We’re in the Baltic Sea, an area that’s basically a northern outpost of the Atlantic Ocean. Under its cold waters, off the coast of Poland, there’s a ticking time bomb concealed beneath the waves, a horrible legacy of the Second World War. It’s a sunken ship and if its cargo leaks into the sea, environmental catastrophe will surely follow.
The sunken ship, the Franken, is an old German merchant ship. Construction of the vessel started way back in 1937 at the Germaniawerft shipyard in Germany’s Baltic Sea port city of Kiel. Although it built merchant vessels like the Franken, the yard was perhaps best known during WWII for building U-boats. The shipbuilders, in fact, completed 84 German submarines during the conflict.
So, when WWII erupted across Europe in 1939, workers at Germaniawerft had not yet completed the Franken. And with the wartime demand for fighting vessels such as U-boats, the ship languished unfinished in the yard until 1942. That year, the Germans moved the vessel to the Burmeister & Wain shipbuilders in Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen. Germany had, in fact, invaded Denmark in 1940.
Burmeister & Wain eventually finished the Franken and it was finally commissioned in March of 1943. It then went into service on the Baltic Sea, working as a tanker and supply ship. In the later stages of the war, it supported vessels like the German Navy’s heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. The ship also carried fuel and other supplies to various minesweepers, torpedo boats and patrol vessels.
The Franken belonged the class of Dithmarschen tankers and supply ships. In total, the Germans built five of those ships. Their purpose was to transport essential supplies, such as ammunition, fuel and spares, to warships and other vessels on active service. They also had the capacity to tow disabled naval vessels to safety.
The Franken sailed from two ports, both located in the Bay of Gdansk. One was Hel in Poland, which the Germans called Hela after they invaded the country on September 1, 1939. In fact, the Hel Peninsula, defended by some 3,000 soldiers, was one of the last hold-outs against the Nazi assault. And just before the Poles surrendered, they detonated a bunch of torpedoes. The ensuing blast actually made the peninsula an island
Conversely, Hel was one of last pieces of Polish territory to be liberated at the end of the war. During their occupation of the port, the Germans had used it to train U-boat crews. After their country’s surrender, though, die-hard Nazis fought on for six more days before finally giving up. But the Franken also sailed from another nearby port, Gdyni, which the Germans called Gotenhafen.
The Baltic Sea had become an increasingly important WWII theater as the Soviets pushed back the Nazis from Russia and the Baltic countries. And in 1945, things hotted up even more as the Red Army began to enter German-held territory. The German Navy had no choice but to evacuate both soldiers and civilians across the sea from Estonia. Russian submarines and aircraft then attacked Nazi craft in the area.
Indeed, an airborne Russian attack on April 8, 1945, brought about the demise of the Franken, as the ship was bombed near the port of Hel. And the damage sustained sent the ship to the bottom of the Baltic. This was a catastrophe, not just for the vessel, but also for 48 of the sailors aboard, who lost their lives when it sank.
Those unfortunate crew members were desperately unlucky to be sunk on April 8. Indeed, just a month later, on May, 7, the Nazis finally capitulated and the war in Europe, and the Baltic Sea, was over. During the conflict, however, a large number of ships sank in the Baltic. These included more than 30 U-Boats, three German destroyers and one Russian destroyer. So you might think that the sinking of a humble merchant ship would pale into insignificance in comparison.
But what has brought the Franken into the public eye today is its cargo – and we’ll see why shortly. The ship now lies between around 160 and 240 feet beneath the surface of the Baltic. The hull has split into two, with the bow separated from the rest of the vessel by around 2,600 feet. And the structure of the wreck is far from stable.
As such, Germany’s Baltic Sea Conservation Foundation agreed to fund an exploration of the Franken in April 2018. Two Polish dive vessels, the Litoral and the Imor sailed to the waters above the site of the sunken wreck. The ships’ divers then spent some 13 hours exploring and assessing the remains of the vessel.
