Underwater Heritage from WWI under Threat

© M. Spencer
Remains of a shipwreck off Anzac Cove, Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey.


Underwater archaeologists must be the first ones to visit submerged historical sites in order to study them and ensure proper preservation. They should not be left to uncontrolled recovery, which may result in looting and damage. Sadly, however, World War wrecks have been targeted as the object of undesirable interventions since their immersion. 

Scrapping of many of the large metal wrecks has heavily damaged the ships. For instance, the Indefatigable and several other famous ships sunk in the battle of Jutland, have been systematically blown to pieces to extract non-ferrous metal. Some of their bronze parts were sold on the quays of the Danish port of Esbjerg from 1958 onwards. A similar case is that of 26 German U-Boats, which surrendered to the British Navy at the end of the war and were brought to Kent, UK. They were dumped or scuttled in the creek of the Medway. After the war, a scrap company bought the ships and recovered their engines and generators to sell them. Out of the 26 U-Boats only three have survived up to today. 23 of the 26 submarines have already disappeared.

Other historic wrecks have become victim to commercial enterprises seeking to recover potentially valuable cargo. The SS Mantola, for instance, was a passenger steamer of the British-India Steam Navigation Company. She was sunk by a German U-boat in 1917 while allegedly carrying a large quantity of silver. As her wreck has not been designated a protected cultural heritage site, the UK Department for Transport awarded a salvage contract to the company which discovered the wreck. The commercial enterprise will retain up to 80% of the value recovered, if any. Whether treasure is discovered or not, the historical context and knowledge that may be acquired from the wreck will be permanently destroyed.

Damage by looting and deliberate destruction has also affected the historically significant wreck of the Lusitania. The ship, dubbed the second most famous after the Titanic, has been heavily damaged by depth charges. Its bow shows numerous impacts caused either by target practice by the Irish Navy in the Second World War or by the English Navy in an attempt to destroy evidence of illegal munitions in the hold that would have proven that the ship was a legal war aim when it was sunk. Damage has also been caused by the removal of three of the four propellers in 1982. A diver, who dived around the wreck in the 1990s, reported that the wreck was "like Swiss cheese" and the seabed around her was "littered with unexploded hedgehog mines". Additionally, in 1982, various items from the wreck’s mystic cargo were recovered and brought ashore in the United Kingdom, triggering a legal fight that ended in the denial of protection for the wreck.

Last but not least, the wrecks are also endangered by the passage of time and the build-up of rusticles, icicle-like formations caused by a corrosion process instigated by bacteria.

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