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By Martin Cridge
Header and historical images courtesy of Dirty Dozen Expeditions
The shout from the starboard lookout shattered the silence on the bridge of the British cruiser HMS Suffolk. All the bridge officers immediately rushed to the bridge wing and looked towards the starboard quarter and there they were, the two German ships they had been searching for—the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and the battleship Bismarck. The year was 1941.
Scarily for the crew of the Suffolk,the German ships were less than 11 km/7 miles away and their ship was well within range of the 38 cm/15 in guns on the Bismarck and 20 cm/8 in guns on the Prinz Eugen. Realizing the danger, Captain Ellis immediately ordered the wheel on the Suffolk hard over to port and as the rudder started to bite, the British cruiser leant over and began to come around in an arc and away from danger.
The ships were in the Denmark Strait, a narrow sliver of sea between Greenland and Iceland. The Irminger current splits off from the Gulf Stream on the Icelandic side of the strait, clearing the Icelandic side of ice throughout the year. However, the Greenland side, unaffected by the current, features extending and retreating pack ice depending on the time of year. To further reduce the width of the strait, the British had laid a minefield to the northwest of Iceland.
At the time of the German ships’ passage, it was estimated that the navigable area between the ice and the minefield was around 97 km/60 miles. It was in this area that the Suffolk and her sister ship, the Norfolk, were patrolling. Conditions were difficult and in addition to the ice and mines; wind, snow, and atmospheric conditions, all of which could play tricks on lookouts’ eyes, meant false reports weren’t uncommon. The cold air flowing over the warmer water towards Iceland also caused dense fog banks to form off the Icelandic coast. The crew of the Suffolk hoped that one of these fog banks would save them.
The German ships were expected to come from the northeast, and the two British cruisers steamed up and down the Denmark Strait in a northeast/southwest direction. It was the southwest leg that Captain Ellis feared the most, as the German ships would be coming up behind him and would be hard to spot. Although the Suffolk had radar, the radar of that time wasn’t very effective across the stern arcs of the ship.
His worst fears realized, Captain Ellis now hoped the fog the Suffolk was heading into would hide them from the German ships. He had no way of knowing if the German ships had seen him. The first sign that the Suffolk was spotted would be when German shells started falling out of the sky around his ship. The Suffolk was no match for the German ships, her role was to find the German convoy and then direct the heavy British ships that had already left Scapa Flow to intercept. To engage the Germans would be suicide, even if it was just the Prinz Eugen. Although the Suffolk had the same complement of 20 cm/8 in guns as the German cruiser, she was built to the 10,000 ton treaty limit whilst the Prinz Eugen was not—and was, therefore, more heavily armoured.
In the fog, Captain Ellis allowed the German ships to draw past his position before coming around and latching onto their port quarter at a distance of around 19 km/12 miles: the limit of the radar set onboard.
The German ships had been hoping to reach the Atlantic ocean undetected in order to start commerce raiding activities, disrupting the Atlantic convoys to and from the USA and Canada. Now that they had been spotted, Admiral Lutjens on the Bismarck had a choice: he could turn and attack his pursuers, or he could press on and hopefully get into the wider Atlantic where he had a better chance to shake them off. He chose to press on. Unbeknownst to Lutjens, the British battlecruiser HMS Hood and battleship HMS Prince of Wales were steaming out to confront him before he could disappear into the vast Atlantic.
At 05:37 on May 24, 1941, the Prince of Wales sent an enemy sighting report saying they had spotted the German ships at a distance of 27 km/17 miles, and seven minutes later the Hood sent a similar report saying the Germans were now at 23 km/14 miles. Admiral Holland, in charge of the British ships, ordered them to turn 40 degrees in order for him to shorten the range to the German ships. Unfortunately, only the forward turrets of the British ships could fire on the German ships, but Holland knew if he could get closer and turn, he could fire a greater broadside than the Germans could. Also, at greater ranges, he knew that his ship the Hood was in danger of being hit and damaged by a plunging shell due to her lack of deck armour, and that this risk decreased the closer he was to the German ships. He was also concerned about the Prince of Wales—rushed out of the shipyard, she still wasn’t battle ready—in fact, she still had civilian employees onboard trying to fix various issues, especially with her guns.
