(/ˈskɑːpə/ or /ˈskæpə/; from Old Norse Skalpaflói,
meaning 'bay of the long isthmus') is a body of water in the Orkney
Islands, Scotland, sheltered by the islands of Mainland, Graemsay,
and Hoy. Its sheltered waters have been
used by ships since prehistory and it has played an important role in
travel, trade and conflict throughout the centuries - especially
during both World Wars.
A consultation in ballast water management in 2013 measured the
commonly used Harbour Authority definition of
square kilometres (125.3 sq mi) and just under 1 billion
cubic metres of water.
3 Historical shipping use
4 Viking era
5 Wars of the Three Kingdoms
6 World War I
6.1 Base for the British Grand Fleet
6.2 The scuttling of the German fleet
7 Salvage operation
8 World War II
9.1 Use by the petroleum industry
Scapa Flow Visitor Centre
10 Scuba diving
10.1 German battleships
10.2 German light cruisers
10.3 Other vessels
War grave wrecks
13 See also
14 References and sources
15 Further reading
16 External links
Since the post-
World War I
World War I scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa
Flow, its wrecks and their marine habitats form an internationally
acclaimed diving location.
Scapa Flow hosts an oil port in the form of
Flotta Oil Terminal and barring turbulent weather provides a
sufficient roadstead (water of moderate conditions) for ship-to-ship
transfers of crude oil product and liquefied natural gas (LNG). The
world’s first ship-to-ship transfer of LNG took place in Scapa Flow
in 2007.
Scapa Flow has a shallow sandy bottom not deeper than 60 metres
(200 ft) and most of it is about 30 m (100 ft) deep,
and is one of the great natural harbours/anchorages of the world, with
sufficient space to hold a number of navies.
Historical shipping use
Vikings anchored their longships in
Scapa Flow more than a thousand
years ago, but it is best known as the site of the United Kingdom's
chief naval base during
World War I
World War I and World War II. The facility was
closed in 1956.
The Viking expeditions to
Orkney are recorded in detail in the 11th
century Orkneyinga sagas and later texts such as the Hákonar saga
According to the latter, King
Haakon IV of Norway
Haakon IV of Norway anchored his fleet,
including the flagship Kroussden that could carry nearly 300 men, on 5
August 1263 at St Margaret's Hope, where he witnessed an eclipse of
the sun prior to sailing south to the Battle of Largs.
En route back to Norway Haakon anchored some of his fleet in Scapa
Flow for the winter, but he died that December whilst staying at the
Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall. In the 15th century towards the end of
Norse rule in Orkney, the islands were run by the jarls from large
manor farms, some of which were sited at Burray, Burwick, Paplay, Hoy,
and Cairston (near Stromness) to guard the entrances to the Flow.
Wars of the Three Kingdoms
In 1650 during the wars of the Three Kingdoms, the Royalist general
James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, moored his ship, the
Herderinnan, in Scapa Flow, in preparation for his attempt to raise a
rebellion in Scotland. The enterprise ended in failure and rout at the
Battle of Carbisdale.
World War I
Orkney within Scotland
Base for the British Grand Fleet
Historically, the main British naval bases were near the English
Channel to counter the country’s imperial rivals: the Netherlands
(until the accession of William of Orange), France, and Spain.
In 1904 in response to the build-up of the German Kaiserliche Marine's
High Seas Fleet, Britain decided that a northern base was needed to
control the entrances to the North Sea, as part of a revised policy of
'distant' rather than 'close' blockade. First Rosyth in Fife was
Invergordon at Cromarty Firth. Delayed construction
left these largely unfortified by the outbreak of World War I. Scapa
Flow had been used many times for British exercises in the years
before the War and when the time came for the fleet to move to a
northern station, it was chosen for the main base of the British Grand
Fleet – unfortified.
