The wrecks of the First World War German High Seas Fleet that lie on the seabed in Scapa Flow, Orkney are famous throughout the world as a diving and archaeological resource.
These wrecks include battleships, battlecruisers and other distinctive vessels from the First World War and provide marine archaeologists and historians with an opportunity to examine at first hand German warships from this period.
During the interwar period, forty-two vessels were re-floated and salvaged for their scrap in one of the greatest marine salvage feats of all time, but many of the important structures from these vessels were left behind on the sea bed.
Following on from the successful completion of phase one of the project in 2017, archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) have teamed up with SULA Diving to undertake a second phase of the Historic Environment Scotland-funded marine archaeology project to examine Scapa Flow’s salvage sites. This phase of the survey commenced in June 2018 and concentrates on the debris left behind when the wrecks in deep water around the island of Cava were salvaged in the interwar period, including vessels such as the battleship Kaiser and the battlecruiser Moltke.
The project is led by Pete Higgins, Senior Project Manager (ORCA) and Kevin Heath (SULA Diving) on behalf of Historic Environment Scotland. The team aimed to provide baseline data to aid long term monitoring and protection of the wreckage, and to contribute to our understanding of the construction and equipment of these vessels. The project has been fortunate to enlist the voluntary services of experienced divers from the Scapa Flow diving community, Heriot Watt University, the British and Orkney Sub Aqua Clubs and divers visiting Orkney from all over the world.
The scrap sites include major components of ship structures and equipment such as masts, searchlights, plating, steam pinnaces (small boats serving as tenders on the larger ship), funnels, spotting tops and so on. As this wreckage is relatively broken up and lacks statutory protection, the sites are currently vulnerable to modern salvage activity.
Pete Higgins said, “This is an important marine archaeology project surveying what remains of the German High Seas Fleet warships that were salvaged from Scapa Flow in the inter war period. It is very exciting to see divers from all over the world participating in marine archaeology. Their work is helping us retrieve valuable information on warships that we thought had been effectively destroyed seventy years ago.”
Philip Robertson, Historic Environment Scotland’s marine expert, said ‘Nearly 100 years since the High Seas Fleet was interned in Scapa Flow at the end of the First World War, HES funded this project to help us understand and protect, where possible, the important information that has been left behind from these times and which helps us appreciate Scapa Flow’s key role as a naval wartime harbour and the incredible story of the scuttling and salvage of the High Seas Fleet.’
The project data and results will be available to the public through the Scapa Flow Wrecks website (http://www.scapaflowwrecks.com), along with various other platforms and exhibitions.
The High Seas Fleet was interned at the Royal Navy base Scapa Flow, Orkney at the end of the First World War. Admiral Ludwig Von Reuter, believing the Armistice was over, ordered the fleet to be scuttled. This resulted in the sinking of 50 of the 74 interned vessels. After the scuttling, 42 of these vessels were salvaged and various components of the ships’ structures lie on the seabed marking these wreck sites, a valuable cultural heritage resource.
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Orkney was one of the most important British naval bases in both world wars and for most of this period was a hive of activity on land, sea and in the air.
RNAS and RAF air bases were scattered across the islands and thousands of sorties were flown by aircraft from these airfields. Tragically, some planes did not return to base and now lie in the waters around Orkney.
In 1986, one of the lost planes from World War II was located by HMS Bildeston, HMS Gavinton and Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service craft Kinloss on the seabed of Scapa Flow during a military exercise. Unfortunately, the aircraft disintegrated as it was recovered, but a Merlin aero engine was brought to the surface, cleaned up and together with the aeroplane’s armament was sent to Lyness Museum. The remainder of the aircraft remained on the sea floor.
During 2014, Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology and Sula Diving completed a collaborative project surveying the archaeological remains on the seabed of Scapa Flow. The wreck site was re-visited in order to video, photograph and record the remains. The wreckage itself lies in 22 metres of water and is likely to be from the cockpit area of a single seater aircraft. No human remains were identified, indicating that the pilot escaped before ditching.