Holland made another signal, and the two British ships turned another 20 degrees toward the German vessels. Slicing through the ocean swell at 28 knots, both British ships closed in on the Germans, the Prince of Wales 750 m/0.5 miles or so behind the Hood.
The four ships were now just over 19 km/12 miles apart. On the German side, the Prinz Eugen was leading the Bismarck. On the British side, the Hood was leading the Prince of Wales. Holland’s plan was to concentrate the attack on the Bismarck first. At 05:52, the fire gong sounded on the Hood and she fired her first salvo of shells—not at the Bismarck, as planned, but at the Prinz Eugen. The Hood had misidentified the German vessels. The Prince of Wales, realizing Hood’s mistake, immediately started firing upon the Bismarck. Within minutes, all four ships were firing at each other.
The Germans were concentrating their fire on the Hood and quickly found her range. After the third salvo of shells from the German ships, the Hood was hit, possibly by shells from the Prinz Eugen, starting a fire on her boat deck.
Now at around 13 km/8 miles apart, the fifth salvo of shells left the German ships. Whilst they were in the air heading towards his ship, Holland gave another order for the British ships to turn to port so that they could bring a full broadside to bear on the Germans. As the bow of the Hood started to come around, there was a massive explosion, and almost instantly the ship broke in half as a massive column of smoke and fire shot high into the air.
The Prince of Wales, following close astern, had to make an emergency turn to avoid the wreckage of the Hood. As they passed the scene, the stern of the Hood had already disappeared, and the bow rose up and into the sky before slipping back into the deep, dark ocean. In that brief moment, 1,415 people lost their lives. Only three survivors were ever found.
With the Hood gone, the Germans now concentrated their fire on the Prince of Wales. Just after 06:00, a 38 cm/15 in shell from the Bismarck tore through the compass platform, killing or wounding everybody there except the ship’s captain. Having received a number of hits from both the Prinz Eugen and Bismarck, the Prince of Wales made smoke, turned away, and broke off the engagement.
In less than 10 minutes, it was all over. The British had received a bloody nose, which caused a serious loss of morale in the UK when the news broke, but the British weren’t in favor of letting the Germans get away.
Fortunately for the British, the Prince of Wales had managed to hit the Bismarck three times, and two of these hits would prove decisive. One hit forced the Bismarck to shut down two of her boilers due to flooding, which caused her to lose speed. Also, a hit forward caused more flooding that left the Bismarck trailing streams of heavy fuel that the British could follow.
Lutjens knew that he couldn’t carry on his mission without getting his ship repaired first, so just after 08:00, he changed course for France. Suffolk, Norfolk, and the Prince of Wales, still following the German ships, altered course as well. They all headed towards the French coast.
Later that day, Lutjens gave orders for the Prinz Eugen to carry on the raiding mission by herself and gave permission for the ship to detach. Just after 18:00, whilst the ships were passing through a rain squall, the Bismarck turned to confront her pursuers. This unexpected maneuver startled the British, and both the Bismarck and Prince of Wales started firing at each other. Whilst neither side scored any hits, the Prinz Eugen had managed to slip away undetected and head into the Atlantic ocean alone.
Then followed one of the greatest naval chases of all time. Every British naval ship in the area headed out to cut the Bismarck off from reaching the safety of the French coast. In the end, they succeeded, and the Bismarck was finally sunk at 22:40 on May 27.
The Prince of Wales would be repaired and returned to service only to be sunk by Japanese airplanes on December 10, where she became the first battleship to be solely sunk by aircraft in open seas.
The Prinz Eugen ultimately had to abandon her commerce raiding mission due to fuel and machinery problems and headed to Brest for repairs docking on June 1.
The contract for building the Prinz Eugen was placed with the Krupp Germaniawerft shipyard in Kiel, Germany, in November 1935 with her keel being laid down the following April.
In the presence of Adolf Hitler and other select guests, the ship was launched down the slipway on August 22, 1938, to much fanfare.
