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Diving on the Remnants of the German Fleet

in Scapa Flow, the Orkneys in the 1980's

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THE HISTORY OF SCAPA FLOW

The atmosphere on the islands of the Orkneys might be described as ethereal. It is as though the spirits of lost seafarers have left their ghosts behind before they made their final journey to a watery grave. The feet of these men have paced the flagstones of the narrow, winding Main Street between grim, grey granite houses of the port, Stromness.

At the end of the street is Login's Well, from where the ships of the Sir John Franklin's tragic arctic exploration vessels watered before sailing west to chart the North West Passage. The water from this well supplied Captain Cook's 'Discovery' and Hudson Bay ships before they ventured westwards on their hazardous voyages. 

 

Main Street,Stromness

Click above for more pictures.

Scapa Flow, surrounded by the Orkney Islands is one of the largest natural harbours in the world - rich in history and a haven for ships for well over 1000 years.  Famous warships have sunk within these waters, but the most famous and romantic is the story of the scuttling of the German warships on June 21st 1919. One cannot but escape the feeling of sadness and tragedy that abounds the area.

 

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The German Warships in Scapa Flow, the remnants of the  formidable German Fleet in the First World War

 In 1918 after the German surrender to the Allies, the German High Seas Fleet was confined to Scapa Flow  A few days before the Treaty of Versailles, the peace treaty, was signed in Paris, the commander, Admiral von Reuter, wishing to avoid his fleet falling into British or allied hands, ordered the scuttling of the 74 German battleships and other warships at anchor in Scapa Flow.  Local gossip has it that the British Navy went out on manoeuvres and so turned a blind eye to their sinking in order to prevent the captured German Naval vessels being shared between the victorious nations.  Many of these were salvaged for scrap after the war, but  seven remain in deep water for scuba divers to investigate in the murky sea. 

 

The German Fleet in Scapa Flow in 1918

 

Click for enlargement

Three warships, Kron Prinz Wilhem, the König and the Mark Graf and four light cruisers, the Karlsruhe. the Dresden, the Köln and the Brummer are still present  for the adventurous diver - most more than 30 metres deep. The warships have turned turtle, but the cruisers lie on their side. Swimming over the surface of the warships seems to be a never ending expanse of ship, merely an area covered with crustaceans  Much more can be seen of the infrastructure of the cruisers that lie in slightly shallower water.  It is a memorable and unforgettable experience to see the ships that once formed part of the formidable German navy.

 Maps of Scapa Flow

Our Arrival

It is well over 20 years ago when the Nottingham Scuba Diving Club made the first of a number of visits to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys to dive these famous and historic warships.  Having reached the north of Scotland by bus, the ferry left from the port of Scrabster to the Orkneys. After passing the famous Old Man of Hoy  we had the first impression of Stromness - that of an old traditional stone built port and seaward houses each with its own small jetty or slipway. There is an overpowering impression of greyness with the occasional red house brightening the scene. Here have fishermen have offloaded catches of lobster and crab for generations.  This view has greeted seafarers for centuries.

Old Man of Hoy

Stromness Fisherman's houses.

Entering Stromness harbour

Harbour with Stromness hotel in the background

Stromness harbour

The Dives

Jim, the skipper of our dive boat, the Radiant Queen was a dour old character - cleanliness was not his forte, but as a navigator he could not be faulted and he always got us to our intended dive site. On the first day we dived the shallowest of the cruisers, the Karlsruhe and it was possible to swim round the whole ship, examining the guns, the hawsers, the generator and the anchor .  20 years ago we probably had just invested in dry suits, but were still using the old horse collar ABLJ, depth gauges and watches to time our dives.  We conscientiously waited six hours before our second dive and we were yet to use computers.  Later in the week we dived the deeper warships, but apart from the abundant deadman's finger and plume anemones there was little to see on the upturned ships bottoms.

On one occasion we dived on the remains of HMS Vanguard which blew up in 1917,  taking over 800 of her crew down with her. There was little to see of her and it is now strictly forbidden to dive her.  The HMS Royal Oak is also a protected War Grave having been sunk by a German submarine in October 1939 with the loss of 833 lives. Its position was clearly marked by the leakage of oil - a concern to the environment in the locality. An interesting dive was over the foul ground where there are scallops and queenies to gather and even a crab or two,

 

 

 

To view slide show of underwater pictures click the anemone or these words.

Below is a slide show of the dive expedition from Nottingham Diving Club 1985.

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The Radiant Queen skippered by Jim who took us to our dive sites.

The air is clear and exhilarating and this heightened by the bleakness and the fact that are few trees on the low-lying islands. The clarity of lighting is a photographers paradise.

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Island of Cava

 

 Surrounding Areas

With six hours to spare between dives we had time to land on one of the islands to have our lunch or perhaps swim with the seals that were lying on the rocks on the Barrel of Buttter. We picnicked on Flotta where there was a a oil terminal and oil freighters moored taking on oil.  We berthed at Lyness where there were the remnants of the Naval Base HMS Prosperine. and today is a visitors centre.  We wandered through the derelict Naval Headquarters building  which now appears no long to exist. Pigeons and gulls flew through the corridors where once naval ratings hurried and in the large operation room there were the parts of the operational map lying on the floor like the portions of a giant jigsaw puzzle. It was uncanny to think that in wartime this had been a hive of activity. The old naval pier was still standing.  Back in time was an ancient post office with an elderly post mistress who appeared to be in a time warp.  Scattered over the land leading up the the headquarters were decaying war time equipment including the anchor from HMS HampshireIn 1917, on its way to Russia, the Hampshire struck a mine off the Orkneys .  On board was Lord Kitchener who perished with his crew of 655 men. Only 12 men survived.

In the Island war cemetery, some sailors from these ships are buried including 14 Germans who died at the time of the scuttling of the battle ships.  A memorial cross remembers those killed in the Vanguard.

 

 

Views From Lyness

 

These photos were taken in Lyness on the Island of Hoy. The view was taken from the war cemetery which is the picture in the lower right hand corner. Centre is the anchor from HMS Hampshire and the two crosses are the memorial to HMS Vanguard.

 

 

There can be few islands like the Orkneys that have such rich history. The Neolithic man were settlers and his legacy still abounds. Querns for grinding corn stand in peoples' gardens as rockery stones.  A visit to the Ring of Broga, Maes Howe and Skara Brae  and other archaeological sites of interest is not to be missed. The Vikings have left their heritage and the capital, Kirkwall is well worth a visit . At the heart of the town stands St Magnus Cathedral, its tower and spire widely visible across both land and sea. It was founded in memory of Saint Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney 1108-1117 by Earl (later saint) Rögnvald Kolsson.

 

Neolithic remains in the Orkneys and the Viking heritage of Kirkwall

Ring of Broga

 

Slide Show.

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Scara Brae looking out to sea.

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