Gavin Anderson is blown away by the wreck of the Breda in Oban.
The Breda is one of the best-known wrecks in the Oban area, but GAVIN ANDERSON had never logged a decent dive on her. That all changed last year…
There was a soft glow of light filtering down through the emerald green water. My descent had taken me in just behind the aft accommodation near the stern, the most complete and colourful part of the wreck due to the accumulations of plumose anemones. I knew I’d be landing close to hold number five, which I soon found and carefully dropped down into. Facing me was a wall of cement bags piled high on top of each other. Once they had been protected beneath the deck and kept dry for their destination in India. Now they were solidified and formed into a complete wall which reached right up to deck level.
Visibility was good, I could see a good ten metres - not bad considering the last time I’d dived the wreck, I’d barely had two metres. In fact, following a few perhaps unlucky dives in similar conditions, I simply hadn’t been inspired to visit the wreck again. That was until now! A call from a friend, Shane Wasik from Dive Oban (www.diveoban.com), alerted me to perfect conditions and a chance to do a couple of dives on her early last year. The last time I’d dived the wreck I’d been a singlecylinder diver and slightly stressed and concerned about the conditions. Now, having progressed via a twinset to eventually a rebreather, I felt amazingly chilled. The visibility was great and there was a peaceful silence on the wreck.
Easing myself back up and onto deck level again, I headed off towards the mid-section of the wreck. Swimming alongside, some large pollock and ballan wrasse weaved their way through various holes and wreckage. After more than 70 years underwater, the wreck has become a beautiful reef crammed with marine life. Swathes of orange and white plumose anemones grew out from winches, along ventilation shafts on masts and along the edges of the wooden decking. Alongside them, dead man’s fingers, sea squirts, multi-coloured feather stars and clusters of peacock worms were competing for every inch of space.
Passing very close to a pretty ballan wrasse, its large orange eyes half watching me and half watching where she is going, I reckoned I was already halfway to the bow. I had planned to swim back from the bow to stern along the deck again, so I was finning at a good pace. Dropping off the side of the wreck, I wanted to have a look at the hull and in doing so, I was reminded of this wreck’s sheer size. Looking up and down, great masses of peacock worms gently filtered the water for small scraps of plankton. In among them and especially just below deck level, huge plumose anemones hung at various angles also trapping passing food. There were dead man’s fingers and the odd small crab and spider crab hanging by their back legs. There is loads to see and take in.
At over 120 metres long and nearly 18 metres wide, the Breda is a substantial wreck and being at last able to see her in good conditions was fantastic. She is totally intact and rests upright on a silty bottom in between 30m at her stern and 24m at her bow. There’s rarely any current to speak off, so when conditions are good, diving on her is both easy and relaxing.
To get the best conditions, it helps to dive the wreck early in the morning before other divers have stirred up the bottom. Situated within a sheltered bay very close to the tourist town of Oban, she is a very popular dive.
Launched in December 1921, the Breda was a Dutch steamship travelling back and forth from the Netherlands on various routes until war broke out and in May 1940, she escaped to Britain. There she was placed under the control of the P&O Line, and armed with a single 4.7-inch (120mm) gun. On the morning of 20 December 1940, she was at anchor off the Oban Road, part of a convoy bound for Bombay, when a group of Henkell 111 bombers flying from Stavanger, Norway, singled out the Breda unleashing four 250kg bombs down on to her. Although seemingly on target, amazingly they all missed. However, the force of the explosions ruptured one of the ship’s water inlet pipes, her engine room
“Descending into hold number two, I could see from one end of the hold to the other, and the ladders on the other side leading down into hold number three”
quickly flooded, and all power was soon lost.
She was carrying 3,000 tons of cement, 175 tons of tobacco and cigarettes, three Hawker and 30 de Havilland Tiger Mouth biplanes, Army lorries, Naffi crockery, copper ingots, rubber-soled sandals, banknote paper, ten horses and nine dogs. That night the Breda was taken under tow and beached in shallow water in Ardmucknish Bay so that her cargo could be saved. On reaching shallow water, the horses and dogs were released and helped to swim ashore, but the next day, there was only time for a small part of her remaining cargo to be offloaded before a storm swept her into deeper water where she sank in 24m. Ironically, a few days after the Breda sank, a Sunderland flying boat sunk after hitting one of the horse boxes which had floated right around Kerrera!