An oxygen regulator, oxygen tanks, hydraulic pump, oxygen/hydraulic pipe work, wiring and some fuselage were recorded amongst numerous steel and aluminium sections. Gauges recovered many years ago suggest that the aircraft is a Spitfire manufactured after 1943…so the crash must have occurred after this date.
However the details of the crash remain a mystery. There does not seem to be any mention of a Spitfire ditching in this area during World War II. Even the aircraft registration number cannot be confirmed from the artefacts recovered.
For now, the Spitfire and pilot’s identity remains a mystery……………..unless anyone reading this knows anything different? This aircraft, in common with the remains of all military aircraft and designated military vessels, is now covered by the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.
For more information see http://www.crashsiteorkney.com/mystery-aircraft-in-scapa-flow
Thanks to Kevin Heath at Sula Diving http://www.suladiving.com/
Shiptime Maritime Archaeology Project, Orkney
HMS Royal Oak Steam Pinnace Located
The tragic story of the loss of HMS Royal Oak in the first weeks of the Second World War is well known in Orkney and further afield, but there has always been mystery surrounding the location of one of the small vessels that was used by sailors attempting to escape from the sinking battleship.
Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and SULA Diving can now confirm the position of the missing HMS Royal Oak steam pinnace.
HMS Royal Oak was a Royal Navy battleship which was moored in Scapa Bay as an anti-aircraft platform to help defend a vital radar station on the cliffs. On the night of 13 October German submarine, U-47 manoeuvred into Scapa Flow and finding the Royal Oak at anchor fired torpedoes which led to the sinking of the huge ship. 834 men were lost of the 1,200 crew on-board with the few survivors struggling in the cold oil-covered water.
Research shows that two 50-foot picket boats were on onboard HMS Royal Oak when she was torpedoed. Number 749 was built by J Samuel White of the Isle of Wight and number 752 built by Rowhedge Ironworks, Wivenhoe Shipyard, Essex.
Documentary evidence indicates that around 100 crew members abandoned ship via her port side pinnace, which had a lifesaving capacity of 59. The Starboard side pinnace went down with Royal Oak and can be seen on the seabed a short distance from the wreck.
The small pinnace had not got up steam so boards were used to paddle the vessel away from the sinking Royal Oak. The pinnace began to rock due to being overloaded and the chief buffer tried to counter the movement by shouting instructions ‘’Lean to starboard, lean to port’. Some on deck were ordered below to make more room as more men tried to climb onboard.
Dick Kerr who was hanging on the side of the small vessel says, he heard someone start singing ‘Down Mexico way, south of the border’’ and a few others joined in. A short while later the pinnace capsized throwing those on deck into the water and trapping those who had gone below. Some crew scrambled onto the upturned hull but many were lost. The vessel then righted herself, capsized once more and then sank.
The location of this little ship was not known – until last month when the Shiptime Maritime Archaeology Project pinpointed the shipwreck on multibeam sonar, 300 metres from the main wreck site. The site was surveyed by Triscom Enterprise as part of the Shiptime Maritime Archaeology Project.
The site had been previously side scanned by SULA Diving as part of a survey for OIC Harbours but the identity of the craft had not then been established. As part of the project, a dive survey was conducted by SULA Diving of Stromness on the contact to establish that this was the missing port side pinnace.
Diver, Wayne Allen, of Wayne Allen Technical said, “It was a privilege to be able to assist SULA Diving in recording these historically important sites.”
Alistair Coutts, Business Development Manager, Seatronics, said: “Seatronics were delighted to have the opportunity to work with the collected specialists on this exciting project, providing ROV, positioning and 3D modelling and spatially cross referenced video inspection equipment”.
This exciting project is led by Sandra Henry of UHI Archaeology Institute, ORCA (Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Kevin Heath of SULA Diving who have brought together universities, commercial companies and government bodies including Historic Environment Scotland, Marine Scotland, Ulster University, Heriot-Watt University, University of Dundee, and Seatronics - an Acteon company.
The dive video clip is also available from firstname.lastname@example.org
This blog has been created by Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology in beautiful Orkney. We aim to add features and news about our work on the islands and further afield on a regular basis.