H.P. Lovecraft, "The White Ship"
The Greek owned Sifnos was bombed and sunk by German aircraft during the invasion of Greece in April 1941. It was the third and final wreck to be dived in the course of the MDP expedition. It was also the most demanding project as the dive site was outside the sheltered Adamas bay and therefore exposed to frequent strong north winds. In addition the wreck rests deeper than these of the Artemis Pitta and Maria Stathatos.
MDP - initials for the Milos Dive Project - was an eleven days long diving expedition to the island of Melos, with the goal of exploring and documenting a handful of WWII wrecks after permission was obtained from the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Ministry of Culture. The project took place in September 2007. Various divers were called in to participate. The wrecks of the cargo steamers Artemis Pitta, Sifnos and Maria Stathatos were explored and documented. The project was the first of its kind in Greece and enjoyed the support of 'Tethys', an Athens based recreational diving association and of various local organisations and authorities of the island of Melos. We were posting on a blog daily as the project progressed and this information together with the project members and acknowledgments is still available online in Greek and English language here.
Although the Sifnos carries perhaps a lesser historical importance than the Artemis Pitta, it was nonentheless an unexplored WWII wreck and in fact one that connects to the days of the German invasion of Greece in April 1941, one of the darkest moments for the country as well as for our merchant navy. With this reasoning, we carried on with exploring her wreck during the last days of the expedition when the weather was suitable. In addition, the ship's history was researched in documentary sources.
The ship's building has a somewhat interesting background. Even early into the war, the French were trying to rebuild their stock of cargo ships which was already greatly reduced from Germany's successful 'Handelskrieg'. The French were not the only ones in dire need of tonnage1. The British have suffered crippling losses as well and so had many neutrals. For all of them, United States with their vast, unstrained resources was the direction to turn to. The first to place massive orders of merchants ships to be built in USA yards were the Norwegians. They supplied American builders with a readily available design which was being built around 1912 in 'Fredrikstad Mekaniske Verksted A/S' shipyard located in Fredrikstad, Norway. The design was for single decker, steel screw cargo steamers of the three-islands type. The ships were about 3500 dwt and measured around 80 meters length overall. The design was the culmination of many years of experience in short sea operations in the Baltic and North Sea. It turned out quite successfull and popular amongst Scandinavian owners so it was simply a matter of going for what was proven and working. The French took their turn choosing the same design, although they most probably just ordered more ships of what was being built at the time. Around a dozen 'Fredrikstad class' - as these ships became known - were delivered to Norwegians and French before the United States entered the war as belligerents and the country's shipyard industry came under the control of the State through the Shipping Board. It was within the above context that Sifnos was ordered via the French Governement to 'Detroit Shipbuilding Co' in Wyandotte, Michigan.
The ship's timeline is known reasonably well. She was built with yard number 208, launched on the 17th of June 1917 and delivered in July the same year. Her first name was Labor and was owned by 'Compagnie de Vapeurs Français' under the management of 'J.Stern'. Port of registry was Bordeaux. Her initial grt was 2045 tons and her nrt 1220. In 1921 her port of registry was changed to Rouen. In 1926 she was sold to 'Société Anonyme de Gérance et d' Armement', renamed Cap D' Antifer and re-registered in Dunkirk. Her grt now is recorded as 2004 tons and her nrt 1232. As far her employements are concerned, she seems to to have been used as a tramp steamer, however the majority of her voyages were between European Continent and North African ports such as Casablanca, Dunkirk, Ushant, Antwerp, Rabat and Flushing amongst others. In 1932 the ship was sold again to 'Themistocles S. Stafilopatis' of Piraeus, Greece for GBP 2750 and was renamed Sifnos, flying the Greek flag and registered in Piraeus with official number 712. Her grt was recorded as 1847 and her nrt as 1075 tons. In 1940-41 her registered tonnages were changed once more, grt to 2290 and nrt to 1073. Under deck tonnage was erased2. Her Greek owners used her in deep sea tramp trading as well and in the relevant records she appears to have been calling in ports such as London, Istanbul, Piraeus, Bari, Brindisi, Alexandria, Port Said, Mombassa, Odessa and others. Sources suggest that she was requisitioned during October 1940 for the needs of the war, however there's little to go on with that. Her last voyage and her loss are documented in some detail. Sifnos left Iraklion, Crete on the 6th of April 1941, laden with about 600 tons of oil in drums, soap, wine, and other goods. Discharging port would be Piraeus. She called at Souda for coaling and supply of 20 tons of fresh water. On the 23 April and around 08:20 hrs she arrived at the entrance of Adamas bay, Melos where she was attacked by German aircraft. The ship was hit in her engine room and her Master (E. Moscholios) turned her to starboard so as to run her aground on the nearby shore. However she did not make it as a second bomb exploded in the aft hold sending the ship down fairly quickly. Of her crew of nine, four lost their lives3.
A detailed description of the wreck and our dives is uploaded on the expedition's blog. For the sake of completeness we will make a brief recapitulation. The wreck rests upright, her bow looking to the SE. The seabed has a notable slope; her stern is at about 76 meters and her bow at about 57 meters. Her superstructure rises at roughly 51 meters. We found her forward part twisted at a 45 degrees angle with the port side touching the bottom. The reason for the extensive bow damage was not ascertained. It could be due to the sinking or due to post - depositional factors4. Her forecastle deck has collapsed inwards towards the hold. On her starboard aft, a sizeable hull breach was observed, in line with the mentions of a bomb exploding inside her aft hold. As far as conditions are concerned, the visibility was superb and we were blessed with flat seas and no current at all.
Οur dives on the Sifnos were completed just in time. The very next day after the expedition's official ending, the weather treated us with force 8 winds throughout the Aegean Sea, just to make our trip back to Athens a little more interesting! Of course we did not return with the RIB but with the ferry as the former had been put out of action somewhere midway during the project in any case...
wreckDiving team members that participated:
Bibliography and Sources: