The Second World War 1939-1945
Scapa Flow was again the choice of the British Admiralty to be their Home Fleet Northern Base. The warships sailed from here to escort the British and its Allies’ merchant ships on the Murmansk Arctic Convoys that were notorious for attacks from U Boat Packs.
Many of the merchant ships were sunk in these cold waters, were there was no chance of survival even if the crew managed to abandon a torpedoed ship. It is ironic that to avoid being burned alive on a flaming tanker, the crew jumped into the sea only to die of hypothermia in the freezing water.
Despite this there was never a shortage of crews to man the vessels; they were brave men each and every one of them.
Getting back to Scapa Flow, here in the first month of the war, the German U Boat U47 managed to sneak into Scapa between two of the northern blockships and the coast of the Orkney Island mainland.
She chanced raising her periscope and zeroed in on HMS Royal Oak, a "Revenge Class" battleship from the 1st World War and a survivor of the Battle of Jutland. She is shown below in an image from Wiki Commons by Ollinaie.
The Royal Oak was fitted with anti-torpedo bulges developed in the 1920’s and since replaced by more modern versions. These were water/air compartments welded to the hull of the battleship at its waterline to protect the hull from the effects of a torpedo blast wave and fragments. Despite this, once the U Boat unleashed her torpedoes into the Royal Oak, creating a 30’ hole in her hull, she sank surprisingly quickly with a loss of over 830 of her compliment of 1400 crew.
Following the sinking of the Royal Oak, Winston Churchill, the First Sea Lord, ordered an investigation and had the defenses strengthened. Anti-aircraft guns were employed, minefields planted, and more blockships emplaced. Some of the islands were linked with concrete block causeways, constructed by Italian POW’s, and are still in use today as inter-island roads.
So that’s about it: a little piece of history retelling the role that Scapa Flow played in two World Wars as an anchorage for the British Warships- and how a German Submarine managed to infiltrate the defenses and sink the Royal Oak.
The Royal Oak now lies upside down in 90’ of water at the bottom of Scapa Flow, her keel being visible from the surface on a calm day. The area has been designated a National War Grave and every year on 13th October there are memorial services held at the site of the wreck that is marked by a buoy.
The area is well worth a visit and there is an excellent visitor center on the Island of Hoy that is home to many wartime artifacts associated with the 1st and 2nd World Wars.