And what the divers found was enough to cause grave concerns about the future status of the shipwreck. Olga Sarna, president of the MARE foundation, a marine conservation organization, spoke to British newspaper The Sun in October 2018. And, when asked about the risks of the Franken’s hull collapsing and the wreck breaking up, she said that it was increasingly likely.
“We know that the steel on the wreck is in worse shape every day and obviously the ship is deteriorating, so the only question is when it will break,” Sarna explained. “The way it’s positioned on the bottom of the sea is between two dunes and the current goes precisely between them and constantly washes over the ship.”
“So the moment that the steel cannot take the ship’s weight anymore,” Sarna continued, “it will break into this space between the dunes.” And there’s a compelling explanation of why the Franken’s hull will eventually disintegrate. Physical science means a collapse is almost certainly inevitable.
Indeed, the salt water in which the Franken lies is slowly but surely corroding the steel outer hull, as well as the storage tanks inside the ship. The thickness of the metal is degrading at a rate of around 0.39 inches every ten years. Now, for sure, that doesn’t sound like very much at all. But remember, this ship has sat on the bottom of the Baltic since 1945.
Over those 75 years on the ocean floor, the steel in the Franken’s tanks has become more than a quarter of an inch thinner than the day it was first put to sea. And the total thickness of the metal when the vessel was brand new was a little less than half an inch. In view of those facts, it’s easy to appreciate the inevitable conclusion of this gradual erosion.
But why are scientists and environmentalists so concerned by the thought of the Franken’s hull and storage tanks collapsing? The answer lies in the fuel oil the ship was carrying when the Soviets bombed it to the bottom of the Baltic. And this is no trivial amount of oil, either. The ship’s tanks may still contain well in excess of 800,000 gallons of the stuff.
So how was this incredibly dangerous cargo allowed to molder at the bottom of the Baltic? The answer, sadly, is money. After the Second World War drew to its conclusion, ownership of the Franken automatically went to the Polish government. And draining the ship of its cargo simply wasn’t a profitable enterprise.
Speaking to the DW website in April 2019, Benedykt Hac of Gdansk’s Maritime Institute described the complacent attitude of officialdom in years gone by. “It just sat there and wasn’t in anyone’s way,” he said. And, indeed, clearing the wreck of dangerous materials today still wouldn’t come cheap. But as we’ll see, the question is, can the authorities afford not to undertake a clear-up operation?
Hac estimates that the cost of clearing the oil, and perhaps dangerous ordnance, from the wreck would today be somewhere between $9 million and $23 million. But would clearing the Franken of its toxic load be good value for money, given the sums being bandied about? If you listen to the ecologists, it certainly would be.
So what would happen if the Franken’s hazardous cargo were to end up in the ocean? Sarna, for one, is in no doubt about the dire consequences awaiting the area should that happen. Speaking to the The Sun, she said, “We are talking about potentially the biggest ever ecological disaster in the whole Baltic Sea region. All of the wildlife in this area could potentially die if the spill happens.”
And there’s more bad news, too. “The economic impact will be huge for the whole region,” Sarna continued. “If it’s light oil, that’s more dangerous, because it will go up to the surface and then the sea currents can move it towards the beaches.” So Poland’s Baltic coast could be looking at a major pollution incident.
“And since the currents in the Gdansk area are usually towards the beaches, we are talking about 50 miles of beaches that can be hit,” Sarna continued. “And also it will have an effect on the tourism and the industry of the region. We will have to close the whole area for at least a couple of years.”
And the impact on the economy of a two-year beach closure could be a real hammer blow for the region, which has a thriving tourist industry. The bill in terms of economic loss would likely run into millions. But it’s not just about money. There’s also the potentially severe damage to the environment and wildlife to think of as well.
Sarna then described the potential for appalling habitat damage along Poland’s Baltic coast, “If the oil gets there then… The local population includes protected colonies of seals and birds, so the ecological effect will be really dramatic.” And she seemed not entirely happy with the attitude of the Polish authorities.
