One hundred years on from the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet that left divers so many iconic wrecks off Orkney, keen Scapa diver MIKE WARD looks at the epic story behind the event, the best way to dive the Flow, and talks to Rod Macdonald, author of what many regard as the location’s definitive dive-guide
WHEN TWO NAVIES GO TO WAR
The final years of the 19th and first decade-and-a-bit of the 20th centuries saw a naval arms race between Britain and Germany that markedly increased the European tensions that led ultimately to World War One.
It saw that war start with the two largest, most modern and most powerful fleets the world had ever seen eyeing one another belligerently across the cold, grey waters of the North Sea.
The British Fleet was sent to its wartime base of Scapa Flow just before hostilities began. For the next five years it was the centre of British naval power – and universally hated by the men who crewed the ships and bases, just as it would be by their sons in World War Two.
With nothing to do and no girls to do it with, Scapa Flow was far less congenial than the German base of Wilhelmshaven. But both sides were focused on Der Tag, the day when they would meet in battle for a cataclysmic trial of strength.
Not that there was ever a realistic chance of a direct fight. For every two German ships the British had three, and no German admiral would be daft enough to get into a fight knowing he was so outnumbered. Instead, the Germans came up with a cunning plan, and used it with variations several times through the war.
The idea was simple. A small German force would cross the North Sea and open fire on Whitby or Hartlepool or Yarmouth, hoping to be chased away by a small part of the British fleet, which they could lure under the guns of the main German fleet just over the horizon.
Do that enough times, sink a couple of British ships each time, and suddenly the British might no longer outnumber the Germans. They could then have a proper battle and sort it out once and for all.
The idea never worked. The British, annoyingly, always insisted on sending their vessels to sea in force. The only major naval action of the war was the deeply unsatisfactory Battle of Jutland.
The opposing fleets were at sea on 31 May, 1916, both of them with the main force of battleships some way behind their battlecruisers.
Battleships were massive vessels with huge guns and thick armour, and battlecruisers were even bigger, with massive guns but only light armour, to reduce weight and increase speed.
The battlecruisers met first, late in the afternoon. The British battlecruisers were commanded by David Beatty, poster boy of the Navy. His hobbies included fox-hunting and the wives of other officers, and his command style seems to have boiled down to shouting: “Charge!”, which he now did, throwing away the advantages he’d taken into the action.
Longer gun ranges, higher speed and the support of the four largest, fastest, most heavily gunned battleships in the world were ignored as Beatty took his battlecruisers surging forward.
His German opposite number, Franz Hipper, was a consummate naval professional. He emerges from the chaos of Jutland as the only senior officer on either side with a proper grasp of his job.
His battlecruisers waited until the British ships were in range and calmly opened fire, sinking two in minutes, and at the same time heading south to the support of their own fleet.
If Hipper could lure the British under the guns of the German battleships, they could finally destroy that isolated portion of the fleet they had been hoping for.
When Beatty’s battlecruisers came in sight of the main German fleet, he reversed course and headed north. The combined gunfire of the German High Seas Fleet was no place for the remaining battlecruisers, even supported by the four battleships that had finally, almost, caught up.
Besides, as Beatty realised, it was now his turn to lure the German ships under the guns of the British fleet.
The German fleet commander, Scheer, saw his chance and gave chase, unaware that a few miles north lay the main strength of the British fleet, with almost twice as many battleships as the Germans. A fleet action at last seemed imminent.
Senior British Admiral Afloat was John Jellicoe. Idolised by the men of the fleet, he was small, hard-working and comes down the years as a micro-manager, intent on maintaining absolute control in all circumstances.
Knowing that if the RN was beaten it would be only a matter of time before Britain lost the war he was, as Churchill later wrote, the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.
Predictably, the German admiral took one look at the British fleet and legged it. True, after his initial turn away Scheer almost at once turned back to attack the British line, but that probably had more to do with how German press reports would describe the action, and his fleet quickly turned away again, this time in disarray.
In the poor visibility the British fleet seems to have been largely unaware that the Germans had withdrawn until it was too late to give chase.
Jellicoe’s fleet was between the Germans and their home base, so he expected to restart the battle next day, but during the night the German fleet crossed the wake of the British, gifting the British battleships a series of golden opportunities that were missed in embarrassing fashion.
