THE DISCOVERY OF FRANCESCO CRISPI AND HMS SARACEN
First approach - May 2013
In my wanderings through the Tyrrhenian Sea I had discovered some ancient Roman wrecks in Corsican waters.
Knowing that they must be declared to the authorities, I had contacted the DRASSM, the French equivalent of our Superintendence for Cultural Heritage.
They had been surprised and pleased with the findings. These were interesting mounds of amphorae and other objects at great depth.
The person in charge of the waters around Corsica is Franca C
I had the opportunity to meet her and show my special equipment.
Quite unexpectedly, in May 2013 DRASSM called me for a collaboration.
I learned that Frenchmen were planning to make a documentary on the liberation of Corsica from German-Italian occupation and that in 1943 an English submarine, the HMS SARACEN, had played a part in smuggling spies to the island's shores. The submarine was then sunk in those same waters. The DRASSM had welcomed the request to find it and gave an announcement to the English authorities. The news that the French were going to move with their new ship for archaeological research made the rounds of the English press, arousing a lively interest across the Channel, as of usually happens to them for heroic events that involved English ships and crews. André Malraux's first mission was a failure. The British were told that bad weather had prevented the operation, in fact they had realized that the equipment at their disposal was unsuitable for carrying out deep searches. A few months earlier I had found the wreck of the ARMORED ROMA at 1200m depth in very difficult conditions and perhaps also thanks to this the DRASSM thought of me. At the beginning of May 2013, therefore, with a good sea, the DAEDALUS, me and an assistant, were ready to embark Franca and other DRASSM personnel and to start recording the seabed with my special sonar. There was a sinking point mentioned by archival documents and we began to "pass" over and around. No contact appeared on the point, so the searches progressively widened, and here a dark shadow appeared on the screen, the size of the object turned out to be congruous, so we decided to determine its exact position with orthogonal sonar passages. It was "only" at a depth of 170m. On board a little excitement snaked among our guests: Franca, the technician Denis of DRASSM, a photographer, a cameramen, all curious to observe my means and my maneuvers, which by now had the reputation of being unconventional, as well as very effective. I with pleasure showed and explained all the modalities, hoping to arouse interest in view of further developments. It should be noted that the André Malraux has a crew of seven, while on the DAEDALUS, thanks to the automation and simplicity of the instruments, I rely on a single sailor or my wife but eventually I can also work alone. Then I placed the DAEDALUS on the vertical of the detected point, I started the auxiliary propeller controlled by the computer to keep the boat stationary on the point automatically, counteracting the action of wind and current and not moving that minimally (it is called "dynamic positioning”), leaving me free to take care of the remaining operations. To find out if that shadow of the sonar was the submarine we were looking for, there was only one way: to go and see. Hence the small robot PLUTO PALLA intervened, also like the sonar and everything else, including the catamaran, designed and built in an autonomous and original way. PLUTO PALLA is a small spherical-shaped vehicle, very manageable with its 60kg weight and the ability to descend into the abyss to over two thousand meters, it carries a very perfected electronic eye to the depths to see objects illuminated by its powerful lighthouse. A thin cable reaches the surface and connects it to a control panel in the station of the DAEDALUS catamaran, from where the four propellers can be operated to navigate in the depths and where detailed camera images are received. PLUTO PALLA therefore reached the bottom, a scan around him with his small sonar detected a large object at about twenty meters. It should be noted that in depths of over one hundred meters the darkness becomes total and the powerful lighthouse is able to illuminate only a few meters. The vehicle sailed towards the object on its sonar and out of the darkness a shape emerged that took the shape of the bow of a ship. It was therefore a ship and not the submarine. A quick reconnaissance pointed out that it was a small ship armed with cannon and torpedo launchers. We wasted no time in learning more, we recovered the vehicle and continued the jokes. With the research sonar of the DAEDALUS in five days we explored hundreds of square kilometers of seabed, we found two other ships and various other objects, but not the Saracen. It should be noted that the wrecks on the bottom are obstacles on which trawling nets