The Fighter from '44
An air raid siren whined over the Luftwaffe base near Avignon. Two American bombers, escorted by fighters, were closing on the French port of Marseilles. Capt Hans Fahrenberger was one of two German pilots sent to intercept the enemy aircraft. The mission, on 7 March, 1944, very nearly cost him his life. Now the wreck of his Messerschmitt, described here by Kurt Amsler, makes an interesting dive.
The two German pilots approached in Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters with the sun behind them, hoping to catch the enemy off-guard. Captain Fahrenberger dived steeply, firing at the B-17s with a 30mm cannon mounted on the hub of his plane's propeller.
Strong gusts of wind buffeted the Messerschmitt and the captain missed his target. He forced the plane into a near-vertical climb, preparing to launch a second attack.
At that moment, the engine cut out. Luckily, the pilot was not being followed, and he still had enough height to glide to a safe landing. The Lightnings must have noticed the smoke from his damaged engine and decided to leave him to his fate.
Captain Fahrenberger managed to nurse the plane as far as the small lighthouse island of Le Planier. Then, he recalls: "Water sprayed everywhere. One of the propeller blades snapped like a matchstick and the metal skin of the aircraft creased and deformed as if it were made of cardboard."
The plane ditched 100m north of the rocks into a sea lashed by the gusting wind, and it took only seconds to sink. The pilot opened his parachute underwater and found himself in an air bubble which carried him upwards to safety. He reached the island and was saved a day later by a German patrol boat.
Today, the wreck of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 lies upside-down in 45m of water on a broad expanse of sand. The 30mm cannon assembly houses a number of congers, while large annelids encrust the wings and undercarriage. The interior is covered with sponges, which are extraordinarily colourful when illuminated with a torch.
The aircraft, just 8.74m long with a wingspan of 9.86m, was equipped with a remarkable 2000hp engine providing it with a maximum speed of 450mph. It was particularly noted and feared for its diving attacks from high altitudes. On the seabed, only one propeller blade remains intact, and is buried in the sand. The rudder and tail planes have been distorted by divers lifting the wreck to explore the cockpit.
The waters surrounding the island are fairly clear, and with good visibility the wreck can be dived from the shore. Swimming back towards the island, you will emerge close to a rock wall extraordinarily rich in wonderful sea fans.
The wreck lies north of Le Planier, Marseille.
43 12 07N; 05 13 85W.
Appeared in DIVER - January 1998