In 1943, divers successfully salvaged copper ingots but then the wreck was left and forgotten about, marked at low water by her tall goalpost masts! In 1961, after a request of the Northern Lighthouse Board, the Royal Navy wire swept the wreck at 10m, removing her bridge funnel and cutting off her masts, and for a few years she was largely forgotten about again, but then in 1966, she was rediscovered by divers from the Edinburgh BSAC club.
Following their first dives, other clubs and divers started to dive her regularly. In those early days, divers would have been able to see her huge manganese bronze propeller still intact, but in 1968, after a huge amount of work from a local clam diver called Dave Tye, helped by Colin Whitton and Norman O’neil, working for the wreck’s then-owner Jack O’neil, eventually raised it, realising £2,500. Dave also went on to salvage the valuable degaussing material and in the 1970s, new owners salvaged her engine room condensers and other parts. More superstructure was removed by explosive charges to make her holds more accessible and, in 1975, the Royal Navy successfully raised three of the De Haviland Tiger Moth engines from holds one and two. At some point, the stern gun was also removed by the Navy.
Over the years, though, divers have found all sorts of small stuff from sandals to crockery and even a small roll of propaganda film footage. Today you are more likely to find a missing yellow rebreather back or a delayed SMB and reel usually lying on the sea bottom, but you never know, you may still find something of interest even after all this time and thousands of divers passing over the wreck.
As I reached the impressive V-shaped bow adorned in dead man’s fingers, plumose anemones and sea squirts, I slowly ascended over it and back on to deck level once more. Past the entrance to hold number one – very silted and not recommended to enter - I hovered over a tangle of hoses and debris lying in a heap. The broken remains of the forward broken goalpost mast can also be seen not far from here. Descending into hold number two, I could see from one end of the hold to the other, and the ladders on the other side leading down into hold number three. In front of me were several tyres and I thought I’d found the remains of one of the trucks.
Back up on deck on the starboard side, I did find the chassis and tyres of one of the trucks. Into hold number three, I joined a shoal of pollock and swam over some of the remaining aircraft engine parts straddled by a steel king post which has collapsed from the back of the bridge. Back on deck I then explored the area in front of where the bridge once stretched up four levels. Following the wire sweep, much of it has ended up in a crumpled heap, some of it on deck, some over the side of the ship and on the seafloor. Swimming past a large circular hole in the deck where her funnel once proudly stood, long since rotted away, I headed for the stern, passing various hatches, bollards and railings, and the remains of a covered walkway.
Hold number four looked dark and silty, so I continued on deck level past a small deckhouse which once housed the galley and WCS. Passing hold number five, which I’d already explored, I passed a large ventilation shaft toppled over at 45 degrees. On from it the two huge winches appeared and then the most-intact part of deck superstructure, the accommodation block, which would have also housed washrooms and more WCS. It stretches up two levels and is covered in plumose anemones.
Swimming on, I reached the circular stern, where I was tempted to descend just a little, to take in the incredible congregations of sea squirts and plumose anemones growing on the hull. Temptation lured me just a little deeper still to take in the Breda’s massive rudder. Looking at my dive computer, an hour was up and it was time to ascend. It had been a fantastic dive and, for sure, I won’t leave it for another 25 years to visit the Breda again! PROTECTED BY PUFFIN The Breda shipwreck was purchased by Puffin Dive Centre back in 1999, which means it is protected from any salvaging or unauthorised taking of artefacts, and the mooring lines are kept in a good condition for visiting divers. Puffin Dive Centre is one of the longest-established dive centres in the UK, offering recreational, technical, professional and even commercial dive courses from its purpose-built premises on the water’s edge in Port Gallanach, just south of Oban. On-site accommodation is available, as is a range of boat diving from RIBS and a hard-boat, nitrox and trimix fills, and there is a well-stocked dive shop. www.puffin.org.uk
“Ironically, a few days after the Breda sank, a Sunderland flying boat sunk after hitting one of the horse boxes which had floated right around Kerrera!”
Wrasse cruise over the wreck Plumose anemones adorn the Breda
Bow of the Breda
Remnants of an army vehicle
The Breda is quite intact