In the middle of the mighty river separating Serbia and Romania at the Serbian port of Prahovo, a rusty hull, a broken mast where the swastika flag used to fly, an upper deck where there used to be a command bridge, a barrel leaning with fuel – or even explosive materials – on a pebble dune that has emerged from the water.
The ships, some still loaded with ammunition, belonged to The Black Sea of Nazi Germany fleet deliberately sunk by the Germans as they were withdrawing from Romania as the Soviet troops advanced.
Historians say up to 200 German warships were sunk near Prahovo . in September 1944 Danube gorge known as The Iron Gate on the orders of the fleet commander when they came under heavy fire from the Soviets. The idea behind the deliberate downfall was to at least slow the Soviet Union’s advance into the Balkans. But it didn’t help when Nazi Germany surrendered months later, in May 1945.
The unusually warm weather across Europe this summer has been linked by scientists to global warming and other factors. Falling water levels created dangerous conditions for navigation on many of the continent’s rivers, including the Danube, Europe’s second longest river flowing through 10 countries. The authorities in Serbia have used dredging to keep ships moving.
The wrecks emerging from the depths are an impressive sight, but they have caused decades of trouble for those using the river, and now the Serbian government, with the support of the European Union, is planning to do something about it .
Some of the wrecks were removed from the river by the communist Yugoslav authorities immediately after the war. But most were left behind, hampering shipping, especially in summer when water levels are low. For years there were plans to get the ships out of the muddy waters, but the operation was deemed too risky due to the explosives they carried on board and until recently there was no money to do it.
Now the European Union and the European Investment Bank have agreed to provide loans and grants to finance the operation to remove some ships from Prahovo to improve the traffic capacity of the Danube. The total cost of the operation is estimated at 30 million euros ($30 million), of which approximately 16 million are grants.
“These ships were sunk and have been lying on the riverbed ever since,” said EU ambassador to Serbia, Emanuele Giaufret, during a recent trip to the wreck site. “And this is a problem. It is a problem for the traffic on the Danube, it limits the displacement capacity, it is a danger because certain ships contain unexploded ordnance.”
Accompanying Giaufret was Alessandro Bragonzi, the head of the European Investment Bank in the Western Balkans. He said the project consists of removing 21 sunken ships.
“It is estimated that there are more ships under water, up to 40, but currently obstructing the Danube’s waterway conditions, especially during periods of low water, are 21,” Bragonzi said.
Experts say the salvage operation will consist of removing the explosive material from the sunken ships and destroying the wrecks, rather than dragging the ships out of the river.