JUST after midday last Wednesday we gathered on Stephaniturm’s main deck in an impromptu ceremony to watch the first relic from HMS Edinburgh being hauled out of the icy artic waters.
There came not the five tons of Russian gold which is believed to be in the sunken British cruiser, but a jagged-edged, oil splashed, 3ft by 2ft 6inch steel plate which our divers had just cut from Edinburgh’s hull.
For all the attention, nostalgic comments and camera-clicking that symbolic slice of wreck evoked, it might have been made of solid gold. Once the crane had swung the metal plate on board, it was placed, not as a piece of scrap, but in the makeshift bullion room now awaiting some £45 million in gold.
The salvage ship floats 800ft above the Edinburgh and its starboard bomb-room, in which the bullion is thought to have been stored before the cruiser sailed from Murmansk in April, 1942. Force eight to nine gales and moderate – sometimes heavy – swells have hampered the painstaking but steady progress our divers are making towards the gold.
Edinburgh was necessarily a steel fortress, and despite nearly 40 years on the sea-bed she is proving a formidable challenge to the divers and their backup team on the surface.
“You’ve got to remember we’re working at a world record depth for a salvage operation,” said Mike Stewart, diving project manager “inside the wreck there is often no visibility because of the sediment kicked up by the divers and cutting equipment.”
“We’ve not only got to cut our way in laboriously – inch by inch in some parts – but we’ve also got to ensure that we can get out again.”
Despite the often heavy weather on the surface, and the odd daily technical hitch with the cutting gear and the cameras, the project planners are delighted that they correctly pin-pointed the position on the wreck’s hull to start cutting with their burners.
“By using the cruisers original construction drawings,” says John Clarke, the ship’s project manager, “we’ve been able to measure up from the bilge keel to the armour plating point we were seeking to plus or minus an inch inaccuracy. Whatever diversions we may have to make en route to the bomb room, we’re confident we’re in the right place.”
Morale on board appears to the outsider to rise and fall rapidly, just as the ship’s barometer on the bridge has done during the past week. The divers, who have been working in two man teams and eight hour shifts, are watched carefully on the TV monitors – when the cameras are working – and are loudly catcalled or cajoled when they put a rubber fin wrong. After their performance on the sea bed in increasingly difficult conditions, the diving superintendents analyse their achievements.
Some of our divers are said to be among the most experienced and talented in the world. Even so, some have been feeling the strain of working at such a great depth and have been forced to take a premature rest. But there are divers on the surface who can take their place in the compression chambers when needed – and this happened last Thursday when two fresh divers prepared for their first trip to the sea bed.
Divers are naturally wary of the deep and the dangers a wreck like Edinburgh can contain. Last Wednesday Pete Summers was especially grateful for his space age style helmet. He had a “blow back” of oxygen, a familiar enough occurrence for many North Sea divers, but which left him with a thump in his chest and a smashed welding visor.
After the normal rest period in the compression chamber Summers went on to do his next shift.
On this expedition divers are using an improved helmet which instead of just expelling the helium and oxygen mixture they breathe on the sea bed actually recycles the gas.
“There’s a saving of over 90 per cent on some dives,” says Stewart, “when you consider we left Peterhead with about 1,500,000 cubic feet of gas, costing about £75,000. Well, obviously that represents a huge saving.”
The diving team known from the work they have done so far that they are the first on the Edinburgh. There is no doubt that they are working on the right ship and not the nearby German destroyer Hermann Schoemann, which went down in the same fierce naval battle in 1942.
Last Thursday divers spotted a pad of Royal navy message forms on the sea bed, a pile of oil spattered papers which had survived in the deep water. So too had a tin of Brasso polish.
But will this expedition succeed and recover those five elusive tons of Russian bullion? “Think positive,” said Jim Ligertwood from Aberdeen, “we’ll do it you’ll see, but in our own time. This was never going to be a 48 hour job. The divers are worth more every time than the cargo we’re after. We’ll bring both back to the surface safely, you’ll see.”