MY JAW DROPPED AS WE ARRIVED for an afternoon swim at our favourite holiday location and my father’s car was stopped by a Maltese policeman.
Behind him, Nazi soldiers with swastika armbands were marching menacingly towards the picturesque fishing village of Wied iz-Zurrieq, accompanied by military motorcyclists and half-tracked vehicles.
It was an impressive scene for a small boy raised on a steady diet of war comics, but this was not Malta in the 1940s but in the 1970s!
In any case, Malta was not invaded during World War Two, despite repeated attempts.
I remember staring out of the car window and wondering why my father was so calm. We had just stumbled across the set for the movie Hell Boats.
This was no Oscar-winner, but it did contain a ripping yarn of wartime adventure and daredevilry, featuring motor torpedo boats – and it was being filmed in Malta.
Ever afterwards I was intrigued by the Royal Navy’s motor torpedo boats or MTBs, and their German equivalents the Schnellboote.
These small, lightly armoured boats lacked the awesome might of battleships but they partly made up for it with their agility and speed. A relative had given me a plastic model to assemble for one of my early birthdays, and I still have it among my treasured childhood memorabilia.
So when Emi phoned to ask if I would be interested in diving the Schnellboot S31, I was quick to accept. Emi is a film-producer well-known in Malta for his underwater output, and we had been working together on a docu-drama based on the sinking of the minesweeper Eddy.
Video footage of Schnellboot S31 would contribute to the storyline. I had dived the wreck a number of times before, but because it was discovered only in 2000 I was always keen to have yet another go.
We sailed from the harbour to the wreck-site and, after some manoeuvring, dropped the shot on the wreck. Hubert from Seashells Dive Centre had brought another couple of tec divers for the ride, and we started kitting up.
Steve had recently arrived from England, while Hans was a regular Dutch visitor to Malta who had dived the Schnellboot before.
Of course, the banter developed along predictable lines. With some mild concern, Steve asked whether there was any possibility of encountering dangerous sharks.
I refrained from telling him that sharks are rarely encountered around Malta and that they pose no problem whatsoever.
I did tell him that there was one suspected shark attack on the island, but omitted that it had occurred in 1957.
I also informed him that the unfortunate fatality was an Englishman who had been swimming with a Maltese friend and, with tongue in cheek, told him that this was why we always took an Englishman along when we went diving.
At that point Hubert (who is Maltese) returned from setting up his gear at the bow to say: “Steve, you and I are going down first”. The look on Steve’s face was priceless!
The wreck lies on a sandy bottom at a depth of 66m just over a mile outside the entrance to Valletta’s Grand Harbour. Many of the wartime wrecks in Maltese waters are concentrated close to the harbour approaches, which is not surprising because the port precincts were heavily mined during the two world wars.
Defensive mines were laid down by the Royal Navy to deter naval attacks, while Axis forces laid down their own mines to sink ships making their way in or out of the designated approach-channels to the port.
A TRIP TO A GENUINE wartime wreck is almost like a trip in a time machine. The wreck is a snapshot of the time when the vessel sank, and sometimes provides enough material to piece together the series of events that led to its sinking.
The Schnellboot S31 is no exception to this rule. Historical records indicate that it was probably sunk by one of the mines it had been laying, and the damage is testimony to this.
The wreck looks as if it was punched so hard that the entire vessel caved in on its starboard side, roughly amidships a few metres aft of the second torpedo placement.
With the impact, the starboard torpedo-tube was dislodged from the deck and now partly rests on the sandy bottom, torpedo still inside it.
All navies have some form of MTB, and the Kriegsmarine had its own version. The larger Torpedoboote and Flottentorpedoboote were equivalent to destroyers and fleet destroyers, but the Schnellboote were fast attack boats.
The design varied during WW2 but they were very seaworthy craft and quite stable, even in moderately heavy seas, so proved very effective in conflict.
They were often called the “Stukas of the Sea” for their uncanny ability to deliver a deadly payload to their intended target.
Their task was to deliver torpedoes in a fast-in fast-out attack, and they were ideally suited to disrupt convoys, especially if they worked as a wolf-pack.
The S30 series could reach a top speed of 38 knots, using three Daimler Benz MB502 16-cylinder diesel engines capable of a total of 4800bhp. Each engine had its own driveshaft, so the boat was equipped with three propellers each with its own rudder. These can still be seen on the wreck of S31.
To achieve their speed, these German MTBs were built with an internal structure of lightweight metal and a thin metal hull covered in hardwood planks; mostly teak or mahogany.
Naturally, this wooden hull deteriorated greatly over the years and few traces of it can now be found. Some sheets of metal hull-casing have come off the frame and can be seen on the sand just off the wreck.
