The Orkney Islands, location of Scapa Flow, a natural harbour since the days of the Norse invaders, more recently a base for the Royal Navy, The final resting place for the remains of the German High Seas Fleet and the destination for this years Selby Aquanauts diving expedition.
The story starts at the beginning of the twentieth century when Germany envious of the colonies of her European neighbours and the wealth they are bringing decided to build a navy to match that of the British Royal Navy, at the time the most powerful in the world and protector of the biggest empire the world has known. With the Royal Navy as her target Germany started the first arms race of the 20th century.
The Royal Navy's policy at this time was to be able to outfight and outgun the 2nd and 3rd navies in the world combined so no two countries could form an alliance to defeat Britain and when Germany started their building Britain took a close interest.
Since Britain was always more of a maritime nation than Germany the infrastructure was in place to build ships at will so this was a race Germany was destined to lose, especially when Britain brought out the first of a new class of warship, “the Dreadnought" larger and more powerful than any war ship ever built it gave its name to a new class of ships.
As the great war started Germany's naval policy was to shell Eastern towns of England to tempt the Royal Navy out and take them out individually. This policy never worked as, Germany, always nervous of what was over the horizon, tended to hit and run so the two powerful navies played a game of cat and mouse around the North Sea, Each wanting to meet in battle, but nervous of the power of their adversaries, until May 1916. Both fleets were out in force when a Danish merchant ship steamed past on the horizen and both navies sent a detachment to investigate. The British ships were met by an outnumbering force of the German “High Seas" fleet so turned and lead the Germans in a running battle onto the guns of the rapidly advancing dreadnoughts of the “Grand Fleet". As darkness fell neither side could claim a definite victory. The Royal Navy had lost more ships but this was down to lighter armour to keep the ships faster and more manouverable. Most of the German ships had sustained damage that would have sunk a British ship so come the morning the German fleet had fled to harbour for repairs, many of them just floating hulks.
The following day the “Grand Fleet" was back at sea and the “High Seas Fleet" was blockaded in port never to take to the seas in force for the remainder of the war.
As the war came to an end the once proud German navy was escorted to internment at Scapa Flow where in a final defiant act they scuttled 74 of their own ships. Some were saved, others beached and during the 20's and early 30's a massive salvage operation took part and many of the ships were salvaged for scrap, but, with the onset of the second world war this came to a stop, and then, in 1945 when W. W.2 ended there was no shortage of scrap iron so the remaining 14 ship were left to rest.
The Dive Trip
Sailing South from our base at Stromness on the mainland of Orkney we pass the brooding high hills of Hoy on our right and as we head slightly east into the calm waters of Scapa Flow the islands part. In the distance we can see the low mounds of Burray, Flotta, Holm, Fara and Ronaldsay. Hoy by the way got its name because it's the hoyest island in the Orkneys, the Vikings either had a dry sense of humour or were not very imaginative with name giving. It's a glorious day, the sun glistening on the blue green water ahead. It's a forty minute trip out to the wreck we are diving today. There is no rush to get our equipment together so during the next half hour the usual leg pulling and mickey taking goes on. During this time most of the divers have brought their gear up from the drying room where it was hung up last night and are starting to assemble it. A number of jobs need to be done, making sure you got a good air fill yesterday and for the majority of divers aboard analysing the Nitrox fill (Nitrox is an oxygen enriched air which has recently become the gas of choice for most responsible and suitably qualified divers) Because the boat was full of Yorkshire folk there was of course the tight wad who used air all week because it was free, my nitrox bill for the week was £19.50 which I though was good value especially when it was increasing my diving time by about 30%. We are diving on the “Brummer" today and with ten minutes to go the skipper Robert shouts down from the wheelhouse to galvanise us into action.
