Dramas at Haltenbanken – June 9th 1940 and 6th October 1985

The West Vanguard’s crew pumped down mud to kill the well. Their drilling bit had entered a shallow gas pocket causing the well to blow out. The rig caught fire, killing a crew member. Hauled off location, eight anchors were cut and left behind. A Mayday call was picked up at the Sola rescue center in Norway. Ships and helicopters rushed to the scene… A remote operated vehicle located seven of the anchors. What it found next came as a big surprise..

haltenbanken

Haltenbanken – a small spot in an ocean. North 64 50, East 07 40. Well 6407/6. Until a few years ago only fishermen were interested in this spot, but now the oil companies are there. They have found oil and gas.

On the 6th October 1985, the semi-submersible drilling rig West Vanguard was positioned precisely over Well 6407/6. Everything is normal onboard, the sea is rough as usual and the time is about 9am. The drilling crown is turning around through the layers under the seabed, and at 263m suddenly it hits a shallow gas filled formation. This formation had not been discovered during the site investigations earlier, but everybody knew that they might drill into such formations.

Onboard the West Vanguard the usual precautions are put to work; the gas that suddenly blows into the well is circulated out and the drilling continues. All too fast the gas pressure increases. Gas, sand and solid particles stream through the depressurising equipment onboard the West Vanguard, then this equipment fails. The gas flows freely out on to the deck and explodes. The rig is turned into a flaming inferno. One of the crew is killed instantly.

ROV pilot Jan Finnie is seated in front of a video screen in the control room topside onboard the M/V Arctic Surveyor. He is operating a type Scorpio sn. 52, which is his eyes and ears down in a depth of 220 metres. The ROV is about 600 metres from the blow out well, still belching out gas. The screen gives Jan a sharp and clear picture of the seabed around Well 6407/6. At the same time he listens to the sound of the side scanning sonar in the loudspeaker system. A high frequency sound difference will tell him if there is metal down there.

The M/V Arctic Surveyor has been brought in to locate the eight large anchors from West Vanguard. The crew onboard the rig had to cut the anchors to get it safely away from the blow-out well. The ROV has found seven of the anchors and is searching for the last one. On his screen Jan can see that the seabed mainly consists of mud, now and then interrupted by a fish staring into the camera with surprised eyes. Outside Scorpio’s searchlight range, there is only solid darkness.

Suddenly Jan registers another type of sonar sound, and he quickly reduces the scanning towards the area to pinpoint the difference. The loudspeaker suddenly screams out the high frequency sound they have been waiting for. Jan steers the ROV towards the spot; out of the darkness comes shapes and contours that he has seen before.

“It’s a crashed aircraft, it’s a large aircraft laying down here!” he cries.

As Scorpio moves closer, the wings and fuselage of the aircraft loom out of the darkness, clearly visible on the screen. “It has to be from the war, look at those crosses – must be German. You can even read the register number; it reads S4 + EH.” It was a Heinkel, sliced in half by one of the anchors detached from the West Vanguard.

Trondheim and Haltenbanken, 9th June 1940

The early morning sun shines in the blue grey paint on the floatplane S4 + EH anchored in the harbour of Trondheim, Norway. It is a twin engined reconnaissance, bomb and torpedo plane, a Heinkel He 115. The lettercode and the swastika on the fin leaves no doubt that it is a plane from the feared Luftwaffe.

Leutnant van Delden, observer and commanding officer of the Heinkel, is sitting outside Trondheim’s Britannia Hotel with a morning coffee, listening to a military band. The war seems far away, but the peace would not last for long – van Delden recognises a soldier from his own unit bicycling towards him. “Herr Leutnant, sofort Alarmstart! You have orders to take off immediately to reconnoitre the sea south-west of Narvik. Our planes have discovered a large British naval force.”

The crews are gathered for instructions: German Intelligence is well informed, telling about large ship movements in the area they are ordered to search. The crews enter their planes, and after two hours airborne they observe many small enemy naval units heading south-west. S4 + EH flies further north, the pilot Feldwebel Augustat following the orders given by van Delden and the radio operator Willi Schönfelder transmitting their observations back to their Trondheim base. After another hour they observe a British battleship, HMS Valiant, with some destroyers. Earlier the battleship had seen German planes shadowing them, so had asked for aerial cover from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.

