History of Scapa Flow: what happened, why it was important and where to see the remains

During the First World War, the harbour of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands played an important defence role. Our guide looks at the history of Scapa Flow, including what happened and why it was a key moment in the First World War.

Scapa Flow ship

During the First World War, blockships were sunk at strategic entrances to Scapa Flow to deter enemy ships and act as anti-submarine defences.  Some wrecks still jut above the water, as desolate reminders of conflict. Our guide to Scapa Flow looks back on its unique history, what happened and why Scapa Flow was so important

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Graveyard of fleets, cradle of ancient communities and haven for extraordinary wildlife, the waters of Scapa Flow and the surrounding Orkney hills and isles offer a unique adventure into history.

What is Scapa Flow?

Scapa Flow covers an area of 323 square kilometres, making it the largest natural harbour in the northern hemisphere and provides the backdrop to trips around the archipelago’s southern isles as well as much of the Orkney mainland. These waters ripple through Orkney’s history. Most famously, this is where the German High Seas Fleet was scuttled after the First World War; next June is the centenary of this tumultuous event. Wrecks from both world wars lie in its shallows.

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What does the name mean?

Human history along the coast goes back much further, evident in the form of Neolithic chambered cairns, Bronze-Age burial mounds, remnant Iron-Age towers known as brochs, Norse halls and medieval churches. Prehistoric peoples – possibly as far back as 13,000BC – passed through to hunt seals. Much later came Picts and Vikings (the Old Norse name ‘Skalpeid Floi’ translates as ‘Ship Isthmus Bay’) and Arctic whalers, all dependant on it for shelter and natural resources.

These waters have long nourished wildlife. The hen harrier – known in Orcadian as cattabelly – scoots across moorland and short-eared owls quarter coastal fields. This year saw the first white-tailed eagle chick to hatch on Hoy in 145 years. Some 2,000 common seals live and breed in Scapa Flow, orcas sometimes manoeuvre their way in and otters can be seen pretty much anywhere.

Why was Scapa Flow important?

War has left the firmest imprint. During the First and Second World Wars, Scapa Flow was the main anchorage and headquarters for the Royal Navy’s battle fleet. Just why a small Scottish archipelago was propelled on to the world scene becomes evident as you explore the coastline: a base to control the northern passages to the North Sea was essential to counter the German threat. Scapa Flow also provided natural defences in the form of narrow-access channels from the east, west and south that could be defended against enemy ships and submarines from headlands and the many islands within its waters. In the Second World War, the Scapa Barrage – its units on Hoy, Flotta and Hoxa Head – was central to this. The barrage took fewer than three minutes to fire more than 1,800 shells to a range of 32,000ft, creating a defensive curtain.

The barrage included Scad Head, the heavy anti-aircraft defence battery visible from Lyrawa Hill. I walk down a boggy path to explore the concrete structures. They’re based around a central command post; nearby are old gun emplacements. On the shore, next to hauled-out seals, are the remains of an anti-submarine metal-net curtain that draped right across Scapa Flow.

Hub for the home fleet

Further south is Lyness, a small port transformed during the Second World War into the main shore base for servicing the home fleet’s battleships, aircraft carriers and smaller craft. By 1940, more than 12,000 military and civilian personnel were stationed here.

Today, Lyness is a place of pilgrimage for veterans, relatives and those wishing to explore a key wartime site. Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum (closed for refurbishment and due to reopen in 2020) in the old pumphouse has fascinating artefacts. The museum forecourt displays the propeller of HMS Hampshire, sunk in 1916; you can also see the remains of the cinema and NAAFI canteen. It’s a short walk to Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery, home to over 600 war dead.

Across the flow, I walk south of Stromness to reach the Ness Battery, which operated in both world wars. In the Second World War, Fire Command here controlled the six batteries that defended the western entrances to Scapa Flow; the concrete remains of searchlight emplacements still hug the shore.

What happened at Scapa Flow?

