Scapa Flow is a sheltered body of water on the coast line of the Orkney Islands, Scotland. It is around 120 square miles, and is considered one of the world’s great natural harbours. It is relatively shallow, with the sandy bottom not being deeper than 60 metres at any point, and the average depth being around 30 metres. The harbour has important historical links. It had been used as an anchorage site more than 1000 years ago by the Vikings, however its most famous use was during World War I when the bay was used by the British as a naval base.
Previously the main British naval base were near the English Chanel, so they would be closer to their old enemies, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. However in the early 1900s due to the build-up of the German fleet it was decided that a northern base was necessary to control the entrances to the North Sea. The admiral of the Grand Fleet was worried about the possibility of submarine or destroyer attacks on the base, so in 1914 it was heavily reinforced with mines, concrete barriers and heavy artillery. Despite the reinforcements two attempts to enter the harbour were made by German U-boats, however the reinforcements proved to be successful and neither of the U-boats made it into the base.
The war ended on 11 November 1918, and the allied powers agreed that Germany’s U-boat fleet should be surrender to them without the possibility of getting them back, however they were unable to decide what to do with the surface fleet. They were all moved into Scapa Flow with the German crew still on board. On 21st June 1919 after waiting for 9 months, the German officer in command at Scapa Flow ordered his men to scuttle the fleet. This move was made to prevent the ships from falling into the hands of the British Royal Navy.
The German sailors had spent months preparing the ships for this order by placing explosives in vulnerable parts of the ships, welding bulkhead doors open and throwing keys to important access points overboard. The Royal Navy tried their best to board the ships and prevent them from sinking however for most of the ships they were too late. The British managed to save a battleship, 2 light cruisers and 18 destroyers but the remaining 52 ships sank to the bottom without any loss of life (9 German sailors were shot by British forces as they attempted to scuttle their ship, the last casualties of WW I)
During WW II Scapa Flow was used again, because of its distance from German airfields. However the defenses from the Great War had mostly broken apart and offered little protection. In 1939 a German U-boat managed to get into the harbour and sank the HMS Royal Oak killing 833 sailors with it. The wreck is now a protected war grave. Winston Churchill ordered new blockships and mines were placed over the main entrances and coastal defense was installed in important areas. Churchill also ordered causeways to block the eastern entrance to Scapa Flow, built by Italian prisoners of war. These causeways were named ‘Churchill Barriers’ and are now used as a road access between the mainland to Burray and South Ronaldsay.
Today Scapa Flow is frequently in the lists of top dive sites, and is considered one of the best locations in the world for wreck diving. The main attractions are the seven remaining ships of the German fleet, although the blockships are also a popular dive. It is forbidden (unless you are a diver in the British armed forces) to dive the wrecks of the HMS Royal Oak and the HMS Vanguard which are considered war graves. Divers are allowed to enter the wrecks but are not allowed to recover any artifacts within 100 metres of any wreck. Due to the tides and currents over time, many pieces of pottery and glass bottles from the ships can be found in shallow waters and even on the beaches. Visibility can be as good as 20 metres but it can also drop to 2 metres or lower. If you want to dive there you must first get a permit from the Island Harbour Authorities, which is available through local dive centres. As most of the wrecks are located between 35 and 50 metres it is good to have some Deep Diver training, or even better, some technical diver training, which will offer you extended bottom time to explore these world class, historical ship wrecks.
‘Historic Wrecks of Scapa Flow’ was written by Mike
Photo Credit: ScapaFlowWrecks.com – Be sure to also check out the interactive 3D maps of each shipwreck on this website!