U-390 At Hell’s Door in 50 metres

By Jean-Louis Maurette and Christophe Moriceau, L’Expedition Scyllias

Diving the Cumberland

We had been aborting trials to dive the wreck of U 390 for several years due to weather, visibility, breakages, gear failure, currents – well if it wasn’t one thing it was the next! Exaggeration? May the passionate diver who has never met one of these annoyances cast me the first stone.

Fortunately our technical manager and a matchless organizer for mounting original expeditions Jacques Le Lay and Christophe Moriceau (who is second to none in reconstructing the story of these ships and their crewmembers) finally got us under way early morning on 3 June at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue (Manche, Normandie). Included with the expedition on Le Fox was: professional diver Antoine Couppey (who knows the underwater grounds like the back of his hand); Denis Leonard (the kindly boss of the diving shop Le Grand Bleu in Cherbourg);and our Russian friends Kirill Kolosov and Andreï Byziukin.

The dive site is about 20 nautical miles from the coast and at a speed of seven knots and guidance from our DGPS, we had plenty of time for lunch. It’s incredible how a nice piece of farmhouse bread served with a succulent slice of smoked ham can embellish a boat trip!

As soon as we arrived we see an echo on our sounder. Antoine goes over it twice before launching beacons. It is unthinkable to drop an anchor here because of the strong currents and the heavy shipping across this area. The support ship has to remain totally free to move quickly, avoiding collisions or for picking up a diver adrift.

Antoine brings us close to the buoy and the descent begins, into a very muddy sea. After 40 metres of sinking I see U 390, 10 metres down! Fabulous! We touch our 20kg shot line which is close to the U390. Well thrown Antoine! Despite the numerous particles the clearness of the water is exceptional and the show is simply fantastic. The submarine looks intact sitting about 45° on her starboard side. The visibility is really good and we immediately notice the portside propeller, the rudder and the dive hydroplane. A few metres up, we swim alongside the bridge. As usual on listed submarine wrecks the anti-aircraft defence and the ‘Wintergarten’ have broken off the structure and are now lying in a pile of tubes with pieces of iron and steel. Nevertheless the rest of the conning tower is astonishingly well preserved. We can see the attack periscope retracted into its housing and the famous Überwasser Ziel Optik. I then caress the sky-search periscope with its characteristic shape, trying to distinguish the lens. The ‘Turmluk’, the access panel to the conning tower where the only survivor Erich Stein miraculously escaped is opened. All these pieces are covered by a vegetal cocoon. Kirill turns around the radio direction-finding loop, the ‘Funkpeilrahmen’, and stays above the opened hatch trying to look through the darkness. Temptation, temptation! But entering has to be prepared down to the smallest detail to reduce the risk. Moreover is it acceptable to disturb the sleep of these braves who have been in this steel coffin for 60 years? The 88mm/3.46” deck gun has disappeared, perhaps it lay on the ground, under a layer of sediments? Andreï and I take photographs before proceeding, with many fish, toward the bow and discovering, with amazement, that the hatch used to load the torpedoes into the bow is completely open! Why? Erich Stein escaped through the Turmluk, did other crewmembers try to escape without success through this? Or perhaps the violent explosions unlocked the panel despite the closing system? An exciting mystery. A look into the bow, guarded by enormous conger eels who aren’t a bit shy, and where the beacons of our torches vanish. We arrive at the lethal wound which caused the death of U390 : the starboard side and a part of the deck are smashed open, the sheets of metal are torn, crushed. The submarine couldn’t survive such a strike! A mass of severed cables and various tubes hang down to remind one that it is forbidden to violate this underwater coffin. We progress up to the stern which is softly disappearing into sand like a gigantic sabre laid down the channel. Wonderful! We turn and come back to the shot line along the other side but after 25 minutes at the bottom we have to abandon U390 and prepare to ascend. During the decompressing stages, and our fight with the increasing current, we exchange satisfied glances, each with the same idea ‘This is only a temporary farewell and we’ll be back. See you soon Grey Wolf !’

Story

U 390 begans her career on March 1943. On January 1944 she attacked without success a little convoy and was violently depth charged over several hours but succeeded in escaping safely, arriving at Saint-Nazaire where she was fitted with a Schnorchel. On June she brought weapons and ammunitions for the besieged German soldiers in Cherbourg and miraculously succeeded in escaping from an aerial attack as she was unable to dive due to a jammed rear dive hydroplane. The mission was aborted while Cherbourg was falling and the Grey Wolf had to cast off for the English Channel, the best watched place at this time, full of anti-submarine chasers. The U390 crew were then like the damned who are under sentence of death. But the braves succeeded in frustrating the enemy and on 5 July 1944 U390 torpedoed the Britannic patrol boat HMS Ganilly and damaged the American steamer Sea Porpoise. The submarine was quickly stricken by the destroyer HMS Wanderer and the frigate HMS Tavy which were fitted with efficacious ASW (anti-submarine warfare) techniques, offering no hope for Donitz’s wolves to escape safely, especially with little depth under their keel. Numerous depth charges … hedgehogs were dropped. The U-Boot is mortally hit at the first shot making surfacing impossible. Several compartments flooded drowning the crew. Obermaschinist Erich Stein was standing in the centre with Geissler, the L.I. Kurman, a radio-operator and a few crewmembers … about nine men, prisoners of their own boat. Water is still flooding into the compartment. The submariners wait for the inside and outside pressures to equalise in order to open the Turmluk. All are prepared for this eventuality but the situation becomes tragically different. The English vessels are approaching for a lethal shower of hedgehogs into this water which freezes the limbs and the darkness which petrifies the minds. This amazingly quiet crew knew they were in the antechamber of death. A last glance to their comrades and a last farewell. Only Erich Stein succeeds in crawling out of the conning tower, quite without consciousness, and escapes to the surface. As he was picked up by the Allieds. About 30 more depth charges were laid again to be sure of the destruction of U390 which is now and for ever the steel coffin of 48 German submariners.

Our warmest thanks for their help to : Mrs Zipperling, Mr Erich Stein (survivor), Mr Wolfgang Freese, Mr Roland Berr.

With several passionate divers, we created a non-profit making association based in Brittany, ‘l’Expédition Scyllias’, whose aim is to dive, photograph, reconstruct the stories and make underwater articles about wrecks and particular places which represent a cultural or an historical appeal. These articles are today published in many diving magazine in France but also in Belgium, Holland, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Italia, England, USA, New Zealand and soon Germany. You can have a look at our website and enjoy some of our expeditions

http://scyllias.chez.tiscali.fr/

We ask people from all countries who like diving and underwater exploration, who want to participate in this amazing and exciting adventure, turned toward the nature, the culture and the surpassing of oneself, and who are ready for new challenges to get in touch with us. We have many interesting projects only waiting for dynamic sponsors. Please write to our chairman and photographer Jean-Louis Maurette (

jean-louis.maurette@libertysurf.fr

.

After the success of Jean-Louis Maurette’s first book (co-author Paul Veillon) ‘Les Messagères de l’Histoire – The History Messengers’ dealing with more than 50 exceptional wrecks in South Brittany off Lorient, we are currently writing two new books dealing with submarine wrecks and unknown shipwrecks off French and English coasts’.

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