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Warbirds: Diving Croatia's Sunken World War II Treasures

Croatia's Vis Island is a graveyard for all manner of combat aircraft, and a gold mine for adventurous divers.
By Steve Jones | Published On February 22, 2019
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Warbirds: Diving Croatia's Sunken World War II Treasures

^^D^^istant memories come flooding back as a familiar outline emerges beneath me. From 130 feet, I can already see the distinct wing shape of a B-17 Flying Fortress, the mighty World War II bomber I built models of as a child.

Back then I dreamed of one day becoming a pilot, until the sea replaced air as my all-consuming interest. It’s apt that these two passions should converge here in the crystal-clear Adriatic Sea. At 235 feet, we reach the seabed, where this remarkably intact warbird rests on the sand as if it just landed, with scant evidence of the violence of its last flight. Moments pass before I snap out of my awe-inspired stare, ­reminding myself that I’m here to photograph it, and time at this depth is precious. The wingspan is enormous — more than 100 feet — and I can see each wingtip. These very wide, low-mounted wings are probably what saved it from disintegration, allowing it to skim across the water’s surface when it ditched at sea in 1944 after a bombing raid over Slovenia.

Much excitement was generated by the ­discovery of this wreck by Slovenian divers in 2001, and it didn’t take long for Croatian historian Danijel Frka to piece together the full story of this B-17G. On November 6, 1944, the aircraft took off from Italy for its first ­combat mission. While attacking a heavily defended railway junction, co-pilot Ernest Vienneau was mortally wounded by antiaircraft fire; two engines failed. The bomber headed for the nearest friendly base — on the island of Vis — losing a third engine en route and the fourth while circling the airfield; a skilled sea landing allowed the crew to escape in dinghies. The co-pilot went down with the aircraft, where as far as it is known, his remains still rest — a reminder that this is a war grave.

The only major damage is to the crumpled nose, probably from impact with the seabed, parachute material still entangled with torn metal. The top and rear gun turrets are intact, complete with plexiglass now opaque with algal growth. As we swim around the tail, I see the radio operator’s hatch, which once would have housed one of 13 machine guns the B-17 carried for defense, earning it the name Fliegendes Stachelschwein (Flying Porcupine) by the German fighter pilots tasked with shooting them down.

Slowly returning forward, I reach the engines, their propellers completely covered in bright yellow tube sponge. Before starting the long ascent back to the surface, I take one last look at the cockpit where ­Vienneau lost his life.

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The B-24 Liberator and Vassilios T. are among Croatia's sunken fleet.

Steve Jones

Field of Dreams

Many of the crews of damaged aircraft would ­never have survived WWII without this reachable airfield on which they could land their bombers. The ­drama witnessed by this key strategic location contrasts with the tranquility of this charming little island, whose regular visitors include yacht crews meandering along the Dalmatian coastline and families ­looking for a relaxed getaway. Vis is the farthest ­inhabited island from the Croatian mainland, and has only two main settlements: the town of Vis, where the ­ferry docks, and, on the opposite side of the island, Komiža, where most of Vis’ dive operators are located. On the far side of the bay is Manta Diving ­Centre, a family-run business led by Andi Marović, which ­caters to the needs of recreational and technical divers with a state-of-the-art gas-blending station and ­purpose-built boats equipped with lifts.

Not so far away from the B-17, another World War II bomber lies at a much more accessible 130 feet. This long-range B-24J Liberator, known as the “­Tulsamerican,” was discovered by Darko Bojanić in late 2009 — it was the last Liberator built at the Tulsa factory in Oklahoma, resulting in high media interest as the exploits of the aircraft and crew were avidly followed during the war.

croatia teti

The Teti dive site.

Steve Jones

On December 17, 1944, the Tulsamerican took off from Italy as part of a huge 800-aircraft raid, ­encountering a ferocious defense by German fighters, getting badly shot up and losing an engine. The crew headed for Vis, but as they prepared for landing, all the remaining engines failed, and a hard ­water landing tore apart the aircraft, catapulting seven of the crew into the sea and taking three to their deaths below. Unlike the nearby B-17, this wreck is badly damaged — it is indeed a miracle that any of the crew survived. The crushed cockpit lies upside down, though the huge wingspan of the B-24 is ­immediately ­recognizable, as are the engines and upright left undercarriage, whose tire now glows orange with sponge growth. After a short scooter ride across the seabed, we find one of the gun turrets, tossed away from the aircraft during the huge impact. Just ­beyond, the seabed drops off to around 170 feet; ­following Marović’s lead, we encounter a solemn John Dory hovering near a propeller before the entire tail section of the aircraft comes into view.

The Liberator was the most produced U.S. aircraft in history — along with the B-17, it was the mainstay of the U.S. strategic bombing campaign over ­Europe in WWII. It is believed there are at least 10 more ­Liberators lying around Vis waiting to be discovered.

Brioni croatia

The wreck of the Brioni stretches from a depth of 130 feet to 213 feet.

