It is the second-longest river in Europe, flowing through four capital cities and linking ten countries. But as Europe suffered through its worst drought in recent memory this past summer, the mighty Danube’s waters have been reduced to their lowest level in nearly a hundred years—resulting in the exposure of a ghost fleet of sunken World War II–era German warships laden with explosives.
In September 1944, the Soviets were on the march and Germany’s Black Sea Fleet was in retreat. Having come under heavy fire from Soviet shore batteries and failing to punch through the “Iron Gate” gorge and head home to Germany, Kriegsmarine Rear Admiral Paul-Willy Zieb ordered upward of 200 vessels scuttled—including the more than 20 now surfaced near Prahovo, Serbia.
Zieb deliberately had the warships scuttled in zigzag patterns to bedevil the progress of the advancing Soviets. They have been an impediment to river traffic ever since—but never so much as they are now that the falling waters have exposed them to a far greater degree.
“The German flotilla has left behind a big ecological disaster that threatens us, the people of Prahovo,” local historian Velimir Trajilovic told Reuters. In addition to the dangers posed by tons of unexploded ammunition on board the hulks, the wrecks have reduced the navigable width of the Prahovo channel by nearly half—a mere 330 feet as opposed to the usual 600. At press time, the Serbian government was weighing the possibility of a removal operation with an approximately $30 million price tag.