Wartime Scapa Flow
Discover the wartime heritage of Scapa Flow


Scapa Flow is a natural harbour which has been used over many centuries, from the Viking fleet of King Haokon in the 13th Century, to the present day. It formed an important northern base for the British fleets in both world wars.

World War I

During the first World War, the British Grand Fleet used Scapa Flow as a northern base. After a German U-Boat managed to enter the Flow early in the war, merchant ships were sent as blockships in strategic places and anti-submarine nets were put in place. From this base, vessels from the fleet made sweeps in search of the enemy.


Kron Prinz WilhelmIn 1916, the British Grand Fleet left to fight in the Battle of Jutland. 24 battleships and 3 battlecruisers, plus destroyers and scouting cruisers set out under the command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe. They met the German High Seas Fleet in battle. There was much damage wrought, with many thousands of men losing their lives, but both sides believed they had won. However, after the battle, the Kaiser's fleet never went to sea again.

In June 1916, Lord Kitchener, the Minister of War, arrived in Scapa Flow to visit Admiral Jellicoe and hear his account of the Battle of Jutland, Kitchener left on board the Hampshire, and sailed up the west coast of Orkney. Near Birsay, the Hampshire struck a mine, and only 12 men out of 665 survived. On 1926, money was raised by public subscription to erect the Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head near Birsay.

After the armistice, seventy-four ships of the German High Seas Fleet were ordered into Scapa Flow to be interned. They arrived in November 1918, and stayed there for 10 months. During this time, they became a tourist attraction, with boat trips to see them. By June 1919, Rear Admiral von Reuter, the German Officer in command at Scapa Flow, knew that Germany would have to accept surrender terms. When the main part of the British Fleet left the flow for exercises he gave the order for the German fleet to be scuttled.

Most of the scuttled fleet did not stay iwhere they had sunk. Those that were beached were removed almost immediately. In the 1920s, the firm Cox & Douglas began salvage operations, lifting many of the ships. This salvage continued until the advent of the Second World War, and only eight scuttled ships now remain in the Flow.

The first of the German Fleet to sink after the order to scuttle was issued was the Friedrich der Grosse - the flagship of the Jutland Fleet. This battleship sank beneath the surface at 12:16pm.
The British managed to save a few of the German ships by towing them towards shore where they settled in the shallow water.
At 5pm on 21 June 1919, the last ship, the Hindenberg, went under. By this time the surface of Scapa Flow was covered in oil and debris. The environmental damage caused by the scuttling was considerable.

On June 21st 1919, a party of schoolchildren from the town of Stromness were being taken on a trip around Scapa Flow to view the German Fleet. Little did they know when they left home that day what they were to witness.

The following is a piece written by one of the children, James Taylor, one of the pupils who witnessed the scuttling:

"On Saturday June 21st 1919, I rose very early, as it would never do to be late for a school treat which was to take the form of a cruise on the Flying Kestrel to visit the surrendered German Fleet. The though of sailing up to them made us boys almost sick with excitement!

At long last we came face to face with the Fleet. Their decks were lined with German sailors who....did not seem too pleased to see us. Suddenly without any warning and almost simultaneously these huge vessels began to list over to port or starboard; some heeled over and plunged headlong, their sterns lifted high out of the water.

Out of the vents rushed steam and oil and air with a dreadful roaring hiss.

And as we watched, awestruck and silent, the sea became littered for miles round with boats and hammocks, lifebelts and chests....and among it all hundreds of men struggling for their lives.

As we drew away from this nightmare scene we watched the last great battleship slide down with keel upturned like some monstrous whale."

German Sailors taking to boats during scuttling
The crew of a German destroyer abandon ship as the vessel sinks. Remains of a Blockship.
The British ship "Hampshire"
The "Hampshire", of the British Grand Fleet. The "Kronprinz Wilhelm", of the German High Seas Fleet.

World War II

During World War II, the Home Fleet was based at Scapa Flow, from where it helped to protect the Arctic Convoys to Murmansk.

In October, 1939, only a month after war had been declared, an assault on Scapa Flow was planned using the U-Boat U-47, commanded by Lieutenant Günther Prien. On the night of October 13th, the U-Boat managed to pass between the Orkney Mainland and Lamb Holm into Scapa Flow, between two northerly blockships. Just after midnight HMS Royal Oak was sighted in Scapa Bay. Torpedoes were fired, and a hole 30 feet in diameter was made in the hull, and she capsized. Of the crew of 1400 men, 833 lost their lives.

HMS Royal Oak is a protected war grave, and each year on the anniversary of the sinking, there are memorial services.

Churchill Barrier © Doug HoughtonFollowing this event, Scapa Flow became heavily defended with anti-aircraft batteries, minefields and further blockships. In 1940, Winston Churchill gave orders that the defences on the eastern side of Scapa Flow were to be improved by setting concrete blocks between islands to make causeways. These four causeways are known as the Churchill Barriers (picture, left)

Italian POWs were used to build the barriers. They were unhappy, declaring this to be war work, and thus against the Geneva Convention, but were persuaded that the primary purpose of the barriers was to provide an easy means of communication by road for the people living in the south parishes.

The Italian prisoners built a beautiful 'Italian Chapel' on Lamb Holm for their worship, which can still be visited today.

The Scapa Flow Vistor Centre is housed in the former oil pumping station at the Lyness Naval Base on Hoy. Here are housed many exhibits from both World Wars.

The Royal Oak Block mold used in building the Churchill Barriers
The Royal Oak One of the block moulds used in building the Churchill Barriers.