As the climate crisis causes water levels to drop, riverbeds to dry up and glaciers to melt, artifacts such as old warships, an ancient city and human remains have emerged. This story is part of “Climate Artifacts”, a mini-series telling the stories behind the people, places and objects that have been discovered due to drought and warming temperatures.
Around midnight on September 6, 1944, a series of loud explosions awoke Vojislav Lapadatovic from his sleep in the Serbian village of Prahovo.
The 20-year-old, who had rested on a haystack, rushed to the river, where for several days Prahovo had been welcoming unusual visitors.
In the closing months of World War II, the Soviet Union swept through central and eastern Europe, its Red Army pushing Nazi Germany back towards Berlin while sweeping south into Romania to secure the Balkans.
Fleeing from his advance, the remaining ships of the German Black Sea Fleet had traveled some 860 km (534 miles) up the Danube, where they stalled at Prahovo, unable to make further progress against enemy forces.
“I ran the 150 meters (nearly 500 feet) to the Danube bank,” Lapadatovic told the German magazine. The Spiegel in 2003. “The Germans sank their fleet, including the huge three-storey hospital ship for the wounded at the front.”
The commander of the fleet, Rear-Admiral Paul Willy-Zieb, had deemed his situation desperate and had ordered the destruction of hundreds of ships to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Soviets or their allies.
The Germans unloaded what cargo and weapons they could before scuttling the ships in a zigzag formation to obstruct enemy ships.
Shipwrecks are littered along a 43 km (26 mile) stretch of the Danube, Europe’s second longest river, which crosses 10 countries from its source in southern Germany to the Black Sea in Romania. The greatest concentration of these wrecks is found near Prahovo, where at least 40 lying on the river bed. Their remains resurface periodically in times of intense drought, including earlier this year, when the level of the Danube reached historic lows amid a prolonged drought across Europe.
When the water level drops, some of the rusted, twisted and broken hulls come out of the sandbars, their guns and command decks are visible again after nearly 80 years.
A sitting duck
Although the Black Sea was not a major naval theater during the war, Germany sent several hundred small ships to the Inland Sea. They were mainly used to supply the German army via captured Ukrainian ports after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
Too small to ever confront the much larger Soviet fleet in the region, it nevertheless played an important role in the siege and capture of the strategic port of Sevastopol in Crimea in 1942.
The fleet’s last mission began in August 1944, when the Soviet Union’s Second Jassy-Kishinev Offensive, a thrust across the front lines in northern Romania, surrounded and crushed the German Sixth Army, opening the way to a complete takeover of the Balkans.
Under increasing threat from Soviet bombers, the Nazi high command had ordered a complete retreat of all remaining ships in the Black Sea and lower Danube, hoping they could sail a course of about 2,000 km (1,242 miles). ) up the river to safety in Austria.
A battle group was formed under Zieb, a career naval officer who had led the German shipyard in Bucharest, to attempt the ambitious operation.
According to an account by archaeologist and historian Gordana Karović, the heavily armed convoy, up to 25 km (15 miles) long, consisted of 170 to 250 naval craft, including freighters, patrol boats, tankers , landing ships and a hospital ship. , the Bamberg. More than 4,000 were on board, including at least 1,500 civilians.
On August 23, two days before Zieb’s fleet set sail across the Danube, King Michael of Romania successfully deposed Nazi puppet leader Ion Antonescu and immediately ended his country’s allegiance to the powers of the Axis.
Romanian troops, who had been Germany’s allies days earlier, then harassed the convoy with artillery, sinking dozens of ships and killing hundreds on board at Cernavodă in the east of the country. , and in Calafat, near the Serbian border to the west.
After arriving at Prahovo on September 2, landing and artillery ships made four attempts to break through further up the river, but were repulsed with heavy casualties. Zieb used the village airfield to fly to Belgrade, where he learned that the Red Army had taken the Iron Gates, a steep gorge that controls the passage of traffic on the Danube.
Cut off from German forces in Serbia, the fleet fell easy prey to the reinforced Soviet and Romanian armies, which controlled the left bank of the Danube.
Residents were ordered to carry weapons off the ships using makeshift ramps before they were scuttled, Lapadatovic told Der Spiegel, and were rewarded with several tons of figs. According another witnessVojislav Janković, German soldiers shouted “Heil Hitler” as they sank the ships.
Some troops and equipment were evacuated from Prahovo station, while others marched on foot to Belgrade, which remained in German hands until Yugoslav partisans of Josip Broz Tito captured it on October 20. .
The wrecks of the Black Sea Fleet, many of which contained munitions or explosives, have endangered traffic on the Danube since their sinking. Hundreds of cruise ships pass each year and can face delays of several hours due to obstruction.
Although the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia retired several dozen ships after the war, most today remain exactly where they sank.
In recent years, the Serbian government has tried to finally lift the obstruction.
Researchers have identified 23 vessels that impede navigation at low tide, when they narrow the passable waterway from 180 meters to 100 meters (590 feet to 328 feet), significantly slowing river traffic. Those that come out of the waterline at low tide do so because they were sunk on top of each other by the Germans, said a government official.
Although authorities believe they have located all of the remaining unexploded mines, many have yet to be extracted due to the dangers and high costs involved. Serbia has launched a call for tenders for the recovery project in March, which he estimates would cost 29 million euros ($28.8 million).
According to Serbia’s Radio Television channel, a botched takeover by Romania in the 1980s led to an explosion that killed 10 people.
A number of questions remain around the sinking of the German fleet. The large hospital ship Bamberg has not yet been identified among the wreckage, although several witness sources claimed to have seen it sink, with possibly dead or injured on board.
It is also unclear how many of the thousands of soldiers and civilians aboard the convoy managed to return safely to German-held territory in Serbia, by train or on foot.
“We sabotaged the project with the supporters,” Lapadatovic said. “The train derailed and crashed into a canal. Most of the passengers died.
Zieb, who escaped by plane, was awarded the German Gold Cross upon his return home and later became director of the Wilhelmshaven shipyard, the main German naval base in the North Sea.
After Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945, Zieb was held down by the occupying British forces, who demanded that senior officers maintain order among the German crews maintaining the ships.
The final task of the commander who sank the German Black Sea Fleet was to prevent the sabotage or scuttling of what remained of the Kriegsmarine before his ships could be divided by the Allies as spoils of war.