The Prinz Eugen survived the Second World War and two atomic bombs before capsizing in the clear blue water of Kwajalein Atoll in the Western Pacific. Michael Aw explores the ship’s past and present
At 203m long, this battle cruiser is the length of four Olympic swimming pools and it lies at an angle, resting on the edge of the reef, with its rudder at the surface and the bow at 33m. The Prinz Eugen is mostly noted for her sortie into the North Atlantic as an escort to the Bismarck – their mission was to create havoc among Allied ships. Initially acting as a reserve to the Bismarck, she was soon promoted to co-star when, on 20 May 1941, she assisted in the sinking of HMS Hood, the pride of the British fleet.
A life less ordinary
When the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen left their home port of Gotenhafen in the Baltic on 20 May 1941, British intelligence had little problem tracking them. The band on board the Prinz Eugen virtually broadcast their intended course and battle plan as it struck up the song Muss i denn, a tune traditionally played on German battleships embarking on long cruises to the Atlantic. Spitfire reconnaissance planes successfully provided the Allies with hourly reports of the position of the German ships.
Had the Prinz Eugen or the Bismarck hit one of the icebergs sighted less than 2km off starboard as they sailed through fog and snow in the Denmark Strait, history might have taken a different course. As it was, the boats successfully navigated their way through the Strait only to find the Suffolk, a British heavy cruiser, approaching on the port bow. The Bismarck fired her 15in guns, and the Suffolk quickly retreated, but not before she had put the Bismarck’s forward radar permanently out of action.
The Prinz Eugen took the station ahead and, along with the Bismarck, tried to shake off the Suffolk and her sister ship, the Norfolk, which had now joined her. Attempting to outrun any other ships sent to intercept them, the German warriors ran straight into the path of two British Navy vessels, the Prince of Wales and the mighty HMS Hood (not to be confused with the battleship also called the HMS Hood that was sunk in 1914 in Portland Harbour in Dorset, as a blockship). The 260m-long Hood was the pride of the British Navy, and rightly so – she was the largest warship in the world.
While the Prince of Wales engaged the Bismarck, the Hood attempted to make her mark by firing on the Prinz Eugen. Her armament of eight 15in guns threatened to make scrap metal of the eight 8in guns of the Eugen. However, this Goliath of the seas was soon reeling as shots from the Prinz Eugen started fires on her deck, causing ammunition stored in the ready-to-use locker to explode. Determined to be part of the glory, the Bismarck joined in the attack, straddling the Hood with a broadside salvo. Before long, a shell penetrated the armour of the ammunition room, detonating 100 tonnes of high explosives. A fireball tore the Hood apart and she sank to abyssal depths. Only three of the 1,419 crew survived. The Prince of Wales fled, only to be sunk by Japanese kamikaze pilots a few days after Pearl Harbor. With the Bismarck ordered to turn south, the Prinz Eugen was left to tackle the Atlantic alone. She eventually returned to Germany via the English Channel, thwarting British destroyers, aircraft and patrol boats. And although she suffered a torpedo hit from the submarine Trident while in Norwegian waters, she recovered to become the flagship of the Baltic Sea.
At the end of the war, in 1945, the British took possession of the Prinz Eugen and promptly handed her over to the Americans. Along with an assortment of other vessels she was conscripted to serve as a sitting target for American atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. She survived both the air and underwater explosions, which produced radiation contamination that still pollutes the soil of the atoll to this day. After the detonations the battle-weary Prinz remained afloat long enough to be towed to nearby Kwajalein Atoll, where the radiation levels and physical damage she had sustained could be assessed by scientists at the US navy base there.
Weakened by leaks, the ship had finally had enough. Turning on to her starboard side, she capsized on the reef slope next to one of the Marshall Islands, on 22 December 1946. US radiological teams had to remove contaminated debris from the wreckage – the danger being greatly increased because the recovery took place underwater. In 1970 an inspection certified the wreck to be radiation free.
Down by law
The only way to explore underwater Kwajalein is with the few fanatical American divers stationed at the US navy base there and local dive guide Hideo Milne. Their advice to wreck enthusiasts is: ‘Go and dive all the wrecks of Chuuk Lagoon ... before coming here. Once anyone has dived the wrecks of Kwajalein in clear, blue water, other wrecks won’t seem as special anymore.’ According to Hideo, the Prinz is the showpiece of Kwajalein’s underwater shipyard. The wreck is one of the few large battleships in the world that lies within the recommended depths for sport diving.
Before I saw it for myself, I was given an in-depth pre-dive briefing. Hideo, who was the dive guide, reminded me and my dive buddies – my wife Alison, and German underwater photographer Monique Walker – that although the wreck lies in calm and relatively shallow water, an upside-down ship can nevertheless be disorientating.
The trip from our boat anchored off nearby Ebeye Island to the dive site took about 15 minutes. As soon as we arrived we had our first glimpse of the wreck – a single screw and part of the rudder are exposed above the water. The sheer size of the wreck is awesome, and even after 50 years the superstructure is mostly intact. We crossed the hull towards the port side at 10m and descended towards the bow. Passing the turrets we found the 8in and 4in guns completely covered in algae and saw cleaner wrasse and blennies disappearing into gun barrels attached to the huge turrets. At 34m I was directly under the bow.
A large amount of firefighting equipment lies suspended on the deck. Cables dangle from the railing, and the bridge is almost unrecognisable. When the Prinz Eugen finally rolled over on her starboard side, the bridge and upper superstructure must have crunched against the bottom. Decomposition of this wreck causes a seemingly never-ending snowstorm of rust and dust – a momentary distraction from the otherwise superb visibility.
Along the upside-down gangway, numerous hatches and open doors tease the curious diver to investigate. Through an open hatch on the centre deck we found an entrance to one of the crew’s quarters and mess area: serving platters, bowls and lockers are strewn across the ceiling, the wooden framework still intact. On one dive, we followed the guide through a narrow corridor to the officers’ mess. And a mess it was, with baths, urinals and sinks all hanging from the floor. I wasn’t keen to enter the room – they might not have emptied the septic tank before she rolled over!
This monument is embellished with exotic reef fishes and is frequently patrolled by heavy-bodied grey reef sharks. The waters around Kwajalein Atoll are full of sharks. They are curious and will approach you, unafraid of divers’ bubbles. From a photographic point of view, they are obedient and well-behaved, content to stay within camera range and they don’t need to be fed or entertained. The most prolific are the round-bodied grey reef and white-tip sharks.
Hideo and friends have made more than 500 extended penetration dives into the Prinz Eugen, each 30 to 45 minutes long, and claim they can perform them blindfolded. If you’re a die-hard wreckie and have enough confidence (or blind faith) in their skills, then you can follow them on an adrenalin-pumping, 45-minute penetration dive deep inside the wreck – without lines. To date, they claim to have brought everyone out alive, but, personally, I would have insisted on lines.
I feel fortunate to have explored the Prinz Eugen. Although a weapon of war and a reminder of some of man’s darkest hours, to me she is also a heroine. She beat the odds: survived attack, won battles and stood up to atomic bombs before retiring to rest in one of the world’s most beautiful atolls.
Arranging a trip to Kwajalein can be a complicated business. There are few dive centres nearby: Atoll Aquatics is the only professionally-run diving centre in the area, it is managed by Hideo Milne. He can make all arrangements for accommodation and diving support. For information tel/fax: 00 692 329 3164. The Thorfinn liveaboard is available for charter in the area, see the web site: http://www.thorfinn.net.
Staying on Kwajalein is not usually an option for the recreational diver because permission is granted only to those people sponsored by an official from the US military base there.