The Royal Navy Base at Scapa Flow in Scotland
When I was in service I had the opportunity to visit the UK. I had never been to Scotland and when a friend, a RAF officer suggested we visit Scapa Flow a Royal Naval base of great importance in Scotland during the two world wars, I accepted. We reached the base and stayed two days at the Officers Mess of the RN. The base is no longer having the importance it once had, but it remains a historical entity. One can locate the sunken warships and also see the coastal batteries now old and not in use.
The base was developed in the early part of the 20th century. It is a natural harbor and its importance lies in the fact that it had outlets to both the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. Within a short time the base became very important and a great part of the Royal Navy Fleet was anchored at this base.The basic aim of Scapa Flow was to counter the German Navy which was growing in strength under the Emperor Wilhelm Kaiser. The German high Sea fleet was aware of this base and had plans to destroy it with submarines.
It is recorded that the Scapa Flow naval base was the safest of the Royal Navy's bases. No submarine could penetrate inside the protected area of the harbor, due to a system of undersea steel nets. A few which tried got entangled and were sunk. Due to the heavy defenses, it was not possible for a surface ship to approach the base. The Coastal guns can still be seen, mute spectators to a past era. Only one ship was ever lost in the harbor and that was not due to enemy action, but an internal explosion. The battleship HMS Vanguard exploded and sank taking with 845 sailors to a watery grave.
The base covers a massive area of over a 100 square miles. it is a sobering thought now to realize that the base was home to over 150 warships of the Royal Navy including 30 Dreadnaughts. Now let me tell readers that during World war I, the Dreadnaught was the most lethal of the heavy warships.
Scapa Flow made history as the Royal Navy Fleet of nearly a 150 war ships sailed out to confront the German fleet in the famous battle of Jutland. This is the biggest surface naval battle in the history of naval warfare. The German fleet had close to 99 ships. In numbers the British fleet was bigger, but the Germans had precision gunners and both fleets confronted each other in the icy waters of the North Sea. In a battle spread over days both sides claimed victory, but the British lost more ships than the German fleet. But the important point is that the German fleet could not break the stranglehold of the British fleet and had to retreat back to German ports.
After the end of World war I, the Treaty of Versailles( 1919) was signed. As per the terms of this treaty 74 warships of the German fleet were captued by the English and they brought them to Scapa Flow. The commander of the German Flotilla was Admiral Von Reutor. He took a far reaching decision along with his senior commanders. This was an act of great secrecy and the Royal Navy were not aware of it. When the British fleet was out for an exercise, Von Reutor gave the order to scuttle the German warships. The aim was to deny use of the ships to the Royal Navy. He was successful and he was able to scuttle 52 ships, which sank in the harbor.
Once the scuttling process started, Royal Navy seamen armed with weapons boarded the ships and were able to save about 20 ships, but 52 sank in the ocean. Many ships were on fire and sank slowly. Nothing could be done about them.
Now close to a 100 years have elapsed, but the German Ships can still be seen with a guide as they lie on the bed of the harbor. I travelled with a gude and had a look at the submerged ships, some of their masts are just above the sea and visible to all. Von Reutor was successfull in denying use of the German fleet to the Royal Navy.
The base was also used in WWII, but it had reduced importance and after WWII, the base lost its importance as the threat was from Russia. Now only a skeleton service mans the base which at one time was the most important base of the Royal Navy. Visiting Scapa Flow is a pleasure and I will recommend all, to visit this base when visiting Scotland.
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