Royal Navy maps out German WWI destroyers at Portsmouth harbor

Marine archaeologists hope to bring two German WW1 warships – forgotten and mostly buried by the sludge and mud at the southern end of Whale Island – back to life in 3D model form as part of centennial commemorations of the Great War.

The Forgotten Wrecks of World War 1 initiative, backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, aims to remind the public that the four-year conflict was not merely waged on the Western Front.

The Maritime Archaeology Trust chose destroyers V44 and V82, beached at the southern tip of Whale Island around 1920 after being salvaged from Scapa Flow – where the entire German Fleet was scuttled in June 1919.

V44 saw extensive action at Jutland, twice firing torpedoes at the lines of British battleships and battle-cruisers.

V82 was completed too late to see action at Jutland; most of her service was spent with the German Navy’s flotilla in Flanders.

Both destroyers fell into the RN’s hands at the war’s end and were interred in the Orkneys while Allied leaders debated the fate of the German Fleet – until the ‘grand scuttle’ took the decision out of their hands.

Towed to Portsmouth, they were used as target practice – Whale Island was the home of the RN gunnery school, HMS Excellent – until finally being beached in the mud near the site of the present-day marina.

“Despite a brief mention in the Portsmouth News in 1921, the two destroyers have lain largely forgotten where they were beached – ironically in front of headquarters of today’s Royal Navy,” said Lt Paul Lane of HMS Scott, who’s helping the trust with the project.

“The attentions of scrap dealers as well as the ravages of time and tide have taken their toll on the vessels, leaving them largely unrecognisable to all but the trained eye.”

The westerly wreck was largely ravaged by salvagers by the time of WW2; the other destroyer was much more intact until the harbour was dredged in the mid-70s as part of work on Portsmouth’s ferry port opposite Whale Island.

Still, at least two of her boilers remain and her bow and forecastle are still identifiable as they rise about 5ft above the mudflats.

Using an off-shelf drone equipped with a high-definition video camera, the trust gathered reams of high-quality images of the remains of both wrecks – enough imagery to lay the foundations for 3D models being created.