Thursday, 12 September 2019

Circumnavigating Scapa Flow

During the First and Second World War Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands was Britain's main fleet anchorage. My Great Grandfather Q.M. Sjt. Gilbert Price of the Royal Marine Artillery (RMA) served there in 1918 as a Cyclops II man. Furthermore two of my Great Uncles - both also RMA - visited regularly by virtue of the fact that they were gunners on capital ships. One of them, my Great Uncle Ernest, served on HMS Tiger and saw action at the Battle of Dogger Bank (1915) and the Battle of Jutland (1916).

Blockship SS Reginald between Glims Holm and Burray
My four day exploration of Scapa flow took the form of a circumnavigation by car, ferry and - best of all - on 'shank's pony'. Taking the capital town of Kirkwall as noon / midnight on a clock face, my journey started at about 3 o'clock on the southern tip of Holm Island. It is here that Holm Sound and other narrower sea routes into the Flow were blocked - initially by sinking obsolete merchant ships and later, during the Second World War, by the construction the Churchill Barriers which now serve as roadways linking the main Orkney Island with Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay.

The Italian Chapel - Built by PoWs
Aside from the barriers and blockships which are, in themselves, interesting vestiges of Scapa Flow's military history, the Italian Chapel is well worth seeing. Italian PoWs, from 1941 onwards, created a beautiful place of prayer by decorating a couple of Nissen huts placed end to end. Nowadays this little treasure draws a stream of tourist buses from the cruise ships calling at the Orkney Islands. Travelling clockwise, at about 5 o'clock the strategically important Hoxa Head on South Ronaldsay projects into Hoxa Sound - one of three main access points into Scapa Flow.

First World War battery - Hoxa Head
There are the remains of three batteries on Hoxa Head. The earliest was built in 1915 to house quick firing 4 inch guns. Later, in 1916, the battery was upgraded to house 6 inch guns. The gun pits, engine rooms, crew shelters and rock cut magazines are readily accessible.

The first Second World War era battery is adjacent to the Great War era example and incorporated many of the original buildings. Whilst much remains, the roofs of the two 6 inch gun positions have been collapsed by the landowner (presumably as a precaution against injury as the fabric of the building deteriorates).

Collapsed roof of WWII gun position
A second WWII era battery was built in 1940 a few hundred yards from the site of the first construction. The Balfour battery (as it was known) fulfilled an anti MTB role. This battery is intact (apart from the guns) and its two three level observation towers are striking landmarks.

Moving to 6 o'clock on my imaginary clock-face is the island of Flotta which is only accessible by ferry. Flotta is home to a modern oil storage facility and for this reason a major part of the island requires special permission for a visit.

I had a couple of hours on the island and managed to squeeze in an exploration of the Buchanan Battery (which faces Hoxa Head across Hoxa Sound), a walk around the batteries on Stanger Head (which lie in the shadow of the now disused Naval Signal Station) and a stop-off at what is left of the old WWII era cinema.

Stanger Head Naval Signals Station, Flotta
Covering the 7 to 9 o'clock part of my clock-face is the picturesque island of Hoy.  Longhope in the southern part of the island was an important base during both World Wars. Time was limited to tie in with ferry schedules so I made a bee-line for the erstwhile military hub of Lyness and the Scad Battery which protected the southern flank of Hoy Sound.

Lyness CWGC Military Cemetery
The Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Lyness contains graves from both World Wars including men from HMS Royal Oak and HMS Vanguard (two catastrophic sinkings at Scapa Flow) and German sailors killed during the scuttling of the Kaiser's Grand Fleet in 1919.

Original wartime oil tank at Lyness
Lyness was a bustling military camp and provisioning point for the Royal Navy during the First and Second World Wars. There is not much left now and sadly the local military museum is closed (though there is a small exhibition in an ante-room at the local hotel).

Scad Point Battery
Scad Point Battery is in great condition and well worth a visit. It is in a secluded spot and for nature lovers there is lots to see including grey seals on the beach below the derelict buildings.

At 10 o'clock on my imaginary clock-face lies the town of Stromness. My visit was a brief one and unfortunately I wasn't able to schedule a visit to the nearby Ness Battery which is opened for tours on a regular basis. The little museum at Stromness is hosting an exhibition to mark the centenary of the scuttling of the German fleet in 1919. It's well worth seeing.

Exhibition in Stromness Museum
At 11o'clock is the old seaplane base of Houton. This little village is the place to go for the car ferries to Hoy and Flotta. The jetties and piers are modern but one can still see two concrete ramps which date back to the war years. The First World War era German Fleet was scuttled at this end of Scapa Flow so by taking a ferry out to the outlying islands it is possible to get a decent view of the dive ships which are anchored over some of the more important wrecks.
Ferry Terminal at Houton

The town of Kirwall is home to the striking Cathedral of Saint Magnus and the HMS Royal Oak's bell, which was retrieved from the ocean floor  in the 1970s, is set up as a memorial to the 834 crew who were killed on 14th October 1939 when Gunther Prien's U-47 penetrated the Scapa Flow defences.

Royal Oak Memorial, Kirkwall

The final leg of my circumnavigation took me to Deerness where there is a fine example of an anti-tank defensive line near Dingieshowe, St Peter's Pool.

