and what they must have gone through. I’m not sure whether all the bodies were recovered after the explosion, or if they are still lying in the wreckage somewhere, but this is worth considering. I’ve heard some techies complain that the site is too small for a decent exploratory dive, but I thought there was more than enough to keep me occupied. I’ve even made plans for a return visit to search for the 20mm gun.

My thanks to Lee, Steve, Alan and Viv from Techwise for looking after (tolerating) me. During my meeting with Dr Gambin, he mentioned finding the remains of a Messerschmitt ME109 fighter plane, so my quest for German World War Two wrecks may well continue!

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