Military orders examination of Bell Island shipwrecks

The Canadian Press ~ OBJ
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The military has ordered a detailed survey of two Second World War shipwrecks off Newfoundland for fear recreational divers might accidentally trigger leftover explosives.

The two wrecks are among four sunk by torpedoes fired from German U-boats prowling the waters off Bell Island, N.L., in 1942.

The iron-ore transports SS Saganaga and P.L.M. 27 each carried defensive arms to counter such attacks as they travelled to and from the busy steel mills in Cape Breton.

Since the sinkings 69 years ago, recreational divers have flocked each summer to the two well-preserved wreck sites, located in relatively shallow, cold waters.

A previous survey by the military in 2005 suggested the upright ships may still have live ammunition scattered on the decks.

The military has asked diving companies for bids to complete the detailed survey by next June 30 to identify so-called UXOs, that is, unexploded explosive ordnance.

“Divers are not permitted to enter the wrecks,” says the recently posted tender document. Personnel are also to have “due regard for avoiding unintentional detonation.”

“Munitions removal is not permitted under this scope of work. It is anticipated that munitions may be found in three main areas.”

Adds the document: “It is not expected that the dive team will encounter human remains.”

Twenty-nine men were killed in the Sept. 5, 1942, attack on the SS Saganaga, while 12 were killed on the P.L.M. 27, a Free French ship, on Nov. 2, 1942.

The SS Saganaga’s 4.7-inch gun remains mounted on its stern, and shell casings and projectiles for the weapon have been reported nearby. In addition, there have been sightings of .303 small-arms ammunition.

On the P.L.M. 27, more .303 ammunition has been reported, along with so-called “star flares” that can be fired to alert other ships in an emergency.

But none of the reports, some from recreational divers who visit May to October each year, has been confirmed by an expert.

The underwater survey will include high-resolution, side-scan sonar images, and may include images from remotely operated underwater vehicles sent to probe the insides of broken hulls.

The recovery of any UXOs would await a second operation.

A spokeswoman for National Defence says the survey will have to take place in better weather.

“The project is for next summer,” Kathleen Guillot said in an interview. “It’s too late in the season to do this right now.”

The four wrecks off Bell Island are protected as archeological sites, and the survey firm must secure a permit from the provincial government to proceed.

Rick Stanley, who runs Ocean Quest Inc. out of Conception Bay South, N.L., says he takes about 100 advanced divers from around the globe each season to the wrecks, considered one of the world’s top 10 wreck dive sites.

Recreational divers have frequently spotted shell cases, projectiles and shells on the decks, he says.

“We don’t allow anybody to take anything off the wrecks,” he said in an interview. “It’s against the law, for one thing.”

The firm’s advice? “Take pictures, leave bubbles.”

Even so, Stanley says, he knows of boxes of .303 bullets that have been illegally removed from the P.L.M. 27 by unknown divers.

In July 2000, the military was called in when local divers found the main casing of a German torpedo on the sea floor near Bell Island, its warhead missing.

The U-boat that sank the P.L.M. 27 and SS Rose Castle later evaded an Allied attack and made its way into the Bay de Chaleur, off the Gaspe coast. There it dropped off a German spy, Werner von Janowski, who was soon captured and conscripted as a double agent in an operation that collapsed by 1943.

Geographic location: Bell Island, Newfoundland

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