The 6 June 1944 is a date that will mark the history of the world, it is the beginning of the end of the domination of 3st German Reich on Europe: it is the landing of the Allied troops on the coasts of Normandy. Today, in addition to the terrestrial museums which punctuate the discovery of the region, it is possible to dive into the metallic and rusty remains of the wrecks which allowed the success of this operation which remains unique in the history of humanity.
ON THE BEACHES OF NORMANDY
Normandy and especially the department of Manche, is not a region especially known for the richness of its seabed. We meet mostly Parisians who own a holiday home in which they come to spend weekends or holidays on the huge sandy beaches. It is precisely this sand that sometimes causes low visibility in the water when there is a storm of North West. The tides also have a very important tidal range and when the coefficients are high, it is not uncommon to have to walk during 300 or 400 meters to be able to put the boat in the water. But all these conditions, which may seem strange to the divers of the Mediterranean Sea or the Red Sea, are just extraordinary conditions to achieve perhaps the most unexpected and incredible dives in France and perhaps even in Europe.
It should already be specified that the dives are only done on wrecks. Certainly there is a string of islands called the Saint Marcouf offshore but the crossing is very long and few divers have the opportunity to go there. The seabed of the English Channel is mainly made up of sand and the wrecks are an artificial refuge for most of the fish species in this region. It is not uncommon to come across banks of several thousand pouting floating above a wreck or hundreds of bars hidden inside a destroyer. All these wrecks date from June 6, 1944 which marked the start of the Normandy landings, also known as “Operation Overlord”. This maritime operation remains the largest of all time. After two years of preparation in the greatest secrecy, two sites were chosen for the landing. The first site, called "Mulberry A" in Saint Laurent, in the American zone, was quickly forgotten because of the storm of June 19, 1944 which destroyed the American artificial harbor. The second site called "Mulberry B" at Arromanches, in the English sector, constituted the artificial port from which the allies will unload all the material necessary for the unloading. This port will be active until November 12, 1944 following the liberation of the ports of Cherbourg and Le Havre.
A HUGE UNDERWATER CEMETERY
Given the shallow depth of the seabed off the Normandy coast, many wrecks were dynamited after the war to allow the movement of fishing boats: some wrecks are very spread out on the sandy bottom. Others were laid up to recover the scrap metal so rare in the 50s (this operation was called scrap metal): which explains their state of disrepair. Still others have been swept away by force 10 storms and are still in the path of currents so strong that they can silt and desilt small wrecks like tanks. But the cemetery is so immense that each diver will find his happiness and have a thousand stories to tell about these dives in history.
1. USS SUSAN B ANTHONY
This wreck located in front of Port en Bessin, spotted by the buoy of Cussy rests on a bottom of 33 meters maximum. This American steam cargo ship launched in March 1930 was carrying 2288 soldiers and military equipment. He measured 147 meters long, 19 meters wide and made 8183 barrels. Her name was given in memory of an American feminist of 19st century and editor of The Revolution newspaper, Susan B Anthony, which called for the right to vote for women in the presidential elections of 1872. On June 7, 1944, the captain of the boat took advantage of the darkness to approach the Omaha Beach to deposit the 2288 soldiers: it thus avoids the bombardments of German planes. But the starboard stern struck a mine and the boat began to sink inexorably. Other boats will come to rescue all the troops and no human loss will be to be deplored.
The wreck rests on the sand on its port side. The whole interest of the wreck is based on the exploration of the front part which is very well preserved with a defense gun that goes back to 11 meters deep, which was the ship's protective armament. You can also see the two derricks at the front of the bridge. The rear of the wreck is a cluster of plates difficult to identify. The wreck is spread over 150 meters and we can still see many ammunition. It is certainly one of the most beautiful and mythical shipwrecks of the Normandy dives.
This wreck is located not far from the exit of the port of Arromanches near the buoy called Harpagas and it lies at a depth of 12 meters. As of its construction in 1942, this merchant ship with a length of 131 meters, a width of 17,30 meters for a volume of 7271 tons was requisitioned by the Ministry of War. During the landing, the ship was used as a supply tank for the troops. On August 19, 1944, it struck a mine and sank immediately. It is also called the Whiskey because of the many bottles of whiskey that were part of the shipment and which can be dived into. It is a wreck very rich in details: metal mattress for landing tanks on the sand, bottles, toilets, gas masks, etc.
3. USS BROADSWORD
This American ship is of the LSI (Landing Ship Infantery) class with a length of 121 meters, a width of 18,4 meters and a volume of 7177 tons was built in 1942. It took part in the first wave from the landing with 1300 soldiers and 18 landing craft for the assault on Sword beach. On July 2, 1944, it struck two mines simultaneously and sank in 20 minutes. The wreck rests nautical miles from the coast of Omaha Beach on 30 meters deep. The wreckage broken into 3 pieces is lying on starboard. It was spared the scrapping of the 50s and has remained in perfect condition. It is certainly one of the most impressive wrecks with its holds full of bar banks.