It is therefore relatively easy to penetrate the wreck, but divers need to be wary of protrusions and cables, which can easily snag an unwary explorer.
Some lost fishing-gear adorning the wreck adds another form of hazard. Trammel nets are easy to see and avoid, but nylon fishing-lines are less easy to identify.
THE SCHNELLBOOT’S weaponry was limited but effective. The deadliest weapons were the four torpedoes, two of which were always placed in their firing tubes ready to be launched. In fact, both of the S31’s tubes still contain their torpedoes.
Somehow I always feel compelled to shine a light inside to see the deadly torpedo heads, which still have their arming primers.
On this particular dive, Emi reached the port side on-board torpedo-tube first and started filming the torpedo head while I waited patiently. As he turned, I was rather upset to see him raise quite a bit of sediment, affecting the quality of my own footage.
Unhappy, I moved over to the starboard torpedo tube and manoeuvred my camera to film inside it. At the risk of sounding petty, I felt I had to obtain a better shot of the warhead than Emi’s.
My camera is much smaller than his, and I knew he wouldn’t be able to manoeuvre his bulky Gates housing into a suitable position.
Perhaps I can blame nitrogen narcosis for this pedantic exercise!
S30 series Schnellboote normally carried two extra torpedoes, stored just behind the tubes to facilitate loading. These are no longer in position on the S31 but one must have come off the wreck because it can now be seen on the sand, just 30m ahead of the bow.
We had come across it accidentally when our shotline overshot the wreck by quite a few metres.
Most Schnellboote were also armed with two 20mm guns and their mounts are still evident on the S31.
These are heavily encrusted with sponges and other marine life. Three boxes of live 20mm ammunition can still be seen on the deck.
Other interesting material includes an intriguing object that looks like a large paella pan. I can think of no military use for such a thing, except for bashing enemies over the head, so I assume that it was probably used by the S31’s cook for the crew’s meals.
It can now be found amidships beside the machine-gun mount. I suspect that some diver must have unearthed it from the debris and placed it in a more prominent position.
Perhaps it was the same diver who found a cooking-pot lid and placed it at the bow.
SCHNELLBOOTE were widely utilised as night-time mine-layers, even though the S30-class could deploy no more than six. S31 was lost while engaged in one of these mine-laying operations on the night of 10 May, 1942.
The Kriegsmarine MTB 3rd Flotilla, based in Augusta, Sicily, was ordered to intercept the fast minelayer HMS Welshman, which was due to arrive in Malta the next day with vital supplies.
To this end the flotilla divided into two groups. A pack of four Schnellboote was to wait and ambush Welshman off the south-eastern coast, her most likely route. Another pack of three, including S31, would lay a minefield in the path of a possible north-westerly approach to the Grand Harbour.
At 4.22 in the morning, just a minute after completing the mine-laying operation, S31 exploded a mine; probably one of those it had just deployed. Schnellboote were not built to resist the blast from a mine or any other heavy artillery, and the explosion was catastrophic.
There were 13 reported casualties, while another 13 survivors were picked up by S61.
The sight of a pair of boots lying inside the wreckage always makes me wonder whether some poor fellow was wearing these as they sank to the bottom.
The crew knew they were heading into the jaws of death when they left Augusta but, perhaps, none of them expected to have lost half their crewmates by the following daybreak.
There is an aura of tragedy, menace, and dignity on this wreck. I know this is coincidental, but the twisted upper prow of the vessel has been bent in such a way as to remind me of the gaping maw of a shark. This somehow fits the image of Schnellboote as packs of pelagic sharks preying on convoys.
I was surprised to hear that some of my dive-buddies would not dive the Schnellboot more than a couple of times. They claimed that it is small and deep and that there is limited scope for repeated dives.
In my case, I can’t get enough dives on this wreck. This may be traced to my Hell Boats movie encounter, but I seem to find something new on the wreck every time I visit it.
This reminds me that during my latest forays into YouTube I came across the actual movie Hell Boats.
I saw the scene filmed at Wied iz-Zurrieq, and remembered the actors pretending they had been shot as gunfire echoed in the valley. That left quite an impression on my young mind as I watched from a discreet location out of sight of the policeman.
Don’t be taken in, folks, that scene was filmed in Malta, even though the story-line claims that the fishing village was somewhere in Sicily. You never could trust movie-makers.
BUILT: Lurssen, Germany
LAUNCHED: 21 October, 1939
SANK: 10 May, 1942 Wreck found: 6 September, 2000
MAX DEPTH: 73m
LOCATION: Just over a mile from Grand Harbour entrance
WEIGHT: 79 tons
POWER: Three Daimler-Benz 1600bhp diesel engines
MAX SPEED: 38 knots
ARMAMENT: Two 533mm torpedo-tubes, two 20mm guns
CREW: 24 (plus two Italian observers)