get caught and torn and then remain dangling on the wreck. Then there are the longlines. These are very long nylon lines with hundreds of hooks lowered near the bottom to catch tuna and swordfish. These threads also get entangled in the wrecks, tear and remain numerous and stretched everywhere. For a vehicle like the PLUTO PALLA that comes close to filming and taking photographs, the wires and nets are a serious danger if they get hooked to some part of it or even wrap around the propellers. The PLUTO PALLA risks staying at the bottom and getting lost. On the second of the recognized ships there was a gash in the hull that seemed to have been caused by an explosion, our vehicle came too close to film better and as I retreated I realized that it had been hooked to a line. A shiver ran through me. The camera is not designed to observe the body of the vehicle, you cannot see the point where it is hooked. Trying not to lose my temper, I tried to make measured movements now on one side, now on the other, up and down, but nothing, the PLUTO was always held. I tried to back away and saw a line of longline in front of the camera stretch. It was a tenuous indication. I tried again to back down, keeping the thread taut and turning left and right. Without result. I was really starting to get nervous. The vehicle still had the ballast stone I thought of letting it go and trying to come up by force by pulling the fiber optic communication cable. Having said that, I activated the ballast release and all the way back: I immediately saw the image of the wreck that was moving away, the PLUTO was free. What a sigh of relief! Evidently it was the stone that got entangled in the longline.
These are the practical experiences of use that teach how much can have escaped the calculations at the table and this is how the tools improve and then become able to face any situation. On the last day, Michel L'H, the director of DRASSM, arrived on board.
Other passes, another contact, sending of PLUTO PALLA to see and discovery of a tanker shuttle, a barge, with the name still clearly visible: “Vetor Quattro”. Everyone realized that my instruments easily explored the bottom and were able to detect and identify objects even smaller than a submarine. If we had not found anything, it meant that the alleged point was not very reliable and that we would have to look elsewhere.
SARACEN was beginning to be a mystery.
Second act - September 2013
After the SARACEN, me, my wife Gabriella and the DAEDALUS set sail to the Gulf of Asinara to discover the bow section of the ARMORED ROME wreck and to lay a memorial plaque on behalf of the Italian Navy. At the end of the season, on the way back to La Spezia, I asked Franca C if the DRASSM would have had something against it if I continued the search for the SARACEN: they gave me the green light. Gabriella had returned to Trieste from her elderly parents and I embarked my brother Claudio as an aid and went for a few days to do the boring "pass" sonar. First a beautiful mound of Roman amphorae at almost 500m depth, then another pile of wrecks with cylindrical iron objects that could make us think of bombs, then another pile of large stones but which on closer examination turned out to be a load of obsidian from a Roman ship of the first century AD. Finally, a beautiful Roman shipwreck of the second century BC at 440m with a load of Punic amphorae, rodias and some elegantly made jugs. Pass profitable but no trace of SARACEN. Almost at the end of our week of searching the sonar track suddenly appeared an echo of an odd shape, dimensions compatible with our target but the intensity too weak for a steel wreck. The location, however, was not far from the alleged point. We launched the PLUTO PALLA on a 400m bottom.
The vehicle's rattle also showed a ship silhouette with two tapered ends and something thicker in the center, just as a submarine might look like.
The expectation grew. A ship shape emerged from the darkness but all a flattened debris on the bottom, well ... Further towards the center of the ship a vertical structure appeared with the appearance of a turret, it also had a conduit in the center as if it were a passage to access the interior of the submarine. I told myself that perhaps we had found it and I imagined that the wreck could be the result of the implosion of the hull which could not withstand the depth of 400m.
We took photographs and the video of the reconnaissance. On the bottom I saw a muddy object with round glass windows, which I interpreted as remains of the periscope.
Everything could look alike but there were no unequivocal elements.
Back home, I contacted Franca C of DRASSM and sent her a selection of photographs.
They too were skeptical. They told me they would send the photos to England for identification by the Royal Navy. A few months later they told me that the wreck had not been identified as that of the SARACEN.
