THE trouble with history is that not only do the winners get to write it, there are all too many people who want to re-write it to suit their own ends, usually political.
Here’s a couple of recent examples. Last year, Liam Fox, the UK Minister for expensive jaunts to foreign climes, tweeted that: “The United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th-century history.”
At the weekend, he tried to deny posting that. He was caught – Sky News’s Sophy Ridge put the tweet on the screen while he was talking his rubbish.
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What is truly appalling is that Fox is of Irish Catholic heritage, and he should know that Britain’s role in Ireland alone for much of the last century was truly shameful – the judicial murder of the Easter Rising leaders, the Black and Tans, internment, etc. While we’re at it, let’s throw in the concentration camps during the Boer War, the Amritsar Massacre, Indian partition and famines, the Kenyan and Cyprus prison camps and much more. Yes, the sun never sets on the British Empire’s litany of horror.
“There are so many years in British history (our italics) that we can call to mind such as 1066 or 1215 … (at which point an MP called out “give us more!”). How many do you want? Great and famous years include 1346, 1485, 1509, 1588, and 1649… (“Bingo!” shouted an unnamed MP).
Presumably he was referring to, in date order, the Norman invasion and the signing of Magna Carta, the Battles of Crecy and Bosworth Field, the accession of Henry VIII, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Was 1649 famous for the beheading of a Scot, King Charles I? Or was it famous for Cromwell’s butchery at Drogheda?
A product of Eton and Trinity College, Oxford, where he studied history, Rees-Mogg is one of those people who confuse British history with English history. All of the dates he mentioned took place before the Act of Union in 1707. Only after that date can anything be said to have happened in “British’” history.
There were times in the last century when Great Britain really did things that will be mentioned favourably as long as history books exist. During the First and Second World Wars, Britain stood up to, firstly, the empire-building of a Kaiser and, secondly, the fascistic plans for world domination of a crazed dictator and his henchmen and Axis allies. Every British person can be proud of the role played by their immediate ancestors in defeating the Kaiser and his chums and Hitler and the Axis powers, and there is one place in Scotland that for me sums up the part Scotland played in the British effort in both World Wars – Scapa Flow.
THERE are many places in Scotland with names that resonate down through history. Usually, but not always, such public recognition is connected with battles and deaths on a large scale.
Glencoe, Culloden, Flodden, Killiecrankie – and let’s be honest, who would have heard of Bannockburn were it not for a certain battle there in 1314?
Outside of our cities, beauty spots such as Loch Lomond, the Cuillins, the Old Man of Hoy and Loch Ness have international recognition, the last named not unconnected with the presence of a monster – what do you mean it’s not true?
One place which is both bleakly beautiful and also a scene of wartime triumph and tragedy is Scapa Flow on Orkney, one of the world’s greatest anchorages. Its name is one of the most recognisable in Scotland, though it was very much more well-known when it provided the home for Britain’s great naval fleets during both World Wars.
This part of Back In The Day will focus on one incident that has made Scapa Flow renowned today as a massive attraction for scuba divers, namely the scuttling of the German fleet in 1919. But first, let’s briefly look at the history of the 125-square-mile area of sea that has been so important to Orkney and Scotland.
Surrounded and sheltered by islands – Mainland, Graemsay, Hoy, Fara, Flotta, South Ronaldsay and Burray are the largest – Scapa Flow has been recognised as a natural harbour for centuries, with its fairly uniform depth and sandy bottom making it ideal for masses of ships to ride at anchor.
The raiding Vikings who conquered Orkney and made it theirs for several centuries knew the place well. Indeed the name comes from the Old Norse skalpafloi meaning “bay of the long isthmus”.
King Haakon IV of Norway parked his fleet there on the way home from his defeat at the Battle of Largs in 1263, and died in Kirkwall in December of that year.
It was not until the 19th century, however, that Scapa Flow’s use as a shipping base was first confirmed. The Admiralty surveyed it in the early 1800s and it began to be used as a gathering point for ships sailing to the Baltic.
Britain’s main naval concerns at sea, however, were all far to the south and it was only with the advent of the First World War that Scapa Flow’s natural attributes came into play. From the late 19th century onwards, the German Kaiser had been building up his Kaiserliche Marine’s High Fleet and Britain had to confront the possibility that if war was to break out, the German fleet either had to be confined to its bases in Germany or there would be all-out battles on the high seas.