John Rushworth Jellicoe, admiral of the Grand Fleet, was perpetually
nervous about the possibility of submarine or destroyer attacks on
Scapa Flow. Whilst the fleet spent almost the first year of the war
patrolling the west coast of the British Isles, their base at Scapa
was defensively reinforced, beginning with over sixty block-ships sunk
in the many entrance channels between the southern islands to
facilitate the use of submarine nets and booms. These blocked
approaches were backed by minefields, artillery, and concrete
Two attempts to enter the harbour were made by German U-boats during
the war and neither was successful:
U-18 tried to enter in November 1914. A trawler searching for
submarines rammed her causing her leaking, prompting flight and
surfacing — one crew member died.
UB-116 made a foray in October 1918 but encountered the sophisticated
defences then in place, detected by hydrophones before entering the
anchorage, then destroyed by shore-triggered mines causing all 36
hands to perish.
Battle of Jutland
Battle of Jutland the German
High Seas Fleet
High Seas Fleet rarely ventured
out of its bases at
Kiel and in the last two years
of the war the British fleet was considered to have such a commanding
superiority of the seas that some components moved south to the
first-class dockyard at Rosyth.
The scuttling of the German fleet
Main article: Scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow
Following the German defeat in WWI, 74 ships of the Imperial German
High Seas Fleet
High Seas Fleet were interned in
Gutter Sound at Scapa Flow
pending a decision on their future in the peace Treaty of Versailles.
On 21 June 1919, after seven months of waiting,
Rear Admiral Ludwig
von Reuter, the German officer in command at Scapa Flow, made the
decision to scuttle the fleet because the negotiation period for the
treaty had lapsed with no word of a settlement (he was not kept
informed that there had been a last-minute extension to finalise the
After waiting for the bulk of the British fleet to leave on exercises,
he gave the order to scuttle the ships to prevent their falling into
British hands. The Royal
Navy made desperate efforts to board the
ships to prevent the sinkings, but the German crews had spent the idle
months preparing for the order, welding bulkhead doors open, laying
charges in vulnerable parts of the ships, and quietly dropping
important keys and tools overboard so valves could not be shut.
Navy managed to beach the battleship Baden, the light
cruisers Nürnberg, and Frankfurt and 18 destroyers whereas 53 ships,
the vast bulk of the High Seas Fleet, were sunk. Nine German sailors
died on one of these ships when British forces opened fire as they
attempted to scuttle the ship, reputedly the last casualties of WWI.
SMS Emden was amongst the ships the British managed to beach. This
Emden should not be confused with her predecessor, destroyed in the
Battle of Cocos
Battle of Cocos on 9 November 1914 by the Australian light cruiser
At least seven of the scuttled German ships, and a number of sunken
British ships, can be visited by scuba divers.
Although many of the larger ships turned turtle and came to rest
upside down or on their sides in relatively deep water (25–45 m),
some—including the battlecruiser Moltke—were left with parts of
their superstructure or upturned bows still protruding from the water
or just below the surface.
These ships posed a severe hazard to navigation, and small boats,
trawlers and drifters, moving around the Flow regularly became snagged
on them with the rise and fall of the tides. The Admiralty initially
declared that there would be no attempt at salvage, that the sunken
hulks would remain where they were, to 'rest and rust.' In the first
few years after the war, there was abundant scrap metal as a result of
the huge quantities of leftover tanks, artillery and ordnance. By the
early 1920s, the situation had changed.
In 1922, the Admiralty invited tenders from interested parties for the
salvage of the sunken ships, although at the time few believed that it
would be possible to raise the deeper wrecks. The contract went to
a wealthy engineer and scrap metal merchant, Ernest Cox, who created a
new company, a division of Cox & Danks Ltd, for the venture, and
so began what is often called the greatest maritime salvage operation
of all time.
