Deep Down and Far Out in the Orkneys
In June 2010 I achieved something I have wanted to do since I started diving back in 1993 and that is to dive on the pride of the German Imperial Navy High Seas Fleet (GINHSF) up in Scapa Flow. Apart from the diving it was a memorable trip as I have never been into deepest northern Scotland and beyond.
A little bit of history first. Scapa Flow is a dramatic expanse of water roughly 12 miles across and almost completely encircled by the islands of Orkney. For many years the Flow was used as a safe, deep, sheltered and heavily defended anchorage for the Royal Navy. During the First and Second World War the main Atlantic Operations HQ was based in Lyness on Hoy. There is a lot of naval history on Orkney but the bits I was after were not on land but beneath the waters of the Flow.
In 1919 the GINHSF consisted of 5 battle cruisers, 11 battleships, 8 light cruisers and 50 destroyers built up over the preceding 20 years to challenge the traditional Naval supremacy of Britain. At the end of the First World War, the 74 grey warships of the Fleet were gathered in Scapa Flow. They had not surrendered or been crushed in a sea battle but had been interned for the long seven months as a condition of the Armistice which had suspended hostilities.
The German land forces had been defeated and their leaders were pressing for surrender terms with the Allies and the Fleet was a pawn in these negotiations. There had only been one major sea battle, the battle of Jutland, and the fleet had neither proved itself in battle nor taken heavy losses. So the fleet, which had been constructed and maintained at considerable expense to the Germans, was ‘in good nick’ and would still pose a significant threat should negotiations break down and hostilities recommence. So the Fleet was effectively held hostage during the negotiations under the close eye of the Allies. The negotiations resulted in the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War.
So the Fleet was interned in Scapa Flow but was still the property of the Germans. By 1919 they were manned by skeleton German crews. There were no British crew on board and the ships were prohibited from flying the German Imperial Navy ensign.
On the morning of 21st June 1919 the British Imperial Fleet, which had been moored within the German Fleet, went on a long-range torpedo exercise outside the Flow in the Atlantic. Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, commander of the German Fleet in the Flow, paced the deck of Emden and could not believe his luck. He had read, in four-day-old papers provided by the British, that the Armistice was due to end this day and he feared the British would try and seize the Fleet. So at 10:30am he ordered command flags to be raised which gave the signal to the other commanders to scuttle their ships. The signal slowly passed around the Fleet. Pipes, hatches, rivets, bulkheads etc. were all made inoperable after being opened allowing the sea to flood in.
Some ships rolled over and sank, some sank upright, landing on an even keel on the seabed of Scapa Flow. When the British realised what was happening they attempted to tow some to shallower water.
Of the 74 ships, 52 reached the seabed, the others being towed to beaches. Of the 52, 44 were successfully raised during the greatest marine salvage operation in history. The Admiralty sold the smaller cruisers for £250 each and the battleships for £1000 each. Salvage started in 1920 and finished in 1946 leaving 8 wrecks for divers to explore.
Scapa has a reputation amongst divers as being a place for experienced diver only. Rumours of deep, cold, dark, strong currents, big wrecks abound which is why it had taken me so long to plan a trip. From my weeks diving I can say some of the rumours are true. Most of the wrecks are in the 30-40m of water, which I consider deep for UK sport diving.
The drive up to Scrabster was interesting. We stopped a night in Aviemore where there was still snow up in Corrie Cas. There is an excellent curry house right by the station. The next day we headed inland from Inverness, which included 70+ miles of single-track road. We passed through fantastic scenery and spent quite a while photographing eagles soaring not far above. We arrived in Scrabster and took the ferry that evening passing Hoy with great views of The Old Man.
We arrived in Stromness at 20:30 and checked in to ur B&B. A quick wash and out for some food where we found that all eating places close at 20:45. So we had to scrounge a cheese sandwich off the bar staff.
We had Monday as a rest day and to give us the chance to look around the island. Orkney has a huge amount of archaeology with much having been dated back 5000+ years. We were advised to visit Skara Brae on the West of the main island. This settlement remained undiscovered for thousands of years until a fierce storm revealed some upright standing stones. The landowner did some digging and found what is now recognised as the Europe's most complete Neolithic village with a level of preservation such that it has gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The site was occupied from roughly 3180BC for 600 years when the inhabitants left the site for an, as yet, undiscovered reason. My guess is they got tired of living in a hole in the ground but the curator didn’t put much value in my suggestion.
Later in the week we visited Maes Howe tomb, which is near the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. This superb structure dates to somewhere around 3000BC. The mound is roughly 7m high and 35m in diameter. The long, low entrance passage leads to the main chamber, which is about 4m square. The roof collapsed after being entered by Norsemen in the 12th century. These raiders left runic graffiti over much of the main chamber stones. Much of this graffiti has been translated and often is just mindless “Blæng the Bold was ‘ere”. One piece is carved roughly 3m up a wall and has been translated as “I am carving this high up”. At mid winter, the setting sun shines down the passage and shines on the back wall of the tomb.
