John Chatterton is a commercial diver, a scuba instructor, a dive boat Captain and a member of the Explorers Club. Seventeen years ago he made his first New Jersey wreck dive. Since then, technical scuba diving and deep wreck exploration have become his passion. In 1994 he was part of the international team who became the first technical scuba divers on the RMS Lusitania, off the coast of Ireland, and later went to Federal Court to dispute the wreck’s ownership.
His deep wreck discoveries include New Jersey’s Mystery U-Boat (the U869), World War II’s first casualty in American waters (the Norness), the World War I oil tanker Sebastian and the World War I passenger freighter SS Carolina, sunk by the German submarine U-151. Most recently, he was a member of the British led expedition to the HMHS Britannic in Greece, where he was the first diver to dive the wreck using a rebreather.
The Britannic/98 Expedition
The ship was one the fateful trio of great White Star liners; TITANIC, OLYMPIC and BRITANNIC. As the larger sister ship to the Titanic, she is important in an historic and archaeological sense. Moreover, she remains relatively undisturbed, and offers one of the only available glimpses to the magnificence of the Trans-Atlantic Super Liners of the turn of the century.
HMHS Britannic was lost on only her 6th voyage while serving as a hospital off the island of Kea, about 40 miles south east of Athens, Greece on the 21 November 1916. She was on route to Mudros on the Greek island of Lemnos to pick up Allied WWI casualties bound for Southampton, England. Of the 1,134 people on board, 41 were injured and 30 perished in the Kea channel. Tragically, the majority of those who died were killed when their lifeboats were sucked under by the still-turning propeller as the stern of the Britannic started to rise out of the sea.
The most likely cause of the explosion that ripped open her bow compartment was a mine laid by U73 as she passed through the area on the morning of the 28th October 1916. However this still remains unconfirmed despite the efforts of the previous expeditions.
As with the loss of the Titanic, the Britannic sank after sustaining damage that she theoretically should have been able to survive with little difficulty. More surprisingly she sank in only 55 minutes, which was 3 times faster than the Titanic despite the many additional safety features that were included into her design following the Titanic disaster.
The Britannic lay in the Kea channel undisturbed for 60 years until Jacques Cousteau ran an expedition to locate her from the Calypso in 1975. She was eventually found 6.75 nautical miles away from its charted position, which was quite a surprise due to its proximity to the Island of Kea. Did the British Admiralty have something to hide when they originally charted her position? How could it have been so wrong? There are many theories surrounding the reason why the Britannic sank so quickly. These range from coal bunker explosions, German sabotage, to a deliberate sinking by the British to gain sympathy from the Americans and entice them into the war. The real reason why she sank is still not known. However, the most likely cause is thought to be that she hit a mine laid by U73. Technically she should have been able to withstand this single impact due to her enhanced water tight bulkheads (additional, stronger and higher compared to the Titanic). However, it is thought that the nurses may have opened many of the lower deck portholes to air the wards prior to picking up her next load of wounded soldiers at Mudros, and effectively negated the safety aspects of the bulkheads.
The Discovery & Identification of THE U-WHO
On September 2, 1991 the late Captain Bill Nagle and John Chatterton led a team of experienced amateur shipwreck divers on an expedition to explore an unknown wreck at a site approximately 60 miles east of Point Pleasant, New Jersey. This site was originally suggested to Captain Nagle by a local fishing boat captain who was curious about the site he had been fishing for years. Although several experienced offshore fishermen were discretely fishing the site, it was relatively unknown, and had never before been visited by divers.
Upon descending to the wreck, divers discovered what appeared to be the remains of a submarine in approximately 230 feet (77 meters) of salt water. The general appearance was that of a World War II era wreck. On subsequent dives it was discovered that there were human remains aboard the wreck.
Cursory research of area charts and historical records gave no clue as to the wreck’s identity. In only a short time the submarine was confirmed to be a World War II German U-boat. It was relatively easy to rule out the possibility that the wreck was one of the two U-boats reportedly lost in the region. The reported sinking of the U-550 (approximately 150 miles north and east of the dive site on April 16, 1944) and that of the U-521 (approximately 110 miles south of the dive site on March 17, 1943) were well documented with submarine survivors. The possibility that the wreck we had located at 39º34′ North Latitude, 73º02′ West Longitude, was either the U-521 or the U-550 was virtually impossible.
The identity of the wreck was indeed a mystery. The divers nicknamed the wreck the “U-Who” and actively sought to identify the submarine and the men whose remains were still aboard.
Chatterton, over a six year period with the assistance of numerous other divers, historians, and war veterans, found evidence, which positively identifies the wreck of a submarine located approximately sixty miles off the New Jersey coast at 39º 34′ North Latitude, 73º 02′ West Longitude, as the World War II German Submarine U-869. The U-869 was built at the Deschimag shipyard in Bremen and commissioned into the German Navy on January 26, 1944.
Prior to this date, it has been universally agreed that the U-869 was sunk in action at 34º 30′ North Latitude, 8º 30′ North Longitude, by the US Destroyer Escort Fowler and the French Submarine Chaser L’Indiscret on February 28, 1945. The reported sinking of the U-869 at this location off Gibraltar is incorrect.