Standing nearly ankle deep in sheep shit I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what the place would have been like all those years ago. I could almost hear the constant hum of peoples’ voices, doors opening and closing, the louder more obtrusive sounds of the typewriters clattering away. No gentle clicking noises of a computer key board in those days. Where was I? I was standing in the middle of what had once been the command centre for Scapa Flow during the Second World War.
This was my second visit to Scapa Flow and I was back again for another week’s diving, but this time on MV Halton with skipper Bob Anderson. Not only had I come and dived here, but I had visited many of the places associated with the history of the Flow. Most of the skippers running dive trips up here will take you to places during the surface intervals that allow you to explore Scapas past.
MORE THAN JUST A DIVE VENUE
Scapa Flow is one of the world’s largest natural harbours stretching 15miles north to south and 8miles wide. The main entrance is in the south from Pentland Firth, the strait separating the group of Orkney Islands from the mainland. The strong tides and navigational hazards were considered to be a sufficient defence at the beginning of the First World War when Scapa was chosen as a suitable base from which the British fleet could patrol the waters of the North Sea. Then in 1919 the German High Seas Fleet was brought to Scapa after the their surrender and it is Admiral von Reuter we have to thank for his legacy of some of the finest wrecks to dive on in the UK. Due to a misunderstanding during the final stages of the peace talks the Admiral thought that the war was about to resume and rather than let his fleet fall into British hands he issued an order to scuttle the fleet. Many stories and rumours abound concerning who knew what and when, but the result was that all 74 ships were scuttled and sunk before the British were able to stop it. In the years that followed most of the fleet was salvaged leaving just three battleships and four light cruisers. Today with the need for the radiation-free steel that is used in the manufacture of delicate instruments, particularly those used in the medical field, the relatively radiation free steel that is still sitting at the bottom of Scapa Flow is particularly valuable.
With the advent of the Second World War Scapa Flow was once again utilised in 1939 as the main base for the Royal Navy. However this time tragedy struck in the form of a German submarine U47 taking advantage of a high tide and finding its way past the blockships in Kirk Sound. It successfully torpedoed HMS Royal Oak and escaped leaving the ship to its fate and 833 crew to a watery grave. She now lies at around 30m on the seabed undisturbed as a war grave where diving is not permitted. Each year on the 13th of October a group of navy divers, survivors and members of the British Legion go out to the buoy that marks the final resting place of the Royal Oak. They conduct a ceremony where wreaths are laid and finally navy divers descend to raise a new ensign on the wreck itself in memory of those who lost their lives. I am sure it must be a solemn and moving experience to be involved in this annual event.
KEEPING THE ENEMY OUT
The blockships that U47 managed to evade are clear to see in many places. Huge pieces of metal, masts and even hulls can be seen protruding from the water where enemy shipping might seek a passage through. Where the wrecks have rotted sufficiently pieces of wreckage can be found washed up on the beaches. Some of these blockships such as The Tarbarka and Gobernador Bories in Burra Sound make excellent dives although due to the swift currents timing is crucial to catch slack. It is these currents however that we have to thank for the profusion of life that abounds on these wrecks, which are smothered in filter feeders living off the rich nutrients bought by the rapid currents that flow through here. Although it had been thought that the use of blockships and submarine nets was sufficient defence against the U boats sneaking into the flow, it was evidently not enough. The sinking of the Royal Oak led to a visit by Winston Churchill to Orkney and the building of what were subsequently named the Churchill Barriers. These four barriers formed causeways linking together the five eastern islands of the Orkney group and therefore ensuring that never again would such a tragedy as the sinking of the Royal Oak occur again. Completed in 1945 the barriers were the work of the Italian prisoners of war. Mooring up at Burray you can walk along the beaches and the barriers themselves, a pleasant way to spend a surface interval or overnight stop if you are on a liveaboard.
Early in 1942 1300 Italian prisoners of war were captured in North Africa and brought to Orkney to work on the barriers. However, it is the 550 who were housed in Camp 60 at Lamb Holm that we remember in particular, due to the legacy of what is now known as The Italian Chapel. Interned from 1942 to 1945 they were set to work casting the huge 10ft blocks of concrete that made up the Churchill barriers and in their own time worked to improve the camp to which they were confined. The one thing they felt it lacked was a chapel. In 1943 a new camp commandant arrived and arranged for two Nissen huts placed end to end to be provided for this purpose and initially it was only part of this structure that was to be used. One of the prisoners, Domenico Chiocchetti who had already proved his artistic ability in the construction of a statue of St George made simply from barbed wire and concrete, took on the task of coordinating this transformation. Led by Chiocchetti the group of prisoners were to transform two very ordinary Nissen huts into something that people from all over the world would one day visit. Once the sanctuary was finished, complete with some magnificent paintings behind both the alter and on the ceiling, the remainder of the interior walls were covered with plasterboard and painted to resemble brickwork. It was then decided to build a new façade that would entirely conceal the shape of the huts; once again this was made largely from concrete. After the war the chapel became an increasingly popular tourist attraction and in 1958 a preservation committee was set up. In 1960 the BBC funded a visit by Domenico Chiocchetti who set about the restoration of some of the paintwork and there followed a service of rededication for the chapel. Extraordinary events but then they were extraordinary times. The chapel is a memorial and example of ingenuity, artistic skill and an unfailing spirit even in times of adversity and it is well worthwhile mooring up at Holm in order to visit this very unique building.
Other legacies of the war abound round Scapa Flow. Disused lookouts and gun emplacements can be found on many headlands. On Hoy, which was home to thousands of military personnel, many of the existing buildings have military origins. No where is that more evident than in Lyness itself which houses the visitors centre which was once the main oil storage and pumping facility for Scapa Flow. This was later deemed to be too much of a vulnerable location so further storage tanks were built into the hillside. Most skippers will moor up here at least once during a week’s diving. This gives you an opportunity to explore not only the museum housed in the visitors’ centre but other reminders of the population that was based there. Should you have time, south of Lyness is the Garrison Theatre in North Walls. Originally a Nissen hut with a black and white art deco frontage it served as a military theatre and although the frontage is still in evidence it is now privately owned. Behind the visitors centre is the immaculately kept navel cemetery. Begun in 1915 it has graves from both the world wars.
CENTRE OF OPERATIONS
The command centre Wea Fea, can clearly be seen from the harbour at Lyness and is only a twenty-minute walk. As you walk past the visitors’ centre and up the hill the remains of numerous hidden and buried structures can be glimpsed amongst the trees. Leaving the straggling trees behind you see the grey single story building sitting forlornly at the top of the hill and wading through the boggy animal excrement that covers the floors and steps you enter what was once the centre of operations for Scapa Flow. Every vestige of occupation has now been stripped from inside the building leaving only the old air ventilation system in place and the odd light switch looking very forlorn on the bare walls. Looking out of the circular windows you can see out over Mill Bay and into the Flow, and imagine the view when huge battleships where moving in and out of the flow and momentous events were taking place.
Outside once again and all you can hear is bird song and a gentle breeze blowing and the reality of 2006.