Report by Charles Taylor – Full report of the dives
Our 700 mile, 15 hour journey to The Orkneys began on 21 June 2019, but the real story began one hundred years ago to the day.
After four years of bloodshed in the Great War, Germany had surrendered, even though her navy – second only in size to that of Britain’s – was undefeated. The German High Seas fleet, consisting of 74 battleships, battle cruisers and other warships, had been met by the Royal Navy in full force and escorted to a safe anchorage at Scapa Flow. There the skeleton crews of German sailors stayed on board, bored out of their minds, for 7 months. Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter had probably already made his mind up as to the likely outcome: it was to be a final two-fingered salute at Britain.
On the day it happened – 21 June 1919 – the British warships guarding the German fleet had gone out to sea to practise against torpedo attacks. The only ones afloat in Scapa Flow were a party of 400 Orkney schoolchildren out on a day trip, and an artist on a trawler, sketching the battleships. By all accounts it was a day very like the one that greeted us: the sun was shining, with a light breeze, and the water was about as flat calm as it could be. At 10.00, von Reuter sent out his coded message: ‘paragraph eleven’. The crews went below, did what they had to and then began to abandon ship. It took some time and vain attempts were made by the little British guard ships to stop the whole process by firing on the German sailors and attempting to tow some of the stricken vessels. In all, nine Germans were killed. Scapa Flow was a mass of oil stains, floating rubbish, bubbles and small boats. By the time the British fleet returned from manoeuvres, it was too late. At least 50 of the German fleet’s finest had settled on the seabed.
Our arrival coincided with the Scapa 100 initiative, which covered a number of projects to commemorate, map, protect, explore and tell the tale of the scuttling of the fleet a century ago. Our home in Stromness for 8 days was the MV Valhalla, under the firm hand of skipper and owner Hazel Weaver and her crew, consisting of Vasco, the ever-so helpful and knowledgeable deck-hand, and Paddy, the cook, whose dishes never failed to provide the calories needed.