Scapa Flow

For the racehorse, see Scapa Flow (horse). For the film, see Scapa Flow (film). For the band, see Scapa Flow (Swedish band).
Scapa Flow viewed from its eastern end in June 2009
Scapa Flow location map

Scapa Flow (/ˈskɑːpə/ or /ˈskæpə/; from Old Norse Skalpaflói, meaning "bay of the long isthmus"[1]) is a body of water in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, United Kingdom, sheltered by the islands of Mainland, Graemsay, Burray,[2] South Ronaldsay and Hoy. The Harbour Authority area of Scapa Flow in Orkney has been measured as part of a wider consultation in ballast water management in 2013, and it has been accurately calculated that Scapa Flow is 324.5 square kilometres (125.3 sq mi) in area and that this area contains just under 1 billion cubic metres of water. Scapa Flow is one of Britain's most historic stretches of water - located within the Orkney Islands, off the northeast coast of Scotland. Its sheltered waters have been used by ships since prehistory and it has played an important role in travel, trade and conflict throughout the centuries - especially during both World Wars. It is currently a world-famous diving location, with the wrecks of the scuttled German Fleet offering unique diving challenges. Scapa Flow is also a major oil port serving the Flotta Oil Terminal, and is a prime location of ship-to-ship transfers of crude oil product and liquefied natural gas (LNG). The world’s first ship-to-ship transfer of LNG took place in Scapa Flow in 2007.


Scapa Flow has a shallow sandy bottom not deeper than 60 metres (200 ft) and most of it about 30 metres (98 ft) deep, and is one of the great natural harbours/anchorages of the world, with sufficient space to hold a number of navies.

Historical shipping use

Vikings anchored their longships in Scapa Flow more than a thousand years ago, but it is best known as the site of the United Kingdom's chief naval base during World War I and World War II. The facility was closed in 1956.

Viking era

The Viking expeditions to Orkney are recorded in detail in the 11th century Orkneyinga sagas and later texts such as the Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar.

According to the latter, King Haakon IV of Norway anchored his fleet, including the flagship Kroussden that could carry nearly 300 men, on 5 August 1263 at St Margaret's Hope, where he witnessed an eclipse of the sun prior to sailing south to the Battle of Largs.

En route back to Norway Haakon anchored some of his fleet in Scapa Flow for the winter, but he died that December whilst staying at the Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall.[3] In the 15th century towards the end of Norse rule in Orkney, the islands were run by the jarls from large manor farms, some of which were sited at Burray, Burwick, Paplay, Hoy, and Cairston (near Stromness) to guard the entrances to the Flow.[4]

Wars of the Three Kingdoms

In 1650 during the wars of the Three Kingdoms, the Royalist general James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, moored his ship, the Herderinnan, in Scapa Flow, in preparation for his attempt to raise a rebellion in Scotland. The enterprise ended in failure and rout at the Battle of Carbisdale.

World War I

Location of Orkney within Scotland

Base for the British Grand Fleet

Historically, the main British naval bases were located near the English Channel to better face Britain's old enemies, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. In 1904, in response to the build-up of the German Kaiserliche Marine's High Seas Fleet, it was decided that a northern base was needed to control the entrances to the North Sea, as part of a revised policy of 'distant' rather than 'close' blockade.

First Rosyth was considered for the base, then Invergordon at Cromarty Firth, but construction in both places was delayed, leaving them largely unfortified by the outbreak of WWI. Scapa Flow had been used many times for exercises in the years before the War, and when the time came for the fleet to move to a northern station, Scapa Flow was chosen for the main base of the British Grand Fleet, even though it was also unfortified.[5]

John Rushworth Jellicoe, admiral of the Grand Fleet, was perpetually nervous about the possibility of submarine or destroyer attacks on Scapa Flow. Whilst the fleet spent almost the first year of the war patrolling the west coast of the British Isles, their base at Scapa was defensively reinforced, beginning with over sixty block-ships sunk in the many entrance channels between the southern islands to facilitate the use of submarine nets and booms. These blocked approaches were backed by minefields, artillery, and concrete barriers.

