Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Cruel Is The Sea

Scapa Flow, the Orkney Islands (Google Street View)
Off the northeastern coast of Scotland lie the Orkney Islands. As that picture above shows (taken in August of 2010), even in the summer the Orkneys are gray and bleak. The Nuke once visited the area on a high school field trip. She told us about the puffins she saw there. I remember asking her if she had seen any sunken ships there.

"No, why?" she had answered with a puzzled look.

Well, Scapa Flow was the home base of the British Grand Fleet in World War I and again in World War II. It was also the destination of the German High Seas Fleet after Germany's defeat in World War I. The Germans scuttled their ships in Scapa Flow rather than let the British have them. While most of those ships were raised (due to being hazards to navigation and of course it was a Royal Navy anchorage) a number of the Kaiser's ships still lay on the sea bed there.

The battleships SMS König, SMS Kronprinz (renamed SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm in 1918), and SMS Markgraf (all of the König class) lie upside down with over 80 feet of water over them. All three ships were involved at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, enduring some of the heaviest fighting.

SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm at Scapa Flow in 1919 (Source)

There are also four cruisers:  SMS Dresden, SMS Karlsruhe, SMS Brummer, and SMS Cöln lying on their sides under 50 to 65 feet of water.

One ship, treated as a war grave, which went down in Scapa Flow during WWI is HMS Vanguard.

HMS Vanguard in 1909 (Source)

HMS Vanguard blew up at her anchorage and sank in 1917, probably due to a stokehold fire heating up cordite stored against a bulkhead in an adjacent magazine. She went down with 804 men. Only two men onboard at the time of the explosion survived. One of the men who died in the catastrophe was Captain Eto Kyōsuke of the Imperial Japanese Navy (allied to the British in World War I) who was assigned to the Royal Navy as an observer.

Another war grave wreck is that of HMS Hampshire, an armored cruiser. This ship hit a mine just off the coast of the Orkneys and went down with the loss of 655 crewmen and 7 passengers. Only 12 men survived. The passengers were Field Marshal Lord Kitchener and his staff. All killed.

Yes, that Lord Kitchener...


One of the more famous episodes in the history of Scapa Flow occurred in October of 1939, the 14th of that month as a matter of fact, World War II was 44 days old.

In the quiet of the night, Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien carefully maneuvered his Unterseeboot U-47 through the shallow waters and shoals leading into Scapa Flow. There his torpedoes struck and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak, supposedly safe at anchor at the Home Fleet's base.

Günther Prien, Bundesarchiv (Source)

After this exploit, Kapitänleutnant Prien was known as the "Bull of Scapa Flow," (Der Stier von Scapa Flow).

He died at the age of 33, he and his boat going missing in March of 1941.

HMS Royal Oak in 1937 (Source)

HMS Royal Oak was one of three British battleships lost in action in World War II (out of 20+). HMS Prince of Wales was sunk by Japanese aircraft in the South China Sea in December of 1941.

HMS Barham was also sunk by a U-Boat in the Mediterranean, the U-331, commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Hans-Diedrich von Tiesenhausen. She was also a veteran of the Battle of Jutland. Her loss was actually captured on film, a film which remained a secret until after the war.

Cruel indeed is the sea...


  1. There are times that even when not being shot at the sea can be cruel.
    Airplanes vanish into the deep.
    Lt. Santori of VA-12 during my first deployment on Independendence to the Mediterranean Sea. He was part of a regular launch cycle in his A-7 Corsair II. He was never found.

    1. Thy sea, O God, so great,
      My boat so small.
      It cannot be that any happy fate
      Will me befall
      Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me
      Through the consuming vastness of the sea. - Winfred Ernest Garrison

  2. An excellent post! You even managed to bring puffins into the tale! I like puffins, they are absurd. They, and the closely related penguins, are the only birds known to engage in publishing books, you know, so readers should honor them.

    1. I am a big penguin fan. (The bird, not the hockey team.)

      I also think puffins are pretty neat.

    2. We do like us some Penguin Books. Puffins remind me of Boffins, which ties in nicely back to WWII.

    3. Oh yes, Penguin Books are excellent, did not mean to leave those out in my reply to Scott.

      I like the way your mind works Ron, puffins putting you in mind of boffins. War winners those lads and lasses.

  3. In late fall of 1975 when I was serving aboard Independence we transited Pentland Firth, the strait that separates the Orkneys from Northern Scotland. The Captain gave us a short history lesson on Captain Prien and the U-47 attack on HMS Royal Oak. We had previously been in the waters near Jutland.
    I was 21 and it was my second deployment and we where sea going history was written.

    1. You're a true sailor Glenn, you served aboard warships and still honor those who went before and those who came after.

      The North Sea has many tales to tell!

  4. Before joining the Navy, I had spend my entire life in the Midwest, never having seen salt water. Upon arrival in the 6th Fleet, I realized the sea is a) big, b) deep, c) impersonal, d) uncaring, and e) unforgiving. It just is. It's a full-time job just trying to keep bad things from happening.

    And always, always in the back of one's mind is the knowledge that so many have perished there, in peacetime and war. One hopes NOT to join their ranks.

    1. I've been out of sight of land in a ship a few times. Each time the vast scope of the sea was somewhat humbling.

      Did it in a storm once, the experience was thrilling, as long as you didn't think about it too much. (It was a small-ish cruise ship bound for Bermuda from Boston. I say small-ish because it was able to make it through the cut into George's Harbor, the bigger ones can't. Nice cruise though.)

    2. The sea respects and encourages diversity, inclusion, women, the transgendered.... oh wait.

    3. Heh. Well played Dexter, well played.

  5. "...vast scope of the sea was somewhat humbling."
    The smaller the ship the more humbling it is.

    Every time I see that Scapa Flow was the anchorage for the fleet, I think, "What kind of liberty was that?"

    1. Yeah, I'm thinking Scapa Flow leaves a lot to be desired for a liberty port.

    2. I understand they played a lot of football.

      And they DID have beer in the mess, so...

    3. Beer in the mess? Football? (I'm assuming you mean "real" football, 45 minute halves, very few stoppages, no helmets, etc...)

      I'd be happy.

  6. Penguins (and others) introduced me to puffins and gooneys and the sea at a young and impressionable age. I grew up in Nebraska and only saw the sea after boot camp, but somehow she has always lived in my heart. Though she has made me to be afraid many times, I have never feared her, for she is too big and too vital for such a paltry emotion. ;)

    1. If the sea wants you...

      You're gone. At least that's the way I like to look at it.

  7. Always has been, always will be... Nothing more humbling than being on deck at night, alone, and realizing how truly puny we are as individual human beings...

    1. Still and all, I enjoy those moments.

      I've had the same feeling in northern New Mexico in the winter. No towns for miles, no light pollution, just me, nature, and the heavens.

  8. Read where the Royal Oak's design was such hatches couldn't be opened against a list contributing to many deaths.
    My only sea voyage, the General Maurice Rose troopship, Brooklyn to Bremerhaven, January 1964. The most disgruntled passengers
    were 40 or so airmen who thought, joining the Air Force, they would fly everywhere.


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Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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