Last act - May- July 2015
Reading the history of the SARACEN I learned of the numerous successes of his short career, including the disastrous (for us Italians) sinking of the troop transport steamship Francesco CRISPI, which took place between Bastia and Elba only four months before the submarine finally ended its raids. hit and forced to sink by two of our corvettes. Therefore, even the CRISPI is a wreck to be searched for.
Here it is appropriate to clarify once again my position as a “wreck hunter”.
The origin of my activities is the technical experimentation of new discoveries for the exploration of the seabed. If I pass the sonar at random on a seabed and find a contact that then turns out to be a pile of amphorae, I have made a fortuitous find.
If, on the other hand, I systematically search an area in search of SARACEN , this is a targeted search that requires the authorization of the Authorities. The boundary between the two cases legally speaking is clear, in practice much more nuanced. A wreck that is known to exist but cannot be found becomes a technical incentive to invent new tools to find it. So it had happened for ROMA. But for SARACEN it is still different.
Given that Michel L'H has expressly authorized me to continue the research, the depths of the SARACEN are easy for my sonar and the reason for the failure becomes mysterious and must be looked for elsewhere.
The first idea is: to broaden the field.
I have already covered the whole marine area between Corsica and the Island of Capraia from the Cap Corse down to almost Bastia. I miss an area between Bastia and Elba where CRISPI could also be found.
Enlarging the area I had found five other sunken ships and six Roman wrecks: it is difficult to contradict those who qualify me as a “wreck seeker” or to think that my aircraft are not efficient.
This 2015 is the current summer. I have to, I say I have to, come to a conclusion, it is not acceptable that SARACEN escapes me is becoming a matter of pride. As I had already done for the ROMA, here too I reviewed all the sonar recordings and I performed a painstaking work of cataloging the contacts, if in doubt I had missed some. Nothing new, except half a dozen minor contacts like Roman amphorae to be identified as soon as I wish.
Another point to clarify is the wrecks already found and summarily inspected and excluded: I also went to review their video recordings to be sure I hadn't mistaken them.
During a second vision of the false Saracen I saw, among the wrecks, pieces of wood whose presence makes it impossible to exclude it is the submarine.
So we come to the present. Suddenly, as always happens, a very clear signal of presence is outlined, the depth is 500 meters, the object appears more than 160m long and also has its shadow, so it is high on the bottom. It is located 2 miles south of the point presumed by CRISPI, it is probably him, even if it is said that he broke while sinking, while this one look whole. The sea is calm, we immediately make the orthogonal passes to position it exactly, and we prepare the dive. PLUTO PALLA descends and lands on the bow of the ship. It is a favorable point for recognition. With the usual prudence PLUTO approaches the left cutter, follows the edge until you see a grommet of a particular shape and then reaches the bow which is exactly in the Titanic style that he used at the time of the construction in studded metal sheets.
I direct the PLUTO to go around the bow and see the right side.
We are almost on the bottom or on a bulge of the bottom when we see the cubia and the anchor.
Incredible! The bow sank into the mud up to the height of the anchor, which means a good ten meters. The anchor, however, is strange it looks like a large grapnel with four marre, three are clearly visible, different from the anchor Hall of the vintage photographs of the ship we have.
I go up to the gunwale and sail towards the stern.
Again the fairlead then the edge descends with a curve to give rise to a railing parapet. And the rail has 5 running tubes as in the photo.
I go down a little below and I see some portholes… but yes I'm in the row under the foredeck just like in the photo. Two of the portholes are closer together than the others but the photo of the ship is not very clear for comparison.
On deck we also see the end of a bigo, a load spike, a windsock broken and lying down, we see the anchor winch and, interestingly, the wreckage of the bow parasol frame well illustrated in the photo.
One more cautious stroll then I go back up: I think I have sufficient elements for unequivocal identification.