By morning the German ships were safely back in port and the British were recovering casualties and realising what might have been.
A US newspaper later summed up Jutland in a sentence: the German fleet, it reported, had assaulted its jailer, but was still in prison.
The aftermath saw feuds start in the RN that dragged on for years. Jellicoe was blamed for not having delivered a new Trafalgar, while Beatty claimed it would all have been different had he been in charge, going so far as to falsify action reports from his ships to underline his case.
It was ugly and unnecessary. Jellicoe’s ships had done what they needed to do and the German Navy, built at such huge pre-war cost, remained an irrelevance to the war. Instead, its U-boat arm took up the flight and very nearly achieved what the surface forces had been unable to deliver, by targeting merchant shipping.
The next time the British saw the German fleet was in 1918, after the Armistice that ended the fighting. The Germans steamed across the North Sea to the Clyde and then on to Scapa Flow to be interned under the eyes of the RN, the only navy in the world strong enough to contain them, now imprisoned in fact as well as metaphor.
For eight months the German ships, manned by skeleton crews, swung at anchor in Scapa, rotting away as the Armistice negotiations dragged on at Versailles. Admiral von Reuter, commanding the interned fleet, was denied access to news. In June 1919 he believed that the war was about to begin again and that the RN was about to seize his vessels, an action he couldn’t allow.
On 21 June, a century ago, he ordered his own ships scuttled at anchor where they lay in Scapa Flow. He sank more ships in a day than any other naval man ever has or will.
The British were not amused, trying at gunpoint to stop crews sinking their ships, attempting to beach vessels ashore and even opening fire on German sailors.
Later there were impassioned speeches and newspaper articles about dishonour and piracy, but by then many millions of pounds’ worth of the world’s best fighting ships in the world were resting on the clear seabed of Scapa Flow.
But the question of what to do with the world’s second-largest fleet had been solved very neatly, and the politicians quickly forgot about the ships.
The wrecks lay in peace for a while, and then Ernest Cox bought them. It doesn’t seem an obvious move for an electrical engineer, but he set about raising the ships to sell for scrap.
His method was simple but brutal. Divers would patch every hole they could find in the wreck before it was filled with air pumped down from above until it bobbed to the surface.
The divers’ decompression knowledge was sketchy at best. One of them recalled a standard 15 minutes’ deco at the end of each shift, regardless of depth or time of the dive. Yet there were astonishingly few serious accidents.
The first ships raised took time, but as experience, techniques and skills improved they could be brought up relatively quickly.
The wrecks mostly lay inverted, the bigger ones especially, and no attempt was made to right them. A small hut would be built on the hull to house a transit crew and the compressor keeping enough air in the hulk for it to float as it was towed south to Rosyth and the breaker’s yard.
The work was costly, and over the life of his company a best estimate suggests that Cox made about as much money from selling the vessels as he spent raising them.
He left behind three battleships and four cruisers, along with any amount of other material, such as the turrets of the battleship Bayern.
That’s only the story of the German fleet. Scapa was home to the RN in two world wars so of course there are also navy wrecks in the Flow.
The battleship HMS Vanguard simply blew up in 1917, and as a war grave diving on the wreck is not permitted. In 1939 Gunther Prien conned his U-boat into the Flow and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak under the noses of the British fleet, exposing the mediocre defences of the Flow.
A lucky few get to dive this war grave from time to time, and the Navy visits annually to raise a flag.
There are also blockships sunk in WW1 to guard the Scapa Flow entrances, U-boats, other warships, trawlers, small vessels and aircraft, plus the left-over structures from salvaged vessels.
More wreckage is found each year, and that’s without looking outside the Flow, where HMS Hampshire can be found. There will be others.
But it’s the ships of the ill-fated German High Seas Fleet and their history that continues to draw divers to Scapa Flow, many making an annual pilgrimage to what is arguably the most historic dive location in the world.
DIVING SCAPA FLOW
My mate Paul belongs to two dive clubs and recently set about organising a trip for one of them to Scapa. One of the members is the diver who’s seen it all, done it all and knows it all. Whatever problem you have, he’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong. Whatever kit you buy, what he uses is better, and whatever diving you want to do, he’s done it, in better vis.