During the next eight years, Cox and his workforce of divers,
engineers, and labourers engaged in the complex task of raising the
sunken fleet. First the relatively small destroyers were winched to
the surface using pontoons and floating docks to be sold for scrap to
help finance the operation, then the bigger battleships and
battlecruisers were lifted, by sealing the multiple holes in the
wrecks, and welding to the hulls long steel tubes which protruded
above the water, for use as airlocks. In this fashion the submerged
hulls were made into air-tight chambers and raised with compressed
air, still inverted, back to the surface.
Cox endured bad luck and frequent fierce storms which often ruined his
work, swamping and re-sinking ships which had just been raised. At one
stage, during the General Strike of 1926, the salvage operation was
about to grind to a halt due to a lack of coal to feed the many
boilers for the water pumps and generators. Cox ordered that the
abundant fuel bunkers of the sunken (but only partly submerged)
battlecruiser Seydlitz be broken into to extract the coal with
mechanical grabs, allowing work to continue.
Although he ultimately lost money on the contract, Cox kept going,
employing new technology and methods as conditions dictated. By 1939,
Cox and Metal Industries Ltd. (the company that he had sold out to in
1932) had successfully raised 45 of the 52 scuttled ships. The last,
the massive Derfflinger, was raised from a record depth of 45 metres
just before work was suspended with the start of WWII, before being
towed to Rosyth where it was broken up in 1946.
Morse key recovered from the battleship Grosser Kurfürst during the
salvage is displayed at a Fife museum.
World War II
Blockship, Scapa Flow
Primarily because of its great distance from German airfields, Scapa
Flow was again selected as the main British naval base during World
The strong defences built during
World War I
World War I had fallen into
disrepair. Defence against air attack was inadequate and blockships
sunk to stop U-boats from penetrating had largely collapsed. While
there were anti-submarine nets in place over the three main entrances,
they were made only of single-stranded looped wire; there was also a
severe lack of the patrolling destroyers and other anti-submarine
craft that had previously been available. Efforts began belatedly to
repair peacetime neglect, but were not completed in time to prevent a
successful penetration by enemy forces.
On 14 October 1939, under the command of Günther Prien, U-47
Scapa Flow and sank the WWI–era battleship HMS Royal
Oak anchored in Scapa Bay. After firing its first torpedo, the
submarine turned to make its escape; but, upon realising that there
was no immediate threat from surface vessels, it returned for another
attack. The second torpedo blew a 30-foot (9.1 m) hole in the
Royal Oak, which flooded and quickly capsized. Of the 1,400-man crew,
833 were lost. The wreck is now a protected war grave. John
Gunther in December 1939 called the attack "the single most
extraordinary feat of the war so far".
Three days after the submarine attack, four
Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88
bombers of Kampfgeschwader 1/30 led by group commander Hauptmann Fritz
Scapa Flow on 17 October in one of the first bombing
attacks on Britain during the war. The attack badly damaged an old
base ship, the decommissioned battleship HMS Iron Duke, which was
then beached at Ore Bay by a tug. One man died and 25 were injured.
One of the bombers was shot down by No 1 gun of 226 Heavy
Anti-Aircraft Battery on Hoy. Three of the crew died, while the radio
operator Fritz Ambrosius was badly burned but managed to parachute
New blockships were sunk, booms and mines were placed over the main
entrances, coast defence and anti-aircraft batteries were installed at
crucial points, and
Winston Churchill ordered the construction of a
series of causeways to block the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow;
they were built by Italian prisoners of war held in Orkney, who also
built the Italian Chapel. These "Churchill Barriers" now provide road
access from Mainland to
Burray and South Ronaldsay, but block maritime
traffic. An air base,
RAF Grimsetter (which later became HMS Robin),
was built and commissioned in 1940.
Use by the petroleum industry
Petroleum tankers wait at anchor in Scapa Flow. The calm waters,
relative to the North Sea, provide a safe harbour for the oil terminal
Scapa Flow is one of the transfer and processing points for North Sea
oil. A 30-inch(-diameter), 128-mile underwater pipeline brings oil
Piper oilfield to the
Flotta oil terminal. The Claymore and
Tartan oil fields also feed into this line.
