Salvage Teams Fearful of Gas Grenades from World War II
By FRANK THADEUSZ
July 19, 2010
While environmentalists are sharply opposed to the construction of the new Baltic Sea pipeline, archaeologists are delighted. The massive Nord Stream project to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany has uncovered dozens of shipwrecks and other historic artifacts.
In the early 1940s, engineers of the Third Reich conducted a series of tests that involving firing Henschel HS 293 glider bombs into the Baltic Sea. They were disheartened when the tests failed, because the steering systems of the massive projectile didn’t work properly.
Now, almost 70 years later, one of the bombs — weighing in at about 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lbs) — has been found in the path of the 1,220-kilometer (763-mile) pipeline that will link Germany to Russia’s natural gas network. Early last week, specialists used a crane to hoist the obstacle out of the Baltic Sea near Lubmin, a coastal town in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
Officials at Nord Stream, the company that will operate the pipeline, seemed relieved when the Nazi bomb had been removed. In recent weeks and months they had learned about the unpredictable side of the Baltic, as pipeline construction crews stumbled across debris from centuries gone by.
The remains of a thousand years of maritime trade, as well as the products of dozens of wars, are crumbling in the mud and silt at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. In addition to items with great cultural and historical value, the depths conceal the rusting remains of poison gas grenades, high explosive shells and aircraft bombs, all of which represent obstacles to pipeline construction. “It was not an easy situation,” says Nord Stream spokesman Steffen Ebert. “We were under considerable time pressure.”
For experts, salvaging war material at sea is a delicate operation, and one that is far more difficult than recovering similar objects on land. Divers use handheld probes to pinpoint suspicious objects in the water, which they then carefully expose. Only then do they face the anxious question of whether the objects are dangerous.
That question isn’t always easy to answer, because the lumps have often been corroded into a hard-to-identify mass. “It looks like a placenta,” says one of the divers.
The salvage teams are most fearful of gas grenades from World War II. A filled grenade shell, its structural integrity compromised by rust, can be a deadly hazard for a diver. In these cases, Eckhard Zschiesche and his team from the ordnance disposal service of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania use special containers to retrieve the hazardous waste.
The team usually detonates unexploded high-explosive shells and depth charges underwater. Other munitions remains are disassembled on the island of Usedom.
To rule out all hazards, Ebert says reassuringly, his team has employed far more complex procedures than usual. To avoid complications, the pipeline consortium has collected everything that could be found in the sediments, including rusty anchor chains.
The firm is evidently doing its best to avoid embarrassing incidents during pipeline construction. The effort already makes a number of people uneasy. The majority shareholder in Nord Stream is Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, which is as powerful as it is inscrutable. Many Germans are concerned about becoming too dependent on Russia’s gas monopoly.
The construction of the pipeline also raises concerns among environmentalists, who fear that the massive project will disrupt the ecosystem in the Baltic Sea. Such fears have prompted Nord Stream to assiduously portray itself as a gentle giant.
The company’s PR offensive includes projects like building artificial banks for seals in the Baltic and salvaging crumbling ship fossils, as if it were adhering to the old Boy Scout motto: “Every day a good deed.” This has unexpectedly turned Nord Stream into a major archaeological enterprise.
However, the company’s deeds at sea are not entirely voluntary. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea dictates that archaeological and historical finds in international waters must be protected and preserved.
For maritime archaeologists, the Baltic is a treasure trove with many precious objects that have yet to be salvaged. A number of spectacular finds have caused a sensation over the last decade.
For example: In the summer of 2003, divers off the Swedish island of Gotska Sandön discovered, at a depth of 125 meters, the wreck of a DC-3 that went missing on June 13, 1952. A Soviet fighter jet had shot down the Swedish spy plane, with its crew of eight people, over the Baltic. Using DNA analysis, experts have identified the remains of the pilot.
‘An Enormous Boon’
Three years later, employees of the Polish oil company Petrobaltic stumbled across the wreckage of the German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin during drilling activities. The fate of the vessel, once a prestigious but unfinished project in Hitler’s navy, grew vague after the Soviet fleet seized it near the end of the war.
The discovery debunked rumors that the Red Army had overloaded the ship with loot, causing it to capsize off the Russian coast. In fact, the 260-meter Graf Zeppelin sank off the Polish coast, about 55 kilometers from the port of the town of Wladyslawowo.