He’s a proper pain in the backside, but Scapa sorted him out. Not that he ever got there.
In a candid moment he confided to Paul that Scapa was proper diving for the big boys and the sort of diving he loved most, but he just couldn’t make that proposed week. Or any other week.
Which was a pity, because Scapa really isn’t difficult diving; it just has a bad-boy reputation that’s proving hard to shake.
That said, my other half and I were diving off Mombasa in Kenya a few years ago and the dive school asked what diving we’d done recently as we signed up for some day-boat stuff.
“Oh,” the missus said, “we’re just back from Scapa.” That was it, we were diving royalty for the rest of the week. The reputation does have its uses.
The club trip to Scapa is a rite of passage for many British divers, and the wrecks and their history attract divers from all over the world and especially from Germany. So when you get past the reputation, what’s a week diving Scapa like?
The Orkneys are a long way from everywhere, even many parts of Scotland. If you live further south and think you’ve driven a long way to reach Edinburgh or Glasgow, you probably still have as far to go again.
Last time I went we set off around teatime and drove overnight to reach the ferry to the islands early the following morning. These days you can choose between the classic Scrabster-Stromness route or the much shorter John o’Groats-St Margaret’s Hope. This leaves you with a drive around the islands ringing the Flow to get to Stromness, where most of the boats are based.
Both routes provide great views across Pentland Firth, the savage tidal waterway separating Scotland from Orkney, and then the cliffs of the rugged islands that will be your home for a week.
You can get a decent bacon butty on either, but the John o’Groats crossing is cheaper and shorter.
Or take the ferry from Aberdeen overnight in comfort and arrive in Stromness refreshed. Flying provides spectacular views of a different type.
The servicemen who spent their wars at Scapa would travel north by crowded train and use Scrabster. Their journeys were not as comfortable or swift as yours, but you get there.
On Orkney the classic option is land-based accommodation and a day-boat, but there have always been liveaboards too, even though at night they come back to land, so you’ll still be able to get to the pub.
On most boats you set your kit up at the start of the week and that’s you sorted. Gas fills are made in situ and there’ll be a sheltered area, often below deck, where you can change into your drysuit and later leave it to dry overnight.
Kit-wise, you need nothing special or different. It’s standard UK sea-diving, though as it’s repetitive multi-day diving you might care to add an extra layer of under-clothing if you’re prone to feeling the chill, or at least pack some extra layers.
Scapa is perfectly do-able using a single cylinder of air, as divers have done for years. You don’t even need to take a cylinder and weights, as most operators and boats will provide a 12-litre bottle and lead (though often not the belts) and the necessary fills as part of the dive-package.
Yes, your dives might be a little shorter, but you’ll be able to see all the High Seas Fleet wrecks.
If you want to go all tech and get some helium in your mix and dive twins and use oxygen-rich gases for deco or a rebreather, you’ll find support for this as well. More gas means longer dives and being able to see more, but if you don’t normally dive that way, don’t do it for the first time in Scapa.
Far better to stay single-cylinder than use unfamiliar kit and spend your first few dives thinking more about the set-up than the wrecks. Anyway, it’s only your first visit – you’ll be back.
A typical diving day starts over a decent breakfast, with a full Scottish the top option to provide enough cholesterol to get you through the day. Day one, I’ve noticed most go for the fry-up, but as the week progresses porridge, cereals and toast creep back onto the table.
You discuss the forecast and wrecks for the day. My favourite Scapa weather channel often advises that “no significant weather” is expected, which isn’t hugely detailed but means you’ll get to dive.
Each day there will be two dives, the first on one of the seven German wrecks, unless the weather is ’orrible, when a blockship day might be necessary.
Of the German wrecks, four are cruisers and three battleships. The cruisers lie shallower, so it makes sense to start the week with them and do the battleships as the first dive of later days.
Which cruiser? Köln is really interesting, with lots of penetration options, but Karlsruhe is the shallowest and has that armoured conning-tower and deck-guns. Then again, Brummer reminds me of the dive I spent clinging to the outside of the wreck while my buddy Steve explored inside, only popping back out when my computer was beeping and whistling about a couple of minutes of deco. That was back when I was a baby diver.
