The City of Winchester was the first British ship to be sunk in an act of war between Germany and Britain in World War One. Steve Dover led an expedition to Oman, but found far more than just a shipwreck
What goes into staging a venture like the Hallaniyat Expedition? The answer is 12 years of speculation, 18 months of non-stop planning and organising; seven weeks in the field; over 300 dives and three months in the Sultanate of Oman.
It started in 1986, when Derek Brown and Chris Neely made the difficult journey to Hallaniyah Island. After many dives on promising rock promontories temptingly presented on the sonar, and with 30 bar each left in their tanks at 12m, up loomed the wreck of the City of Winchester, the first vessel sunk during World War One (see panel opposite).
When they got in among her remains at 28m, they were the first people to cross her decks in 72 years. Their air supply restricted, their stay was all too brief. The City of Winchester lay undisturbed.
Derek called to tell me of this amazing wreck, the exact position of which they had been unable to record. I assembled a small core team and we put together a set of measurable scientific objectives. Then I went hunting for sponsors. One of the first was the wreck's owner - the Department of Transport. When I explained that we wanted to set up a protected site of special scientific and historic interest, it agreed to sell us the wreck - for 1!
By those standards, our subsequent celebration dinner was worth some 475,560 tons of merchant ship!
But it took until June 1997 before we had secured political backing and full approval from the Royal Geographical Society, and it was only last year that the core team arrived in Oman. One member was Chris Lees, whose grandfather Alan had been the radio operator who first spotted the German cruiser that was to sink the City of Winchester.
The first stage of the trip was a 630-mile drive across the Empty Quarter from Muscat to Salalah in Oman's southern region, Dhofar. Six Mitsubishi Shoguns towed the boats and gear across one of the hottest places on earth. It took three days and several trailer-tyre blowouts before the team finally assembled at Salalah, the capital of Dhofar.
Don't touch that carb...
>From here I to the core team and three tons of gear on the Royal Navy of Oman frigate Al Najh. Meanwhile local divers launched three small boats from the end of the tarmac road at Mirbat, hugging the desolate coastline for 71 miles to the shore base at Hadbin. A fuel dump had been placed here for the final jump of 53 miles to Hallaniyah.
Al Najh took 10 hours to reach Hallaniyah, punching through a northerly Force 7 that had the 56m frigate awash from stem to stern.
Once we were on the leeside of the mountainous island, local fishermen came out in their little boats and over two hours landed our gear in an unnerving 2.5m swell.
The winds were our worst nightmare. They could shift from north to south and back again at an even Force 6 within two hours.
The others arrived two days later after a very rough crossing - and a boat was missing. At Hadbin one of the elderly twin 115hp outboards on the largest vessel had developed problems. The team had tried to repair a carburettor without isolating the batteries.
The boat, recently re-fuelled, was carrying 220 litres when petrol from the dismantled carbs caused an arc across the solenoids. It and its entire contents were history within minutes, and the fire burned for 14 hours.
The expedition lost radios, depth-sounders, essential tools and a host of diving equipment, but thankfully no one was injured.
I had underestimated the full power of the weather, which at times came close to isolating the team. After one later crossing, I observed three squid floundering on the deck!
On 17 February I led the boats under the imposing cliffs of Hallaniyah's headland and into the waters of Ghubatt Ar Rahib, the huge bay in which the City of Winchester lay.
It was not difficult to visualise the Koenigsberg, her support ships and te City of Winchester clustered at anchor all those years ago. But we now had to find a needle in a haystack without location equipment, albeit a needle 457ft long and weighing 6808 tons.
I thought of Derek and Chris 12 years before, and when somebody asked: "Who's going to be the sacrificial lamb, then?" I volunteered immediately. Dr Peter Collinson, our scientific officer, offered to buddy.
We found a plain sandy bottom at 28m. I fixed the bezel on my compass and we went in a shoreward direction across the sunken desert.
Before long we were met by a shoal of inquisitive barracuda. Peter saw a school of small sergeant-majors breaking off to our left, and led us after them. Every blink seemed to offer a promising outline.
Then, for the first time, the shadow we were approaching grew into solid features - the steering post towered above us.
The dream was coming true - we were on the stern of the City of Winchester! We whooped, shouted and sent up the delayed SMB eagerly awaited by those on the surface.
We had 10 minutes of no-stop time left. From the huge prop, we glided above the shaft tunnel over the collapsed decking and rails crumpled about the hull.
Wall-to-wall fish is an apt but inadequate description of the scene we were now flying through. We passed over the crew's quarters, towards the great shadow of the triple-expansion engines amidships. The worries of the past 18 months of organising melted away.
Peter had been advised that we would be hard-pressed to find coral communities at this depth. Our biology advisers were wrong. Hard corals bedecked the twisted remains, and the huge engine block was festooned with iridescent soft corals swaying in the breeze of the fish and our fin-strokes.
>From the top of the engine we flew down over the crumpled bridge, between the three boilers and condenser and then out across the forward holds. Masts and winching gear lay across the seabed, and there at the port side one section of rail stood as if untouched by time.
I began to recognise features from the archive photographs I had so painstakingly researched in the dusty archives of Glasgow University almost two years before. There they were: the masts, the bollards, the scuppers, the rails and beam frames for the mast winch booms.