Also in attendance was the Hungarian Regent, Vice-Admiral Mikios Horthy de Nagybanya, the last Fleet Commander of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, and briefly Captain of the Austro-Hungarian battleship Prinz Eugen during World War I.
The German Navy was originally going to call the Prinz Eugen “Tegetthoff,” after Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, who had delivered a crushing defeat to the Italian Navy during the Seven Week War in 1866. Hitler, however, not wishing to offend Mussolini and his new Italian allies, decided on naming the ship Prinz Eugen instead.
After her exploits with the Bismarck, the Prinz Eugen spent the rest of 1941 docked in Brest. With her were the German battleships Schamhorst and Gneisenau. There they became the focus of regular bombing attacks by the RAF, and it quickly became clear that their situation would soon become untenable if they stayed in Brest.
Hitler decided that the ships should be redeployed and that they should make for Norway to support operations there. The ships had a number of options for the journey to Norway. Prinz Eugen could retrace her steps and follow the route back through the Denmark Strait that she had taken with the Bismarck, or she could take the shorter but more dangerous route through the English Channel. Hitler decided the ships should make a daring dash through the English Channel.
On February 11, the three German ships and their escorts managed to slip undetected out of Brest and started their perilous journey toward the English Channel. Although both the Schamhorst and Gneisenau hit mines, they all managed to slip by the British forces and, once again, the Prinz Eugen had humiliated the British.
That humiliation, however, was short lived again on February 23. During their journey to Trondheim , the British submarine HMS Trident managed to hit the stern of Prinz Eugen with a torpedo, causing serious damage. After repairs in Germany were completed, the Prinz Eugen spent the rest of the war in Baltic waters. Prinz Eugen saw out the war supporting German forces on the Eastern Front as they were pushed back by the Russians. In March, she fired almost 5,000 shells from her 10 and 20 cm/4.1 and 8 inch guns, bombarding Russian-held positions. Prinz Eugen sailed for Copenhagen on April 19 where she joined the German light cruiser Nürnberg.
As the war in Europe headed towards its conclusion, the Prinz Eugen was ceremonially decommissioned by her crew on May 7, and was taken over by the Royal Navy the following day. From Copenhagen, the Prinz Eugen was escorted to Wilhelmshaven by the British cruisers HMS Dido and HMS Devonshire; once there, the Prinz Eugen was dry docked.
Although the Americans didn’t have a use for the Prinz Eugen, they were keen for the ship not to end up in Russian hands. In the end—to stop the arguments—the remains of the German fleet were divided up into a series of lots which were drawn from a hat. The Americans drew the Prinz Eugen. The Prinz Eugen was commissioned as a war prize into the US Navy on January 5, 1946. She soon departed Bremerhaven for Boston with a mixed American-German crew consisting of 574 German officers and sailors, supervised by 93 American officers and sailors under the overall command of US Navy Captain Arthur H. Graubart.
After an uneventful journey, the Prinz Eugen arrived in Boston around January 22, and the US Navy began examining their new prize. The large, passive sonar array that had proved so valuable to the Prinz Eugen for detecting other ships and submarines was removed and installed on the submarine USS Flying Fish for testing. The ship was then moved to the Philadelphia Navy Yard where investigations of the Prinz Eugen’s fire control system could be carried out, leading to the removal of her front 20 cm/8 in guns.
By May 1, the last of the German crew had left the ship and were returned to Germany. The Prinz Eugen arrived in Bikini Atoll the following month with just a skeleton American crew onboard to be used as part of Operations Crossroads nuclear testing.
For the first nuclear test designated “Able,” the Prinz Eugen was moored around 1,100 m/0.70 miles from the planned zero point above USS Nevada; for the second test, “Baker,” the ship was moored around 1,600 km/ 1 mile from the detonation point under LSM-60. After both tests, the Prinz Eugen was relatively undamaged but—as with other ships that survived the second explosion—she was now highly radioactive. Along with a number of other vessels, the Prinz Eugen was towed to Kwajalein for decontamination and was largely forgotten about until December 21, when she was observed to be listing with her stern low in the water.