The narrow entrance to another site, “The Tomb of the Eagles”, is entered by lying on what amounts to a giant skateboard and pulling along a rope.
We started diving on the Tuesday aboard an old converted fishing boat “Radiant Queen”. This has been fully kitted out for diving with both air and Nitrox available on board. There is a dry room, a wet room and very clean ‘heads’. There were only seven divers aboard for the week and given that the boat normally takes 12 there was plenty of room to kit up. We normally left at 08:00 and were back in Stromness by 14:00 after completing two dives.
Our first dive was on the 5531 ton Cöln, one of the best-preserved wrecks in the Flow. The Cöln is a Dresden II Class Light cruiser built in 1916. She is one of the smaller wrecks at 510’ long with a beam of 47’ and a draft of 21’. She is lying on her side in 35m with many brass fittings and portholes still in place. She did not have a bridge like modern warships but a platform around the mast and a control tower, which looked like a dalek with letterboxes around it. From this box the battle operations would be commanded. At 35m air does not last long. (The deeper you dive the faster you consume air. At 30m one breath takes roughly 60 litres of air from your tank compared to 15 litres on the surface. Something to do with Boyle’s law.) After an all too short dive we climbed back on to the boat to be met at the top of the ladder with a pint mug of coffee.
The lunches onboard were superb ranging from cottage pie, through to lasagne and including hot blueberry muffins and a cream tea with hot scones and jam.
The next dive was the Karlsruhe (Königsberg II Class Light cruiser) lying in 26m and so ended the first days diving.
The second day was one of the most spectacular in my diving ‘career’. The Kronprinz Wilhelm (A König Class Battleship) is a 25388-ton battleship lying upside down in 38m. We dropped down the shot line and landed on the hull of the wreck at 12m leaving a further 26m of wreck between us and the seabed. She is not perfectly upside down so on her port side there is room to swim between the upturned deck and the seabed and catch glimpses of wreckage on the upside down deck in the dark. The back of the ship has twisted slightly so the side of the ship reach the seabed forming a dead end passage at the end of which is one of the large 12” guns. I had either missed part of the briefing or was slightly ‘narked’ and forgot about this until I found myself at 36m, in a small, dark space with metal all around me. Ian and Steve were in front of me and as I looked around two more divers were coming down the tunnel. For a nanosecond I could feel the pulse and breathing rate rapidly increasing but luckily caught a glimpse of green light at the open end of the tunnel. I was glad to be out into the ‘open’ sea albeit at 36m. We swam up on to the hull between two huge vertical rudders covered in ‘dead mans fingers’ to decompress at 20m sitting on the back of the hull. We had seen a tiny section of the ship needing many more dives to understand the layout.
After lunch we dived one of the block-ships put in place in the channels which lead out to sea, to stop submarines creeping in. This was done after U-47 commanded by Günther Prien torpedoed the Royal Oak killing 833 British officers. The Oak is now a war grave and diving on her is not allowed.
Thursday was a stormy day though some divers did get in the water.
Whilst we were waiting for our divers to surface on the Thursday a lifting bag (like a large balloon for bringing up things from the seabed) popped to the surface. It was not from our divers but our skipper new what it meant. Somebody had taken something off the wreck far beneath us. I lifted the bag aboard along with two long planks of waterlogged teak decking. Removing anything from a wreck is frowned upon so the skipper'phoned round and found the culprit divers boat. The fairly new skipper had not realised and said he would tell the divers they could come and ask for their lift bag back if the dared. They never turned up. The teak was thrown over the side above the wreck but sadly it will not be seen as 'part of the wreck' by following divers, just as a bit of driftwood on the bottom of the Flow.
Friday was our last day and the visibility had improved. We dived on the Brummer and the Dresden, both Dresden II class light Cruisers. Back in port early we planned to do a shore dive on the Churchill Barriers. We had been given a rough map and set off from shore into clearer shallower water. Everything was draped in green seaweed. We found our way past a large crankshaft to the farthest wreck where we had been told there was a swim through under the ship. This proved to be a wide but only 2’ high tunnel roughly 20’ long. The way through was not bad as the water was clear but the return trip was dark with silt stirred up on the first pass. There was only a glimpse of green light showing the way out. Given the relatively shallow depth we surfaced just short of an hour later.
That was the end of the diving just leaving the early start, ferry to Scrabster and 560 mile drive back.
I don’t know much about the climbing in the Orkneys but from a climbing point of view most of Orkney is unexplored. With only very limited places having been climbed, the potential for new routes is enormous, parts of Hoy and Yesnaby being the only two areas where significant development has so far occurred.
I plan to return next year now more mentally prepared for the size and depth of the wrecks.
July 8th 2010