Only two attempts to enter the harbour were made by German U-boats during the war, and neither was successful. U-18 tried to enter in November 1914, but a trawler searching for submarines rammed it, causing U-18 to flee and then sink. UB-116 made the second attempt in October 1918 but encountered the sophisticated defences then in place. It was detected by hydrophones before entering the anchorage, then destroyed by shore-triggered mines.

After the Battle of Jutland, the German High Seas Fleet rarely ventured out of its bases at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, and in the last two years of the war the British fleet was considered to have such a commanding superiority of the seas that some components moved south, to the first-class dockyard at Rosyth.

The scuttling of the German fleet

Following the German defeat in WWI, 74 ships of the Kaiserliche Marine's High Seas Fleet were interned in Gutter Sound at Scapa Flow pending a decision on their future in the peace Treaty of Versailles.

On 21 June 1919, after nine months of waiting, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, the German officer in command at Scapa Flow, made the decision to scuttle the fleet because the negotiation period for the treaty had lapsed with no word of a settlement (he was not kept informed that there had been a last-minute extension to finalise the details).

After waiting for the bulk of the British fleet to leave on exercises, he gave the order to scuttle the ships to prevent their falling into British hands. The Royal Navy made desperate efforts to board the ships to prevent the sinkings, but the German crews had spent the idle months preparing for the order, welding bulkhead doors open, laying charges in vulnerable parts of the ships, and quietly dropping important keys and tools overboard so valves could not be shut.

The British did eventually manage to beach the battleship Baden, the light cruisers Nürnberg, and Frankfurt together with 18 destroyers, but the remaining 52 ships, the vast bulk of the High Seas Fleet, were sunk without loss of life. Nine German sailors died when British forces opened fire as they attempted to scuttle their ship, reputedly the last casualties of WWI.

SMS Emden was amongst the ships the British managed to beach. This Emden should not be confused with her predecessor, destroyed in the Battle of Cocos on 9 November 1914 by the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney.

At least seven of the scuttled German ships, and a number of sunken British ships, can be visited by scuba divers.

The great salvage operation

Although many of the larger ships turned turtle and came to rest upside down or on their sides in relatively deep water (25–45 m), some—including the battlecruiser Moltke—were left with parts of their superstructure or upturned bows still protruding from the water or just below the surface.

These ships posed a severe hazard to navigation, and small boats, trawlers and drifters, moving around the Flow regularly became snagged on them with the rise and fall of the tides. The Admiralty initially declared that there would be no attempt at salvage, that the sunken hulks would remain where they were, to 'rest and rust.' In the first few years after the war, there was abundant scrap metal as a result of the huge quantities of leftover tanks, artillery and ordnance. By the early 1920s, the situation had changed.

In 1922, the Admiralty invited tenders from interested parties for the salvage of the sunken ships, although at the time few believed that it would be possible to raise the deeper wrecks.[2] The contract went to a wealthy engineer and scrap metal merchant, Ernest Cox, who created a new company, a division of Cox & Danks Ltd, for the venture, and so began what is often called the greatest maritime salvage operation of all time.[2]

During the next eight years, Cox and his workforce of divers, engineers, and labourers engaged in the complex task of raising the sunken fleet. First the relatively small destroyers were winched to the surface using pontoons and floating docks to be sold for scrap to help finance the operation, then the bigger battleships and battlecruisers were lifted, by sealing the multiple holes in the wrecks and welding huge steel tubes to the hulls for use as airlocks. In this fashion the submerged hulls were made into air-tight chambers and raised with compressed air, still inverted, back to the surface. Cox endured bad luck and frequent fierce storms which often ruined his work, swamping and re-sinking ships which had just been raised. At one stage, during the General Strike of 1926, the salvage operation was about to grind to a halt due to a lack of coal to feed the many boilers for the water pumps and generators. Cox ordered that the abundant fuel bunkers of the sunken (but only partly submerged) battlecruiser Seydlitz be broken into to extract the coal with mechanical grabs, allowing work to continue.

Although he ultimately lost money on the contract, Cox kept going, employing new technology and methods as conditions dictated. By 1939, Cox and Metal Industries Ltd. (the company that he had sold out to in 1932) had successfully raised 45 of the 52 scuttled ships. The last, the massive Derfflinger, was raised from a record depth of 45 metres just before work was suspended with the start of WWII, before being towed to Rosyth where it was broken up in 1946.