“At this stage the law does not oblige the government to take any action to prevent the oil spill,” Sarna pointed out. “They are obliged only to act at the moment the spill happens.” But by then, it may be too late to prevent the worst effects of the leaked oil. And her concerns are based on much more than mere speculation.
The possible consequences of the Franken’s oil leaking into Gdansk Bay were made clear by another Second World War wreck, the Stuttgart. The sinking of this German ship was one of the war’s appalling but unavoidable tragedies. Indeed, the vessel was actually loaded with wounded men when it sank.
Although the passenger ship Stuttgart was carrying casualties while at anchor in Gdynia’s harbor – one of the ports used by the Franken – it wasn’t marked with red crosses. So, American bombers attacking the port in October 1943 were unaware of the ship’s status. The planes released their deadly load on the Stuttgart. It then caught fire and most on board died in the flames.
The smoldering remains of the Stuttgart were towed from Gdynia Harbor out into the Baltic Sea. There, it was sunk along with the bodies of the men who had perished in the bombing raid. But this was a wreck that would come back to haunt future generations. The horrendous consequences of the ship’s downing came to light through research conducted from 2009 to 2015.
The findings of this research revealed that the oil which leaked from the Stuttgart had contaminated nearly half-a-million square feet of the seabed. And this pollution killed every living thing, from creatures to algae, in that area. What’s more, the range of the contaminating oil has continued to increase over the years.
And remember, the Stuttgart was just a passenger ship, so the oil it carried would be just enough for its own needs. By contrast, the Franken was a tanker transport vessel, and, as we saw earlier, had a large amount of oil on board when it sank. The consequences of that cargo leaking into the sea would almost certainly be far more serious.
So what will be done about the tremendous potential for damage posed by the deteriorating wreck of the Franken? Sarna choose her words diplomatically. “We’re not out to condemn anyone, but [we] are trying to mobilize people to save the ecosystem of Gdansk Bay,” she told the DW website.
Then, in July 2018, Marek Grobarczyk, the politician in charge of Poland’s maritime affairs, set up a task force to investigate solutions to the problem of the Franken. Environmentalists are putting their hopes in financial help from the European Union to fund a full salvage operation. But for now, the environmetal time bomb continues to tick.
But those Polish campaigners may have reason to be optimistic. And it’s all thanks to the tale of another warship. Indeed, the U.S.S. Kittiwake is an American vessel decommissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1994. That year marked 48 years of its service as a submarine rescue ship. However, as it was no longer of use, the craft was scuttled in the Caribbean in January 2011.
After the Kittiwake’s launch in 1945, the ship saw service in the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. Following its decommissioning, the Cayman Islands government later bought the craft. But this wasn’t because local authorities had decided to start their own navy. And not least because, as a British Protectorate, the islands can rely on the Royal Navy for defense.
In fact, the Cayman Islands authorities didn’t buy the Kittiwake with defense in mind at all. The ship was, instead, turned into an underwater feature that would attract sea life. So in January 2011 the vessel was deliberately sunk in a marine reserve, just off Grand Cayman Island.
These days, the Kittiwake is not only a haven for sea life, it’s also a major attraction for recreational divers. But one man has a particular angle on the vessel’s reuse. He’s Jon Glatstein, who served aboard it in the 1980s. He actually traveled to Grand Cayman to watch his former ship disappear into the waters of the Caribbean.
“This is the first time I’ve seen the ship in 25 years and she’s in pretty rough shape,” Glatstein told the Huffington Post in January 2011. “But she’s been serving divers all her life and now she’s going to continue doing just that. That’s got to be a whole lot better than getting melted down for razor blades,” he added.
However, encouraging as the story of the Kittiwake is, the future of the Franken is far from certain. Speaking to the Maritime Herald in July 2018, Dr. Benedykt Hac from Gdansk’s Maritime Institute said, “We have limited time for action. It can only be a year, maybe ten years, but probably not longer.” We can only hope the Franken’s deadly cargo is neutralized before it’s too late.