Last year, a team of Polish divers discovered the wreck of the Nazi steamer Karlsruhe. The wreck was loaded with china, vehicles, and other wartime cargo, and the dive team is set to return in the coming days to further investigate. In particular, they’re interested in some unopened crates that went down with the ship. The team may even bring some items to the surface.
The shipwreck was found in September 2020 by a team from Baltictech, a diving company seeking several shipwrecks of vessels involved in Operation Hannibal, one of the largest sea evacuations in history that saw the Nazis flee Soviet forces on the Eastern Front. The Baltictech team took photographs of some of the Karlsruhe wreck when it was discovered. Somewhat confusingly, the Karlsruhe was one of two Nazi vessels of that name that sunk during World War II. The Karlsruhe that Baltictech is investigating is a steamer found some 40 miles off the coast of Poland; the other Karlsruhe was a Nazi warship that sunk off Norway in 1940. Both shipwrecks were found last fall.
The steamer was one of the last Nazi vessels to leave the Prussian city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) as Soviet forces retook the city in April 1945. Besides its 360 tons of cargo, the ship carried 150 soldiers from an elite Nazi regiment and about 900 civilians. Two days after the ship left Königsberg, it was sunk by Soviet aircraft, leaving 113 survivors, according to the Associated Press. “The Karlsruhe differed from the other ships involved in the operation in that it primarily carried cargo, the refugees boarded at the last minute,” said Tomasz Zwara, a diver with the Baltictech team, in a press release emailed to Gizmodo.
Now nearly 300 feet underwater, the wreck is tough to dive on. Spending about half an hour at such depths requires two and a half hours of decompression. Because the ship was one of the last to leave the region, the Baltictech team thinks it may be laden with valuables the Nazis hoped to hold onto as they fled. That’s why the unopened crates aboard the wreck are of such interest to the team.
“We will dive and check what’s in the crates without destroying them,” said Tomasz Stachura, the president of the SANTI diving company and a technical diver who previously visited the wreck, in an email to Gizmodo. The dive team may bring objects to surface if they deem them worthy of further inspection and will have a representative from the National Maritime Museum in Gdansk, Poland aboard to advise.
The crates, unopened for three-quarters of a century, could easily carry mundane items of daily life in Königsberg. But they also could contain valuables looted by the Nazis during the war. Stachura hopes that the wreck may hold the answer to what happened to the Amber Room, a luxurious paneled room in St. Petersburg’s Catherine Palace that was looted by the Nazis and brought to Königsberg, where it vanished during the war.
“We do not have any hard evidence that the Amber Room is there [in the wreck], but nobody has any hard evidence that Amber Room is elsewhere,” Stachura told Atlas Obscura last year. “The truth is that the Germans wanting to send something valuable to the west could only do it by means of Karlsruhe, as this was their last chance [to get it out of Prussia].”
While a treasure hunt may prove fruitless, the upcoming dive will give the team a better understanding of what’s left of the Karlsruhe and what it carried on its final voyage to the bottom of the Baltic Sea.