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29 October 2014
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Ness Battery
Ness Battery
Walking out of the town of Stromness and past the golf course you will soon find yourself looking at a scene reminiscent of a war movie. This is Ness Battery, a series of defensive positions installed over two world wars which have survived to this day and give an eerie feel to this stretch of the walk. Why were such impressive and fearsome looking fortifications erected on such a remote island? The answer lies in the vast natural harbour stretching to the south of Stromness - Scapa Flow.

Orkney, in naval terms, was a provincial backwater until the turn of the 20th Century when with the advent of German naval power, the threat to British marine interests was judged to have moved from the Channel to the North Sea and Atlantic. The decision was taken to relocate the Grand Fleet to an anchorage both large enough to take the capital ships and also allowing easy access for these ships to sail to whatever part of a global empire required their services.

Scapa Flow was the obvious choice, and so on the eve of the First World War, the fleet moved north to the Orkneys. Here at Ness, fortifications were built to defend Hoy Sound, the main western approach into the bay, with the town of Stromness becoming the naval headquarters.

Scapa Flow became most famous however, for an event which occurred after peace had broken out in 1919. With the signing of the armistice, the German High Seas Fleet was ordered to sail to Scapa Flow where it was interned awaiting the decision of the Versailles peace conference as to its fate. This was no small force: there were 74 ships in all including eleven battleships and five battle cruisers.

Ness Battery
Ness Battery

On 21 June 1919, with the fear amongst his officers that the peace treaty would deliver his ships to the British and the Royal Navy out at sea on exercise, the German commander, Rear Admiral von Reuter, ordered the scuttling of his fleet. Fifty one of the German vessels went to the bottom, with a further eight being beached.

The defences were further increased with the outbreak of war in 1939, with the Stromness Hotel being taken over as the Orkney and Shetland headquarters. Most of the defences to be seen here date from this period.

Scapa Flow suffered its lowest point on the night of the 14th October 1939, when the U-47, a German submarine entered the harbour and managed to torpedo the British battleship Royal Oak as it lay at anchor. This was a daring raid on the Royal Navy at the point where it should have felt safest.

What is most unforgivable about the disaster of the Royal Oak, is that the Germans had tried twice in the previous war to sail a U-Boat into Scapa Flow, only to have the submarine sunk on both occasions.

Most remarkably of all, some of the scrap metal taken from the scuttled German ships has been used in space satellites, as the metal - forged in the pre-atomic age has absorbed less radiation from nuclear explosions in the atmosphere which can interfere with satellite sensors.

Directions: Follow the road on out of the town, then take the next right and then turn left down the road past the golf club. This road travels round the point and turns into a coastal path taking you past Ness Battery.

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