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.