Attempts were made to beach the Prinz Eugen on Enubuj Island in Kwajalein Lagoon, which ultimately failed when the ship grounded on a coral ledge just offshore. The ship continued to take on water and capsized in the early hours of the following morning. Due to the radioactive contamination, not much could be done and the ship was left where it was. The ship was resurveyed again in the seventies and found to be radiation-free, although the report noted that all the ordnance still onboard and residual fuel would need to be removed before salvage operations could be carried out; so, once again, nothing was done. The report did state, however, that all the fuel should be removed within the next 30 years whether the ship was salvaged or not.
In the end, it took until 2018 when a US Navy-led salvage team from the Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) successfully removed 229,000 gallons of fuel from 173 tanks on the Prinz Eugen. Using a method called hot tapping, the fuel was pumped onto an oil tanker moored nearby for disposal and recycling. The tanks were then resealed to prevent leakage of any residual fuel left in the tanks.
Diving the Prinz Today
Nowadays, two of the ship’s three propellers can be seen poking out of the water at low tide. The third was salvaged in 1979 and is now on display at the Laboe Naval Memorial in Kiel, Germany. From the stern, the upturned hull stretches out and disappears into the crystal blue water of the lagoon. Divers can drop down to the seabed 12 m/39 ft below neat rows of portholes that allow them to peer into the aft compartments. Toward the bow, the seabed slopes away leaving the bow hanging in mid-water at around 36 m/117 ft.
As divers head toward the bow, two barrels of the aft 20 cm/8 in guns come into view as they lie on the seabed. Above the gun barrels is a hatchway into the wreck that offers divers the chance to explore the aft compartments inside the wreck. As the ship capsized, most of the ship’s upper superstructure was crushed underneath the ship as she rolled over. Some parts of the superstructure broke away, however, and masts and gun directors lie scattered in the sand around the vessel. On the vessel itself, divers can find anti-aircraft guns and torpedo launchers still armed with torpedoes. An open hatch allows divers to view racks of spare torpedoes in their storage compartment.
Various openings allow exploration of the topsy-turvy world inside the vessel. Off the main corridors are cabins with upside down beds and tables fixed to what is now the ceiling with chairs that have fallen to the now floor. Some lines have been laid inside the vessel in the past, but these shouldn’t be relied upon for navigation. Divers glancing out into the blue from inside the ship will often see reef sharks and eagle rays cruising by, and the crevices on the upturned hull are favorite hiding places for the many octopuses that can be found on the wreck.
Venturing deeper into the wreck, machine and generator rooms can be found along with galleys, mess decks, heads (toilets), bathrooms, and storage rooms. Even though the Prinz Eugen isn’t a particularly deep wreck, one’s time underwater soon comes to an end. With so much exploration to do, the time passes quickly.
As we like to say at Dirty Dozen, “So many wrecks, so little time.”
A Conservator’s Reflections on the Andrea Doria
This month marks the 65th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria, once described as the “Mt. Everest of wreck diving.” Here veteran wreck diver/collector John Moyer, who was granted an “Admiralty Arrest” over the Doria in 1993, in order to recover its famed Guido Gambone ceramic art panels, recounts the key milestones of the deteriorating wreck, and his efforts to display her historical artifacts.
By John Moyer
Header image of the sinking of the Andrea Doria July 27, 1956, and other photographs courtesy of John Moyer unless noted.
This year marks the 65th anniversary of the sinking of the Italian liner SS Andrea Doria. During the four years the ship sailed between Italy and New York, she was known as a “Floating Art Gallery.” The aftermath of the collision with the Swedish vessel, Stockholm, 80 km/50 miles south of Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts, was described as the greatest sea rescue in history.
Peter Gimbel was the first diver on the wreck on July 27, 1956—the day after it sank—and he returned the following year to photograph it again for Life Magazine. Capt. Dan Turner took a team of divers to the wreck aboard his ship the Top Cat in 1964. Turner blew a hole in the Promenade Deck and recovered the life-sized bronze statue of Admiral Andrea Doria from the First Class Lounge. Unable to free the statue’s base from the deck, they cut it off at the ankles with hacksaws. Four years later, Italian film producer Bruno Vailati led an expedition to survey the wreck and determine if it could be refloated. The Fate of the Andrea Doria(English title) was comprised of footage taken throughout the expedition team’s 21 dives, and the journey inspired Stefano Carletti’s classic book, Andrea Doria-74.
