Home Go Diving! Whale of a Tale Series – “Finding the Freedom” Part 1

Whale of a Tale Series – “Finding the Freedom” Part 1

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Let’s start this story where the hunt began. In the early ‘80s, Gary Gentile invited some hearty north-east wreckers to explore shipwrecks along the rocky coast of Nova Scotia. The saturation of nautical history and the number of lost ships in the approaches to this rock laden port is vast. Haligonian divers had become accustom to hiking long, steep, unstable trails to reach divable areas. At the time, converted fishing/dive boats were sporadically available. Gary had researched new areas to explore. He promised adventure, discovery and arduous days bouldering up and down cliffs to search for barely visited or virgin sites. He kept his word; many perilous treks and exhausting hikes brought those divers to several concealed wrecks. Deep diving beyond one-hundred-thirty feet was also in its infancy. Many wrecks in Halifax Harbour were past the sanctioned limits of the sport diving community. The area was ripe for deep wreck hunting.

Article and photos by Gene Peterson

Sources were limited for those researching. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was no Internet, any research was accumulated by days of examining news articles, scanning microfilm, or reviewing dusty charts and manuscripts in libraries, museums, and other nautical sources. Wreck researcher, Jack Zink presented two volumes of books on Nova Scotia shipwrecks. These remain a canonical source even today. Gary had a few hand drawn maps, he sketched out as he rediscovered word of mouth sites from locals and old charts. Steve Giza, a local diver and the owner of Timberlea Divers was a great source of information. He made suggestions where to look for undiscovered sites and revealed his own discoveries. Steve owned the salvage rights to the La Tribune, a British, 36-gun frigate wrecked off Herring Cove, Nova Scotia on November 16, 1797. Steve worked the site for several years uncovering museum pieces and spent countless dives looking for her treasure. In his quest he became familiar with many local wrecks. The sites were often found by searching beaches for the remnants of wreckage tossed up on shore. Physical markers included iron breecher buoy rings tamped into rocks where rescue and salvages were attempted.

On my first trip with Gary, our band of north-east wreck divers hiked a trail in Portuguese Cove to the shipwreck Kenkerry. A giant iron ring used in the ships rescue was still in place in a mountainous stone overlooking the sea. A huge bow section was strewn across the rocky shore confirming the site. The Kenkerry went onto shore in a blizzard on January 27, 1935. The trail to the wreck was on private property. Undaunted, Gary knocked on the doors of two houses to gain access to the beach. We were cordially greeted by two sweet ladies, who lived there their whole lives. Each told us their story of the shipwreck as they remembered back when they were little girls. Collectively, they described the rescue of the crew. Three giant steam tugs tried to pull the stricken freighter away from the shore during a fierce snowstorm. Heavy seas bashed the ship up onto the rocks and the tugs were of no use against the intense sea. Hearing the commotion and the sounding horns of the doomed ship, their fathers dressed in heavy slickers and went to their aid. All that were able within the community went down to the rocky beach to help. A breeches cable was fired into the ships rigging and secured to the iron ring still in the rock. One by one, the nearly frozen men were brought onto the rocks by use of a breeches chair. The heroic captain was the last one to leave the ship, ensuring that his crew was safe. While being pulled in, he slid out of the breech’s chair and fell into the icy sea. In the tumultuous waters, rescue was impossible, and he was tragically lost. One of the ladies recalled her mother had made coffee and tea, while the men congregated in their kitchen. They warmed themselves by the fire wrapped in blankets. As we stood on her porch which overlooked the jagged cliffs below, you could imagine the drama they had witnessed. Even after fifty years had passed, the spectacle remained vivid in their minds.

With the landowner’s permission, we started our arduous journey down to the beach through their back yards. Our first trip was exploratory, investigating the hull tossed on the shore. More notably, we searched for a route amidst the ragged rock face where we could safely make the dive. In order to take advantage of the deeper unexplored wreckage, we armed ourselves with double tanks, twice the normal weight. Additionally, we hefted our drysuits, underwear, regulators, weight belts, mask, fins and assorted gear. Typical of September, when we started, the morning air was cold, a brisk 50 degrees. As the day progressed, the temperature rose into the seventies, with as the sun reflecting off the rocks. Starting off in coats and hats in the cold, after our second or third commute, we stripped down to shorts and t-shirts. The route to the beach was only a direction not a trail. We gingerly walked down a slippery path shaded by pine trees that ended a few hundred feet before a cliff. At the edge, we lowered our tanks down a six-foot ledge. Here your imagination improvised a trail. Gigantic boulders were strewn in our route blocking a contiguous direction. After a few football fields bounding from rock to rock, we slid down a gully onto a beach made up of large four to five-pound egg-shaped stones. Each stone was weathered into this shape after centuries of wave action. This was the location of our base, where we prepped for the dives. We made several grueling treks to this base hauling all the essentials. By the time we had organized all our gear and suited, several hours had passed. The entry and exit spot were a rock pitched valley between two humongous rocks. You had to carefully time your entry to avoid being crushed by the breaking waves. When returning, you planned your escape with trepidation or risked being pitched onto the slick kelp covered ridges of jagged rocks. There was no mercy for a faux pas. Despite these obstacles, after lunch, we made a second dive. When I view that shoreline today from a modern dive boat, I shake my head and wonder how we negotiated down that steep cliff to the beach. It is so much easier walking six feet off a boat and falling into the ocean.