And don’t forget Dresden, which is a bit of a scrapyard in my memory and deserves better.
Cruiser depths range from 25-35m to the seabed. You don’t need to go that deep, as they lie on their sides, so you can easily explore deck-level.
Maybe leave it to the skipper to decide, then, and settle back to enjoy the run out to the first dive sat up on deck and taking in the spectacular sight of one of the world’s finest natural harbours.
Almost entirely ringed by the Orkney islands, the Flow is a huge, sheltered lagoon with a level, open bottom that holds an anchor securely.
Keep an eye open for the remains of the gun emplacements ashore that provided added security to the ships anchored on the relatively calm waters below.
On your first steam out you’ll get a briefing on boat safety and an etiquette briefing about lines to the wrecks. If there are divers decompressing on the line coming up, don’t crash into them on your way down, and when you surface get away from the line for pick-up.
Dive briefings vary hugely. Some still offer the classic (“There’s the shot, the other end of the line is tied to the wreck, wave when you want picking up”); others go the full Monty, with detailed maps, suggested routes and pictures of stuff to see.
I like both. I love the exploration feel of just doing it, but hate it when somebody asks me post-dive if I noticed the left-handed doodah wedged just under the thingummy near the bow capstan, and have to shake my head miserably.
Vis ranges from 3-10m, decent UK vis at the very least, and few sites have any trace of current to interfere with your plan. Navigation is easy. Note the depth at which the line is tied to the wreck, follow the wreckage one way, turn round and follow it back – or put up your DSMB when you’ve had enough.
Between dives you’ll likely head at least once, if not daily, to the fascinating naval museum on Lyness. Make time to walk to the Naval Cemetery, containing both German and British sailors, and don’t miss the memorial to the Arctic convoys.
The battleships are all the same class. The pride of the German fleet at Jutland, they now lie almost entirely upside-down, so you will need to be at or near seabed level to get the best from the dive. Think 35m minimum, down to 45m or so.
Swim under the wreck of Kronprinz Wilhelm and you can run your hands along main guns that once threw half-ton shells across 10 miles of open sea at the ships of the British Grand Fleet, doing their best to kill my grandad, an 18-year-old Able Bodied seaman aboard a British battleship, who was just trying to do his job.
Of course, that job was sending shells up the main guns of HMS Valiant. If you notice the crew photo from that ship when you visit the Lyness museum don’t forget to say hello to my grandad. He’s on there somewhere!
You’ll be back ashore around 4pm, in plenty of time to see other Orkney sites. Skara Brae Neolithic village, the Tomb of the Eagles, the Ring of Brogar and Maes Howe are among the most important ancient sites in the British Isles.
Then there’s the Highland Park distillery, guided tours of abandoned wartime bases or, and I mention this only in passing as I realise few divers will be interested, there’s the odd pub or two.
Go easy on the booze; the water will be cool to cold, and with two longish dives a day and six days of diving you’ll understand why Thursday is sometimes called Bend Thursday by divers.
And although it’s centenary year and the German wrecks call, don’t forget the blockships.
You can maybe sneak an extra shore-dive on some after the day’s boat-dives are done if you feel up to it, or visit the seals around the Barrel of Butter and off Fara, opposite the Lyness base.
Best diving in the world? Scapa Flow has to be in with a shout. All that history positively drags you there, and it needs to be in your logbook.
THE EXPERT’S VIEWPOINT
Sports divers have been visiting Scapa Flow for pretty much as long as there have been sports divers. The 1970s were probably the start.
Proper divers, tough outdoors types, would tow the club squidgy oop north and camp on the beach, heading out each day with an Admiralty chart and a compass to find the wrecks using the “throw the anchor in and tow it around until we catch a battleship” technique.
In those days the wrecks were owned by Dougal Campbell and still being salvaged, so a vital part of each day’s plan was a call to see which ships were being worked on, so which could be dived without being involved in the blasting.
That’s how Rod Macdonald describes his early trips to Scapa, though without the camping or explosives. Salvage work stopped in the late 1970s and Rod didn’t visit until 1981, though he hasn’t missed a year since, and has made getting on for a thousand dives in the Flow.