Pilot Kearsley and Airman Eccleshall in their Skua fighter from Ark Royal have been airborne for some time when they see a Heinkel 115 flying in clouds over HMS Valiant. Kearsley gives full throttle and arms the machine guns. They approach the Heinkel, and from about 250m Kearsley has the enemy plane neat and precise in his gun sight, so he presses the trigger.

Onboard S4+EH, everybody has their eyes fixed on HMS Valiant. Suddenly Schönfelder sees the Skua closing in from behind. He sees the Skua open fire: tracers hurry towards the Heinkel. He feels a severe blow in his left shoulder and arm where he has been hit. The fire from the Skua is like a rainshower hitting the plane. The bullets play havoc with Schönfelder’s radio, and also hit the starboard wing way out to the engine. All this happens in a matter of seconds: the cry from Schönfelder – “Achtung, achtung, feindflug von hinten!” – still rings in their ears.

Schönfelder has his eyes fixed as the Skua passes close by – he looks directly into Kearsley’s goggles. He also registers that a panel on one of the Heinhel’s engines has broken off. Then Schönfelder feels the pain from his wounds and nearly faints. He recovers and sends a distress signal back to base. Pilot Augustat undertakes evasive action, reaching a cloud.

Kearsley and Eccleshall ask: “Where the hell did that bandit go to?” The Skua hunts in the vicinity of HMS Valiant for a while, until the fuel gauge indicates they should return to Ark Royal. Kearsley writes in his logbook; “Skua a/c no. L 3024, 6Q, 800. Sqdn., patrolling Valiant, at 2000`, discovered Heinkel 115 shadowing the ship, opened fire, saw panel fall off, tail-gunner ceased fire.”

Onboard S4+EH, van Delden has bandaged Schönfelder as best he can. Pilot Augustat peeps out at the starboard engine, which has taken on a life of its own: he supposes that the controls have been shot off. His compass is working more like a rev counter, so Augustat trusts that Van Delden, a naval officer, knows how to handle a sextant. They makes a course for Trondheim, but after one hour, even with reduced power, they are almost out of fuel. They can see the sea beneath them, with waves up to 4m. Knowing the starboard engine is out of control, all onboard know Augustat will have to perform a difficult landing. Augustat fights the controls as they approach. “Festhalten” he cries out, and they are down, ripping the starboard float off. But nevertheless, the S4+EH is floating steadily. According to the book, Schönfelder dismantles the clock and burns secret papers and maps. They inflate the dinghy hoping that help is not far away.

Fortunately Schönfelder`s shot-up, bloody radio has done its job and after a while they hear the distinct sound of a BMW. They recognise the 115 of Oberleutnant “Pitt” Midderhof – a very experienced pilot and specialist in pick-up operations under difficult conditions. After dropping some fuel and his armed bombs, Midderhof puts his 115 down along a long rolling wave. In their dinghy the crew of S4+EH struggle to reach the other Heinkel; it is not easy in the swell. Midderhof has a problem: his 115 is bouncing in and out of the waves, sometimes completely covered by water. He looks at his propellers – they are both badly bent from hitting the sea time after time. With the rescued crew onboard, Midderhof waits for the right wave. Then he pushes the throttles all the way, and they are airborne.

Midderhof makes a steep turn and sinks the S4+EH with machine gun fire, according to the regulations. The tenacious S4+EH sinks deep down to the seabed – to its resting place only some hundred metres away from where the drilling rig West Vanguard forty-five years later is going to drill Well 6407/6.

Today the wreck of Heinkel He 115 S4 + EH still rests on the seabed at Haltenbanken. The Norwegian Defence Museum was for a time interested in a salvage operation, but the cost connected to such a task was far too high.

For drawings, photos and news of those portrayed who survived the war, go to Halvor’s full article: ‘Drama at Haltenbanken – text and research, Dr Halvor Sperbund, Bergen, 1988’.   http://www.nuav.net/haltenbank.html

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