Diving on the German WW1 Fleet at Scapa Flow

Peering into the barrel of a German World War One gun, 20 metres underwater, I came face to face with a two metre conger eel (my face was squeezed into a mask, his was blue, smooth and innocently dog-like). We peered at each other.

On its own, that’s a good diving moment. Now add the fact that the eel-loaded German cannon is around six metres long, so well preserved that you can still read the instructions on it, and mounted on a turret the size of a London taxi.

Then add another, identical gun next to it. Now attach the guns to a 150m long German battleship resting on it starboard flank in 20m of clear water, teeming with life. Finally, toss six other large German WWI warships into relatively shallow water nearby, all in a sheltered bay with great visibility, and you can see why Scapa Flow is one of the world’s top dive sites.

This bay in the Orkney Islands, a few miles north of Scotland’s northernmost tip, is the grave of arguably the greatest collection of ships every built – the German World War One battle fleet.

The ships are shallow enough that relatively inexperienced divers can reach them. Advanced and psychotically brave divers can explore inside the wrecks (me, ready to dive, below).Ready to dive, Hoy behind

The History

The ships’ story began in 1898, when the bellicose German Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to challenge British Sea Supremacy. The ensuing Anglo-German naval arms race sucked Britain into European affairs, and was, arguably, the principal cause of the Great War.

Constructed out of Krupp steel in custom built yards, the Weimar High Seas ships were, at the time, the most technologically advanced war machines ever built. Although outnumbered by the British navy, the Germans soon scored some stinging victories against the traditional rulers of the waves.

WWI naval engagements were limited. The confused and indecisive Battle of Jutland was the only large-scale clash. However, the British bottling up of the German High Seas fleet – ‘the Silent Victory by the Silent Service’ – is seen by some as the key to Allied victory.

The Armistice on November 11th 1918 stipulated the internment of most of the German navy – 74 ships. Despite mutiny and blockade-induced shortages, the 74 German ships sailed soon after, to be met by 250 Allied vessels. When the two fleets came bow to bow, in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, it was the largest ever tonnage of ships in one place, before or since.

Much to the German’s disgruntlement, their internment fleet, under command of Rear Admiral von Reuter, was led to Scapa Flow. The deal was for neutral waters, but the British used some fairly flimsy reasoning to get the German fleet into its own territory.

Scapa Flow – The Flow, as it’s called by those in the know – is an 80 square mile bay surrounded by the southern end of the Orkneys – the cluster of islands which begins seven miles off Scotland’s north-eastern tip. Almost totally surrounded by land, Scapa is sheltered, shallow and easy to defend. It was the perfect place for Britain’s North Atlantic Fleet’s main base in both world wars. It was also a great spot for interning 74 enemy ships.

Floating in the alien bay, for seven months the German sailors stewed in their ships, until 21st June 1919, a week before the final peace was signed, when von Reuter gave the order to scuttle rather than see the fleet fall into enemy hands.

There are plenty of theories about how he was able to do this, and why he did. One compelling conspiracy theory is that it was done with the connivance of the British. Back then, Britannia did very much rule the waves – its navy was by far the largest – so had the German fleet been split equally between the allies, it would have been a proportionately larger boost to all the others’ sea power.

On Von Reuter’s signal, sea cocks were opened, 74 ships began to slip into the chill Scottish waters. The sailors abandoned ships and headed for the islands in rowing boats. Many were met by pitch-fork wielding locals, and seven were shot dead in the confusion. These men were the final direct casualties of World War One.

The British navy managed to tow several smaller ships onto beaches, but, in the greatest ever act of martial self-destruction, 52 of the 74 ships – 95 percent of the fleet in terms of tonnage, went to the bottom. Since then, all but seven have been re floated and sold as scrap. The remaining seven create today’s magnificent diving venue.

The Dive

Previously, I’d dived only in warm seas. Given Scapa’s shockingly cold water, the first thing I had do to was learn to use a dry suit. I was secretly a little relieved about this. I hadn’t dived for a couple of years, so wanted to get some shallow water practice before plunging 30m down in what I expected to be dark, terrifying water.

I met 23 year-old diving instructor, Liam Thornes, at Scapa Scuba. Although 10 dive boats operate in Scapa Flow, Scapa Scuba the only diving school. It’s based in the old lifeboat house in Stromness, a fearsomely Scottish harbour town, with magnificent fish and chips and narrow streets so crime free that people leave the keys in their cars.

We drove through beautiful Orcadian scenery, dotted with prehistoric standing stones, to the shallow bay for my day’s dry-suit course. As we chatted, Liam’s passion for the wrecks emerged. It was his third April to October Orkney season.

“We get regular days off,” Liam told me, “because you go a bit funny if you spend too much time underwater.” And what does he do on his days off? “I spend them underwater. I can’t help it. I’ve fallen in love with the wrecks”

We arrived at Holm Sound, where the passage between two islands was blocked in World War II by sinking several small merchant ships (block ships) and building a causeway across them.

If Liam (below on left) had gone a bit funny, it didn’t show. He calmly and methodically explained the machinations of the dry suit. It’s basically a thick, inflatable, waterproof boiler suit with welly boots attached. It that keeps all but your head and hands dry. These latter extremities are protected by wetsuit gloves and balaclava.Buddy check

Liam was an excellent teacher. We had one ten minute shallow dive to run through requisite training exercises, then two more shallow-ish (10m maximum) dives to investigate the wrecks of the block ships.

I was stunned. The water was astonishingly clear; it was like swimming though an Evian advert. Large scale wreckage was strewn all about: boilers, engines and the ships’ hulks themselves, all teeming with life. Proud edible crabs the size of hubcaps, claws raised, perched like aggressive castanet players on outcrops of metal, marshalling parades of hermit crabs in the sandy valleys below. Above, a thousand-strong school of mackerel, surely the world’s most stupid fish, bobbed open-mouthed like a swarm of educationally subnormal Zeppelins.

