The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging



Scapa Flow & the History Beneath the Waves

by Alan Mantle

During the two World Wars of the 20th Century:
Scapa Flow was the Royal Navy's main Base;
comerstone of Britain's maritime defence.
- integral role in the Admiralty's offensive strategy against Germany in WW1
- in the defence of the North Sea and the Atlantic convoys in WW2

Scapa Flow [is] in the Orkney Islands, north of mainland Scotland. [The bay itself is] 120 square miles in area and with an average depth of 30 to 40 metres [with] easy access to both the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
Its name comes from the Old Norse - Skalpafloi, meaning 'bay of the long isthmus'/

With the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s the Admiralty first took an interest in Scapa Flow. Its location across from Skagerrak, the access to the Baltic between the 58 & 59 N. latitude was ideal .... the Admiralty needed a deep water anchorage for trading ships waiting to cross the North Sea to Baltic ports.

Up to that period, Germany had never been a traditional enemy. Before the unification of Germany in 1871, Britain was often allied in wartime with Prussia. Remember that for over100 years the kings of Great Britain [were] also rulers of the German state of Hanover. Even Queen Victoria married Albert who was a German prince.

Six of their nine children married nobles of German descent; one grandson was Wilhelm II, then the German Emperor and a first cousin to the ruler of Britain, King George V [another grandson]. With England and Germany strongly interrelated, conflict between them seemed inconceivable.

German rivalry a threat to Britain: their intention of creating a rival maritime empire
In 1898, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz considered a great German fleet as "a question of survival". He believed Germany could emerge victorious from a naval struggle with Britain if it followed a defensive strategy; [and] decided that a 2/3 ratio to the British fleet would be required ... and went about building it. His premise:

[Britain's reply]
Admiral John Fisher, the First Sea Lord as head of the Admiralty in 1904 had to overcome a powerful conservative opposition to his ideas but he introduced sweeping reforms in large part to counter the growing threat posed by the expanding German fleet .
.... . he was certainly one of the great figures in British Naval History. He was in fact the driving force behind the strengthened and reorganized fleet. This is his priceless legacy.

Under his leadership:

... with regard to the fleet personnel

...... and perhaps more importantly in that period,

Fisher's reforms caused serious problems for Tirpitz's plans;

The launch of HMS Dreadnought in February 1906.

Diplomatic developments for concentration of the British fleets.

These developments allowed Britain to discard the "two power standard", so that the focus was solely on out-building Germany

World War I

The Royal Navy's first strategic move, [was] for the Grand Fleet, to sail directly to Scapa Flow on 29 July 1914

The German bases:

British blockade: At the outbreak of World War I Scapa Flow was still unfortified. No German U-boats ever managed to enter Scapa Flow during the war, and only two attempts [were made]. (U-18 in Nov 1914 and UB-116, in October 1918. The strategy of the German navy was to break the British blockade while the Royal Navy was attempting to engage and destroy the German Fleet.

The two important naval battles in North Sea: Battle of Heligoland Bight on 28 August 1914: Battle of Dogger Bank on 24 January 1915 [during the war's] first 6 months.
Then the Battle of Jutland, in the North Sea near Denmark on 31 May-l June 1916, [which was the] only full-scale clash of battleships in the war .. (There were ultimately 151 British warships against 99 German combat ships).

The battle was inconclusive [with the] German fleet inflicting greater damage than it had received. (British losses were 14 ships: 6 cruisers, 8 destroyers with 7 000 killed & wounded; against Germany's losses of 11 ships: 1 pre-dreadnought, 5 cruisers & 5 torpedo boats with 3 000 killed & wounded.)

Both sides called it a victory but [the battle] convinced Admiral Scheer against further fleet action and [he] ordered the unrestricted submarine warfare campaign.

Other Events of Scapa Flow

3 days after the battle of Jutland, the Minister of War - Lord Kitchener - visited the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow. [He] was lost when cruiser HMS Hampshire, struck a mine leaving Scapa Flow.
The following year battleship HMS Vanguard exploded at anchor in Scapa Flow with the loss of 843 men.
On the 2nd August 1917, a South African born Squadron Commander Edwin Harris Dunning, DSC, RNAS, made naval history: the first pilot to land an aeroplane ( a Sopwith Pup) on a moving battleship, the HMS Furious in Scapa Flow.
A month ago (96 years after) ..... the first landing of a pilotless drone on the carrier USS George Bush off the coast of Virginia, guided automatically by satellite and a string of computer alogarithms ... and without any human intervention. It ushers in a new era of unmanned drones in naval aviation.