We arrive at the wreck site kitted up and ready to go and as Robert slows down we step off into the water. The wreck is bouyed so meeting my buddy at the bouy we exchange signals and begin our descent. Natural light fades as we go deeper until we see a dark shape below in the gloom. Landing on the deck along a row of empty portholes we exchange O. K. signals, make adjustments to our bouyancy and glide over the side. The Brummer lays on her side and we intend finning along the deck which is now vertical at our side. Descending to the seabed we look up and the wreck is silhouetted in the greenyblue glow from above. Ascending slightly we set off along the deck our torches picking out various features until, passing the anchor chain capstans we come to the muzzle of a 5.9" gun, gliding along the barrel and round the protective shield we come to the conning tower, the command centre when in battle, the access door behind the conning tower is missing so we cautiously enter, disturbed silt threatens our vision so leaving we come to the bridge where empty windows still look out for the battle that will never come. Beyond that broken rigging, sagging handrails and dangling wires attest to her age. Checking our computers and contents gauges 35 minutes later we decide that's it for this dive and retrace our route to the line. The sunlight shines down to meet us as we make our ascent and after pausing at 6 metres for a safety stop we finally emerge into the morning sun. James on the bridge is waiting to exchange O. K. signs with us and soon Robert is coming to pick us up. Another great dive.
Once everyone is back on board we're off to Lyness where the naval base used to be to visit the museum and have a bowl of soup in the NAAFI. By the time we return about an hour and a half later James is just finishing charging up our cylinders and Robert is flat out on the upper deck asleep in the sun. Woken by our return he soon has James casting off and it's away to our second dive.
The Second dive brings a choice of shallower dives. There are the blockships sunk in the sounds between the islands to keep out the U boats, both second and first world wars, a dive boat, bottle dives where the rubbish of years has been dumped over the side (I found a glazed stoneware preserve jar similar to one in the Stromness museum, others found an assortment of interesting old bottles) and the F2 a German escort boat similar to the R. N. corvettes. This was taken in war reparation but sunk, believed to have sprung a severe leak soon after and was not considered worth lifting. This is the one we'll choose. An interesting point of this wreck is that it was sold for salvage in 1968 and during salvage a gale blew up and the salvage barge with all the salvaged parts went down yet again. The wreck lies in only 16 metres at high water and rises to within 7 metres of the surface. The hull is broken in two with the stern upright and the remainder on its port side.
We drop down onto the barge and explore the salvaged parts for a while then follow the weed covered line to the F2 where we seem to be a source of interest to a number of wrasse about a foot long that follow us around the wreck. Like all the wrecks it is covered with life. Apart from the many types of fish we see the odd seal. There are numerious specimens of the tiny Devonshire cup coral, many types of anemone including the large plumose, many types of starfish including some huge sunstars over a foot across and on all the overhangs and superstructure grow dead men's fingers, a soft coral. There are also many sponges, sea squirts and sea urchins and of course crabs, lobsters and shellfish Many of the spider crabs grow a garden of weed on their backs so sometimes while near the seabed a clump of weed suddenly walks away.
As we leave the break in the hull behind we need to ascend slightly to go over to the other side to reach the superstructure where we find the single mast laid on the seabed the searchlight platform still recognisable. The forward gun is intact and the starboard anchor chain leads out from the bow. Being a smaller ship at shallower depth we are able to cover the whole wreck in one dive and still find time to collect a bag of scallops for tonights meal. Lovely fried in garlic butter.
Other wrecks dived on the trip are Kronprinz Wilhelm, Karlsruhe, Koln, Dresden, Gobernador Bories and the Tabarka. The latter being a blockship in Burra sound. Formerly a merchant ship she lies upside down and being in a place of strong tides is swept clean and consequently there is no silt inside to disturb. Plates are missing but the construction seems sound so we enter. Passing through the engine room torches are needed as without them it's pitch black. Three boilers lay in a row on the bottom and underneath one is a large lobster (tonights tea) While Christine my buddy is trying to tease it out I nipped the back of her leg, After she jumped I got a punch for my troubles. Passing through the dark engine room we see two more torch beams coming towards us and two more from our club pass by exchanging O. K. s on the way.
This was the last dive and so with heavy hearts and fond memories of a fantastic week of diving we head back to Stromness to pack ready for the long drive home tomorrow.
If you are inspired by the tale of our diving trip why not take a diving course and join us on one of our many trips around Britain. Contact John Hewitt. Master scuba diver trainer on Selby 702487 and the adventure can begin.
The club meets in the Bay Horse in Selby every Thursday evening if you would like to call in for a chat.
This article was written by John Hewitt a BS-AC and Padi Instructor, founding member of Selby Aquanauts and CEO of Red Hat Diving equipment. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his website and Red Hat equipment at http://www.johnhewitt.com