Scapa Flow Visitor Centre
Media related to
Scapa Flow Visitor Centre at Wikimedia Commons
Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, Hoy
Scapa Flow Visitor Centre is at
Hoy (from Háey meaning
high island) the second largest of Orkney. Morning to evening ferries
Houton on the Mainland.
It occupies a converted naval fuel pumping station and storage tank
and next to it is a round stone-built battery emplacement and
artillery gun as well as other decommissioned arsenal. It features a
large model of the island,
Scapa Flow and of the German warships.
The wreckage of the remaining seven ships of the German fleet (and
some other sites such as the blockships) has become increasingly
popular as a venue for recreational scuba divers, and is regularly
listed in dive magazines and internet forums among the top dive sites
in the UK, Europe, and even the world. Although other locations, for
example the Pacific regions, offer warmer water and better visibility,
there are very few other sites which can offer such an abundance of
large, historic wrecks lying in close proximity and shallow,
relatively benign diving conditions. As of 2010, at least twelve "live
aboard" boats—mostly converted trawlers with bunk rooms in their
former holds—take recreational divers out to the main sites,
primarily from the main harbour at Stromness. Diving provides a
substantial amount of trade and income for the local economy.
Divers must first obtain a permit from the Island Harbour Authorities,
which is available through diving shops and centres. The wrecks are
mostly located at depths of 35 to 50 metres. Divers are permitted to
enter the wrecks, but not to retrieve artefacts located within 100
metres of any wreck. However, time and tide has washed broken pieces
of ships' pottery and glass bottles into shallow waters and onto
beaches. The underwater visibility, which can vary between 2 and 20
metres, is not sufficient to view all the length of most wrecks at
once; however, current technology is now allowing 3D images of them to
The important wrecks are:
The three sister battleships of the König class: SMS König,
SMS Kronprinz and SMS Markgraf formed the main component of
the 3rd Battleship Squadron which took part in fierce fighting at the
Battle of Jutland
Battle of Jutland far off the Jutland, Denmark coast (31 May to 1 June
1916) and their upturned hulls are around 25 m deep. Never
raised, they have been salvaged incrementally: armour plate blasted
away and non-ferrous metals removed. They form highly rated dive sites
chiefly due to their depth.
German light cruisers
The light cruisers SMS Dresden, SMS Karlsruhe,
SMS Brummer and SMS Cöln have modest fighting tops, lie
side-on with around 16–20 metres of water above, are more accessible
for divers and save for the shallowest, Karlsruhe, are less salvaged
(stripped of valuable materials) than the battleships.
Additional sites of interest include the destroyer SMS V83, which
was raised and used by Cox as a working boat during his salvage
operations, particularly on SMS Hindenburg, then later abandoned;
the Churchill blockships, such as the Tabarka, the Gobernador Bories,
and the Doyle in Burra Sound; the
U-boat SM UB-116; and the
trawler James Barrie. Also, some large items from many of the ship
hulls that were raised (such as the main gun turrets, which fell away
from the ships as they capsized) were never salvaged, and still exist
on the seabed in close proximity to the impact craters created by the
War grave wrecks
The memorial tower to HMS Hampshire and Lord Kitchener
The wrecks of the battleships Royal Oak and Vanguard (which exploded
at anchor during World War I) are war graves designated as Controlled
Sites under the
Protection of Military Remains Act 1986
Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 — only
divers of the British armed forces may visit these wrecks. With
equal legal status, commemorated in a museum by the water is the wreck
of the armoured cruiser Hampshire, which hit a mine when carrying 14
passengers including Lord Kitchener bound for Arkhangelsk, Russia on 5
June 1916 and sank off the west coast of the mainland. The large
armoured cruiser went down in fifteen minutes in a heavy storm four
days after the
Battle of Jutland
Battle of Jutland leaving 12 survivors and 737 dead in
70 metres of water 1.5 miles off steep cliffs of Marwick Head on which
a square tower Memorial stands.
