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Egypt Red Sea Shipwrecks - The Umbria


THE UMBRIA
A Veritable Time Bomb at 30 metres!
(Sudan)

By Ned Middleton

Note: Ned Middleton is a professional Underwater Photo-Journalist who has published a number of articles in recent years about Red Sea Wrecks. Please send corrections to Ned Middleton here.


Day Boat

Safari Boat

Shore Dive

Snorkelling

Diving Grade

Yes

Yes

No

No

All

Location:

37 19' 38" N, 19 38' 19"E. North of Port Sudan

Access:

Diving Boat out of Port Sudan.

Minimum Depth to Wreck

0m ( Superstructure at surface)

Maximum Depth to Seabed:

38m (At Bows)

Average Visibility:

35-40m

The Ship

Built by Rieherst Schiffswerks of Hamburg, the Umbria was launched as the Bahia Blanca on 30 December 1911. Technically described as an "Twin Screw Steamer," she was driven by two 6 cylinder compound steam-engines which produced a top speed of 14 knots. Displacing 10,076 gross registered tonnes, she was a passenger cargo vessel capable of carrying over 2,000 passengers and 9,000 tonnes of cargo. She measured 153.4m x 18m and had a draught of 10.8m.

In 1912, the Bahia Blanca went into service with the Hamburg- America Line and plied the routes between Europe and Argentina until the outbreak of WW1 when she was interned in Buenos Aries. In 1918 the ship was then acquired by the Argentinean Government.

In 1935, she was purchased by the Italian Government, renamed "Umbria" and refitted as a troopship. For the next 2 years, she ferried thousands of troops to various colonies in East Africa before being finally sold to the Triestino Line in 1937. The Umbria was then employed between Italy and various Mediterranean and Red Sea ports.

The Loss of the Umbria

In May 1940 Captain Lorenzo Muiesan personally supervised the loading of various war-like commodities in the ports of Genoa, Leghorn and Naples in preparation for the forthcoming Italian war effort. With scant regard for secrecy, the Umbria was finally loaded with 360,000 bombs, 60 boxes of detonators and other stores totalling 8,600 tons.

On 3rd June 1940, she arrived at Port Said. Although expected to enter the war any day, Italy was still technically neutral and there was only so much the Royal Navy could do to delay the vessel before her deadly cargo reached enemy forces. On 6th June she was finally allowed to continue on her way.

She was then shadowed by HMS Grimsby and, on 9th June, when close to Port Sudan, the Grimsby forced the Umbria to anchor close inshore. The Battle Cruiser HMS Leander then arrived and a party of 20 seaman boarded the Umbria, searched the vessel for contraband and remained on board throughout the night. On the morning of June 10th, Captain Muiesan was listening to his radio and became the only man on board to know that Italy had formally declared War. Under the very noses of the British sailors, he then succeeded in scuttling his ship.

After the War, a British team of Bomb-Disposal experts reported that, in the event of an explosion, half of Port Sudan was likely to disappear...

Diving the Umbria

The Umbria is found almost exactly as she was on the day she settled onto the seabed - on her port side at Wingate Reef. At 38m, the Bows are the deepest part of the wreck and at the stern, the rudder rests on the sand at 30m. The shallowest part is next to the Bridge where the lifeboat davits just break the surface. Neither the ship nor her contents were ever salvaged.

Hans Hass once described this shipwreck as "the best shipwreck in the world" and many other writers have consistently described her as one of the finest shipwrecks to be found anywhere. She is undoubtedly a very beautiful wreck. With only her wooden decking having disappeared, her still largely intact massive framework provides the visiting diver with endless opportunities for exploration. By now, she has also become an integral part of the Reef and is adorned with soft corals and hard corals - in addition to which, the fish life is truly outstanding.

It is quite possible to investigate every inch of this vessel from stem to stern - inside and out, with ALL 360,000 bombs still available for inspection!

At the Bows, the vessel has a particularly large focsle where the anchor chains come out of the decks and pass over a pair of massive windlasses before disappearing down both hawse pipes. Both anchors were deployed when the ship was scuttled and are found some 200m ahead of the wreck. The forward deck has open access to 3 holds. The mainmast was between Nos 1 and 2 holds and now lies broken on the seabed below.

A finely woven metal framework of girders still holds this ship together. Along with the absence of hatch covers, this allows easy access to all parts of the cargo holds where there is maximum light penetration. This is where the excitement begins.

Inside No 1 Hold and No 1 tween decks are Aerial Bombs, Detonators, Aircraft Tyres, large Storage Jars packed in straw, rolls of Electric Cable and a variety of Wooden Boxes that still remain sealed. No 3 Hold contains bags of cement which now form a uniform brick wall. Immediately above these, in No 3 tween decks are the remains of three Fiat 100cc Lunga Motorcars - somewhat obscured by other items of cargo and often overlooked.

The diver now encounters the central accommodation "castle" containing the remains of the bridge. This is the area that has suffered most since the Umbria first sank. Once again, the wooden elements of the structure have rotted away and this, combined with the wave action and one or two storms over the years have reduced the bridge to a framework of debris - behind which the funnel has, like the mainmast, fallen to the seabed below. Nevertheless, the overall shallow aspect makes this entire area a place of great beauty as soft corals and hard corals continue to colonise the wreck - attracting, as they do, all the usual reef fishes. In short, this is as beautiful as shipwrecks get.

Inside of this central castle there is much to explore. Here are the ships staterooms with numerous cabins leading from long companionways running along both sides of the vessel. From here it is possible to enter the Engine Room - although this is totally enclosed and offers no natural light at all. Beyond the incredibly large engines, are two propeller shafts which disappear aft. Alongside these is a fully equipped workshop - complete with a lathe still bolted firmly to the deck.

Back outside and further aft, the Diver will now encounter the two remaining Holds in which the majority of the 360,000 bombs are still found and overall access is as easy as it gets. The rear mast is also found on the seabed below. Inside the holds, row upon row of carefully and individually placed Italian made Aircraft Bombs are found stacked in long lines. In the tween decks above, are an assortment of Bomb parts, Detonators and large calibre Projectiles once destined for Italys Warships. The entire experience is one that cannot be repeated anywhere else in the world!

The stern castle is another truly beautiful part of the ship and is almost entirely intact - right down to the handrails and assortment of bollards and other equipment necessary for such a vessel. The starboard propeller is easily found - high above the seabed, whereas the port propeller is buried. Between the two lies a single large rudder resting on the sand.

Postscript

Whilst the author does not agree with the practise of taking souvenirs from shipwrecks under any circumstances, this is certainly NOT a wreck from which anything should be removed. Detonators and other items of an explosive or dangerous nature are not always recognisable for what they are - and who knows what dangerous substances may have been carried in those storage jars - acid perhaps?

In addition to these important considerations, the Diver must also think most carefully about the way in which every dive to this ship is conducted. The Umbria has lain virtually undisturbed for a period of over 60 years and there is no reason why she should not remain so for another 60! Please be careful.

Back to Egypt Red Sea Shipwrecks

Last Updated: May 29th, 2011

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