Scapa Flow: The Reminiscences of Men and Women Who Served in Scapa Flow in the Two World Wars

Scapa Flow: The Reminiscences of Men and Women Who Served in Scapa Flow in the Two World Wars

by Malcolm Brown, Patricia Meehan

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Scapa Flow, a vast, natural harbour in the Orkney Islands, served as the Royal Navy’s main base during the two world wars, from where ships sailed to the Battle of Jutland in the First and in convoy to northern Russia in the Second. Thousands of men and women saw service in and around this remote anchorage, including soldiers and sailors who crewed the ships and manned the lonely batteries, and Wrens, nurses and civilians who were posted there. Scapa Flow brings together their memories – the bleak isolation, its implacable winds and glorious sunsets, the camaraderie and good humour – forming a compelling portrait of a unique war station that left its mark on all who served there.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750992084
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 07/22/2019
Edition description: Second Edition,New edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,058,023
Product dimensions: 5.08(w) x 7.80(h) x (d)

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Scapa left its mark on all who served there. To go to Scapa was to join a club whose membership you could never quite disown. Like Poona, Alexandria or Singapore, Scapa was a place to which it was impossible to have a neutral reaction. You either hated it, or you loved it. The evidence is that people usually did both. There were times when men spat the name out like a four-letter word. There were other times when they wondered how homely, familiar Great Britain ever came to have within its boundaries a place so serene, so different and of so special a flavour. Writing about it years afterwards some could still not surmount their loathing, but many remembered it with an almost surprised pleasure and discovered in themselves a deep longing to return. Yet side-by-side with the longing there was often a certain anxiety – that the place might be unrecognizable, that it would be so changed that they would feel they had ceased to belong.

To call it a place is a mistake, of course. Scapa – which should be pronounced to rhyme with 'sapper', in spite of the long 'a' given to the word by Cockney rhyming slang – is really just a sheet of water. It is a vast, almost landlocked anchorage, fifteen miles in length from north to south and eight miles broad from east to west, which on the map looks like a jagged hole punched in the southern half of the Orkney Islands. It is so big that it could have housed all the navies of the world in the great days of sea-power. It has three main entrances. Hoxa Sound, between the islands of South Ronaldsay and Flotta, was the front gate through which the battleships came and went. Switha Sound, between Flotta and South Walls, the fat little peninsula that juts eastwards from the southern end of the island of Hoy, was the narrower gate for the destroyers. Hoy Sound, between the northern end of Hoy and the large island which is known as the Mainland, was rarely used by naval vessels in time of war, though now it is the regular route through which the daily mail steamer approaches Orkney on its often boisterous journey from Caithness.

Until a generation ago, there were several other entrances to the Flow – tiny ones on the eastern side which were only wide enough to admit fishing boats or naval ships of the size of a submarine. Within six weeks of the outbreak of war in 1939 a German U-boat slipped unperceived through the northernmost of these entrances, Kirk Sound, and sank a battleship at anchor with the loss of over eight hundred lives. Subsequently a road was constructed, carried on huge concrete blocks from island to island, effectively ensuring that nothing so audacious could happen again. Called after the man who ordered that they should be built, these causeways are known as the Churchill Barriers.

Scapa Flow is empty now. This immense anchorage, which twice in living memory was the home of one great Navy and which also became the graveyard of another, is almost as it was sixty years and two wars ago. Just occasionally a handful of frigates or a couple of destroyers will slip into the Flow to pick up fuel at Lyness, the old base on the island of Hoy, and the familiar grey silhouettes will be seen far out across the water, evoking a surge of memory in those who recall the days when Scapa Flow was in the mainstream of world events. But by the morning they will have sailed away, leaving Scapa to the sea-birds and the little local steamers like the Hoy Head and the Watchful which chug about between the islands with tourists and the post.