The round five-pound rocks we found on the beach fit nicely hidden in the bottom of a dry suit boot. After our final dive, John Moyer and I instinctively and unbeknownst to each other, placed a rock in each of Eric Garay’s boots. Eric was twice our age, but he too made the arduous hike hefting his doubles and gear. Passing Eric on the steep incline, I felt guilty and confessed my digression. John too announced his culpability to Eric. Eric’s suit was draped over his shoulder wedged in the top of his tanks. Indignantly he stopped, wiped the sweat from his brow and protested that he was quite capable of managing the hike. When he reached his car, Eric felt the clunk of the rocks bang against his trunk. Later that night, John found the lumpy rocks stuffed in his sleeping bag… Touché Eric.

The hearty maritime history of Halifax Harbour is motivation for any wreck enthusiast. After numerous trips to the port, I became enchanted by the endless number of sea dramas that took place there. How close the U-Boat war came to the east coast during World War II is well documented. Hunting for the lost tanker British Freedom became an obsession of mine after researching her history. The story of the tanker’s slayer, the U-1232, remains extraordinary. Halifax was a priority target as many convoys sought refuge in its sheltered harbor. Although the war was closing, this thrilling battle ensued in the harbor at the end of World War II and captivates the imagination. Under the command of Kapitän zur See Kurt Dobratz, age forty, one of the oldest U-boat commanders of WWII, U-1232 cruised out of Horten, Norway in November of 1944. It reached Halifax Harbour in mid-December. Charging his batteries at night and slipping beneath the surface during the day, Dobratz eluded the Canadian and American patrols while Christmas and the New Year passed. He had attempted several attacks expending two torpedoes on distant targets, but now on the evening of January 13, 1945, a sensational shooting gallery was approaching Halifax Harbour. Through his periscope, the Convoy BX-141 appeared on the horizon. The U-boat commander patiently waited on the morning of January 14, 1945, as nineteen ships entered the harbor. As the ships lined up, the U-1232 slipped into the eastern edge of the harbor. Dobratz was about to attempt a daring attack, that unforeseen by him, would evoke a remarkable counterattack. The story of his dramatic attack escape and survival would soon be muffled by the drums of his conquerors.

As Dobratz approached harbor from the east, he took bearings on a ship lined up in the advancing column. At 3500 meters, he increased his speed and fired his first torpedo at 10:35 a.m. The Convoy BX-141 was within visual range of the light at Chebucto Head near Sambro Island. The deadly torpedo struck the 6985-ton tanker, British Freedom, as she followed two ships ahead passing into the narrow inbound traffic lane. Dobratz watched the torpedo strike amidships destroying the engine room and causing the ship to settle at the stern. As the convoy began to separate, Dobratz altered his course catching the Martin Van Buren as it turned east of the ships ahead and increased speed. He fired a stern T-5 acoustic torpedo at 10:41 a.m. which struck the Martin Van Buren just forward of her screws. The 10,000-ton liberty ship sustained a large crack and lost both her propeller and rudder. The explosion killed three of the naval gun crew as they began to man the foyer deck gun. The disabled ship drifted helplessly in the middle of the ensuing battle. Chaos ensured as the U-1232 lined up the motorship Anthelviking as she made a full circle in the confusing traffic. Within minutes, a 3rd torpedo struck the Anthelviking directly amidships mortally wounding the master and three crew.

Now the U- 1232 repositioned itself to fire another fish. As Dobratz calculated his next target, he suddenly saw the HMCS Ettrik frigate rushing towards the sub at full speed. The Ettrik steamed in releasing a barrage of depth charges and knifed directly at the U-boat. Dobratz fired his readied torpedo defensively and then abruptly turned diving below the impending frigate. The sub narrowly escaped being cut in two but still took a powerful blow. The Ettrik rammed the U-1232 bridge, bending the attack periscope, and knocked Dobratz from his seat. Glass shattered, gauges smashed, and the conning towers antennae was busted off. The U-boat rolled on its side throwing all the submariners to the deck. Immediately, the subs crew felt the concussion of the Ettrik’s depth charges as the attack frigate released more explosives. Ettrik’s crew felt the brush of the sub under her stern. The attack was short lived as the Ettrik’s damaged propeller and running gear forced her return to port. Several other cutters were released in the hunt, but the U-1232 passed directly under the fleet and then hugged the western shore. Amazingly, despite the damage, the sub fled by dead reckoning along the coast until it was able to sweep to east and gain access to the open sea. Over 134 depth charges and numerous aerial bombs were dropped attempting to annihilate the invader, yet the sub fled unscathed. Dobratz crew counted 66 near misses as they evaded their attackers.

The British Freedom and the Anthelviking remained afloat until they were targeted and sunk to prevent further collisions and losses. The Martin Van Buren ended up on Duck Reef, near Sandy Cove just inside of Sambro Island after an attempted tow failed. Kapitän zur See Kurt Dobratz returned to base in February 1945 and received the Knights Cross for his campaign. He replaced Donitz as the last Kommandierender Admiral der U-Boote during the final days of the war. After Germany surrendered, he spent nine months in military detention. When the war ended, he returned to Germany where he practiced law. U-1232 was captured by the British in the port of Wesermünde, Germany in May 1945 and sank while in tow for the scuttling grounds. In May of 1996, a small group of Haligonians and Americans finally dived the stern of the British Freedom for the first time.