The ghosts of Scapa Flow

German warships entering Scapa Flow

Scapa Flow, Orkney, will be at the heart of the 2016 centenary commemoration of the Battle of Jutland

Brian Lavery, naval historian and Curator Emeritus at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, reflects on the history of the naval anchorage in two World Wars

Scapa Flow in Orkney was the Royal Navy’s main fleet base during two world wars, because it was well situated to block the northern exit from the North Sea – it was the hinge of the door which isolated Germany from the outside world. Admiral Jacky Fisher claimed later that he had ‘discovered’ it, but this was disputed by Captain Munro. ‘It was a great pity that when he did “discover” it that he did not take in hand its construction into a defended naval harbour …’

At the end of July 1914, as war with Germany seemed certain, a great fleet of 20 Dreadnought battleships, four battle cruisers, 21 cruisers and 42 destroyers was ordered to Scapa. In the expectation of battle, all wooden items were cast aside, including wardroom furniture and even pianos. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe arrived on 2 August as the second-in-command of the force, now known as the Grand Fleet. In the morning of 4 August he received instructions to open a secret envelope, ordering him to take command of the fleet. War between Britain and Germany started formally at midnight.

Aware that nothing had been done to create a safe anchorage, Jellicoe wrote, ‘I was always far more concerned with the safety of the Fleet when it was at anchor in Scapa Flow.’ On 1 September his worst fears seemed to be realised. A look-out in the cruiser Falmouth reported a periscope about 50 yards away and the ship’s guns opened fire. The whole fleet was ordered to go to sea. But there was no German submarine in the area; the look-out had probably seen a pole caught in the wash of a passing destroyer.

The fleet went to Loch Ewe, and Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote an order in a style that was to become familiar to millions in a later war: Every nerve must be strained to reconcile the Fleet to Scapa. Successive lines of submarine defences should be prepared, reinforced by contact mines as proposed by the Commander-in-Chief. Nothing should stand in the way of the equipment of this anchorage with every possible means of security.

Blockships, mines and drifters

The first blockship was sunk in East Weddel Sound on 14 September and that channel was largely blocked two days later. Where it was necessary to allow access, Captain Munro developed a form of boom defence. The first minefield in the base was laid off South Ronaldsay, at the end of 1914. The entrances to the Flow were patrolled by fishing boats and destroyers. Sub-Lieutenant Angus Cunningham-Graham found it very hard work. ‘The weather at the boom always seemed to be foul and a seven knot tide … kicked up the nastiest sort of sea. The drifter was lighted by acetylene gas, and if I smell carbide, even now, my mind goes straight back to that patrol.’ This could not protect against tragedy. The battleship Vanguard was lying peacefully at anchor off Flotta on the night of 9 July 1917, when a tremendous explosion lit the night.

Until oil fuel became common later in the war, ships coaled up as soon as they came back from an operation, a filthy, laborious business. The hold gangs began shovelling furiously to get the bags filled. … Throughout the night the shovels were working and the winches rattling away, whilst the inboard gangs were clearing the dumps at the double to have the coal tipped into the bunkers. Those poor devils in the bowels of the ship were trimming the bunkers as the coal shot into them.

A population of about 150,000 sailors, fishermen and civilian workers had to be fed. 320 tons of meat were needed per month, along with 800 tons of potatoes and 80,000 pounds of bread. Stephen King-Hall claims that ‘… those who spent some time in that part of the world … passed through three stages. First, they talked to themselves; then they talked to the sheep; and lastly they thought the sheep talked to them.’ Many of the seamen had their homes and families at almost the opposite end of the United Kingdom in the Plymouth area. The leave train from Thurso to London, the ‘Jellicoe Special’, was often grossly overcrowded and took 24 hours or more to complete its journey.

At the end of May 1916 the main fleet sailed from the Flow to join other ships from Cromarty and the Forth to fight the Battle of Jutland. It was a crushing disappointment for those who hoped for a great victory, though the main losses were among the battlecruisers based in the Forth rather than the ships at Scapa Flow. But the battle confirmed that the German High Seas Fleet was unlikely to defeat the Royal Navy, and it hardly left harbour again.

Many aircraft had flown off ships by this time, but none had landed on them. On 5 August 1917 the battlecruiser Furious steamed across the Flow at high speed and Squadron-Commander Edwin Dunning flew his Sopwith Pup round the superstructure and at his stalling speed, which was equal to the airflow over the ship, he was pulled down by carrying handles fitted to his wings. The following day he tried again and was killed – ‘flat-top’ aircraft carriers would be needed.

The German fleet scuttled

By 1918 the facilities in the Firth of Forth were judged sufficient and on 11 April the Grand Fleet headed south to leave Scapa for the last time during that war. But some of the ships were back by the end of the year, guarding the German High Seas Fleet, which was interned under the armistice of 11 November. In June 1919 Admiral von Reuter, in command of the ‘Internment Formation’, issued secret orders to prepare for scuttling. On the 21st a party of local schoolchildren on a day trip round the harbour watched in amazement as the great fleet disappeared.

Some went down with their sterns almost vertical above the water, others listed to port or starboard with vast clouds of steam and rivers of oil pouring out of their vents and bubbling to the surface after the ships had reached the bottom and there was the roaring of escaping steam and the shouts of thousands of sailors as they made off in the boats.

The Second World War

The British fleet only visited Scapa Flow intermittently during the 1920s and 30s, and again the harbour was unprepared when the next war started in September 1939. Immediately there was tragedy when the battleship Royal Oak was sunk by U-47. Ludovic Kennedy wrote, ‘The islands were treeless, just heather and grass, seabirds and sheep, and across the bare face of the Flow tempests blew, often for days on end. There were no women, shops, restaurants, just a couple of canteens that dispensed warm beer, a hall for film shows and the occasional concert party …’ The role of the Flow had changed, as Germany no longer had a battlefleet, so a concentration like the Grand Fleet was not needed. It was the base for the disastrous operations off Norway in 1940, and in May 1941 the ships of the Home Fleet, including the ill-fated battlecruiser Hood, sailed from there when the Bismarck escaped into the Atlantic.

By the end of 1941 the Flow had become the base for support of the Russian convoys and facilities improved slightly. D A Rayner observed in August 1943, ‘Where there had been miles of muddy roads and open fields there were now hard roads and serried ranks of good huts. There were canteens for the men and there was also a giant mess for the officers.’ But there was nothing to get excited about, and one sailor recounted, ‘Harbour routine at Scapa was the same day after day: clean guns; clean ship; watch-keeping; divisions; evening quarters; store parties …’ It was far worse outside the harbour. In 1943 a midshipman in the cruiser Belfast wrote after a patrol, ‘I think most people were glad to see Scapa again, almost as glad as they were to leave it before.’

Though the harbour had played a vital role in winning two world wars, the navy was not saddened when Scapa Flow was abandoned again after the war; its role is commemorated in the Heritage Centre in the old naval base at Lyness on the island of Hoy.

Brian Lavery is a naval historian and Curator Emeritus at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.