Here and there are relics of the great occupation. There is a litter of concrete gun batteries on the headland overlooking Hoxa Sound. A mile outside the old and lovely town of Stromness more batteries face out towards the open sea, with all the guns gone and the tall range-finder station standing there like a windowless signal-box beside some abandoned railway. In the entrances sealed by the Churchill Barriers and out in Hoy Sound, old block-ships lie rusting, reddish-brown skeletons which are slowly being eaten away by the sea and which take on a bizarre, abstract beauty at sunset or sunrise. On Hoy itself you will see clusters of half-fallen barrack-rooms in lonely fields, with occasionally a dazzlingly white enamelled urinal standing to one side like a slab of megalithic stone. And Lyness itself, with its huts and roads and huge corrugated-iron cinema and handful of people, is a ghost town, the scene of a gold rush long since abandoned, an Orcadian Dawson City.

One wonders what the men and women who served there would think of it if they did go back. Their Scapa Flow was crowded with ships that were anchored in rows like houses on an estate – battleships and carriers and cruisers and destroyers and minesweepers – while as many as three hundred drifters shuttled to and fro, carrying supplies and letters and bringing men to new postings or back from leave. So many barrage balloons hung in the sky that one might have imagined that the islands were suspended from them. Three-ton lorries rattled along country roads to where bulled and gleaming guns pointed to the sky or out to sea. The canteens were busy with egg and chips, beer and hot sweet tea and the cinemas ran a succession of films and ENSA concerts at which men starved of normal life whistled and stamped and cheered at Flanagan and Allen, Gracie Fields, Yehudi Menuhin and Evelyn Laye. And now the wind blows through the ruins and the rank grass and the Flow is wiped clean like a slate.

Of course, it is no use regretting it. No one wants those days back. It is better for the Flow to be empty than teeming with warships. Orkney was never so crowded and buzzing with activity but the animation was there for the wrong reason. The litter of concrete and rubble around the islands – fortunately there is not enough of it to spoil their beauty – is better than the smartest and tidiest gun emplacements ever made.

And the Orkney of peacetime is the real Orkney. Its role as a bustling Imperial stronghold was one alien to its character. These remote, unspoilt islands off the north coast of Scotland on the other side of the Pentland Firth are scarcely British at all. Their flavour is more like that of Scandinavia. Their names – Flotta, Fara, Graemsay, Westray, Shapinsay, Eynhallow and, of course, the name of Scapa Flow itself – have a Nordic ring. There are no highlands and few hills in Orkney, and what hills there are look as if they were shaped and smoothed by Arctic glaciers millions of years ago. Seen in winter under a covering of snow they are more what one would expect to see in Greenland or the Lofoten Isles than within the boundaries of Great Britain. Orkney is essentially a quiet, uncrowded, uncluttered place. It has lonely though well-metalled roads which run with an almost Roman straightness. It has two miniature and attractive towns, Kirkwall and Stromness, where the main streets are narrow and paved with flag-stones and where pedestrians exercise an almost undisputed right of way. It has long stretches of empty undulating land which look ordinary enough in winter but which produce an astounding range of colours in summer from gorse and heather and an abundance of wild flowers. It has isolated grey farm-houses with patchwork fields where seagulls swarm around tractors. It has wide lochs with names like Stenness and Harray where fishers bob about in boats bringing in splendid trout that are subsequently displayed for view in comfortable fishing hotels much loved by gentle Buchanesque men from Perth and Glasgow. Always, at the end of every perspective, is the sea – sometimes beating against huge cliffs as at Yesnaby or Marwick and the coast of Hoy, those mighty western ramparts that contrast strangely with the gentler contours prevailing everywhere else in Orkney; sometimes curving into tiny, sandy beaches littered with sea-wrack as at Skara Brae or Birsay; sometimes boiling in an almost perpetual turmoil as off Cantick Head or in Hoy Sound.

And when one turns inwards away from the North Sea or the Pentland Firth or the Atlantic, there, dominating the scene by its sheer empty vastness, is Scapa Flow.

