Location: Tromso, Norway. 350km north of the Arctic Circle.
Date: February 2019. Winter.
For those of you who have never been in a snowstorm, I’d have to say, it’s not exactly a comfortable place to be. It’s bloody cold, terrifically loud, and totally disorientating. Navigating in these conditions is a supremely difficult task. But like traversing any particularly difficult terrain, it’s doable with common sense, a bit of grit, and some luck.
But you may be curious as to what on Earth was I doing north of the Arctic Circle in a blizzard. Well, I was on the hunt for a shipwreck.
In April 1939, the Kriegsmarine launched Tirpitz, the second battleship of the mighty Bismarck-class. These vessels were monstrous. Both Bismarck and her sister Tirpitz displaced over 42,000 tons and were just over 250 metres long. One hundred and three officers and 1,962 enlisted sailors worked around the clock to keep these sea-giants going and in top fighting condition.
But the massive ships were also massive targets, and the British were keen to see them resting peacefully on the ocean bottom. The first ship, Bismarck, was scuttled after being incapacitated by an onslaught of air attacks in May 1941. With her sister consigned to the deep, Kriegsmarine high command was keen to keep Tirpitz from the same fate.
They sent Tirpitz to Norway with orders to intercept supply convoys bound for the Soviet Union. Her presence was also intended to safeguard against an amphibious invasion of Norway by the Allies. Such a task necessitated the mighty battleship to spend weeks at a time sitting behind torpedo nets, going exactly nowhere. She was so rarely deployed she became known as the “Lonely Queen of the North” by the Kriegsmarine sailors. The ship was also plagued by fuel shortages.
Despite the ship’s inaction, British high command was determined to sink her and remove the threat to their arctic convoys. They launched bombing raid after bombing raid, generally inflicting minor damage. It was only in 1944, three years after their hunt for Tirpitz had begun, that they caught her.
On November 12th 1944, 32 Lancasters from Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons RAF dropped 29 12,000-pound bombs on Tirpitz from medium height. These massive explosives tore great holes through the ship and she quickly began taking on water. With undoubtedly a heavy heart, her captain ordered “Abandon Ship.” The Lonely Queen of the North met her fate at the hands of Bomber Command and sank in a fjord near modern-day Tromso, Norway.
Tirpitz capsized in relatively shallow water, as she was anchored close to the coast. At low tide, her hull and propellers could be seen above the water, and this evidently gave the Norwegians an idea.
Between 1948 and 1957, German-Norwegian company salvaged the wreck, stripping away the valuable steel. Rumour has it that some of the thick steel armour is still utilised by the Norwegian government, though not for its original purpose. Steel armour plates from Tirpitz are used during road construction. 70 years after they were wrought, the steel plates are strong enough to take the weight of a vehicle. They are laid over road sections under repair so that workers can continue work without disrupting the traffic.
The idea that steel plates once designed to repel the most devastating broadsides and fitted to the mightiest battleship Europe has ever seen now used to facilitate road construction by the Norwegian government fascinated me. I relish stories of venerable machines still in operation ages past their obsolescence. I had to find out more. I had to see for myself where this steel had come from. I had to find the carcass of a battleship.
I began the journey in the city of Tromso, Norway’s largest city north of the Arctic Circle. It was just after midwinter, and the sun appeared low in the sky for a few hours each day, though not once did I actually see it. Clouds hung perpetually low in the sky, sandwiching the city between the thick snow coating the ground. Behind the buildings, snow-covered mountains seemed to cut the city off completely from the outside world. The main artery of the place was the sea. No matter where you went, the iconography of the sea and its denizens followed you. After all, the settlement was founded by the Vikings—perhaps Europe’s most famous sea-people.
But I wasn’t there to take in the scenery, I was on the hunt for a ship.
After a bit of research, I decided the journey could be made in a day, though I’d be cutting it close. I took a bus from Tromso across the island and over the bridge to Kvaloya. I skirted around the coast, moving west then south, passing sleepy residential areas. I hopped off the bus outside Eide Handel AS, a vast supermarket where I had been assured by a friend I could find both whale and seal meat in abundance. Though, during my visit, they had sold out.
Fortified by a herring sandwich and now travelling in what passes for sunlight in the Arctic winter, I began the 5km trek around the cape to the south of Eidkjosen, across the bridge to the island of Hakoya, and then halfway around the island itself. I was well-dressed, but it was still bitterly cold. The farms on the island appeared to have been closed up for the winter and I did not see another person. Nor could I identify many of the landmarks I had chosen from satellite images to guide me. A thick blanket of snow covered everything, whiting out my surroundings and muffling all sound. Mist hung low in the air and visibility was down to a few hundred metres. With not much but white surrounding me, I felt as if I had been encased in a bubble. I was at the centre, and the misty bubble floated along with me, obscuring anything that got too far away and slowly unveiling the skeletal trees and boarded-up houses that seemed to materialise before me. It was an eerie, isolating experience.
Keeping the sea on my right-hand side, I made my way around the island. As the sun reached its zenith somewhere deep behind the dense cloud, the wind started picking up. No matter, I thought to myself. I was on the edge of an island after all, exactly where you would expect a stiff breeze. However, it turned out to be a little more than that.