Steve Jones

Ship Shapes

The aircraft wrecks are without a doubt a ­highlight of the diving on Vis, but there are also many ­shipwrecks, several of which are vast and need multiple dives to explore. A 20-minute boat journey from Manta Dive Centre brings us to one of the most popular, the large steamship Vassilios T., which foundered in March 1939 carrying a cargo of coal. On its port side, this wreck lies between 65 and 180 feet, perfect for sport and technical divers. Swimming toward the stern, we see encrusted deck machinery before the ­cavernous holds appear. A mast lies on the seabed, covered in the ­yellow tube sponge Aplysina aerophoba; ­although the bridge itself has disappeared, the remains of the ­funnels can be seen.

As we swim farther, the depth exceeds 160 feet, and the fan-coral-encrusted stern towers above. The large propeller is still attached; as we rise to shallower depths, the colorful walkways make an ideal shelter from the mild current. ­Other wrecks near Komiža include the Fortunal, a fishing boat that lies between 130 and 175 feet on the edge of a drop-off, and the wreck of the Teti, which lies between 15 and 110 feet and is home to large conger and moray eels.

The Ursus was an Italian navy armed tug hit by gunfire from the British submarine Rorqual in ­January 1941. At the time, it was towing a floating pontoon bristling with weaponry; after Ursus caught fire and sank, the pontoon drifted, carrying some of the survivors before it was caught in a storm that led to the deaths of many of the seamen. This tug lies on the opposite side of the island from Komiža and has come to rest lying upright on a slope. The stern is at 150 feet, where the nameplate can be found; along the intact hull there are openings that lead belowdecks. The bow lies at 200 feet; on top of the wreck, a mounted 76 mm (3-inch) gun can be seen.

At a similar depth, one of the very best wrecks on Vis can be found. The Brioni was a steamer that ­survived World War I only to sink near the coast after running aground in 1930 carrying tobacco and wine. This intact, beautiful wreck now lies on its port side between 130 feet at the stern and more than 200 feet at the bow. As we swim to the edge of a drop-off at 45 feet, we can already see the wreck ­below us, stretching into the distance.

The aft davits are covered with the tube sponge that seems to thrive on wrecks in this area, and this adds color to the rusting hulk; swimming forward, the depth gradually increases as we pass an intact bridge, which is still in excellent condition. ­

Penetration into the wreck is possible at ­several points before reaching the visually imposing bow area, around which various species of reef fish have gathered. For our return, the entire length of the ship must be traversed again before we reach the cliff face to begin our ascent and decompression.

Vis has a portfolio of stunning and historically significant wrecks yet has largely remained the domain of the regional clubs that visit year after year. With a passion for deepwater exploration, Marović and his father have continued their hunt for new marks to explore. Since I left the island, they successfully found and dived both another B-24 and a B-17 lying at over 330 feet, a Catalina flying boat at 295 feet, and the large wreck of the SS Michael N. Maris at 230 feet. Vis has many secrets yet to be revealed.

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From left: Tec divers descend on Ursus; Fortunal is a picturesque fishing vessel; Vis also offers colorful walls.

Steve Jones

The Power of the Picture

U.S. Air Force pilot Ernest Vienneau lost his life at the age of 25 on the B-17 featured in this story, his body remaining on the aircraft as it sank, and his grieving family not knowing the exact circumstances that surrounded his loss. However, after one of photographer Steve Jones’ ­images of the wreck was honored in a ­recent Underwater Photographer of the Year competition, a family friend of ­Vienneau’s descendants recognized the name in the caption, and soon ­Vienneau’s nephew Robert was in contact with Jones, who in turn put the family in touch with historian Danijel Frka, who had not only done much research on the wreck, but had also previously met some of the ­surviving crew who were with Vienneau on his last flight. Another member of the ­Vienneau family, Chelsea Carbonell, is featured in the recently released Nova documentary Last B-24, which follows attempts to repatriate the remains of the crew of the nearby Tulsamerican, also featured in this story.

Travel Tip

You can’t fly directly to Vis: The ­nearest airport is in Split, which has direct flights from London, Frankfurt and other travel hubs. From the airport you’ll need a 30-minute taxi ride to reach the car ferry to Vis, which takes another two hours. A bus meets the ferry, taking you to your final destination, Komiža, on the other side of the island. Or, keep it simple by hiring a car at the airport for your stay. Hotel Bisevo is a five-minute walk from the dive center and offers single rooms for about $55 per night.

Need to Know

When to Go: The season runs from April to November. Rough seas make diving outside these times difficult, so the dive center closes for the winter.

Dive Conditions: Visibility is good to excellent, normally between 40 feet to more than 100 feet. Surface water temperatures range from 70 to 77 degrees F but drop to 65 degrees F below 40 feet. Trilaminate drysuits with a medium-weight underlayer are recommended for technical dives; 5 to 7 mm wetsuits are fine for recreational dives. There is generally very little current on these sites.

Operator: Manta Diving Centre caters to both recreational and deep rebreather diving, but notify them in advance of your requirements.

Price: Starting at $35 for a single dive, expect additional fees for specific wrecks, gases and night dives.