4. THE BRIDGES OF ARROMANCHES
The pontoons are huge concrete blocks which were the founding elements of the artificial port of Arromanches. They were used to protect boats against the waves, docking docks. They were equipped with anti-aircraft batteries. Some of these pontoons emerge from the surface and they are visible from the beaches of Arromanches. The dives are mainly carried out on a step 6 meters deep. It is the world of macro photography with striped blennies (Parablennius gattorugine) also called mutt or slobber, sea daisies (Actinothoe sphyrodeta) which cover the structure. Diving consists of going around the blocks. The current can be violent in the passage between two pontoons. These are easy dives, very close to the coast, which allow you to immediately take the measure of Norman dives in the Channel.
FAUNA AND FLORA OF MANCHE
All these wrecks constitute artificial reefs completely colonized by a multitude of species of fish or sponges. It is a real explosion of life because the fishermen cannot throw their nets on the wrecks at the risk of tearing them off. All photographers passionate about close-up photos or macros will find their account there. Pouts (Trisopterus luscus) form the most numerous schools of fish in wrecks in the English Channel. They measure between 20 and 40 centimeters and the largest can weigh 2 kg. The sides are copper with 4 or 5 vertical dark bands. They stand in compact shoals above the wrecks facing the current (this is also an excellent indicator for finding the direction of the current). Yellow spots (Pollachius pollachius) are also very common. Many divers confuse them with pouting but they can reach 80 cm long for a weight of 10 kg. Their backs are always dark in color with a light belly. To see bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) called wolf in the Mediterranean, it is often necessary to enter the wrecks where they congregate compact schools, especially in the wreck of the Broadsword. They are open water hunters and adults often hunt alone. For curious divers who take the time to explore, it is easy to find lobsters (Homarus gammarus) hidden in the structures of wrecks, often under sheet metal. Lobsters measure between 30 and 50 cm. When illuminated with a lamp, the lobster shows blue and black colors on an orange background. It is a solitary animal that hides in holes. Be careful however with its pliers which are capable of cutting a finger.
HOW TO DIVE IN A SLEEVE?
In Normandy, all the dives are carried out during the slack tide otherwise the currents are very violent and it is almost impossible to descend. We have already tried to do drift dives but there is no point in view of the strength of the currents. Each day, the diving times therefore change, depending on the tide time. The greater the tidal coefficient, the more violent the currents: for example with a coefficient of 95, the currents will be very strong whereas with a coefficient of 45, you have little chance of having current. It is always difficult to give a depth for wrecks because it depends on the coefficient of the tide. The greater the coefficient, the greater the height of the water. All the wrecks are located with the sounder: no visible mark makes it possible to locate them. As soon as a wreck is located, the boats launch a pig (end ballasted with a weight and with a buoy which floats on the surface). Once the sled has been laid, divers must enter the water fully equipped: it is not possible to equip themselves in the water because of the potential currents. Then they descend along the end of the pig to reach the wreckage. Divers who do not follow this line are unlikely to find the wreckage because visibility never exceeds 10 to 15 meters and is therefore not visible from the surface. Even when diving during a slack tide, there is still a slight current which makes divers drift during the descent.
When sea conditions are difficult, divers are dropped upstream of the pig. It is essential to have a parachute of bearing for the Normandy dives because the return to the end of the pig is never guaranteed under water and the bearings are often carried out in full water by clinging to a parachute of bearing for report to the boat her position. This parachute is essential because if you drift, it is the only way for the boat to follow the team.
Climate change is very slow in Normandy but the forecasts are very reliable. If a gale is announced, it is certain that it will occur. Dives are possible if the wind force is less than Force 5. Above this force, the dives must be canceled because the swell becomes too important.
Most wreck diving is done between the towns of Ouistreham and Saint Vaast in the Lower Normandy region. The coasts straddle two departments: Calvados and Manche. The prefecture of the region is Caen and the number of inhabitants is around 1,5 million. History is written both underwater and on land. Caen is a city steeped in history with William the Conqueror and Queen Mathilde; Bayeux is worth visiting with its museum and the tapestry telling the story of the conquest of England by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy. The port of Barfleur, typical of the region with its fishing boats, as well as the Gatteville lighthouse, a giant overlooking the sea on a granite cliff, constitute two compulsory visitor centers. Lower Normandy is a relatively unknown tourist region except by regulars, which requires a visit of several weeks.
There is no commercial structure nearby, the club Leo Lagrange located in Asnelles (just before arriving at Arromanches) welcomes you to take you to discover the wrecks of the landing.
The club has two large rigid boats whose capacity is 16 divers. It is also equipped with a comfortable cloakroom and hot showers.
You can also dive with theYCPWATP located in Arromanches.
Marc Laurent, who manages AQUACIRCUS, the one and only Approved Commercial Structure in Calvados (14), also offers to dive in Arromanches. It is an itinerant diving base located in Deauville and therefore 100 kilometers away, but which makes its sea trips from Asnelles.
It is possible to dive all year round but the best period is between the months of June and October. Visibility depends on the direction of the winds: in a northwesterly wind, visibility decreases.
Text and photos: Amar GUILLEN