Many of the most famous military wrecks that are visited by divers are from the Second World War, but the First World War was the first major conflict in Europe in which steel-hulled battleships were deployed, and Malta as much of an important base for the Mediterranean Fleet between 1914 and 1918 as it was between 1936 and 1945. It must also be remembered that many civilian ships were requisitioned as support vessels during the conflict. In part four of our series featuring the deep wrecks of Malta, we look at two ships sunk during the First World War that are now under the protection of Heritage Malta’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit – the British minesweeping sloop HMS Nasturtium and the SS Polynésien, a 19th century French ocean liner armed and armoured to serve as a troop carrier during the war.
- Part 1 – HMS Olympus and HMS Russell
- Part 2 – Fairey Swordfish and Junkers Ju88
- Part 3 – HMS Southwold
- Part 4 – HMS Nasturtium and Le Polynesien
- Part 5 – SS Luciston and HMS Trusty Star
- Part 6 – ORP Kujawiak and Schnellboot S-31
Under the Emergency War Programme at the start of the First World War, the British Royal Navy ordered the construction of a series of vessels designed to combat the growing threat of submarines and underwater mines.
The Acacia, Azalea and Arabis-class sloops were built as minesweepers in 1915, with the 1916 Aubrietia and 1917 Anchusa-class sloops designed as submarine decoys. The five sub-classes were collectively known as the ‘Flower-class’ after the flowers for which they were named. They became colloquially known as the ‘Cabbage-Class’ ships and were also jokingly referred to as Britain’s ‘Herbaceous Borders’.
HMS Nasturtium was one of the 36 minesweeping Arabis-class sloops, built by A McMillan & Sons, of Dumbarton, Scotland and was launched on 21 December 1915. She had an overall length of 81.6m, a beam of 10.2m and a crew of 79 men.
HMS Nasturtium was based in Malta but she saw little service before her sinking. On 23 March 1916, the ocean liner SS Minneapolis (not to be confused with the American battleship USS Minneapolis), carrying supplies from Marseille to Alexandria, was torpedoed and crippled by the German submarine U-35. As the Arabis-class sloops acted as tugs and transport ships when not clearing mines, Nasturtium was one of the ships dispatched to tow the Minneapolis to Malta. Unfortunately, the recovery attempts were unsuccessful and the Minneapolis sank on 25 March.
On 24 April 1916, HMS Nasturtium departed Malta but was ordered to return to search for mines and submarines known to be in the area. On 27 April, the Nasturtium entered the same minefield that had sunk HMS Russell earlier the same day and struck a mine which exploded just below the waterline on her starboard side, killing seven members of her crew.
Her boiler rooms began to flood and the Nasturtium took on a heavy list, which, compounded by darkness and heavy seas, made her recovery impossible. Although several attempts were made to tow her to safety, the crew were eventually evacuated before HMS Nasturtium rolled over and sank at 2:45 am on the morning of 28 April 1916. HMY Aegusa, which was searching the area during the operation, also struck a mine and sank shortly afterwards with the loss of six lives
The wreck of HMS Nasturtium now lies approximately 10km from Valetta Harbour, at a depth of 67m.https://www.youtube.com/embed/JiwsLzatRVY?rel=0&fs=1&wmode=transparent
The SS Polynesien (or Le Polynésien) was launched in 1890, one of four Risbec-class ocean liners built by merchant shipping company Messageries Maritimes of La Ciotat, in France. She was a 3-masted steel barque (sailing vessel) with a triple-expansion steam engine, with an overall length of 152.5m and beam of 15m.
Prior to the war, the SS Polynésien operated as a passenger ship along the France-Australia line through the Suez Canal but was requisitioned by the French Navy at the beginning of the First World War, where she served as an armed troop carrier until her sinking, just three months before the end of the conflict.
On 10 August 1918, the Polynésien was transporting Serbian army personnel, including a detachment of cadets, from Bizerte in Tunisia to Thessaloniki, Greece, when she was torpedoed by a German submarine. The torpedo struck the port side of the ship near the engine room and the Polynésien sank within half an hour, approximately 3km east of Marsaskala. Eleven crew members and six of the passengers died in the attack, but most of the cadets survived and were taken to Cottonera Hospital on Malta.
The SS Polynésien now lies on a 45-degree angle on her port side at a maximum depth of 65m on the seabed, with some of her uppermost structures reaching to around 45m.
The wrecks featured in this series have been declared to be Archaeological Zones in the Sea by the Cultural Heritage Act of Maltese law, and it must be remembered that most are also war graves. As such, the wrecks can only be dived through dive centres approved and registered with the Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit of Heritage Malta, and protective measures to prevent unauthorised diving are strictly enforced. For more information, the original UCHU reports and a complete list of approved dive operators, visit the Heritage Malta Historic Wreck pages at www.visitmalta.com.