The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Salvaging the German Fleet

By the end of WWI the seabed around the islands of Fara, Cava and Rysa was littered with wrecks.  A salvage exercise was begun by the Admiralty as early as August 1919 with the recovery of 34 of the ships that had drifted whilst sinking and beached themselves.  A syndicate of local Stromness men got together to purchase the destroyer G89 and successfully lifted it from its resting place off Fara in August 1922, finally towing it to Stromness in December where it was gradually broken up through the following year.

The Stromness syndicate had been aided in their task by two salvage vessels owned by the Shetland County Council Convener JW Robertson.  He decided to embark on his own salvage operation forming The Scapa Flow Salvage and Shipbreaking Company Ltd in 1923. The pace of recovery really increased in 1924 when the iron and steel merchants Cox & Danks of London bought the rights to 26 destroyers and two battleships in Scapa Flow.  

Ernest Cox’s company successfully raised his purchased quota using revolutionary salvage techniques.  Raising the smaller vessels such as the destroyers could be carried out by more traditional lifting methods involving floating docks, slings around the hulls and winch cranes but the battleships required something quite different. 

The technique involved the compartmentalising of the ship’s hull into air tight units.  Tall airlock pipes were attached to the hulls of the upturned ships terminating above the surface of Scapa Flow.  By pumping air down through the airlocks the water was forced out to allow diver teams to enter the ships through the airlock pipes and make the compartments air and water tight.  Once done, the compartments were pumped full of compressed air to refloat the ships. 

The process was highly hazardous for the diving crews working inside the ships underwater.  Raising was also a complicated process with buoyancy across all of the compartments needing to be maintained in order to raise the ship on an even a keel as possible.  When Cox finally decided to stop salvage work in 1932 his company had raised a grand total of 32 ships using both traditional lifting and the compressed air technique.

Cox and Danks salvage fleet.

When the scrap metal market collapsed in 1930 Cox & Danks handed over the reins to Metal Industries Ltd who began work in 1934 and continued raising ships at a rate of one warship per year until 1939. The last to be raised was Derfflinger which broke the surface of Scapa Flow in 1939 where she remained beached throughout WWII as a ghostly reminder of the dogged determination of the German navy in the face of defeat.

She was finally towed inverted down to Faslane on the Clyde in 1946 to be broken up for scrap.  She was the only German ship to go to Faslane and be transported using a floating dock, all of the others having been towed under their own buoyancy to Rosyth on the Firth of Forth.

As the ships of the German Fleet were made in a pre-nuclear age, their metal was highly sought after for use in sensitive scientific equipment and Edinburgh company Nuclear Enterprises Ltd found use for 2000 tons of the salvaged metal in large medical systems and some of the Scapa Flow steel even found its way into the Voyager II spacecraft.

(c) Gavin Lindsay