1914 to 1945 - two world wars
The 20th century was a defining period in the history of Orkney and her natural harbour of Scapa Flow. Although its origins as a strategic naval anchorage for the Royal Navy began in the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century, it is Scapa Flow’s pivotal role played in the two World Wars of the 20th century that casts a legacy into the minds of countless people across the world.
World War One 1914-1918
The Great War of 1914-1918 was a brutal conflict which enveloped the whole world. It inflicted appalling losses to all sides, from the trench warfare in the waterlogged fields of France, to the long marches across the baking deserts of the Middle East. Naval supremacy and control of the seas was vital to the outcome of a war that spanned continents. In the European theatre of war, there was nowhere of greater strategic importance than Scapa Flow.
Naval wartime strategy of the 20th century involved the blockading of enemy ports. In Europe this strategy constrained German naval activity to the North Sea and caused shortages of food and materials that drastically affected Germany’s ability to wage war. Scapa Flow provided a relatively safe anchorage for the new battleships of the British Fleet, within striking distance of German ports, whilst superbly positioned for control of the North Sea and neighbouring North Atlantic.
The Battle of Jutland, the only battle to be fought between the British and German battle fleets during WW1 and the largest battleship action in history, was fought in the North Sea on 31 May 1916 by some 150 warships of the British Grand Fleet. Seventy-two of these ships sailed from Scapa Flow and several failed to return as the British lost 14 ships in the engagement.
Defences were built around the anchorage with thousands of men being stationed in Orkney to protect the fleet base and service the ships. There was also considerable military air activity over Orkney during WW1.
Much of the naval war was spent sowing mines in hostile waters and searching for mines laid by the enemy. As Scapa Flow was such a key base of operations, it is not surprising that a great number of mines were laid around the coasts of Orkney by German submarines during WW1. On the 5 June 1916, the cruiser HMS Hampshire was lost when she struck one of 34 mines laid by U-75 less than a week after she had returned from the Battle of Jutland. Only 12 survived from her crew of 655.
The loss of HMS Vanguard was another tragedy when she exploded with no warning whilst resting at anchor off Flotta in Scapa Flow on 9 July 1917. There were only three survivors from the internal explosion.
So much naval activity also lead to other accidents. Less than 6 months later on 12-13 January 1918 two destroyers and 180 crew were also lost when HMS Narborough and Opal struck cliffs whilst returning to Scapa Flow at night in gale force blizzard conditions.
(c) Gavin Lindsay