WW2 ammo shipwrecked off Bell Island to surface next week

Intact artillery shells that have spent more than seven decades at the bottom of Conception Bay will be brought up from the depths by military divers starting next week, in an operation expected to last 10 days and end with the ordnance being blasted apart on dry land.

The ordnance is aboard four ore carriers that sank in 1942 off Bell Island, the torpedoed targets of German U-boats during the Second World War off Bell Island. The ships have been underwater ever since, largely intact save for the anemones, crabs and other sea creatures that have moved in. 

But according to a frequent diver in the area, time and seawater has begun to take their toll on the wrecks.

"The steel in the ship is deteriorating over time. It's rusting. So things are starting to become exposed that weren't before," said Neil Burgess, who is also the president of the Shipwreck Preservation Society of NL.

Those "things" include the unexploded ordnance that Burgess has seen on his dives, a few pieces scattered on ship decks, foot-long pieces of pipe stuffed with explosives. 

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"Nobody in their right mind goes and plays with them, but you don't want anybody getting it in their head to collect a souvenir. Because those things are still dangerous, for sure," he said.

Burgess estimated there are about 50 shells aboard each ship, most stored within cabins or steel lockers. The military has not specified a number, and said it will only know once its divers have begun removal.

'Extraordinary' wrecks

In a press release, the Department of National Defence said the ordnance won't be detonated underwater, so as to preserve the wrecks and local marine life.

Checking out the wrecks is a huge draw for divers around the world, said Burgess, who puts it in his top five shipwrecks worldwide to dive himself.

"They're extraordinary. They're so intact. They're so huge," he told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show, estimating each ship is more than 120 metres long.

"It takes a whole dive just to swim around the perimeter of the wreck, and there's so much to see."

Neil Burgess/Submitted

Those sights include some sober ones, as three of the wrecks double as the graves of sailors. In all, 70 men were killed when the ships sank.

"There are things like shoes, and personal effects. And that's pretty sobering when you see it, because you realize that was probably worn by a sailor when the ship was sunk," he said.

Dry land detonations

Burgess met with military personnel prior to the announcement of the removal project, providing divers with maps of the ships' interiors and research he gleaned from Library and Archives Canada about the artillery aboard.

That information is crucial, he said, as navigating the underwater corridors and cabins requires skilled divers.

"It's very technical, because there's sediment in there and one wrong fin kick and you can't see anything," he said.

Paula Gale/CBC

 The dives will be done during daylight hours, starting July 15, with the work expected to last until July 24.

The RCMP will cordon off a zone around the divers for public safety as they bring the ordnance to the surface beginning in the early afternoon and lasting until the early evening.

The shells will then be detonated on dry land, at the Cambrai Rifle Range in Makinsons, with a nearby segment of the Veteran's Memorial Highway closed during those explosions.

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