62 years on the bottom of Scapa Flow


Unquestionably the most spectacular wreck diving off the coast of Great Britain is to be found in Scapa Flow. A natural anchorage formed by the island of Orkney and its neighbour Hoy, the Flow is situated about 15 miles north of the northernmost tip of the Scottish mainland. The Flow has been used as a safe harbour for centuries as it provides shelter from the ravages of the Atlantic and the North Sea. The delightful township of Stromness, situated at the western entrance to the Flow, has been used as a harbour since Viking times and was also used extensively as a stopping off point for the old sailing ships, including those of the famous Dutch East India Company who often took the northern route round the British Isles to avoid the English Channel. In more recent times, the Flow was used by the British Navy during the First World War and it was immediately after the war that the Flow became the graveyard of the entire German High Seas Fleet.

The Fleet was interned in the Flow while the Allied Powers deliberated on its fate. The German Fleet Commander, Admiral Von Reuter, considered that Germany was still technically at war until the final peace treaty was signed. They were due to formally surrender at noon on the 21st June 1919, but Von Reuter did not intend that the fleet should fall into allied hands. Accordingly at high noon on the 21st. June 1919 a prearranged signal went up from Von Reuters flagship and the sea cocks were opened on all 74 warships. The British Navy managed to drag a few into shallow water but the majority sank at their moorings. Vice-Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle, Commander of the British watchdog fleet commented to Von Reuter “The honour loving seamen of all nations will be unable to comprehend this act - with the exception, perhaps, of yours”

Those wrecks that couldn’t be beached by the British Navy were inspected by naval divers and pronounced impossible to salvage. The view was that as the wrecks were of no real hazard to shipping they would be left to rust and rot. So there they stayed until 1924 when Ernest Cox began his mammoth and record breaking task of raising as much of he fleet as possible. Often devising his own unique methods of salvage. He commenced by raising the small destroyers by means of winches & cable from floating docks, The battleships, being of over: 25,000 tons each could only be raised by sealing up the hull on the sea bed and blowing air inside to raise them, mostly upside-down.
Now all that remains of the fleet are three battleships and four light cruisers. These seven wrecks provide the best diving in the Flow, with the exception of the British battleship Royal Oak which was supposedly torpedoed at anchor by the German submarine U-47 in October 1939. I say supposedly because accounts of the actual sinking, and the report of Lieutenant Prien, the U-boat Commander, show a lot of discrepancies and leave a lot of questions unanswered. However, as the Royal Oak took 800 men to the bottom with her, she is designated as a war grave and therefore diving on her is strictly forbidden.
Although many other wrecks lie on the sea bed in the area it is those ships of the German Fleet that drew us back to the Flow between the 5th & 11th. September 1981. Diving of this sort requires “expedition” tactics. 3 inflatable boats, 2 compressors, 19 divers & equipment mounts up to approximately 4 tons of gear. We left Chorley un Friday evening with a minibus, a 4 ton wagon and an estate car and after a 14 hour over-night drive we reached the ferry terminal near Thurso.

A hour sea crossing landed us in Stromness by mid Saturday afternoon. Our base was a field adjacent to the old army base on Midland Ness. The location proved ideal as we had easy water access for the boats and an average boat trip of only 1½ miles to reach the wrecks. All the dives had to be planned with extreme care as we intended diving twice each day and with depths of 30-40 metres, decompression would be necessary to avoid the real danger of the “bends”.
Our first problem occurred straight away, the echo sounder packed up although not essential it was a valuable tool for locating the wrecks. Sextant readings positioned us roughly over the wrecks but a “bottom trace” that the echo sounder should have given us would have pinpointed them precisely.
The first dive was on the “Karlsruhe”, a 6150 ton light cruiser lying on its starboard side. Although the engine room area had been extensively salvaged the fore & aft parts of the ship were intact, even its main armament of 5.9in. guns were fully accessible.

On Monday we started our busy schedule of 2 dives a day. This involved a dive mid-late morning, followed by a compulsory gap of 6 hours before the next dive. This was to avoid excessive decompression stops on our last dive of the day. This time was put to good use running the compressors to refill our cylinders, which was a mammoth task in itself, considering that every diver was using twin sets of a total capacity of 120-140 cubic feet each and a compressor could only deliver air at 5 cubic feet per minute. Each wreck we dived was an individual experience. The three light cruisers we visited, the “Karlsruhe”, “Brummer” and “Koln”, were all lying on their starboard sides, listing over at 90 degrees. Being about 500 feet long it was possible to swim along the entire length from bow to stern and return to the “shot line” in one dive.

The bridge area of the “oln” was still intact except for the windows in the wheelhouse. One pane however remained immediately in front of the brass column which originally housed the helm & binnacle, both of which had long since been removed. As with the “Karlsruhe” the “Koln’s” main armaments were intact and accessible including the controls which were corroded solid after 62 years on the sea bed. One bonus was a solitary heavy machine gun mounted astern of the bridge.  
We visited the 4000 ton “Bummer”, the smallest of the wrecks, 4 times. She possessed a unique bow profile which was a concave curve with a bulbous projection where it merged into the keel below the waterline. I first saw the shape in its entirety when I was swimming along the deck towards the bow and noticed a hole in the deck. I peered in, then swam into a large compartment emerging back into daylight through a hole in the starboard side of the ship. I descended to land on the sea bed at a depth of 32 metres. I looked up to see the entire bow profile above me. Just then my diving partner emerged from over the top of the bow and I took several photographs. as his silhouette gave a sense of scale to the scene.

On another occasion on the ‘Koln”, our morning dive had been late so our afternoon dive had been pushed back to evening. As the light was too low for available light photography, I decided to leave my camera behind and borrow a torch for the dive. As we descended the daylight faded and the wreck took on a new aspect. The shoals of small fish were so dense, it was difficult to pick out objects 20 feet away. All the ships were covered with marine growths of many varieties. Some of the most spectacular being the “fanworms’ which when retracted looked like a twig, but when feeding they emerge from the end as an intricate featherlike inverted parasol, as they filtered minute food particles from the water. Another advantage of diving by torchlight is that the true colours can be seen. During daytime diving most of the colour is filtered from the spectrum in the first 10 metres of seawater, so that when the light reaches the wreck only green is left. By importing a full spectrum to the wreck, i.e. a torch, all the colour is restored.

The largest ship we dived on was the “Konig’, a 25000 ton battleship, lying on its side on the bottom. The problem with this kind of wreck is that as it is so huge it cannot be covered from bow to stern in one dive. As the battleships were scuttled and gently s1id down into the water, their massive 12 inch guns, which could throw a shell of ½ ton over 20 miles, along with extensive superstructures, capsized them before they touched bottom. This caused the majority to be either upside down. or listing more than 90 degrees on the sea bed. One of the remaining wrecks, the “Markgraf”, is virtually upside down and it is possible to sit on the sea bed at the fore end in 40 metres of water and look up at the impressively sharp bow standing almost vertical but “upside down”.

By Thursday & Friday only the ‘ard men were left diving, the rest had found the strain too much. It was a team of tired but happy divers who were transported back to reality on the Saturday morning ferry.

Boyd Harris.

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