Over two world wars, the vast body of water known as Scapa Flow has been the main base for the Royal Navy. If all of the big decisions in those fateful conflicts were taken in Whitehall, then most of them were carried through from those fast northern waters, lying off the north east coast of Scotland.
Almost completely ringed in by islands, and with a series of old merchant ships eventually deliberately sunk to block hostile access from the gaps in between, Scapa Flow has as a big a place in British naval history as, say, Portsmouth, Malta or Alexandria. It was the only safe place where the capital ships of the Royal Navy could gather in sufficient strength to confront the Germans, if and when they ever chose to come out into the North Sea or the North Atlantic.
Scapa Flow is a bleak landscape of low, rolling hills, dry stone walls, diving gulls, sheep, and grazing cattle. There were almost no leisure facilities for the men sequestered there, often for months on end. For the sailors of the RN, being posted to a capital ship based at Scapa was only mildly more appealing than being billetted in Alcatraz. Boredom and routine were very much the order of the day, week in and out.
But certain moments in history lit up the Flow-sometimes quite literally- to such an extent that the mere mention of the place evokes the ghosts of legend past.
At the end of World War One, the entire German High Seas Fleet was interned at Scapa Flow, awaiting news of its fate while the victorious Allies squabbled over details at the peace treaty at Versailles.
In July 1919, rumours began to surface among the interned German sailors that a large part of their fleet would be handed over to France. Rather than submit to such an indignity, the entire German fleet- battleships, battle cruisers, cruisers, destroyers and auxiliary vessels-committed mass hara kiri, scuttling themselves in the waters of the Flow before the British guards could intervene. For decades, their hulks littered the sea bed. Even today, coal washed ashore from the remaining wrecks sometimes burns bright in Scapa hearths on long winter nights.
The Home Fleet returned to the Flow again in September of 1939, when war once again blackened the skies. Then, in an act of incredible daring, a German U boat managed to sneak through the defences of Scapa Flow on a raw October evening. Surrounded by a plethora of unsuspecting targets, the captain of U47, Gunther Prien, slammed a trio of torpedoes into the nearest battleship.
Aboard HMS Royal Oak, most of the crew had already been stood down from the daily routine of cleaning and maintaining the ship. Most of them were down below, eating, relaxing, playing cards, reading or writing, when the side of the ship burst in on them. The Royal Oak capsized with frightening speed, most of her crew simply overwhelmed by a deluge of freezing Orcadian seawater as it surged through the shattered hull. The ship sank within minutes, taking more than eight hundred of her crew down with her.
In real terms, the loss of the ship herself was not such a disaster. At twenty five years old, the Royal Oak was almost at the end of her active career. None the less, it happened at a time when literally every ship was desperately needed. But the loss of her highly trained crew- combined with the sheer shock engendered by the U-boat actually having penetrated the Flow’s defences as they stood- was a terrible blow, and a profound wake up call to all concerned.
Just eighteen months later, a pair of great, grey shapes stole across the waters of Scapa Flow, en route to one of the most epic encounters in naval history.
Standing looking over the vast, sunlit expanse of the Flow, it was all too easy for me to visualise the Hood and Prince of Wales moving slowly downstream. I could almost hear the hiss and clatter of the anchors, rattling through the hawse pipes as they came up from the bed of the Flow, on the evening of May 22nd, 1941.
It was all too easy to imagine the excitement of their young crews, the adrenaline running through them at the prospect of sudden action. Word had reached Scapa Flow that the new German battleship, Bismarck, had put to sea, intent on attacking the vital North Atlantic convoys. She had to be intercepted and stopped at any cost.
The sailing of Hood and Prince of Wales from Scapa Flow on that fateful evening in May, 1941, marked the opening chess moves on the British side of the board. For those on board the two British ships, the Bismarck was a completely unknown quantity. Well trained and battle hardened as many of them were, those lads would have been less than human not to have felt at least a twinge of uncertainty about what lay beyond their safe harbour.
It is almost too poignant for me to take in that the last sight of land those poor souls on Hood ever had, would have been of the same promontory that I now stood on, on a warm summer day in June, 2016. It is not only the battlefields of Verdun and the Somme that have their ghosts; there is something indefinably sad about the fabled waters of Scapa Flow, even to this very day.
Scapa Flow is bleak, barren, and indescribably majestic during the long summer days. Waves of gorse and fresh heather flutter along the sides of dry stone walls that slope right down to the sparkling expanse of the Flow, almost devoid of any kind of shipping these days.
If you happen to be in Kirkwall, the best way to get to Scapa Flow is to take a local bus from the station that adjoins the local tourist information centre. The journey takes around 25-30 minutes, and you should alight at the post office in the small village of St. Margaret’s Hope. Of course, you could also take a taxi.
This gorgeous little nook is worth the journey in it’s own right. But once there, take a left turn and walk up and past the large wind turbine ahead of you, and you will reach that incredible vantage point over Scapa Flow itself.
Like me, you might be moved to pay your respects to all of those brave lads, those who sailed from these secluded, sheltered waters, never to return.
I made my way back into St. Margaret’s Hope, and raised a pint in memory of them all; whether from HMS Vanguard, Royal Oak, Glorious, Ardent, Acasta, Hood, Prince of Wales, or HMS Hampshire. I went to the Murray Arms hotel, a beautiful little watering hole where I found the locals to be as warm and friendly as the cider was cold and thirst quenching.
In terms of memorials to the Royal Oak, there is a compact, but truly moving tribute housed in an enclave of St. Magnus’ cathedral, the impressive, 12th century red sandstone construction that stands mere minutes from the harbour itself.
There, frozen in time and suffused in memories, stands the bell lifted from the great battleship herself. It is flanked by a pair of flags, also retrieved from the wreck. Anyone in the cathedral will direct you to the chancel in which it stands.