The fate of the British submarine HMS E18 remained unclear for more than 90 years. It was known that the vessel embarked on its last voyage from the port of Reval (now the Estonian capital Tallinn) on May 25, 1916.
Before the E18 sank — hit by a torpedo, or struck by a mine — it dealt a severe blow to the German destroyer V 100. A short time later, the E18, a relic of the pioneering days of submarine building, sank out of sight. Last October the submarine was rediscovered near the Estonian island of Hiiumaa.
Scuttled Ships, Forgotten Wars
Preparations for the Baltic Sea pipeline have now provided archaeologists with a new crop of potentially spectacular finds. Nord Stream’s salvage crews have identified about 70 shipwrecks in the territorial waters of the nations bordering the Baltic Sea (Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark and Sweden), all within a corridor that is only 125 meters wide.
“This is an enormous boon for archaeology,” says Thomas Förster, project coordinator with the German Oceanographic Museum in Stralsund. Förster himself helped in the recovery of one of the most spectacular finds in the Baltic Sea to date. In 2000, his team salvaged the well-preserved remains of a 14th-century trading vessel — known as a “cog” — off the west coast of the island of Poel.
After that, scientists salvaged one of about 20 ships that had been deliberately sunk at the entrance to the Bay of Greifswald during the Great Northern War (1700 to 1721). The bulwark of wrecks was intended to block access to the island of Rügen and the port of Stralsund to ships of the allied Prussians, Danes and Saxons.
Experts had known about the formation, which is of great interest to archaeologists, for some time. But until recently they had lacked the funds to examine these treasures from the Pomeranian campaign.
The archaeologists were in luck, though. One of the wrecks lay in the path of the pipeline, which meant they could recover and inspect the material at Nord Stream’s expense. Their analysis revealed that the ship had been in use for 50 years before it was scuttled in 1715.
The planks also provided astonishing insights into shipbuilding methods in the region toward the end of the 17th century. “These finds are so valuable to us because hardly any shipbuilding records exist from that period,” says Detlef Jantzen, an archaeologist with the State Office of Culture and Historic Preservation in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. “In those days, a father would pass on his knowledge orally to his son. The son would then expand on this knowledge and then pass it on, also orally, to the next generation.”
A few weeks ago, specialists uncovered another shipwreck in the Bay of Greifswald, a freighter that had sailed on the Baltic in the late 18th century. The boat was covered entirely with sediment and, under normal circumstances, might have remained undiscovered.
But when Nord Stream started searching for mines, divers happened upon a suspicious-looking object on the seabed two kilometers north of Lubmin, Germany. This time it wasn’t a bomb that they flushed out of the mud, but a cast-iron object that resembled a potbellied stove.
This discovery led scientists to the ship, entombed in the sediment in surprisingly good condition — except for what appeared to be the devastating effects of a fire caused more than 200 years ago by the potbellied stove.
The Limits of Preservation
On the ship’s planking, scientists discovered significant evidence of a fire which had apparently spread from the stern. It probably sank the ship, but the team isn’t sure whether the fire also killed the crew.
However, the historic freighter won’t see a future as a tourist attraction. Instead, it will be stored underwater, inaccessible to the public, held in place with sandbags.
“It’s easier to preserve such objects underwater, because it keeps them away from the air,” says archaeologist Jantzen. But that’s only half the story.
“It would have been preferable if Nord Stream had made it possible to preserve the ship,” says Förster. He points out that in Sweden, the company paid for an elaborate exhibition of all discoveries from the ocean floor. Is he implying that Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania failed to negotiate well with Nord Stream?
In fact, the state lacks both the funds and the capacity to salvage and manage the archaeological treasures lying at its front door. Nord Stream has excavated unprecedented artifacts and enabled experts to conduct exciting inspections, but scientists now resent their inability to proceed with the real work at hand.
A legal limbo designated for one sort of underwater artifact highlights just how dependent the archaeologists are on the goodwill of others. At about 40 sites along the coast of Mecklenburg, divers have noticed what Jantzen calls “macabre finds,” all of which enjoy official landmark status. He means the remains of people who died while trapped in tiny submarines or aircraft.
This underwater cemetery is constantly threatened by trophy hunters foraging in the Baltic. But the state office of antiquities and monuments argues that it lacks the resources to offer protection. Instead, volunteer divers regularly visit the site to check up on the marine graves.