Tales of War: Scapa Flow and the Grand Scuttle
Orkney, United Kingdom
By Nigel Roddis
Flying over the lush, green islands of Orkney in Scotland, it is hard to imagine the area as an important naval base during the two World Wars. But a wide expanse of water south of Orkney mainland used to be just that.
The area, known as Scapa Flow, has seen its fair share of bloodshed. It was also the scene of the “Grand Scuttle,” when more than 50 German warships were sunk at the orders of their own Rear Admiral.
This strange event came about after Germany, defeated in World War One, had 74 ships interned at Scapa Flow.
On June 21, 1919, Rear Admiral Ludwig Von Reuter mistakenly thought that the Armistice had broken down. To prevent the British seizing his warships, he ordered them to be sunk, or “scuttled”.
Direct witnesses of the Grand Scuttle have now sadly died, but I managed to track down some of their relatives who still had tales to tell. One of them was Gary Gibson, whose mother Peggy was 10 years old when she saw the fleet go down.
At the time, Peggy and her three sisters, Lillian, Anna and Tina, were out on a school trip. At first they thought the Germans were putting on a show for them and they were quite excited; it was only when the adults started to panic and the Germans began jumping from the ships that they realised something was wrong.
Morag Robertson’s grandfather, Arthur Burnett, was cycling home when he saw the ships sink. It was a hot day, he’d been working hard, and looking at the scene he feared he’d gone mad. When he went home he didn’t mention the incident to anyone and it was only later that he realized what had really happened – and that he wasn’t crazy!
Today, only seven of the sunken warships still remain on the seabed and they are a magnet for divers. I came here to dive myself and to capture the enormity of these vessels – a difficult task as the wrecks lie dozens of meters below the surface and the visibility can be quite poor. A combination of floating blooms, a silty seabed, jellyfish and a ripped diving suit meant that after three days I still had no pictures.
But in the end, this place didn’t let me down. Some of my favourite underwater images come from “Tabarka,” a steamer that was among many other vessels deliberately sunk during both World Wars to try and block the path of German U-Boats.
Built in 1909, she now lies upside down with her boilers exposed. Diving inside her, shafts of light penetrate the hull, lighting her up like a cathedral.
Seeing the wrecks was impressive, but nowhere on the islands brings home the true cost of war more than the Lyness Naval cemetery, where thousands of graves cover the ground. Many of the headstones simply read “Unknown Sailor”.
One of the worst losses of life in Scapa Flow came in 1939 when a German U-Boat torpedoed HMS Royal Oak killing over 800 men. To prevent a repeat of this attack, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered barriers to be put up to protect the fleet.
Italian Prisoners of War were drafted in to help build these structures and among them was an artist named Domenico Chiocchetti.
He designed and built what is known as the Italian Chapel from one of the huts in a POW camp. Born in war, is a true place of peace.