The rain and mist were just clearing as we arrived by ferry at Lyness on the Island of Hoy, off mainland Orkney, to visit the newly reopened Scapa Flow Museum. We could only imagine what this island must have been like for the thousands who were stationed here during World Wars 1 and 2. And for the German sailors who were escorted here after World War 1.
The name ‘Scapa Flow’ comes from the Old Norse Skalpaflói, meaning ‘bay of the long isthmus’, which refers to the narrow piece of land between Scapa Bay and the town of Kirkwall. Throughout history, Scapa Flow has been of strategic importance. It is a natural harbour with space to accommodate an entire navy. The Vikings anchored their longships here. In World War 1, it was the chief naval base of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet and, in World War 2, it was the chief naval base to the ‘Home Fleet’. It is ideally situated to support operations in the North Sea and the North Atlantic.
Memories of events in Scapa Flow Museum
The museum exhibits evoke numerous incidents, but some moments are particularly memorable. In 1916, HMS Hampshire left Scapa Flow, bound for Russia. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was on board as part of a diplomatic mission. The ship struck a mine and sank two miles off the northwest shore of Orkney. Lord Kitchener died along with most of the crew. Only twelve out of a crew of around 750 survived.
Perhaps the most remembered event at Scapa Flow is that of the scuppering of the German Navy. At the end of World War 1, it was decided that all 74 ships of the German Navy should be interred in an Allied or neutral port. 70 of the German ships sailed into Scapa Flow under heavy Allied escort between 25–27 November 1918. Three more joined a short time later and in January 1919 the dreadnought battleship Baden joined them. Most of the crews returned to Germany but caretaker crews were left. By 1919, the Paris Peace Conference discussions were ongoing, but on 21 June 1919, when the ships were due to be surrendered, Rear Admiral von Reuter gave the order for the ships to be scuttled.
Fifty-two of 74 German vessels were sunk within five hours. The German sailors had hoisted their flags on the day in a final act of understandable defiance. The ships were no longer to be redistributed among the Allied nations, though this had been proving problematic in the Peace discussions. Over the years, most of the ships were salvaged, but seven do remain. One of the first things you will see at the museum is a model of SMS Baden. The Baden entered service in 1917 and, along with her three sister ships, was the largest and most powerful battleship designed at that time for the Imperial German Navy.
Grand Fleet to Grand Museum
This ship model is just one of many interesting exhibits from World Wars 1 and 2 that are housed in the refurbished and expanded Scapa Flow Museum. The museum is sited in buildings that were themselves part of the story. The Royal Navy refuelled their ships here and you can still see an operational fuel pump and a number of large boilers in the original building that makes up the older part of the museum. The new modern extension houses the majority of the exhibits.
It would have been impossible to live on Orkney and ignore the war. And indeed, many of the stories are of the interactions between the local people and the service personnel. There are many personal stories and artefacts on display. For example, there are the nameplate letters from HMS Royal Oak, that was anchored in Scapa Flow when she was torpedoed on the night of 14 October 1939 by the German submarine U-47. Of the 1,234 ship’s company on board, 835 were killed or died later of their wounds.
Wet hair and huts
The wreck remains as a war grave. Other artefacts on display include a photograph of Joe Watt VC, a young man from a fishing family in NE Scotland who volunteered for naval service in World War 1 and received the Victoria Cross for taking part in a rescue at sea. I read the memories of a young Wren from the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) who was stationed here in World War 2 and recalled how they used to go to bed with their hair wet and, in rare moments of time off, how they used to huddle over cups of tea and buns at the Church of Scotland hut. I was interested to see a photograph of William Oliver, who ran the Post Office at Longhope, where he was assigned as he was recognised as a conscientious objector.
The £4.4mn project to replace the older museum was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Orkney Islands Council, Historic Environment Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Museums Galleries Scotland, Orkney LEADER (an EU and Scottish Government project that ran from 2014-2020) and NatureScot. The project was at least ten years in the planning and it is expected that the museum will welcome many visitors. The old museum had 14,000 visitors a year and I am sure this new expanded modern museum will be even more popular.
A place marked by history, heroism, and sacrifice
Adjacent to the Museum is a memorial to the Arctic Convoys, which was unveiled in 2009. Thousands of seamen died in World War 2 while undertaking the dangerous voyage to deliver vital supplies to Soviet Russia.
We walked up to the Lyness Naval Cemetery on the hillside behind the museum. The graves of many sailors can be seen. Many were so young. And the ones with no names have a particular resonance. One stone is in honour of Zu Sing Kan, who died at Scapa Flow in 1916. He appears to have been from China and had nursed a blinded workman who afterwards became Senator McGregor of the Australian Commonwealth.
Scapa Flow, its museum and the various associated sites must surely be an essential site for any historian to visit or to introduce younger people to some of our history. It is a place to remember great heroism and sacrifice. I hope it can also be a place to remember that nations and people achieve the most when working together and how important it is to strive for peace.
There are numerous other sites to visit on Orkney regarding wartime history and our visit included the Italian Chapel, the Hoxa Head gun batteries, The Orkney Fossil and Heritage Centre and The Orkney Museum at Kirkwall. Of course, you will also drive over the Churchill Barriers, which were built to stop access for submarines after the sinking of Royal Oak in 1939 but also serve to link remote island communities with mainland Orkney.
The Scapa Flow Museum was due to be opened officially in September by Olympian Sir Chris Hoy but, as a mark of respect at the death of HM Queen Elizabeth II, the event was postponed until further notice.
Opening times are available on the Scapa Flow Museum website. There is a café and shop on site. It is within a short walking distance of the Lyness ferry terminal.
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