Ness is the only battery in Britain to have kept its original huts. One, the Mess Hall, is dominated by a striking mural with colourful scenes of Home Counties life painted by British soldiers, and a depiction of the hills of Hoy, over which the gunners’ challenge to the enemy is painted in bold letters: “Come the three corners of the world in ships and we will sink them!”.

The irony is, the greatest losses of life in the Flow’s waters were all British. In June 1916, HMS Hampshire was sailing from Scapa Flow to Russia on what is thought to have been a secret mission, with secretary of state for war Lord Kitchener on board. In force-nine seas, just north-west of Scapa Flow, the ship hit a mine and sank. Of the 749 passengers and crew, just 12 survived.

E5GFA2 1939 Evening News (London) front page reporting sinking HMS Royal Oak
E5GFA2 1939 Evening News (London) front page reporting sinking HMS Royal Oak

A year later, HMS Vanguard blew up at anchor. The ship, now a war grave, was torn apart by unstable cordite in its magazine; 804 men died and just two survived. In January 1918, HMS Narborough and HMS Opal were both engulfed in a violent snowstorm and smashed on South Ronaldsay’s coast, with just one survivor out of 180 crew.

South of Scapa Bay, I take a walk along the headland, from where a large green buoy is visible. This marks the war grave of HMS Royal Oak, one of the worst disasters in the history of the Royal Navy. On the night of 13 October 1939, the German submarine U47 penetrated the defences at Kirk Sound, entered Scapa Flow and found HMS Royal Oak at anchor. Hit by torpedo, the ship rolled over and sank within 15 minutes, with the loss of 833 men. The submarine left the same way, its commander later personally awarded the Knight’s Cross by Hitler.

The loss of the Royal Oak was a shattering blow. During the First World War, the defence of Scapa Flow had involved the placement of blockships, ageing steamers deliberately sunk to deter enemy vessels from penetrating its eastern edges. The Royal Oak tragedy exposed these as inadequate. Scapa Flow was ‘The Holy of Holies’: if it wasn’t safe, then nor was the whole fleet. Without an effective fleet, Britain faced defeat.

Winston Churchill ordered the construction of four permanent barriers to fill the watery gaps. Just two entrances, to the south and west, were to be left open. Work began in May 1940 and involved 580,000 tons  of rock and 66,000 concrete blocks. Aerial cableways, known as Blondins (after the famous tightrope walker), dropped wire cages filled with broken rock into the channels. Along with British and Irish labourers, 1,300 Italian prisoners of war were tasked with the work. A handful of these POWs, led by Domenico Chiocchetti, created the Italian Chapel on
Lamb Holm.

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The four Churchill Barriers have a total length of 2.4km

It took until June 1943 to put the barriers in place, where they remain today, allowing Orcadians and visitors to move between the southern isles of Burray, South Ronaldsay and the Orkney mainland without getting their feet wet. While some of the blockships have been salvaged for scrap, those remaining are a poignant spectacle.

South of the barriers near the tip of South Ronaldsay, stands Barth Head, reached by an unrelenting stretch of cliff-edge walking. The headland’s angular contours of Old Red Sandstone form an ancient landmark visible from much of Scapa Flow. It’s a reminder that, while war has left indelible marks on Scapa Flow, this waterscape opens a far wider window on human history. 

The scuttling of the German fleet

At the time of the Armistice, November 1918, the captured German fleet of 74 ships, with a collective crew of 25,000 men, was escorted to Scapa Flow. The majority of the men were sent home, leaving a skeleton crew of 1,700 to maintain the ships amid negotiations over the peace settlement.

Time passed slowly for the captives. In Stromness Museum you will find a poem by Torpedo-Obermatrosen Heinze, on torpedo boat S60: ‘Four months I have lingered in Scapa; how long can this misery last?/ Barren rocks are my only lookout/ what horrors their shadows cast!/ Wild ducks fly on high/ And for freedom I sigh.’