One problem he and other early divers had to face was lack of information on the wrecks. Those were the days before the Internet, so if you wanted to know about a wreck you went to the library and ordered up books and visited maritime museums, and if the ship was German the information would be in German, and probably in Germany. For Rod, it was a major irritation. The diving was fantastic, but what was he actually looking at? It’s an itch I can well understand.
A few trips in, says Rod, and “I found myself sitting bolt upright in bed one night at around 2.30am and deciding to write a proper guidebook to Scapa Flow”. Four pints of Guinness had been involved earlier, he admitted.
He wrote a three-page synopsis, consulted the Writers & Artists Yearbook and sent letters to a dozen agencies, three of which offered him contracts – an impressive conversion rate!
He picked an Edinburgh publisher because it was easier to get to from his home in Scotland, and shortly found himself signing a contract requiring him to deliver the manuscript in six months.
He describes his immediate reaction as “What the *@&? have I let myself in for?” but he made the deadline.
The latest edition of Dive Scapa Flow has been significantly expanded and covers the German wrecks in detail, with a combination of historical information and the stuff you need to know before diving the wrecks, and it’s beautifully illustrated.
If you want to find out about the history and diving each wreck, it’s the place to go.
Given that he’s been diving the wrecks almost half their submerged lifetime, what changes has Rod seen?
Under water, “the battleships seem unchanged” and are his favourites, he says. “There’s always something new to see and understand.”
A foot of armour-plate isn’t going to rust away quickly, but the cruisers are slowly falling apart. “Dresden and Köln are still ship-shape,” he says, “but Brummer and Karlsruhe are on the way to being piles of scrap.”
On the plus side, this means that access to their interiors is now better than it ever has been, with new features coming to light and enriching the diving experience.
Above water, he says, the biggest change has been in the boats and the diving experience. Pre-dive audio-visual briefs with detailed routes are now common, and effectively add to your bottom time. They mean less searching, more finding and more things seen.
Post-dive, gone are ladders, replaced by lifts to haul you and your heavy kit back aboard. “There are fewer dive-boats than there were a decade ago, but the quality has definitely risen,” says Rod, so you don’t need to be rufty-tufty any more.
In Rod’s book you’ll find sites that are rarely dived. His suggestion for something different is a dive on the four huge turrets of the German battleship Bayern. She turned turtle when she sank, and when she was raised, bottom in the air, they simply fell to the seabed.
They sit in two pairs in a 4m deep scar where the hull used to be. “If you dived them at all you used to dive either the northern or southern pair, until a few years ago when we ran a rope between them, so now you can now see all four turrets on one dive,” he says.
The new breed of Scapa skippers aren’t content simply taking divers to the wrecks of the High Seas Fleet. however; they’re promoting other diving opportunities and researching new sites.
The biggest news for divers and non-divers alike is the opportunity to use 3D imaging techniques to recreate the wrecks on dry land.
June 2019 is the centenary of the scuttling of the High Seas Fleet, but it’s the 80th anniversary in October of the 1939 sinking of HMS Royal Oak.
A war grave, she’s relatively intact but off-limits, undived and undiveable, yet she might still be accessible in the virtual world. “It’s an exciting prospect,” Rod enthuses.
And Scapa isn’t just about the diving. One of Rod’s abiding memories is of a ceilidh, where the odd glass of something might have been taken, followed by a return to the boat for overnight, at which point the skipper decided to reposition through Burra Sound and the Hoy Skerries in a five-knot current.
“It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a depth-sounder tick slowly down to zero,” remembers Rod, but there was a scrape and “next up, Inverlane”, said the skipper a bit gloomily.
But they missed her, and all was well.
I’ll leave the last word to Rod. Will we still be diving Scapa in years to come, I ask him?
“Aye, no doubt about it,” he said.
DIVE SCAPA FLOW BOOK
The centenary edition of Dive Scapa Flow has been rewritten and expanded, and the main wrecks re-illustrated, along with 3D images based on multibeam sonar scans. Much of the underwater photography is by Bob Anderson, skipper of the Scapa dive-boat Halton, as seen in this feature.
Rod Macdonald’s 368pp softback book is published by Whittles Publishing (ISBN 9781849952903) and costs £30.
It is also available as an e-book (ISBN 9781849953764) for £14.99 at Whittles Publishing