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Monday, September 21, 2020

Explained: Why finding wreck of Karlsruhe, the sunken German WWII warship, is significant

The exact location of the Karlsruhe's wreckage had remained a mystery for the past 80 years due to the discrepancies in the testimonies given by the captain and crew of the ship and others who witnessed its sinking.

Written by Kabir ER , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: September 9, 2020 11:47:25 am
A sonar scan of sunken German WWII warship cruiser "Karlsruhe" that had been observed 13 nautical miles from Kristiansand in Norway, according to Statnett, is seen in this undated handout obtained by Reuters.

The Karlsruhe, a 174-metre light armoured cruiser, was the last of the big German World War II-era warships to remain missing – until its wreckage was found on June 30.

The wreckage of the ship, sunk by a British submarine in 1940, was discovered around 11 nautical miles (20 km) off Kristiansand, Norway, during a routine inspection of undersea electricity cables. The finding was reported by Norwegian public broadcaster NRK last week.

The ship’s history

The Karlsruhe was built in the mid-1920s and commissioned into the German Navy in 1929. It was used mostly as a training vessel until World War II. By the time it was used in battle, its structure and weapons systems had been upgraded several times, making it one of Germany’s most effective warships of its class.

On April 9, 1940, as German forces set out to invade Norway, the Karlsruhe led a fleet of warships to attack the city of Kristiansand. The advanced guns and cannons on the ship, supported by other smaller ships in the fleet, destroyed the city’s maritime defences in just a few hours. The fleet dropped off soldiers in Kristiansand, and they, with the help of German warplanes, would go on to take over the city and eventually occupy the whole of Norway.

 

Its sinking

After dropping off most of its crew, the Karlsruhe turned around to head back to Germany, but it didn’t get very far from Kristiansand harbour. Just outside the fjord that leads away from the harbour lurked the British submarine HMS Truant. When it spotted the Karlsruhe emerging from the harbour, the submarine fired multiple torpedoes in its direction, hitting it twice and causing severe damage.

The crew attempted to save the ship, trying to navigate it to safety, but gave up after a couple of hours as the seawater rushed in through the broken hull. Everyone in the Karlsruhe was evacuated to other boats in the fleet and one of those fired two more torpedoes at it to make sure that it sank to the bottom of the sea.

An element of sunken German WWII warship cruiser “Karlsruhe” that had been observed 13 nautical miles from Kristiansand in Norway, according to Statnett, is seen in this undated photo obtained by Reuters.

Finding the wreckage

The exact location of the Karlsruhe’s wreckage had remained a mystery for the past 80 years due to the discrepancies in the testimonies given by the captain and crew of the ship and others who witnessed its sinking.

The wreckage was first discovered in 2017 though it wasn’t identified then as belonging to the Karlsruhe. But Ole Petter Hobberstad, a project engineer for Norwegian power grid operator Statnett, had been waiting for a chance to investigate the site and find out what it was. That chance came on June 30 when he was working on a ship as part of a Statnett inspection of undersea electricity cables lying just 15 metres away from the wreck. He used the Statnett ship’s advanced sonar and an unmanned reconnaissance submarine to look at the spot. What he saw was a well-preserved shipwreck 490 metres under the sea. The length of the sunken ship, its cannons and a Nazi Swastika helped identify it as the Karlsruhe.

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What now?

Experts estimate that thousands of litres of oil and other substances could still be inside the shipwreck, and that it could cause an ecological disaster in case of a leak. For this reason, salvaging the wreck could be dangerous, apart from being a very expensive process. It is also not yet clear whether the site will be classified and protected as an underwater war grave. This would depend on whether any of the Karlsruhe’s crew went down with it, though most of them were known to have been evacuated before the ship was sunk.

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