Wartime Hoy

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The sheltered waters of Scapa Flow have long been important for sea going vessels.  The vikings called it Skalpeid-floi meaning the Bay of the Long Valley Isthmus.  Currently, it is most famous for its world class diving facilities, but this is due to its key importance for the Napoleonic (Martello towers) and both World Wars.

The British Home fleet spent many years based in Scapa Flow, since, not only was it relatively sheltered and secure, it was convenient for attacks on Scandinavia and North West Europe. 

With regards to the First World War, two major events took place within Scapa Flow and the waters of Orkney. 

The security of the Flow was increased using 21 blockships and anti submarine nets, some of which can still be seen through the waters at low tides.  Large minefields also increased the defences for the Fleet so by 1915 the base was seen as secure.

The British Commander in Chief Lord Kitchener visited his fleet at Scapa Flow in June 1916 before a trip to Russia to encourage them to continue their involvement in the war.  After spending time with the Admiral on the flagship of the fleet, Kitchener transferred to the HMS Hampshire and set a course out of Hoy Sound for St Petersburg.  It then became clear that Orkney waters were no longer as safe as had been thought.  The Hampshire hit a mine off Birsay on the Mainland and sank with the loss of most hands, including Kitchener.  The propeller can be seen today outside the Lyness heritage centre after being reclaimed in 1985.  The few survivors who made it ashore at Marwick Head were instructed never to talk about what happened that night.  The conspiracy theorist in me then wonders if it was not a U-Boat which laid the mine, but that it could have been one of the mines originally laid as defence for Scapa Flow.  What do you think?!

In November 1918, after the war was over, 74 German ships were ordered in to surrender in Scapa Flow.  They were interred there for around six months, with only poor supplies from Germany.  In 1919,on 21st June, on hearing of the peace terms agreed upon, Admiral Von Reuter, the man in charge of the German fleet in Scapa, gave the last defiant order to scuttle all ships.  The first ship to sink, at 12.16pm was the flagship Friedrich Von Grosse, with the last being the Hindenburg (a bad omen for those looking to build zeppelins I think!).  A group of schoolchildren from Stromness were out on a school trip on this day, and you can read one young boy's account of the scuttling at http://www.orkney.org/tradition/scapaaccount.htm

The base at Lyness was used during this war, and through the Second World War, up till is disbanding in 1956.  The Second World War also featured heavily in the history of Scapa Flow, and in particular, the events surrounding the sinking of HMS Royal Oak only one month into the conflict, in October 1939.

Throughout the whole of the First World War, it was reckoned that only 2 German submarines had breached the defences of Scapa Flow, and so when conflict began again in 1939 it was seen as an impregnable fortress for the fleet so Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, chose to reinstate the Flow, and Lyness, as the main Naval base for Britain.  Even Dönitz himself said that any submarine attempt on Scapa Flow would be the "boldest of bold enterprises".

Seemingly in contrast to his own fears about being able to get into Scapa Flow, Dönitz set Kapitänleutnant (Lieutenant Commander) Gunter Prien the challenge of leading his U-47 to do just that.  After hitting the bottom, and then running aground briefly after getting caught on the anchor chain of a blockship, Prien's crew arrived in Scapa Flow on Friday 13th October 1939.  (For an account of the raid from the perspective of U-47, please see www..u47.org).  When we travelled over the Churchill Barriers onto Lamb Holm before stopping at the Italian Chapel, it seemed so close to the shallow waters of the sound, so it is difficult to imagine a U-Boat slipping through safely and unnoticed.  They were caught in the headlights of a local taxi, but a crewman's joke that the taxi driver should know the blackout rules better apparently did not go down to well!

The attack was carried out in the early hours of the morning, with 4 explosions tearing apart the hull of the Royal Oak.  The belief that U-Boats would never break through into the impenetrable fortress of Scapa Flow was so strong that the initial explosion was sadly thought to be caused by some internal problem, and the majority of hands returned to bed.  Many lives could have been saved if this attitude was not taken, but in the end, the attack caused the loss of over 800 men.  Prien returned his submarine safely back to Wilhelmshaven where he was flown on in Hitler's private aeroplane to Berlin to be awarded the first Ritterskreuz (Knight's Cross) by the Führer himself. 

During the time from 1939-1945, Hoy became involved in the war through Lyness Naval Base and the adjacent Communications centre at Wee Fea (now a viewpoint and picnic area OS 7 294944).  Massive oil drums to fuel the fleet were built underground to protect from air raids, and an air raid shelter was built nearby.  As part of the heritage centre experience, the air raid shelter is available to walk through and my personal thought was that it seemed very small to accommodate the 1000+ personnel who were based there.  Then it was pointed out that the men of the base would have probably been sent to man the defences while it would be the Wrens and NAAFI women who would have gone to the shelter and it didn't seem quite as small.  The heritage centre at Lyness had also converted one of the huge oil drums into a video screening area which talked about the importance of Scapa Flow to the war effort.  It also showed how the servicemen and women were often from large cities and were not used to the isolation and boredom of the island life (A shame for poor Betty Corrigall!).    Later, many of these men, alongside groups of construction workers from Balfour Beatty and from POW camp 60 on Lamb Holm, were to lower hundreds of concrete blocks into the sounds entering Scapa Flow.  The Churchill Barriers were then in place to prevent further U-Boat attacks on the Fleet and today they carry tourists and islanders alike from South Ronaldsay across to Mainland on the roads built on them after the war.

Through the last two days of our expedition it was evident that we were moving from the Hoy Sound coastline into the Scapa Flow coastline as from Lyrawa Hill onwards we began to see more and more wartime buildings, ending by passing the Naval Cemetry and finally completing the exploration at the heritage centre, the former pumping station for the Fleet.  The Naval Cemetry is the final resting place of many men who died while on active service, including those from both the HMS Hampshire and HMS Royal Oak.  Two of the first three German airmen who died on British soil during WWII are also buried there, although there is nothing to say what happened to the third after their plane was shot down over Scapa and crashed into Pegal Hill, above where we camped on the Friday night of our exploration. 

There is a map in the heritage centre showing the sites of all sunken ships in Scapa Flow, and these continue to be prime diving sites, as do the Churchill Barriers, although there is a buoy that marks the site of the HMS Royal Oak as an official War Grave.  More can be read about the action Hoy saw during the First World War at www.orkney.org, although their Second World War page is still under construction.




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This site was last updated 07/20/06