The policy of blockading the German fleet in its bases at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven came into force, and that meant finding a northern base for the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet. Rosyth was already a naval base, albeit unfortified, but it was obvious that a few mines could force the Grand Fleet to stay in the Firth of Forth.
Invergordon in the Cromarty Firth seemed the next-best choice, but again it had not been fortified which left it open to attack by submarines and surface vessels alike. Finally, Scapa Flow was chosen, largely because access to it could be much more easily controlled.
Anti-submarine nets, boom defences and artillery placements as well as concrete barriers and block ships were all installed around the Flow, so that when war did indeed break out in 1914, the Grand Fleet was able to be safely accommodated inside the anchorage.
RIGHT from the start, the Germans realised the strategic significance of Scapa Flow and a U-boat, U-18, made the first attempt to enter the Flow as early as November 1918.
Kapitanleutnant Heinrich von Hennig waited until a boom was opened in Hoxa Sound and slipped through, only to find the Fleet was at sea. He turned for home but a trawler-turned-minesweeper from Aberdeen, the Dorothy Gray, spotted the submarine’s periscope and rammed the U-boat. A second ramming by a destroyer sent it to the bottom, where it lies to this day.
Von Hennig and all but one of his crew survived with their lives.
A lookout from the Orkney Territorials, Robert Wilson, famously spotted the submarine, only to be asked if he knew the difference between a whale and a U-boat, to which he replied: “Well, if it’s a whale, it’s got 25 men on its back”.
Proving that Scapa Flow was safe, only one further submarine attack was made during the First World War, this time in October 1918 by U-116 which was detected and then sunk by a remote-controlled mine with the loss of all 36 men on board. Far greater loss of life had been experienced when HMS Vanguard caught fire and exploded on July 9, 1917, with the loss of 843 men, only two crew members surviving. The wreck is a designated war grave to this day.
Significantly, Scapa Flow was already less important by 1918 as the Grand Fleet, which had sailed from there for the Battle of Jutland in 1916, had achieved its aim of a “distant” blockade and the German ships stayed in their home ports until the end of the war.
Then they all came to Scapa Flow, all 74 ships of the German High Seas Fleet that surrendered after the Armistice of November, 1918.
As part of the Armistice, the German fleet was to be interned at Scapa Flow until the Allies decided what to do with it – France was desperate to have as many ships as possible – and that duly occurred, leading to one of the strangest peacetime incidents in Scottish history.
The German fleet’s 20,000 men were gradually repatriated, but skeleton crews, many of them bordering on mutinous, were left behind. The ships were now a bargaining chip in the ongoing negotiations that led to the Treaty of Versailles, but the trouble was that nobody thought to tell the Germans in Scapa Flow that some sort of end was coming for their internment. The commander of the High Seas Fleet, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, was under orders to scuttle his ships if there was no successful outcome to the Treaty talks. The British simply forgot to tell him that it looked as there would be a Treaty for signature in the last week of June, 1919. At 10am on June 21, 1919, convinced that no Treaty was coming, Admiral von Reuter gave the secret order to begin scuttling the 74 ships which had all been prepared for such an action with bulkheads smashed and watertight doors secured in an “open” position. Despite the efforts of the Royal Navy ships which had been outside the Flow on exercise, the Germen fleet slowly but surely filled up with water and 52 of the 74 ships sank to the bottom of Scapa Flow over a period of five hours. The rest were beached and later salvaged.
As the German crews came ashore, there was some confusion and nine sailors were shot dead – the last casualties of the First World War, as some have termed them. In all, some 1770 men were taken as prisoners of war to Invergordon, including Von Reuter, who was hailed as a hero in Germany. Indeed, when Hitler defied the Treaty of Versailles and began rebuilding the German Navy, the defiance of the scuttled fleet at Scapa Flow was cited as an inspiration.
It was Hitler’s Navy which saw Scapa Flow used as a base again, this time for the Home Fleet which set out from there to confront the Bismarck among many other actions. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Scapa Flow’s old defences had not been refurbished and six weeks into it, the U-boat U-47 got into the Flow and sank the battleship the Royal Oak with the loss of 834 lives.
Italian prisoners of war then built the Churchill Barriers to block entrances to the Flow and also constructed the beautiful chapel on Lamb Holm overlooking Scapa Flow which remains a tourist attraction.
Many of the scuttled ships were raised in salvage operations over the years, but seven still remain on the seabed, providing what is regarded by scuba divers as some of the best wreck diving in the world. New 3D maps of the wrecks are being prepared, another sign of our endless fascination with Scapa Flow.