Volume 42 Number 1 Article 2
Wreck of the French Submarine Souffleur
The wreck of the French submarine 'Souffleur' lies in 40 m of water some 5 km of the coast of Beirut. The following article describes a dive on the wreck made by Paul Saville, Marc van Buren and Jan Geel.
Ever since I had started to dive off Beirut I had wanted to visit the 'Souffleur'. Most submarines are sunk in very deep waters and to be able to see a submarine in shallow waters was for me something special.
The dive itself made a big impact on me and I vowed at the time to do some research on the wreck. The following details provide you with a glimpse into the life and death of the submarine and her crew, and our recent dive on the wreck.
The 'Souffleur' was a 'Requin' class submarine. Nine of the boats were made and launched from 1925 to 1926. She was built in 1924 in Cherbourg dockyard. It was 257 feet long, 22 feet large and had a draught of 15 feet.
In 1940 she was undertaking surveillance operations in the Mediterranean. The commanding officer at the time recorded that "From a military point of view, this surveillance operation brought foreword the difficulty of charging accumulators on this class of submarine. During this time of the year, when nights are short, maximum charge does not allow to recuperate more than 6,000 Amps. This charge corresponds to a maximum of a 16 hours dive."
On April 1st, the units 'Caïman', 'Marsouin' and 'Souffleur' were assigned to the Division Navale du Levant, under the orders of the commanding officer of the 9th Division of Submarines. That same month, on the 8th, all three units rejoined Beirut. On June 8th 1941 began the offensive of the Allies on Syria and Lebanon.
At 06:15 GMT nine Allied ships were seen in Sour, they were all heading north. Starting the 8th until the 25th of June 'Souffleur' was assigned to a mission of surveillance and attack against a force superior in number. During this mission she was hunted and under heavy attack with depth charges many times. On the 10th she attempted an attack on a British ship, probably 'Phoebe'.
Souffleur - "Gloriously missing in action on June 25th, 1941"
That day, at 06:55 GMT, the 'Souffleur' was two or three miles off the coast between Ras Damour and Ras Beirut; she was compelled to surface to charge her batteries. Six men were on bridge deck. Suddenly four torpedo wakes, launched from HMS 'Parthian', could be seen cruising toward 'Souffleur'.
Officer Morange gave order to maneuver, unfortunately one torpedo hit the 'Souffleur' and broke her in two parts, and she sank immediately. Fifty-two men went down with their ship. Five men out of the six on deck tried to swim to shore, one of them drowned. HMS 'Parthian' was lost in August 1943, possibly in the southern Adriatic Sea, while on patrol. Nothing is known for certain about what happened to her, she failed to arrive at Beirut on 14th August.
The Dive, August 2005
The word 'Souffleur' translates to mean 'blower'. The photo below shows the manufacturers name plaque of the submarine and depicts a blow (spout) of water from a whale.
The weather was not good. In the morning we had tried to reach the dive site of the 'Souffleur', but failed due to heavy seas. Marc himself had tried to dive the wreck on five previous occasions. He had always failed because of bad weather on the day of the dive and here we were on his attempt number six! It looked like his 'negative Juju' was at work again. So we aborted the dive.
Instead we made a morning dive in 40 m of water on a site know as 'shark point'. We did not see any sharks, but we did see a large number of rays, resting inside some caves. They were the largest I had ever seen, and they were BIG! Some were over one metre wide. They are amazing animals.
We surfaced in heavy seas, which if you are like me, is not a pleasant experience. I managed to keep my breakfast in its rightful place and we headed to the Movenpick marina for a rest and to get my legs back on ground that did not move up and down by two metres! The weather did not deteriorate and if anything appeared to improve, so we decided to sail out to the 'Souffleur'.
With a modern GPS and a sonar it was quiet easy to locate the wreck which lies on a flat sandy bottom. We dropped a shot line down and attached a marker buoy to it. We then kitted up with our diving gear and did our pre-dive checks. All was in order.
So, 63 years later, here we were with modern diving gear about to descend onto the 'Souffleur'. I did not know what to expect. I had imagined that the submarine would appear small, I had watched the famous german film 'Das Boot', and all I could think of was how small and cramped it must have been inside one of these submarines.
We plunged into the water and began our descent. The visibility was 15-20 m. From the surface we couldn't see anything. I just descended the line and wondered how we would find the wreck if the lead shot and line had landed too far away from it.
However at about 20 m, it was pretty obvious that we had in fact located the wreck very well. Out of the blue-grey haze I could see the huge bulk of a wreck. At this stage it did not look like a submarine. We hit bottom at 40 m. The dive plan was to make a circuit of both halves of the submarine and then to return to surface. We planned about a 20 minutes bottom time.
Sketch of Souffleur Dive Site
We circled the stern of the sub first. Then we came to the broken part of the submarine. A compact curtain of cables hanging from the ceiling bared the access to the wreck.
I also considered that this tangled mess may have prevented those trapped inside the sub as it sank from getting out. I found it moving to look into the blackness and think about the poor souls who perished.
We had no intention of even trying to look inside. Primarily because the wreck is a War grave and should be respected as such. It is the final resting place for 52 crew members. We were just privileged to be able to visit the site. As a foot note I would add that from a practical point of view it would also be highly dangerous and pointless to attempt an entry.
We continued our dive by swimming over to the front of the sub, this has the aircraft guns and the towers on it. It was here that the men who survived the torpedo attack were standing.
We continued along the wreck, which has many huge air tanks on it. These air tanks were used to blow compressed air into the submarine water filled ballast tanks and control its buoyancy. In one of the front torpedo tubes there is still a torpedo lying.
What we did not know at the time, since the dive was undertaken before this research, was that if we would have left the wreck and swam about sixty feet away, we could have found the main gun and another huge torpedo lying on the bottom.
We returned to the shot line and slowly made our way to the surface. The sea was still rough, but it didn't mater. We had experienced the 'Souffleur'.
I certainly plan to visit the wreck again, and now that I know a great deal more about the 'Souffleur', it will only add to the adventure and the respect I have for her crew.