The move to Orkney
Historically, the British Grand Fleet had been based on the south coast of England, ready for any attack from continental Europe. At the start of World War One, the decision was taken to relocate the main base to Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland.
The navy had to move tens of thousands of sailors and dozens of warships to Orkney. This was a huge operation that had a massive effect on the local economy and infrastructure, the remnants of which are still obvious today.
Although the relocation would enable the British navy to respond more quickly to movements from the German fleet based in the Baltic Sea, the base at Scapa Flow had no defences against the newest naval threat, U-boats.
Building a secure base
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At 120 square miles area, Scapa Flow is one of the world’s largest natural harbours and is mostly enclosed by surrounding islands. After a German submarine entered the Flow in November 1914, underwater nets and sea level fences were installed at entrances and blockships were sunk to prevent access at shallow points. Minefields and high-tech hydrophones at sea and gun batteries on land completed the defences. By 1915, the navy believed that Scapa Flow was a safe base.
The Battle of Jutland
The decision to move the main naval base to Scapa Flow paid off in 1916, when the British were able to intercept the German fleet in the North Sea off the coast of Denmark, at Jutland.
The Germans had been intending to shell the English coast and destroy the British fleet in sections. Instead they faced the British at full strength in the largest naval battle of the war.
Admiral Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet was the most heavily armed force ever to put to sea. The Fleet contained 24 dreadnoughts, the most powerful type of warship. The combined British naval forces numbered over 150 ships, to Germany's 100.
It was vital for the full British fleet to engage the German fleet quickly. This was possible because Scapa Flow was now a major base, close enough to respond quickly to news of the German fleet’s position.
The battle cost 8500 lives. 25 ships – weighing over 200,000 tonnes - were sunk. The British lost more ships but the German fleet did not challenge the British fleet for the remainder of the war as they did not want to risk losing a full scale battle.
Later war at sea
Following the losses at Jutland, German Admiral Scheer did not want to engage the British Grand Fleet in a large battle again. Scapa Flow was too close to the German fleet for them to feel safe leaving their Baltic base for the rest of the war.
However, the threat from German U-boats continued. Just days after Jutland, Minister for War, Lord Kitchener’s ship the HMS Hampshire was sunk by a mine laid by a U-boat at Marwick Head, off Orkney, shortly after leaving Scapa Flow.
Unrestricted submarine warfare
Admiral Scheer no longer believed that it would be possible to trap a squadron of Royal Navy warships without the British Grand Fleet intervening before he could return to port.
The German High Seas Fleet abandoned its forays into the North Sea and turned its attention to the Baltic for most of 1917 whilst Scheer switched tactics against Britain to unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic.
Aftermath of the scuttling
The British Admiralty wrote off the sunken ships as complete losses and sold the rights to entrepreneur Ernest Cox for £250. He spent the next year recovering almost all of the smaller destroyers.
His company developed new techniques to solve the problems they faced. To recover the larger ships, he patched up the holes in the hulls and pumped air into the ships to bring them to the surface.
During the coal strike in 1926, Cox salvaged coal from the full coal bunkers of the sunken battlecruiser Seydlitz to power his machines.
Most of the steel was sold as scrap. One use which could not have been predicted in 1919 was late 20th Century precision scientific instruments, including those in satellites.
Modern steel, made since the advent of nuclear warfare, contains trace amounts of radioactive elements which would interfere with sensitive instruments. Steel recovered from the ships of the German fleet, scuttled in 1919, is free from radioactive traces.
What was the effect on Orkney?
During World War One
Tens of thousands of sailors arrived in Orkney, though most were generally confined to their ships or to facilities on the small island of Flotta.
Tensions were raised between Orcadians and the Navy after the sinking of the HMS Hampshire in 1916. Locals had tried to assist the stricken vessel but were prevented by armed guards.
World War Two
Scapa Flow’s role as a major naval base was restored during World War Two, this time due to its great distance from German airfields.
As in World War One, defences were initially poor and the Navy raced to make it impenetrable to submarines.
However, in October 1939, a U-boat crept in and torpedoed HMS Royal Oak, killing 833 members of the crew. The ship is an undisturbed war grave.
Archaeology and diving
Despite its remote location and the efforts of salvaging companies, the sea around Orkney has one of the largest concentrations of shipwrecks in the world.
Many sites are protected by the Military Remains Act, including HMS Hampshire and HMS Royal Oak, making entry or tampering illegal.
The remaining German ships are popular recreational diving sites and sources of archaeological importance.