In fact, his friend Ugo, from Trieste where the ship was built, found among others a beautiful photograph where you can see the area visited under water. The pair of neighboring portholes is there and even the fairleads are theirs: we found the Francesco CRISPI.
I have forgotten an important detail: upon returning after CRISPI we head towards the Capraia, crossing sideways areas already explored with the sonar and at a certain point where there should have been nothing an echo appears.
The point falls in the small overlap of two previous passes, one to the north and one to the south. The boat's search sonar sees very well objects in profile, with a certain inclination, the targets that are right under the boat are much less visible.
I hadn't noticed this. It will therefore be necessary to review some areas where there may be the doubt of not having seen. A further demonstration that from practice new rules are born to correctly perform the “lawn mowing”, that is, knowing how to arrange the sonar passages so as not to leave any place unexplored.
Gabriella also leaves me from Portoferraio to go to Trieste with her family.
The anticyclone continues to dominate. Calm seas, little wind, great heat.
I am alone on board but it does not matter, I immediately go to explore the dubious overlaps with sonar. So I spend the day until a dark spot appears on the track that takes the shape of a cigar. And it is a few miles southwest of the alleged point, in a position fully compatible with the documents. An emotion that is difficult to describe takes me. After two years of unsuccessful attempts and in the midst of the impression of discouragement and inexplicable mystery, of those who no longer know where to turn their heads, it is now as if I saw saracen written on the cigar speck. It could be another of the countless wrecks already found, sure, but I feel the solution to the mystery is there. It is late and I return to Capraia, but the weather will still be favorable tomorrow until noon.
I leave at five in the morning, an hour later I'm on the spot with PLUTO PALLA ready to get off. I'm alone on board and I manage, the only problem alone could be the obligation to deal with unexpected events, but everything goes smoothly. PLUTO reached the bottom dragged by the usual stone at a depth of 420 meters. He looks around with his sonar and immediately detects a shape only 20m away, the reliefs and descents are always quite precise, from the dark I first see the white spots illuminated by the lighthouse then a bow structure appears, not of ship but of submarine, in fact it is a little lying on the right and the bow on the left shows three launch tubes of the torpedoes: finally here it is, the SARACEN! From the bow I see the small covered deck free from danger and I follow it. I see the horizontal rudders, then a locker without cover with the anchor winch and the hatch for loading torpedoes. A little further on, the barrel of the 100mm gun appears, wrapped in a net and with large bushes of white coral that almost completely hide the carriage. Even the turret that I find just behind the cannon is almost hidden among the white coral. Going up on the turret I see two tubes, the inside is smooth without rust, it is bronze, I take the PLUTO to look inside and here is the real periscope.
I am so caught up in the maneuvers to make videos and take photographs that I do not notice that outside the DAEDALUS, from my control position, the wind has increased and is taking the boat away, it has exceeded the ability of dynamic positioning to counter it.
The fiber optic cable connecting the PLUTO to the boat stretches and pulls the vehicle away from the wreck.
Don't worry, the mission ends here, I operate the automatic winch that rewinds the cable, PLUTO is pulled up to the surface and in a few minutes I get him back on board.
Well, very happy, the goals of the season have been achieved.
It is not even midday when I drop anchor at Capraia. I've already called Gabriella and she too takes a deep sigh of relief.
I immediately open the PLUTO to retrieve the videos and photos from the camera. Then I start writing e-mails. First I send the discovery report to Pamela Gambogi. Yes, because the site is closer to Capraia than to Corsica, then in Italian waters. To Franca C I send the news of the discovery to be correct, without specifying the position as the wreck is not subject to French jurisdiction. Shortly after, I receive compliments from him and from Michel L'H for my "obstinacy".
Then Terry. To him the news, the approximate position, the most significant photographs and a description of the wreck that I qualify as “beautifully adorned by white corals”, a happy phrase (it doesn't happen often) that the next day I find quoted by all the English newspapers. The Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport examined the photos and immediately confirmed that it is HMS SARACEN. There they are all very sensitive to the motives of pride and a unity with an aggressive and fortunate past makes the news.