Working my way around the island, I came across a concrete post bearing a plaque. It was scarcely readable, but I readily discerned the words “1944” and “Tirpitz.” I had arrived. Trudging through the knee-deep snow to the shoreline, I looked out into the Fjord. In the distance, I could just barely see the outlines of the mountains that surrounded the place. The wind had started blowing snow through the air, further cutting down visibility. Before long, I stepped out onto the strangest beach I had ever seen.
I grew up on the Australian coast and am therefore no stranger to white sandy beaches. The beach at the naval base where I did my initial training even won some sort of white sandy beach award. This beach, however, was different. Instead of sand, thick white snow was piled on ice-encrusted rocks. Under the pallid light of a cold sun, I felt the temperature drop. It was even colder on the beach than it had been when I set out (Not at all appropriate for sunbathing). On the shoreline, I found the first piece of evidence of my quarry: a huge piece of rusted machinery. Made of thick, heavy steel, this large component showed clear signs of being riveted. It looked maritime in design and I was immediately convinced it was part of the wreck. Perhaps a piece salvaged in the 50s then left abandoned on the beach? Or something broken off in a terrific storm and washed ashore by the swell? I wasn’t sure, but finding it proved to me I was in the right spot.
Moving up the beach, further into the fjord, I noticed a darker patch on the relatively calm sea. The waves broke differently here, and my first thought was that it might be an exposed reef. Slipping over the icy rocks, I edged closer. During lulls in the swell, I could see what looked like rusted metal exposed at the surface. A thin, straight shape lying parallel to the shoreline, with a few other pieces of metal sticking up around it. I’d found it. I was standing just metres from the wreck of the Tirpitz.
There wasn’t much to see, but I felt a great sense of accomplishment at having set out to find a wreck some 70 years old and actually tracking it down. But the journey was only half done. I still had to get back, and as the sky darkened and the wind blew more fiercely, this fact dawned on me. It was a long walk back.
After taking some photos to capture the moment, I decided to forgo the road and walk back along the shore. I erroneously believed this route was more direct and therefore much quicker. It was for most of the first kilometre, but after that visibility fell rapidly. The wind roared in my ears and snow was whipped up into the air. In all directions was a flurry of snow, and I no longer had a clear idea of where I was, or how far I had come.
As I watched my footprints in the snow begin to disappear mere seconds after I stepped out of them, I realised my situation was deteriorating. Getting stuck outside in a snowstorm had not been part of the plan, and neither had been carving my way back through deep snow. In these conditions, I had to keep the sea on my left to maintain the correct heading. But soon even this became difficult. Ever-thickening banks of snow blocked my path. The sound of the water faded away, even though it was close by, to be replaced by the constant roaring of the wind. I had no means of measuring it, but I’m sure the temperature dropped considerably. Any part of my face left exposed by my dislodged shemagh stung furiously and my eyelashes were also uncomfortably frozen together. I distinctly remember wondering how cold it had to get before the water in my eyes would freeze.
There was only one option: keep moving vigorously.
I continued battling my way through mounds of snow in order to keep close to the beach, not trusting my sense of direction in a near-total white-out. I did not want to be out in the elements one minute longer than necessary, and stumbling around in circles was not an option.
With each movement, my body ached slightly more, willing me to stop smashing through the seemingly endless banks of snow. It was an experience difficult to relate, and comparable only to the time I did virtually the same thing in a Tasmanian swamp while looking for a meteorite crater. Before long, each step becomes a battle in itself. And the roaring gale and biting cold didn’t help matters much. I fought to keep my feet and hands from going numb. Moving them inside my gloves and boots was painful, and despite my layers of clothing frostnip was likely setting in. I tried not to think about the situation, choosing instead to play songs over and over in my head while I mechanically kept the blood flowing and carved my path through the banks of snow.
As I reached the bridge, the suns’ rays stopped penetrating the angry-looking clouds. Even though the bridge was less than 50m away, I struggled to make out its outline, such was the flurry of snow in the air. However, there was a light on the bridge. As the darkness crept in, I used it as a beacon to orientate myself. The last push was the toughest, but I got there.
Once at the bridge, I didn’t stop for a breather, I kept moving. I still had a good few kilometres to walk before I would be back at Eidkjosen.
With my boots back on solid road and with lights to guide me, the journey became less of a stamina-draining slog through the snow and more of a battle to stay warm. It was far colder on the exposed road surface, so I picked up the pace and did my best to maintain circulation in my fingers and toes. The weather had really begun to close in at this point, and without the periodic lights, I would have been alone in the freezing dark. I must have cut an interesting figure; my fur hood (and the rest of me) was completely covered with snow and my shemagh was frozen around my face. I was jogging in fur boots down a road in what felt like the middle of nowhere. I saw no one on the journey back, but I was partly grateful for that. Trying to explain that I went looking for a shipwreck to someone not all that proficient in English might have been a challenge.
I made it back to Eidkjosen after roughly 90 minutes of jogging, after which I discovered, to my absolute horror, that the shop selling herring sandwiches was shut. Though I couldn’t exactly blame them, who on Earth would be wandering around in the Arctic winter darkness during a snowstorm?