In my dry suit, apart from initial chill on my exposed face, I wasn’t cold for a second.

The next day was diving proper. Liam and I joined a live-aboard dive boat – The Halton – containing seven divers in the middle of a week’s trip. They all showed typical levels of Scapa enthusiasm. Terry Bowman, a 65 year-old boss of an IT company in Marlow, Bucks, has dived all over the world, yet this was his fifth week’s holiday on Scapa Flow. “I could have gone to the Red Sea, but why would you? This is the best place I’ve ever dived.Hoy from Scapa flow

As we motored the three miles from Stromness past beautiful Hoy, the only mountainous Orkney Isle (above), Liam delivered a detailed dive plan. This was his hundredth or so time on our first ship, the Letze Creutser (light cruiser) Dresden, yet he explained it with the enthusiasm of a nine year old boy talking about Doctor Who. His eyes shone with joy as he told me that the deck had peeled away from the superstructure, so we were going to see the internal mechanisms of the giant anchor capstans. We’d also swim by the conning tower, a slit-windowed, thick steel turret into which German officers would have crammed during battles.

Liam explainsWe kitted up. This is the worst bit of diving, apart, possibly, from accidents. The kit is muscle-strainingly heavy, it’s confusing, and there’s a lot of it. I noticed that everyone else’s dry suit was black, obviously the colour to be seen in. Mine was light blue

We crossed the deck like elephants cursed with the strength of teenage girls, and threw ourselves in. There are few greater joys than the sudden weightlessness of jumping into the sea with diving gear on.

Drysuits are odd. There’s a big button in the middle of the chest that you use to inflate the whole suit to keep you buoyant. The deeper you go, the more air you put in to maintain buoyancy, so eventually you feel like you’re in a fake sumo suit. Getting the right balance between too much and not enough air takes practise. You also have to avoid letting your feet get above you, because all the air goes to your booties, you turn upside-down, and float there like an upside-down idiot with enormous feet. It’s a really frustrating struggle to get the right way up again.

For the descent and first few minutes on the wreck I was wresting with the experience of my first deep dive in a dry suit. So I utterly failed to notice our arrival, 20m below the waves, on a 153m, 5531 ton warship, build in 1917. But suddenly there it was, resting on its side.

By the time we reached the sandy sea bed, 30m down, I was more confident. Liam encouraged me to stick my fingers into the control tower’s slits to see how thick the steel was. We admired the gigantic workings of the capstan, and I began to see what Liam had fallen in love with.

We finned calmly to the ship’s sharp bow. It’s excellently preserved. Floating at the bow tip, it was easy to see how the lovely lines would have sliced though the water at the top speed of 35 knots. The visibility was stunning, about 10-15m. Visibility in the Flow ranges from five to 20 metres. Five metres is as good as it ever gets further south in the UK.

Deeper section examined, we drifted over the upper side of the wreck. It was coated in plumose anenomies, sea squirts and other colourful static sea creatures wafting to and fro. It looked like an orange and red alien flowerbed waving at us in a gentle breeze. Not content to silence this massive machine of war by submerging it, the sea had coated it in flowers. Lovely.

Back on the boat, the wind had whipped up, but it didn’t matter. Scapa Flow is so sheltered that you never get significant waves. Despite frequent gales, only two or three days diving are lost each year to the weather. Moreover the Halton has a very cosy cabin, heated by an Aga, where we gathered to eat lunch. Foraging earlier in Stromness’ baker I’d found a Lasagne Pie. Only in Scotland.

All the chat was about World War One battleships. Although I’d just read a weighty book on the subject, I knew the least about the wrecks.

Reluctantly leaving the general chat, Liam told me about the next wreck, the light cruiser Karlsruhe. He listed dates and figures fluently, without notes.

Although I’ve dived in the Coral Sea, Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos islands, and on wrecks off Indonesia and Egypt – pretty good places in other words – this next dive was to be my best ever.

Deep under the Flow, we peered into portholes with torches and saw telephones and speaking tubes last used in World War One. We saw the conger eel that I mentioned at the start. I’ve seen bigger, scarier and rarer animals underwater, but the fact that this slippery fellow had made his home in one of a twin set of brilliantly preserved, massive guns made him pretty special.

The best moment of the dive, however, came a minute later. Liam and I crouched by the breech of an eel-less gun, where its loaders would have crouched 90-odd years before. As we marvelled at the detailed German lettering, a brightly coloured, foot long male cuckoo wrasse arrived happily on the scene and sniffed Liam’s gloves. Liam investigated, the Cuckoo wrasse came to check me out, swimming right up to my mask and looking into my eyes. Here we were, at the greatest historical site I’ve ever visited AND there was great, well behaved wildlife. Had I not been worried about fogging my mask, a tear might have come to my eye. 

All too soon we surfaced and my short diving trip was over. I will be going back. Yes, the water’s cold, but with a dry suit and a well-equipped dive boat, that isn’t an issue. There are five more German wrecks to dive, not to mention the islands themselves to explore. And I could always try August rather than late October.

The other reason to return is that I scratched only the surface. You can go inside all of the wrecks, but I wasn’t experienced enough to do so. There are ships larger than the two I visited, but they are all upside-down on the sea bed, so you have to slip under the gunwales and work your way though the dark up into them: not something for the first day in a dry suit.

Finally, there’s an argument that we’re too obsessed with war and its machines in this country and we should be more impressed by the architectures of peace, but, as Scottish tourist attractions go, seven whopping war ships on a shallow sea floor certainly beat the crap out of a weaving museum.

To give it a go, see www.scapascuba.co.uk

me with dive boat in background