A Morse key recovered from the battleship Grosser Kurfürst during the salvage operation is now on display at the Museum of Communication, 131 High Street, Burntisland, Fife, Scotland.

World War II

Blockship, Scapa Flow

Primarily because of its great distance from German airfields, Scapa Flow was again selected as the main British naval base during WWII.[6]

The strong defences built during WWI had fallen into disrepair. Defence against air attack was inadequate and blockships sunk to stop U-boats from penetrating had largely collapsed. While there were anti-submarine nets in place over the three main entrances, they were made only of single-stranded looped wire, there was also a severe lack of the patrolling destroyers and other anti-submarine craft that had previously been available; efforts began belatedly to repair peacetime neglect but were not completed in time to prevent a successful penetration by enemy forces.[7]

On 14 October 1939, under the command of Günther Prien, U-47 penetrated Scapa Flow and sank the WWI–era battleship HMS Royal Oak anchored in Scapa Bay.[8] After firing its first torpedo, the submarine turned to make its escape; but, upon realising that there was no immediate threat from surface vessels, it returned for another attack. The second torpedo blew a 30-foot (9.1 m) hole in the Royal Oak, which flooded and quickly capsized. Of the 1,400-man crew, 833 were lost. The wreck is now a protected war grave.[9][10]

Three days after this submarine attack, four Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 bombers of Kampfgeschwader 1/30 led by group commander Hauptmann Fritz Doench raided Scapa Flow on 17 October in one of the first bombing attacks on Britain during the war. The attack badly damaged an old base ship, the decommissioned battleship HMS Iron Duke, which was then beached at Ore Bay by a tug. One man died and 25 were injured. One of the bombers was shot down by No 1 gun of 226 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery on Hoy. Three of the crew died, while the radio operator Fritz Ambrosius was badly burned but managed to parachute down.[11]

New blockships were sunk, booms and mines were placed over the main entrances, coast defence and anti-aircraft batteries were installed at crucial points, and Winston Churchill ordered the construction of a series of causeways to block the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow; they were built by Italian prisoners of war held in Orkney, who also built the Italian Chapel. These "Churchill Barriers" now provide road access from Mainland to Burray and South Ronaldsay, but block maritime traffic. An air base, RAF Grimsetter (which later became HMS Robin), was built and commissioned in 1940.[12]


Use by the petroleum industry

Petroleum tankers wait at anchor in Scapa Flow. The calm waters, relative to the North Sea, provide a safe harbour for the oil terminal at Flotta

Scapa Flow is one of the transfer and processing points for North Sea oil. A 30-inch, 128-mile-long underwater pipeline brings oil from the Piper oilfield to the Flotta oil terminal. The Claymore and Tartan oil fields also feed into this line.

Scapa Flow Visitor Centre

Media related to Scapa Flow Visitor Centre at Wikimedia Commons

Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, Hoy

The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, at Lyness on the island of Hoy, is located in the former naval fuel pumping station and a converted storage tank. Exhibits include a large, three-dimensional representation of the island and of the German ships as they were prior to scuttling. The island is accessible by local ferry several times daily from Houton. The centre has catering facilities for day trippers.

Scuba diving

The wreckage of the remaining seven ships of the German fleet (and some other sites such as the blockships) has become increasingly popular as a venue for recreational scuba divers, and is regularly listed in dive magazines and internet forums among the top dive sites in the UK, Europe, and even the world. Although other locations, for example the Pacific regions, offer warmer water and better visibility, there are very few other sites which can offer such an abundance of large, historic wrecks lying in close proximity and shallow, relatively benign diving conditions. As of 2010, at least twelve "live aboard" boats—mostly converted trawlers with bunk rooms in their former holds—take recreational divers out to the main sites, primarily from the main harbour at Stromness. Diving provides a substantial amount of trade and income for the local economy.