Gimbel returned to the Doria in 1975 to test his theories on exactly what caused the ship to sink; this research inspired his film, The Mystery of the Andrea Doria. He discovered that the Doria had sustained massive damage to it’s hull when the Stockholm hit. During his next expedition in 1981, Gimbel and his team salvaged the ship’s safe, which he opened later that year on live TV. Various other teams also investigated (or attempted to investigate) the wreck during this time period. Some just explored the sunken vessel, some returned home empty-handed, and some didn’t even make it to the wreck site.
I remember hearing about the Andrea Doria for the first time in 1975 at a shipwreck artifact show in Brielle, New Jersey; the Eastern Divers Association orchestrated the event. I met some divers there who told me about a wreck they described as the “Mt. Everest of Diving.” She was a massive 213 m/699 ft-long passenger liner lying on her starboard side, 74 m/241 ft in the cold, dark North Atlantic. That area of the ocean is known for frequent storms, rough seas, and strong currents. The divers said they often had to pull themselves hand-over-hand down the anchor line, fighting to reach the bottom. Visibility averages about 8 m/26 ft, so they had to be careful not to get hung up in the commercial fishing nets that had snagged the exterior of the wreck. Because she is on her side, it’s easy to become disoriented when penetrating the wreck. The interior is a confusing maze of ceilings that are now walls, walls that are now floors, and stairwells that run sideways. It is filled with silt; the water may be clear when you swim in, but picking up an artifact decimates the visibility, so divers often have to feel their way out. Steel cables and wires hang down, and divers can easily become entangled. When I left that show, I knew I wanted to see the Andrea Doria for myself.
My First Doria Dives
In 1982, I dived the wreck for the first time with a small group of divers on a chartered boat. We anchored at the forward end of the Promenade Deck, and I made three dives exploring the area. My first finds were two silver jewelry boxes and a brass-framed window. The next year, we began diving into the ship’s first class dining room where we found piles of china dishes and glassware. In 1985, a dive team and I spent a week on the wreck and recovered the 68 kg/150 lb brass bell from the ship’s aft steering station.
After that 1985 trip, I began my serious research into the ship and collected everything I could find related to the Andrea Doria. I traveled to Italy to meet with the engineers at Ansaldo Shipyard—who had designed the ship—and the Italia Line officers who were onboard the night of the collision. I also corresponded with Bruno Vailati to get his insight into diving on the wreck. Between 1985 and 1991, we made many trips out to the site, exploring new areas of the wreck and recovering any artifacts we found.
In 1992, based on information I had received from Italy, Billy Deans and I began searching the bow of the wreck for the ship’s main bell. We entered through a hatch, swam along a corridor, then up a hallway to the room where I was told it was stored. When I pried opened the door, I found the room was filled with about 1 m/3 ft of silt and debris. Later that year, I took a team of 15 divers and crew aboard the R/V Wahoo and spent a week cleaning out the room with an airlift. Unfortunately, we did not find the bell.
During the winter of 1992-1993, Rinaldo Negri, who had helped design the Andrea Doria, sent me a book with a photo of the ship’s Wintergarden Lounge; the photo captured the lounge’s large wall panels inlaid with ceramic sculptures created by Italian artist Guido Gambone. I was able to match that photo with the ship’s plans and determine exactly where the works of art were on the ship. Billy Deans and I dove into the Wintergarden and found that two panels had fallen from their mountings and were lying deep inside the wreck. Later that summer, I returned on the R/V Wahoo, this time with a team of 20 divers and crew, to recover the panels. Over a period of four days, working in near zero visibility at a depth of 61 m/199 ft, the team rigged each 454 kg/1,000 lb panel with inflatable lift bags and floated them to the surface.