Anti-tank defences at Deerness
In sharing these descriptions and images I've only scratched the surface of what there is to see around Scapa Flow. This historically important site is surrounded by defensive structures of all types. In addition there are old airfields and other military installations ripe for exploration. The big draw of course are the wrecks - some of which are open to divers. Others, are as one would expect, classified as war graves and therefore protected.

The Orkney Islands are a wonderful place to visit and I've rarely seen a place with such a rich legacy of military history - much of it evident in the numerous wartime buildings and structures, many of which are readily accessible. I'm sure I will return.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

The Fight for Vyborg (June 1944)

The Russian port town of Vyborg, on the Karelian Isthmus, about 100 kilometres from St Petersburg is just a few steps from the modern day Finnish border. It's a interesting place - largely untouched by tourism. Whilst there is an undercurrent of seediness which is accentuated by a small but busy 'red light' scene the place retains a certain charm. Until the final months of the 1940-44 Continuation War the town was Finnish (Vipuri).

The Russian Town of Vyborg - view of Vyborg Castle (13th Century)
Following the forced withdrawal of the German Heeresgruppe Nord from the Leningrad region in early 1944 Finland's military position became critical. Having partnered with Germany in June 1941 the Finns had played a subtle strategic game in supporting their allies whilst not behaving too aggressively towards the Soviet Union. Many historians are critical of Mannerheim's decision to reject a Soviet peace offer in April 1944. In doing so the prospect of a concerted effort by the Red Army to push the Finns back beyond the pre Winter War (1939-40) border became reality.

Derelict Finnish House on Ovchinniy (Turkinsaari) Island
We decided to travel to the islands in the Gulf of Vyborg to explore parts of the battlefield assaulted by the Soviet 43rd Rifle Corps (of Ivan Korovnikov's 59th Army). In Finnish times the islands had been partly cleared of trees and were inhabited by peasants and fishermen. The Gulf of Vyborg was a busy waterway with the port of Vyborg at its heart. There is a lot to see from a military history perspective; Ovchinney (Turkinsaari) was a seaplane base and a mine research station and Vikhrevoy is home to 19th Century fortifications which were reused in the First World War, The Winter War and indeed the Continuation War. Similarly there is much to explore on Maly Vysotsky  (Ravansaari) and Chernovoy (Mustassari).

Transport to the Battlefields of Vyborg Bay
We hired a yacht for the day - one of a handful based in Vyborg. The Gulf freezes in winter so yacht ownership can be an expensive business insofar as the vessels need to be lifted from the water in winter. The islands did not disappoint though - once landed, the going was pretty heavy - thick undergrowth and swarms of insects. The military fortifications tended to be on the seaward facing side of the islands for obvious reasons whilst, for practical reasons, our yacht anchored on the sheltered landward side. Evidence of the pre-war Finnish settlements was prolific and I couldn't help wondering what happened to the people who inhabited the simple wooden houses that we explored.

Island Berth - Ready to Hike
Some of the forts date back to the Crimean War - indeed the area has been the scene of conflict for much of the previous hundred or so years. The Battle of Vyborg Bay between the forces of Gustav III of Sweden and Russia on July 4th 1790 supposedly established the naval tactic of 'firepower over mobility'. Walking across the island we came across trenches and foxholes used in the 1944 battles as well as fortifications dating to the Winter War a few years earlier. The 19th Century forts are in ruins and the guns, of course, are long gone but nevertheless it is possible to explore the remaining structures - above and below ground.

Corridor Linking Gun Batteries
Archive Map of Crimean War Era Fortifications
As is so often the case, on top of the 19th Century casements one can find evidence of use in later conflicts. First World War anti-naval guns, Winter / Continuation War anti-aircraft guns and structures that had been fortified as protection against amphibious attack (across the water or, in winter, the ice).

Barbed Wire - 1944
As far as the final battle is concerned, the Red Army attacked across the Bay of Vyborg on June 30th 1944 using a combination of assault troops, artillery and naval vessels. The 124th and 224th Rifle Divisions led the attack with the 80th in reserve. The Finnish 22nd Coastal Artillery Regiment were the main defenders, albeit with elements from the Finnish V Corps in support - bolstered by the German 122nd Infantry Division (lent to Finland as a political and strategic expediency). The Finnish Navy were on hand in strength.

Island Defences - Bay of Vyborg
The Finns fought with characteristic tenacity. The Soviets lost heavily during their amphibious assaults on the islands of Teikari and Melansaari. Although the first two attempts at amphibious landings were pushed back the islands fell on July 6th. Other islands fell to the Soviets despite fierce resistance and heavy involvement from the Finnish ships. Fighting in the Bay died down in August after the German 122nd Division had successfully repulsed a Soviet attempt to establish a bridgehead on the northern shore. After the blocking of the Red Army's progress at Vyborg then the Soviets successfully prosecuted their campaign elsewhere on the Karelian Isthmus eventually forcing the Finns to accept terms on 29th August.

A Peaceful Island Scene in the Bay of Vyborg

I'm very grateful to my Russian friends who made this brief exploration of parts of the Gulf of Vyborg possible. As is invariably the case, walking the ground has stoked my appetite to learn more!

Vyborg Flickr Portfolio