Thirteen years ago I celebrated my 26th birthday in Scapa Flow. It was a special day. By keeping my birthday quiet, I thought it would pass without being noticed. We dived one of the deep wrecks in the morning, the afternoon being reserved for the Tobarka, a block ships in Burra Sound: The block ships were ships that were deliberately sunk in some of the entrances to Scapa Flow. Their purpose was to stop prying U-Boats gaining entry to the Flow and sinking any of the British Grand/Home Fleet whilst at anchor. They are an amazing counterpoint to the scuttled German fleet. The remaining massive German fighting vessels are all (comparatively) deep, grey and foreboding. The block ships are smaller and sunk in shallow water with fast flowing currents and sunlight that streams through the wreck’s ribs like some Cousteau film of the Thistlegorm. Diving the Tobarka is diving a ship that is intact but where all of the dive is spent inside the wreck. Where this would normally be a big no-no, the Tobarka is different: the fast flowing currents keep the wreck clear of any silt that would normally blind your exit, and holes all around the vessel mean that an egress from the wreck is always quick. On this day thirteen years ago, I ‘bumped’ into some friends coming in the opposite direction down a narrow companion way. They stopped me, had a knowing look at each other, and through the dense water I could just start to make out a tune they were vigorously trying to sing to me…. ‘Happy Birthday to you…’. It is without doubt the most memorable birthday I’ve ever had.
Thirteen years later and after a gap of ten years from diving, I suddenly find myself back in Scapa. I say suddenly because after ten years without diving, my first dive in Scapa is only my 8th dive in recent times. And here’s the thing about Scapa: It’s not a walk in the park. Mel, my dive buddy, said (and I’m paraphrasing), that the thing about Scapa is that the deep technical divers dive it with too much complacency, and the regular sports divers don’t take it seriously enough. The German fleet wrecks span a depth range from thirtyish meters deep to about forty five meters. This is at the deeper end of the mid range for air diving. But it isn’t just depth that matters. It’s all the other stuff. They’re foreboding wrecks, the deeper battleships are upside down, all the interesting stuff to see requires advanced diving and going UNDER the wreck. And it catches you out. Thirteen years ago I had the opportunity to save a girls life, but I didn’t… to my eternal regret. She was there and gone in a fraction of a second, looking for her buddy at speed. With twenty-twenty vision I could have made after her and rescued the situation, but the severity of the incident was only apparent when we broke the surface. How much would we give for glasses that would give such vision? Thirteen years later and another diver is lost on the wreck we’re diving. There’s no contact underwater this time, but our boat has to pick up the remaining divers as the casualty’s boat rushes to shore. It’s not a comfortable few hours, but the divers we pick up are certain the person involved is not one of their group. The casualty is pronounced dead upon reaching the hospital.
Diving the scuttled German fleet is just one part of an amazing story. It’s a story that begins in the late 1800′s with an arms race that is just as big then as the nuclear arms race of our (or our parents’) generation. The escalation in the size of the German fleet is (arguably) just as important to the start of the first world war as the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The naval stand-off during the war (only notably broken at Jutland) was akin to a game of chess played by the world’s greatest Grandmasters. When the end of the war was immanent a last ditch, but well thought out, attempt to heavily wound the British fleet (and thus provide some leverage for Germany at the peace talks in Versailles) was only thwarted by mutiny on several of the German ships shortly after they put to sea. As a result the fleet had to return to Wilhelmshaven and a final tête-à-tête was avoided.
The armistice that saw the end of hostilities wasn’t actually the official end of the war. It was a glorified ceasefire until an official treaty (the treaty of Versailles) could be signed. As part of that armistice, it was agreed that the German fleet would be ‘interned’ in a neutral port until the war was officially over. In reality, Britain used some technicalities in the agreement to intern the German fleet in Scapa Flow, the home of the British fleet in Orkney. The final location for the interned German Fleet wasn’t known to the Admiral in command, Ludwig Von Reuter, until their rendezvous with the British fleet in the Firth of Forth. With no options open to it (the German ships had had to be stripped of all their armaments before leaving Wilhelmshaven under the terms of the armistice), the fleet was escorted to the Orkney Islands.
Over the following months, the officers and crew of the German fleet were starved of information about anything going on in the outside world. Their only insight was through copies of the Times that were four days old. In fact, it was the very nature of the outdated information that allegedly resulted in Von Reuter deciding to scuttle the 74 ships in internment in Scapa Flow on the 21st June 1919. News from the old papers had lead Reuter to believe that the war was about to start again. Knowing that the German fleet without any way of fighting couldn’t escape Scapa Flow, Reuter ordered the scuttling of the ships. Whilst this outcome was expected by the British Royal Navy, the resulting panic by the British trying to get the German crews to reverse their actions lead to nine Germans being killed. Fifty-two ships went to the bottom or settled in shallow waters at Scapa Flow.
After the official end to the war, there was interest in the sunk German ships for their scrap value. The British sold the rights to Ernest Cox who, with little experience, raised the majority of the wrecks. No one had ever raised so many ships of such a large mass before. The efforts bankrupted him and killed several of his crew. Whilst the last remaining few were salvaged by another company, seven ships still remain, and these are the ships that today’s sports divers dive.
These ships took lives whilst they were afloat, they took lives whilst they were sinking, and they sadly continue to take some lives to this day. Diving should, however, continue to be encouraged. The Scapa Flow wrecks have an international reputation, with divers coming from all over the world to dive them. This in turn brings much needed monies into the local (and national!) economies. The wrecks are a living history that no museum with any amount of interactive displays could ever hope to replicate. Caution and respect should be observed at all times though. These sites should be dived by people who are comfortable diving in the depth range of Scapa – If these wreck sites are a first for you, nothing else about the dive should be.
If you’re planning on heading to Scapa to dive (or even if you’re not) there are a few things I’d highly recommend doing:
1. Read “The Grand Scuttle: The Sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919” by Dan van der Vat. This will provide a historic perspective to these great leviathans well in excess of that found in the standard dive guide books.
2. Visit the scapaflowwrecks.com website: it’s got some great information and brilliant interactive 3D images of the wrecks as they are today
3. Go to the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum at Lyness. It’s full of wonderful artefacts and photos covering the history of Scapa Flow as a naval base
4. Take a camera, the scenery is stunning!