As our no-stop bottom time expired, we arrived above the anchors stowed neatly just before the bow. We ascended in slow euphoria and the wreck slipped away beneath us, giving way to late-afternoon sunlight. Ghubbat Ar Rahib was shattered by our shouts of jubilation as we reached the surface.
Chris Lees was next in. Afterwards he wrote: "Descending the shotline and seeing the City of Winchester for the first time was an awesome experience. It was easy to make out key features of the ship: the rudder post; the boilers; the hatch covers; a whole side section with all the portholes intact; the railings where the crew, including my grandfather, would have watched foreign ports coming into view.
"I feel closer to my grandfather through these experiences. It is almost as though the two of us have shared them in some small way."
As the sun set across the magnificent Hallaniyah mountains and we prepared to leave, one of the divers shouted: there, between us and the shore, a pod of humpback whales broke the surface.
Still of the night
A night dive was planned, to see what would be about or asleep on the wreck. The night we chose was moonless; the sky thick with bright stars. Peter and I were first down the line. Viz was around 15 to 20m and we caught a startled grouper in the beams of our lamps. At one point we struck a lightstick each and switched off the lamps. A minute in that thick blackness seemed like an hour, full of imaginings of gaping jaws close by!
Up and over the crumpled bridge and over the huge engine block, our lamps lit the enormous soft corals resplendent in deep blues, reds and yellows. Few fish were awake. We found a big grouper asleep in the propshaft tunnel - Peter managed to lift it right out before it woke!
Surfacing was out of this world. The pick-up boat rushed over but the sight of wall-to-wall stars was so compelling that we told it to go away so that we could absorb this rare sight.
We had reached one of those rare places left on Earth that remains untouched. We discussed expand-ing our research programme to include more natural shallow reef sites and establishing at least three permanent belt transects at each site for surveying the flora and fauna.
Everywhere we went around the island we would encounter schools of spinner and common dolphins. We spotted both humpback and sperm whales and one day were returning from a dive on the wreck when we saw fins slicing the unusually calm waters on the point of Ras Al Hallaniyah. These were neither dolphin nor shark, but feeding manta rays. Soon we were all in among these gentle winged giants, our cameras rolling.
We came across single porites coral heads which by their size indicated an age in excess of 2000 years. And we became aware that, far from being a threat to the marine environment, the local population was part of the ecological balance of the place. Ninety per cent of fishing by the 44 fishermen is carried out using handlines. They were glad of the marker buoys we left on bow and stern of the City of Winchester.
With decompression facilities some 1500 miles away, we had to plan dives within fairly strict limits, those on the wreck restricted to recommended no-stop times.
The deepest natural reef site was 8m, and we logged many days where we spent more than five hours under water, setting out the permanent transects and carrying out exhaustive video surveys, often visited by dolphins and big grouper curious about the activities of these hammer-wielding, bubble-blowing intruders.
The result of our work was 12,000 video images to analyse and summarise and 15 permanent belt transects left on the seabed for future monitoring by Sultan Qaboos University.
Thirty-three divers, including 10 from Oman, took part in the expedition. From the moment we set foot on Hallaniyah to the moment of leaving seven weeks later, the hospitality of the islanders was total. Aufait Mohammed Omar Al Shahari, the Wali or "Lord" of the islands, and his people became an active and enthusiastic part of our work.
The City of Winchester's builders could hardly have known that by the end of the century the ship would have become a "baseline marine ecology monitoring project". We return in October to expand on the work, at the invitation of the Governor of Dhofar.
The Great War's first victim
On the evening of 6 August 1914, Alan Lees was sitting in his radio room listening for news of the war developing in Europe. It was a hot and humid night, and his deck door was open. To his horror he saw, in the corner of his eye, the massive shadow of bows bearing down on his ship.
SMS Koenigsberg, a state-of-the-art light cruiser commanded by the audacious Korvetenkapitan Max Von Loof, had been on patrol in the Aden sea-lanes when her crew spotted the British vessel. She swung round at the last oment and signalled: "What ship?", then "What nation?", then "Stop!".
The British cargo ship City of Winchester was on the return leg of her maiden voyage to Calcutta, carrying the first crop of tea of the new season.
Her captain, George Boyck, recorded: "At 8.30am on 5 August 1914, whilst at full speed in the Gulf of Aden, the German warship Koenigsberg came up without making any signals or warning shot, but had her guns trained on the City of Winchester. She then ordered the City of Winchester to stp, which she did. All her papers were seized and her W/T was destroyed. A German naval officer and four ratings remained on board and the Master was told to proceed."
She was escorted to the Hallaniyat Islands, where much-needed coal was transferred to the Koenigsberg's bunkers, and the crew and much of the tea was taken off. Then her sea cocks were opened, and three shells fired below the waterline.
On shore, a small Arab boy watched with his parents as the City of Winchester settled, to be forgotten in 28m of water.
Max Von Loof became a rear-admiral in the German navy; the tea was enjoyed by the German East African community; what wasn't taken floated onto the shores of Ghubbat Ar Rahib (the bay in which the ship was sunk); the Arab boy became the headman of his tribe and the City of Winchester, the first maritime casualty of World War One, sat at rest in the depths to commence its new role as a man made reef.
Appeared in DIVER - April 1999.