Now returning to Scapa flow ....
The signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, at Compiegne, France, effectively ended the First World War. The German surface fleet [was to be] interned at Scapa Flow with a skeleton crew of German sailors until a final decision had been reached and total of 74 ships of the German High Seas Fleet arrived in Scapa Flow for internment. Negotiations over the fate of the ships dragged on for 7 months at the Paris Peace Conference. As negotiations at Versailles reached a critical point adm von Reuter didn't know that the surrender talks had been extended and would not be signed until the 28th June.

On 21 June 1919 at around 10:00 am, he gave the command to scuttle the entire fleet in the Flow while [the] British First Battle Squadron and its escorting destroyers [were out of the Flow] on an exercise.
They arrived back too late at 14:30. The last German ship to sink was the battlecruiser Hindenburg at 17:00, and only Baden survived. Of the 74 German ships in Scapa Flow, 15 of the 16 battleships, 5 of the 8 cruisers, and 32 of the 50 destroyers were sunk. The remainder either remained afloat, or were towed to shallower waters and beached. A total of 52 ships went to the seafloor and this remains the greatest loss of shipping ever recorded in a single day.

With the glut of scrap metal left after the end of the war [these ships were considered] not worth salvaging. Some years later, Ernest Cox, formed a Co. and bought 26 destroyers from the Admiralty for 250 each, as well as the battleships Seydlitz and Hindenburg and also acquired the battleships Moltke, von der Tann and two battle cruisers. Cox [was known as ] the "man who bought a navy". Using a German floating dry dock and two admiralty tugs was able to lift and beach his destroyers, helped by spring tides that rose and fell from 10 to 12 feet.
For the larger vessels they developed other salvage techniques, creating watertight sections in the submerged hulls and fitted cleated trunk airlocks attempted to refloat with compressed air pumped into them
The remaining wrecks lie in deeper waters and the seven fleet wrecks that remain, are scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act. Divers are allowed to visit them but need a permit to do so.

Coming to World War II

World War II saw the Home Fleet return to Scapa Flow, from where initially it helped to protect the merchant Convoys. World War I defences had been dismantled and at the outbreak of war, the anchorage was vulnerable to attack.

Admiral Donitz' plan.

The plan [was] a two pronged assault on the Royal Navy.

On the night of 13/14 October 1939 the battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk at anchor by torpedoes fired by a submarine the U-47. The sinking of the Royal Oak proved that a single cheap U-boat, manned by a forty-four man crew, could sink a huge and expensive battleship such as the Royal Oak, manned by over 1,200 men.
Three days after the submarine attack, Junkers 88 bombers raided Scapa Flow in one of the first bombing attacks on Britain. Following these events, Scapa Flow Work began immediately to strengthen the defences, with anti-aircraft batteries, minefields and further blockships. The Churchill Barriers ....
Some of the most significant naval action of World War II began in Scapa Flow. Coming to these times .....
Today warships are an unusual sight in Scapa Flow but the unsalvaged vessels of the German High Seas Fleet offer the greatest wreck diving: The wreckage of the remaining seven ships of the German High Seas fleet (and some other sites such as the blockships);
The three sister battleships of the Konig class lie upside down at a depth of 25m. (the SMS Konig, the SMS Kronprinz [and] the SMS Markgraf).
The other four ships are light cruisers that lie on their sides at a depth 16-20 metres and they have been less heavily salvaged:
(SMS Dresden, SMS Karlsruhe, SMS Brummer, and SMS Coln)

The wrecks of the Royal Oak and the dreadnought HMS Vanguard, are war graves protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. Only divers of the British armed forces are permitted to visit them.

HMS Royal Oak Memorial
[is situated] on the foreshore, close to where the ship went down; Every year a [memorial service is] celebrated. In addition, the wreck of the Hampshire, [is] also a protected site.

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 8 August 2013


Return to Society's Home page

South African Military History Society / scribe@samilitaryhistory.org