Perhaps the best way to see the Flow is to go south from Kirkwall towards the Churchill Barriers on one of those evenings in summer when the sky over Hoy is a mixture of clouds and sun. Then every movement in the Flow will be caught by sunlight and the water will become a silvery plasma stretching away for miles, with little, treeless islands dotted here and there, and the long, undulating outline of Hoy will lie silhouetted on the horizon like a sleeping whale. Or cross over to Hoy early one morning – there are boatmen in Stromness who will take you across – and look eastwards from the old H.7 Battery or from the road that rises steeply up from Lyness. From either vantage point you will see a huge panoramic picture of many colours, ranging from the pastel greys and greens and ochres of the islands to the deep blues and astonishing turquoises of the Flow. You will appreciate at once why Scapa is the sort of place that people do not easily forget.

But the Orkney of today, the real, permanent Orkney, is only incidentally our concern. This book is about the Orkney of two short, intense interludes in this century, when thousands of people from the cities, towns and villages of Britain were taken from their ordinary civilian lives and sent northwards to crew the ships and man the defences of Scapa Flow.


The 'Jellicoes'

The classic route to Scapa Flow was by train to the north of Scotland and then by boat across the Pentland Firth. Indeed, to go there in your own hammock in your own ship was somehow ordinary and unmemorable. It was not a proper initiation. Only those who had spent twenty-four hours or more in a special troop train and had then been bucketed across the boisterous waters of the Firth, really knew how far Scapa was from home.

In the First War they called the trains the 'Jellicoes', after the Admiral who assumed command of the Grand Fleet in Scapa Flow in August 1914. The name was revived in the Second. No one expects to travel comfortably in wartime, but these trains were worse than most; crammed, cluttered, cold, and interminable. If you started from London, you had seven hundred miles in front of you. If you were a naval rating drafted from Devonport to Scapa you were travelling from one end of Britain to the other. It was a Russian rather than a British experience.

Two of London's famous Victorian terminus stations were the usual launching-points for this dreary trek north. Many servicemen left from King's Cross, travelled to Scotland by the east coast route, and joined the 'Jellicoe' at Perth. But the official 'Jellicoe' – the through train from London to Thurso – started from Euston, striking north-westwards on the old L.N.W.R. line. For its innumerable passengers places like Crewe, Carlisle and Carstairs would always be inextricably entwined with this long journey to war. They were not towns, simply stations, where you woke from an uneasy sleep, and might, with luck, enjoy the incredible relief of a hot cup of tea.

But above all, the north of Scotland was the territory to which the 'Jellicoes' seemed particularly to belong. It was the least known and it was the last part of the journey. North of Perth the Highland Line took you on a slow sweep through the Cairngorms to Inverness and thence along the coast through Invergordon, Tain, and Golspie to Helmsdale. At Helmsdale the line turned inland through the bare, undulating hills of western Caithness and then swung back north-eastwards towards Thurso. Usually it was dawn when the trains came through this final lap. Small wonder that men waking after an uncomfortable, smoky night's sleep and peering through the steamed-up windows felt that they had arrived at the end of nowhere.

If you talk to the men who work the Highland Line today they will speak of the 'Jellicoes' with affection. For those were the great days of the line when night after night, and sometimes twice nightly, the long double-engined trains rumbled north to Thurso. Now diesel engines pull the modern corridor stock of British Rail's Scottish Region through this lonely and under-populated land, the trains are infrequent and half empty, and the little stations with gracious names like Kildonan, Kinbrace and Forsinard have all but closed down.

For countless men service at Scapa really began at Euston or King's Cross. And like everything else associated with Scapa and the Orkneys in time of war, that long journey north was something that left an indelible mark on the memory.

These are the kind of things men thought about their journeys to Scapa over fifty years ago, in the days of the Great War.

A draft of 200 ratings left Portsmouth, August 1914, for Scapa Flow. We were locked in the train for twenty-eight hours, twenty to a carriage.

We had a stop at Carlisle to change driver and take in water. The train was crowded with holiday-makers and a dear old lady spoke to me at the carriage window. She said: 'Don't move – I'll be back', and disappeared into the refreshment bar. Back she came with a wrapped box. A bottle of whisky, I thought, and thanked her. The train pulled out and with eager fingers we opened it. It was a box of Edinburgh rock.