Divers must first obtain a permit from the Island Harbour Authorities, which is available through diving shops and centres. The wrecks are mostly located at depths of 35 to 50 metres. Divers are permitted to enter the wrecks, but not to retrieve artefacts located within 100 metres of any wreck. However, time and tide has washed broken pieces of ships' pottery and glass bottles into shallow waters and onto beaches. The underwater visibility, which can vary between 2 and 20 metres, is not sufficient to view all the length of most wrecks at once; however, current technology is now allowing 3D images of them to be seen.[13]

The important wrecks are:

The battleships

The three sister battleships of the König class, the SMS König, SMS Kronprinz and SMS Markgraf, which together formed the main component of the 3rd Battleship Squadron, and which took part in some of the fiercest fighting at Jutland, lie upside down with around 25 m of water over them. Although they were never raised, they have been substantially salvaged over the years, with armour plate blasted away and non-ferrous metals removed. They remain, however, extremely impressive dives, not least because of their sheer, awesome size.

The light cruisers

Having much less bulky fighting tops, the four light cruisers SMS Dresden, SMS Karlsruhe, SMS Brummer, and SMS Cöln lie on their sides with around 16–20 metres of water over them. With the exception of the shallower Karlsruhe, they have been less heavily salvaged than the battleships and are much more accessible for divers.

Other dive locations

Additional sites of interest include the destroyer SMS V83, which was raised and used by Cox as a working boat during his salvage operations, particularly on the SMS Hindenburg, then later abandoned; the Churchill blockships, such as the Tabarka, the Gobernador Bories, and the Doyle in Burra Sound; the U-boat SM UB-116; and the trawler James Barrie. Also, some large items from many of the ship hulls that were raised (such as the main gun turrets, which fell away from the ships as they capsized) were never salvaged, and still exist on the seabed in close proximity to the impact craters created by the scuttled ships.

War grave wrecks

The wrecks of the battleships Royal Oak and Vanguard (which exploded at anchor during World War I) are war graves protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. In addition, the wreck of the armoured cruiser Hampshire, which hit a mine while carrying Lord Kitchener north to Murmansk on 5 June 1916 and sank off the west coast of the mainland, is also a protected site. The 10,850-ton armoured cruiser, which went down in a heavy storm four days after the Battle of Jutland with only 12 surviving from its 655 crew, lies in 70 metres of water 1.5 miles off the steep, desolate cliffs of Marwick Head, above which the Kitchener Memorial now stands as a memorial to those lost. Only divers of the British armed forces are permitted to visit them.[14]


According to legend, a curse was placed on Scapa long ago by a witch. She buried a thimble in the sand at Nether Scapa, and until it was found no more whales would be caught in the area.[15]


See also

References and sources

  1. Scapa Flow: Graveyard of the German Fleet, Will Springer.
  2. 1 2 3 S. C. George, Jutland to Junkyard, 1973.
  3. Thompson (2008) pp. 141–43.
  4. Thompson (2008) pp. 223–34.
  5. Robert K. Massie (2004). Castles of Steel. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-40878-0.
  6. The Twilight War: Winston Churchill 1948
  7. James Miller, The North Atlantic Front: Orkney, Shetland, Faroe and Iceland at War (2004)
  8. Rick D. Joshua. "U-boat U-47". Retrieved 16 October 2009.
  9. David Turner, Last Dawn: The Royal Oak Tragedy at Scapa Flow (Argyll Publishing, 2008).
  10. H. J. Weaver, Nightmare at Scapa Flow: the truth about the sinking of HMS Royal Oak (Cressrelles, 1980).
  11. Geirr H. Haarr (24 September 2013). The Gathering Storm: The Naval War in Northern Europe September 1939 - April 1940. Seaforth Publishing. pp. 240–243. ISBN 978-1-4738-3131-5.
  12. M. Brown and P. Meehan, Scapa Flow: the reminiscences of men and women who served in Scapa Flow in the two World Wars (Allen Lane, Penguin, 1968).
  13. "Scapa Flow in 3D". DiverNet. Retrieved 16 October 2009.
  14. Wrecks designated as Military Remains, Maritime and Coastguard Agency, retrieved 27 December 2006
  15. "A curse on the sands at Scarpa - An introduction to Orkney witches - Folklore and old stories - Culture and tradition - Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme". Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme. 2011. Retrieved 29 July 2014.

Further reading

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Scapa Flow.

Coordinates: 58°54′N 3°03′W / 58.900°N 3.050°W / 58.900; -3.050

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