Prior to the expedition, my attorney filed legal papers in the US District Court in Camden, New Jersey. Judge Joseph Rodriquez granted an Admiralty Arrest, asserting the court’s jurisdiction over the Doria, and appointed me custodian of the wreck. I was required to attach the signed arrest papers (inside a sealed container) to the wreck. Later that year, we again appeared before Judge Rodriquez. We argued that, although insured by an Italian consortium, the underwriters had made no attempt at salvage in nearly 40 years; therefore, they had abandoned the wreck. The court agreed and named me Salvor-in-Possession. This gave me exclusive salvage rights, clear title, and ownership of anything we recovered. I did not want to shut the wreck down from recreational divers and have allowed them to continue to dive it, to photograph, and to recover small artifacts. In his ruling, the Judge stated: “Moyer’s independent research and archeological documentation of salvage efforts indicate a respect for the Andrea Doria as something more than just a commercial salvage project.”
Displaying The Doria
From the very beginning, my intention was to collect certain artifacts from the wreck and as many items related to the ship that I could find. I wanted to create an Andrea Doria exhibit to tell the story of what some call the most beautiful ship to ever sail. I have put on dozens of temporary exhibits and displays over the years and hope someday to have a large permanent exhibit. The general public has always been very interested and pleased to see what we have recovered. I am also working closely with Andrea Doria survivor Pierette Simpson. She is the author of Alive On The Andrea Doria and produced the award winning film Andrea Doria: Are the Passengers Saved?
We have held many events, participated in film screenings together, and have ridden in the New York City Columbus Day Parade (along with other survivors and Ted Hess, lead diver of Gimbel’s 1981 expedition). At the end of the parade, there was a ceremony where Pierette rang the Andrea Doria bell in memory of the souls who lost their lives in the sinking. We are currently working with The Noble Maritime Collection in Staten Island, New York on an exhibition which will open late spring 2022.
The inevitable decay of sunken ships is slow and most often unobserved. The sinking of the Andrea Doria produced a wreck of very unusual characteristics. Due to newsreel camera planes circling overhead, it became world famous, and its final resting place is accessible to divers. When Peter Gimbel first visited the wreck in 1956, he saw no obvious damage to the ship. Since then, divers have been reporting major decay events on the wreck. The wheelhouse was still intact when the Italian dive team filmed it in 1968, but it was gone by 1973. The funnel, mast, and top three decks of the superstructure had fallen off by the time I first dove it in 1982. We used the port side bridge wing as a landmark until it fell off sometime in the early 1990s. The Wintergarden was completely intact when we recovered the Gambone sculptures in 1993, but it totally collapsed only two years later.
Later in the 1990s, we noted cracks in the hull and the Boat Deck, Upper Deck, and Foyer Deck had started to slide downward to the sea floor. A recent multibeam sonar scan by the University of New Hampshire showed that the cracks have expanded and that the hull has entered its final stage of the flattening process.
Someday the Andrea Doria will be an unrecognizable pile of debris on the bottom of the sea. Fortunately, we have been able to rescue many historically important artifacts and unique works of art before they were lost forever.
InDepth: Stefano Carletti: The Man Who Immortalized The Wreck of the Andrea Doria By Andrea Murdock Alpini
Alert Diver: Remembering the Andrea Doria by Michael menduno
Diver: Doria Tipped The Scales by Michael Menduno
John Moyer’s first dives were in 1970, and he began diving on shipwrecks in 1975. He has made thousands of dives on wrecks in the US, Canada, Great Britain, Mexico, and the Caribbean. He has dived on the liner RMS Empress Of Ireland, Ironclad Monitor, Light Cruiser USS Wilkes-Barre, and was one of the first Americans to dive on the WW1 German fleet in Scapa Flow, Scotland.
He has a degree in Biology from Stockton University, a USCG 100 Ton Master License, and worked as an Instructor at the Dive Shop of New Jersey and Key West Divers. Moyer is a member of the Atlantic Wreck Divers Dive Club and is the recipient of the prestigious Pioneer of Northeast Diving Award. He has appeared on the History Channel, A&E Network, and Dateline NBC. He is co-author of “The Decay of the Andrea Doria,” published by the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, and he appears in the docufilm Andrea Doria: Are the Passengers Saved?
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