Credits to S.E. Aruba Fly and Dive for the updates.
There are variations to the origin and history of the Antilla on many websites well-known to divers and history enthusiasts around the world who have at one point visited the island. Visit Aruba is doing its best effort to bring forth the real story of this marvelous underwater attraction.
The M.S. Antilla was built in 1939 by Deutsche Werft in the Finkenwarder area of Hamburg. She was launched on 21 March 1939 and her date of completion was 11 July 1939. The ship was built for the German firm Hamburg Amerikanische Packetfahrt Actien Gesellschaft (HAPAG).
Aruba has seen many different cultures during the colonization period. The Caquetios were the first inhabitants of this beautiful desert like island. In 1500s the Spanish conquistadores were the first explorers to discover Aruba and called the island "useless". In 1636, the Dutch, during the war with Spain, established a naval base here. Later the British took it away after defeating Spain. Following the defeat of Napoleon the realignment that took place among European countries (Congress of Vienna 1814) resulted in Aruba becoming a Dutch colony along with other islands; Curacao, Bonaire, Saba, St. Martin and St. Eustatius.
World War II
During World War I, Aruba was a major supplier of calcium phosphate (Guano), used in fertilizer production as well as for explosives. In early May 1940, the German freighter Antilla anchored in the waters of Aruba, while a chain of events was unfolding in Europe. On May 10th, the Germans invaded the Netherlands, landing in Rotterdam and The Hague. Queen Wilhelmina was forced to flee to England. The Dutch Army surrendered four days later. Holland was now at war with Germany and thousands of miles across the Atlantic, the peaceful island of Aruba automatically becomes enemy territory to the Germans. It has often been said that the Antilla was a disguised auxiliary ship for U-boats. No confirmations were found of this, nor for the presence of ammunition, torpedoes, fuel etc. in the wreck when salvage was considered. Furthermore, prior to May 10, 1940 the ship was repeatedly searched by the military authorities for weapons and nothing was found. Some information suggests that the Antilla carried a load of sulphur which was unloaded in San Nicolas harbor in October 1939. The "U boat supply story" is therefore highly debatable.
Unaware of the events taking place between Germany and Holland, the German freighter Antilla was caught in Dutch waters. In order to confiscate the Antilla, Dutch marines tried to get on board however the German captain Ferdinand Schmidt refused to lower the gangway and the marines were told by the German crew to return early the next morning. Immediately after that Captain Schmidt ordered the 34 crew members to open the valves and set fire to the ship. When the marines returned to the Antilla a few hours later the ship by then was already listing to port. They could do nothing more than watch the ship as it sank and they arrested the crew that had abandoned ship. Although it has sometimes been suggested that the cause of the ship's sinking was that the crew heated up the boilers of the ship and let in cold seawater flow in thus causing a huge explosion, in the official documents there is no mention of anything like this at all. According to an inspection of the wreck by divers between May and August 1940 the superstructure of the ship was damaged by fire but the hull of the ship was undamaged and in one piece. The report concluded the sinking was caused by opening the valves of the vessel. The breaking up of the wreck is a result of heavy swells.
Throughout the Dutch Antilles a total of 220 German merchant sailors were arrested from 15 ships. Aside from the crew of the Antilla, the crew of the German ship Goslar that was berthed in Dutch Suriname managed to scuttle their vessel before she was confiscated. These merchant sailors were all transported to Bonaire where the sailors were detained in a school building. Next to these sailors 200 German and Austrian civilians (amongst them also civilians that fled the threat of Nazi Germany, as well as approximately 20 persons that were considered a threat to national security because of being alleged Nazi supporters) were being detained in several school buildings.
By 11 May 1940 an agreement had already been reached between the Dutch Authorities on Curacao and the British Consul that Great Britain would accept the 220 German merchant sailors and detain them in an internment camp in British Jamaica. In the period between their arrival on Bonaire and their shipment to Jamaica the sailors had to build an internment camp in Bonaire to house the other civilian internees. They finished building the camp early July 1940 and on 5 July 1940 the crew of the Antilla together with their 185 colleagues were escorted to the vessel Jamaica Producer and transported to the camp in British Jamaica where they spent the rest of the war.
The internment camp in Bonaire was therefore not bought by Captain Schmidt of the Antilla as has been widely suggested, but by a local entrepreneur. On the spot of the camp at first Hotel Zeebad was built and later on Divi Flamingo Hotel, which still exists to this day.
A Diver's Bliss
The Antilla is the largest shipwreck dive in the Caribbean, covered by tube sponges, coral formations, tropical fish, shrimp, lobsters, and orange anemones. The pelicans know this area very well and love to rest on the Antilla and enjoy a meal of the silversides which jump from the water below.
The entire wreckage is 400 feet long and much of the ship is still intact today. The porthole, deck fitting and interior sections can be explored.
View Antilla Shipwreck in a larger map