Leaving Devonport late one night we eventually reached Scapa two nights later, having endured a train journey gruelling almost beyond imagination.

Movement in or out of your compartment or along the corridor was comparable to what now might be described as a Commando obstacle course. Men, bags, baggage of all descriptions everywhere, including kitbags and hammocks and the inevitable assortment of 'empties'.

In the afternoon and more particularly at night, the whole train was strewn with 'bodies' trying to sleep. The air was dense with smoke and smelt more like a ship's bilges than a train; but the thought of having a window open, even if one could get to it, was out of the question and asking for trouble. Little or no heat was provided by the train and it was a case of putting up with any discomfort to keep warm.

* * *

At King's Cross, as well as those on draft were many returning from leave in all stages of sobriety (or insobriety). It always seemed a remarkable thing to me to feel one would soon be in the company of strangers, yet after a few minutes one would feel one had known some of them for years. After a few drinks I found myself in such company and we were soon looking for a suitable compartment to travel together.

The compartment into which we piled contained one other passenger, a young lady, but we soon settled down for the journey. It was not long, however, before nature began to assert itself and we realized we were in a non-corridor carriage. As the train did not stop long at any station this soon became an ordeal, then critical. As I was sitting next to the young lady I was given several nudges and whispers which put me in a predicament, but the situation was saved by the young lady herself who, after first telling me she had been travelling all day from France and fully under stood the position, said she would read her newspaper for a few minutes, which she did, and soon everyone was relieved and comfortable.

* * *

The memory I have of the journey north by special train from Portsmouth to Thurso in 1915 was of being confined to the train and living on pies for about three days, with an occasional wash by putting our heads out of the railway carriage window to catch the raindrops.

* * *

We arrived at Thurso at midnight and it was as black as the inside of a coal bag. Our guide told us to catch hold of the man in front and we set off. Arriving at the Town Hall we were given a hot drink and a couple of blankets and bedded down in what appeared to be orange boxes. It must have been close on 1 A.M. when we settled but at 4.30 A.M. we were exhorted to 'Show a Leg' and 'Rise and Shine'. We rose but I don't think we shone very much. Outside were some small wagonettes and we were loaded into these with our bags and hammocks, the drivers jogged the horses and we were on our merry way to Scrabster Harbour.

The journey by 'Jellicoe' was much the same experience in both wars. The trains were, relatively speaking, more comfortable in the second, less likely to have locked doors and more likely to have corridors, so that it was no longer a standing joke that one daren't put one's head out of the window for fear of the spray. But essentially there was no difference, because in both wars men were leaving their homes and their wives and their sweethearts and all the consolations of civilization to spend months on end in uncomfortable ships and remote gunsites. In both wars there was the prospect of isolation and hardship and boredom (though there was also the prospect of good companionship and achievement), and some, though they could not know it even if they feared it, would be going to their deaths in a convoy run or a destroyer dog-fight or in some futile military or naval accident.


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Copyright © 2019 Malcolm Brown and Patricia Meehan.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Map showing Scapa Flow,
Extracts from A Memorial to the Lords Commissioners of Admiralty,
1. Scapa,
2. The 'Jellicoes',
3. The Pentland Firth,
4. 'A City of Ships',
5. Setting up the Base,
6. 'No World Outside the Ship',
7. 'Hands Coal Ship!',
8. Guarding the Fleet,
9. Libertymen,
10. Jutland,
11. The Hampshire Disaster,
12. The Vanguard Disaster,
13. 'Waiting for Them to Come Out',
14. Strangers in the Flow,
15. Loss of the Royal Oak,
16. Bolting the Stable Door,
17. The Orkney Barrage,
18. 'In from Out',
19. The Small Ships,
20. 'You Lucky People!',
21. 'Orkneyitis',
22. The Suicide Run,
23. Six Hundred Men to One Girl,
24. Making the Best of It,
25. Paying Off,
List of Contributors,

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