As the talks dragged on with little apparent prospect of resolution, the German commander Ludwig von Reuter grew increasingly restless. On 17 June 1919, he sent a secret letter to his captains that they were “to make immediate preparations for scuttling all ships, to ensure their sinking as soon as possible after the receipt of command”.

When the German government collapsed, von Reuter concluded there was no prospect for a favourable peace agreement and decided to authorise the scuttling. On 21 June he sent the signal. The SMS Friedrich der Grosse was the first to sink at noon; by 5pm, 52 ships had been scuttled. The rest were beached.

Over the years, different theories have emerged as to just how von Reuter was able to execute his plan: the case has been made that it suited both sides for the ships to be scuttled, so they did not fall into, or remain in, enemy hands. Wreaths that washed up
on the shore after the scuttling – most likely having been laid on the ships before they sank – were made from flowers unobtainable in Orkney, which has fuelled some of the conspiracy theories.

Sunken Scapa Flow

How to explore the wreck of Scapa Flow?

Eleven of the 74 ships scuttled in the Flow in 1919 still lie here, providing a haven for marine creatures, including crabs and urchins as well as fish, such as pollock and saithe. “What you see is amazing; the wrecks are ginormous and they have great historical significance,” says Katie MacLeod, dive manager at Scapa Scuba. “It can feel like swimming in the bowels of a cathedral. They attract marine life and you see seals and conger eels and lobsters.” If diving by yourself, bear in mind that some sites are war graves and are off limits. Dives usually take place between May and September. Scapa Scuba offers accompanied dives.  scapascuba.co.uk

Where to see the remains of Scapa Flow

Scapa Flow map
Scapa Flow map
1

Hackness Martello Tower and Battery

An interesting tower built during the Napoleonic wars in response to attacks by privateers and French warships.

2

Kirk Hope

In 995, pagan Earl Sigurd the Stout converted to Christianity here. Also the location of graves of lifeboatmen who died in the 1969 Longhope lifeboat tragedy.

3

Hill of White Hamars

The grasslands in this wildlife reserve have never been ploughed and are home to more than 180 wildflowers, including the Primula scotica.

4

Lyness 

This town was the main Second-World-War base for servicing the home fleet; the Royal Naval Cemetery can be found here.

5

Wee Fea viewpoint 

The collapsing ruins of this Second-World-War communications centre offer superb vistas of Scapa Flow.

Wreck of Scapa Flow
Wreck of Scapa Flow
6

Scad Head 

Formed part of the Scapa Barrage and Battery. One eyewitness, Reginald Brimicombe, recorded how “all the fire and thunder in Dante’s inferno was let loose”.

7

Royal Oak 

A green buoy marks the war grave of the British Navy’s worst sinking: the loss of HMS Royal Oak.

8

Waulkmill Bay 

A sheltered beach that’s safe for swimming; behind it is Orkney’s largest stretch of saltmarsh.

9

Ness Battery 

This was operational during both world wars to defend the western entrances to Scapa Flow.

10

Earl’s Bu

Remains of the 12th-century great hall of Earl Haakon Paulsson; close by is Orkney’s only surviving medieval round church.

11

Hobbister RSPB Reserve

Stunning moorland that is home to hen harriers, short-eared owls and, in spring, cuckoos.

12

HMS Vanguard 

This battleship blew up while at anchor off Flotta in 1917, killing 843 of the 845 men on board.

13

Churchill Barriers  

A Kirk Sound; B Skerry Sound; C Weddell Sound; D Water Sound. From here you can view the wrecks of blockships.

14

Italian Chapel 

Built by Italian prisoners of war, this ornate church is now a listed building and one of the most visited sites on Orkney.

15

St Margaret’s Hope 

An attractive village with an excellent pub and café.

16

Hoxa Head

Some of the best-preserved wartime batteries in Orkney, including gun-crew shelters, are here and at Balfour Battery.

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17

Tomb of the Sea Eagles 

Neolithic chambered tomb where an excavation uncovered the bones and talons of a white-tailed eagle.