According to legend, a curse was placed on Scapa long ago by a witch.
She buried a thimble in the sand at Nether Scapa, and until it was
found no more whales would be caught in the area.
Aerial photograph of Scapa Flow
References and sources
^ Scapa Flow: Graveyard of the German Fleet, Will
^ a b c S. C. George, Jutland to Junkyard, 1973.
^ Thompson (2008) pp. 141–43.
^ Thompson (2008) pp. 223–34.
^ a b Robert K. Massie (2004). Castles of Steel. Ballantine Books.
ISBN 0-345-40878-0. [page needed]
^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "WWI U-boats: UB 116". German and Austrian
World War I
World War I -
Kaiserliche Marine - Uboat.net.
^ Museum of Communication, 131 High Street, Burntisland.
^ The Twilight War:
Winston Churchill 1948
^ James Miller, The North Atlantic Front: Orkney, Shetland, Faroe and
Iceland at War (2004)
^ Rick D. Joshua. "
U-boat U-47". u47.org. Retrieved 16 October
^ David Turner, Last Dawn: The Royal Oak Tragedy at
Scapa Flow (Argyll
^ H. J. Weaver, Nightmare at Scapa Flow: the truth about the sinking
of HMS Royal Oak (Cressrelles, 1980).
^ Gunther, John (1940). Inside Europe. New York: Harper &
Brothers. pp. xxi.
^ Geirr H. Haarr (24 September 2013). The Gathering Storm: The Naval
War in Northern Europe September 1939 - April 1940. Seaforth
Publishing. pp. 240–243. ISBN 978-1-4738-3131-5.
^ M. Brown and P. Meehan, Scapa Flow: the reminiscences of men and
women who served in
Scapa Flow in the two World Wars (Allen Lane,
^ "Scapa Flow : Historic Wreck Site". www.scapaflowwrecks.com.
Retrieved 10 August 2017.
Scapa Flow in 3D". DiverNet. Archived from the original on 6 June
2011. Retrieved 16 October 2009.
^ Wrecks designated as Military Remains, Maritime and Coastguard
Agency, retrieved 27 December 2006
^ "A curse on the sands at Scarpa - An introduction to
- Folklore and old stories - Culture and tradition - Scapa Flow
Landscape Partnership Scheme".
Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership
Scheme. 2011. Retrieved 29 July 2014.
George, S. C. (1981). Jutland to Junkyard. Edinburgh: Paul Harris
Publishing. ISBN 0-86228-029-X. Describes the scuttling of
the High Seas Fleet.
Thomson, William P. L. (2008). The New History of Orkney. Edinburgh:
Birlinn. ISBN 978-1-84158-696-0.
Wood, Lawson (2007).
Scapa Flow Dive Guide. AquaPress Publishing.
ISBN 1-905492-04-9. A comprehensive guide to diving the
wrecks and reefs of Scapa Flow.
Booth, Tony. Cox's Navy: Salvaging the German
High Seas Fleet
High Seas Fleet at Scapa
Flow 1924-1931. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2005.
Brown, Malcolm & Patricia Meehan. Scapa Flow. London: Pan Books,
2002. ISBN 1-4050-0785-0.
Konstam, Angus. Scapa Flow: The Defences of Britain's Great Fleet
Anchorage 1914-45. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2009.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Scapa Flow.
Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum
Scapa Flow website by North Walls Community School
Scuttling of the
High Seas Fleet
High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow
About the shipwrecks at Scapa Flow
Listing of German and scuttled ships.
Scapa Flow Marine Archaeology Project
Orkney Wireless Museum (in Kirkwall)
Ness Battery: A WWII coast battery near Stromness
Orkney Defence Interest Network
Holm of Grimbister
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Coordinates: 58°54′N 3°03′W / 58.900°N 3.050°W /