The British Freedom was a 6985 ton oil tanker built in 1928 at
Palmers Shipbuilding Company at Newcastle, England. She was built for
the British Tanker Company and would spend the next 17 years transporting
oil around the world. Powered by oil fired engines and a single screw,
she could make 10 knots.
Chartered to the British Admiralty during the Second World War,
she was armed as an escort tanker and 9 additional men were assigned to
man her new guns.
On June 27, 1942, the British Freedom was torpedoed off North
Carolina. She limped into Newport News, Virginia and once repaired, was
returned to service.
During both World Wars, convoys from the Carribean and South America
would work their way up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.
They would gather at Halifax to make final preparations for the long
crossing of the North Atlantic. There German U-Boats lay in wait.
When World War II broke out, U-boats ruled the seas. The Allies
were slow in developing effective anti-submarine techniques. As the war
dragged on, new technologies in radar, aircraft and asdic (an early form
of sonar) began to turn the tide of the war at sea. By 1945, the U-Boat
was being hunted to extinction. But they had not lost their daring.
On January 14, 1945, Convoy BX-141 arrived off Halifax Harbour.
Waiting for them was the U-1232, commanded by Kapitan-zur-See Kurt Dobratz.
U-1232 had been patrolling off Halifax since before Christmas. Although
he had taken a number of shots at ships leaving Halifax, he was unsuccessful
and so far had not been detected.
As the nineteen ships of BX-141 formed a single column for entry
in to the harbour, Dobratz fired a single torpedo at the third ship in line,
the British Freedom. It struck the engine room and she began to settle
by the stern. Following directly astern, the SS Martin Van Burin increased
speed and swung out to starboard. Dobratz fired a stern shot and was
rewarded with another hit. The orderly columm was now in confusion.
The seventh ship in the column, the Athelviking now passed in front of
Dobratz. He fired and got his third hit of the day. In just 13 minutes,
he had destroyed three major ships, a feat which would win him the Knight's
Cross, one of Germany's highest award for valor.
Meanwhile, the British Freedom sank until her stern struck bottom,
leaving the bow protruding above the waves. The following day, HMCS
Goderich was dispatched to sink the Freedom with depth charges.
Of the 48 crew and 9 gunners, only 1 man was lost, an engineer
who was trapped in the engine room.
The British Freedom was discovered in June of 1995 by scientists
using a new technology for mapping the ocean floor. The Canadian Navy
dove the wreck with two submersibles in July. That fall, the first scuba
divers reached the wreck.
Diving the wreck:
The wreck of the British Freedom lies upright in two main
sections. A section of the stern, approximately 100 feet long is intact.
Most of the deckhouse is gone, except for a section of what was the
galley. On the galley roof, sits one of the 3 inch guns, still aiming
out over the starboard side. Just before the stern rail is the other
deck gun, perched upon its pedestal. It still guards against an enemy
sneaking up from behind. Dropping over the stern, divers can descend
to the large bronze prop, resting on the bottom in 210 feet. Swimming
along the sea bed, you can see a row of portholes still in the side of
the ship. The pebbled bottom is littered with debris from the wreck, as
well as at least one O2 stage bottle.
Back on the main deck, there are two decks of hallways on both
sides of the engine room. These provide the easiest access inside the
stern. There are also three holes in the deck which are large enough to
squeeze through. Inside, one can see cage lights, the compass binnicle
as well as hanging wires. In most places, there's not too much silt, but
rust particles dislodged by bubbles can trash the vis fairly quickly.
Just forward of the boilers, there are two more pedestals for
smaller guns. Here, the hull is flattened into a confusing jumble of
The smaller section of the British Freedom is the bow. This
section starts just forward of the collapsed wheelhouse. It is intact
for about 60 feet, where the foredeck has collapsed. On deck, there
are two ramps for launching life boats over the side, along with a variety
of flanges and valves for the oil tanks. The bow also offers some
exciting penetration, with big rooms.
This is a huge wreck. With depths from 160 to 210 feet, bottom
times are usually 20 to 25 minutes, depending on how much deco you are
willing to do that day. The bottom temperatures range from 32 to 38
degrees F. Usually by August, we have a thermocline at about 30 feet,
where the temperature sometimes gets up to 60 degrees F. Argon in your
drysuit makes a world of difference in comfort level.
We've been diving air, using Nitox and O2 for deco. This summer,
we're hoping to dive the wreck with Trimix. This will allow us to get
rid of narcosis when exploring inside the deeper areas of the ship.
The British Freedom is easily the most beautiful wreck in the
Halifax area. Because of its depth, it remains mostly intact. The
corrosive effect of saltwater and the battering of storms have reduced
most wrecks in shallower water to twisted remains of their former selfs.
The Martin Van Burin and Athelviking, the two ships that were
torpedoed along with the British Freedom, both later sank. The Martin
Van Burin now rests in 25 to 40 feet where it drifted aground near
Sambro. No longer intact, it is a huge wreck with many large, recognizable
pieces of wreckage. The Athelviking has not yet been dived. It is reported
to lie in at least 300 feet.
Jared Rainault learned to dive in Kingston, Ontario, and spent
a couple years diving the beautiful, intact wrecks there. He now lives
in Halifax, Nova Scotia.