Rapture of the Deep – Scuba Diving a chapter of History
Scuba Diving thrills me. You plan your dive, you don your gear, and then you step off the boat into a different realm. It’s a realm we humans don’t naturally belong to, and it’s what I imagine being in space is like. You’re kept alive by beautifully simple equipment, weightless but oddly aware of your body – the suck and bubble of your breath, the movement of your limbs in an alien atmosphere – and you get a privileged view of the world from a rare angle.
Last week I dived the shipwrecks of Scapa Flow in Orkney for the first time. What a thrill – not just the physical adventure of cold-water decompression diving, not just the fish-eye view of a rich marine ecosystem, but the plunge into an extraordinary episode of the Great War.
Scapa Flow is a natural harbour, protected from the might of the open ocean by Orkney’s kidney-shaped mainland and its sibling islands. The Vikings certainly used the Flow’s protection (the Scandinavian soldier-sailors left runic graffiti), and the British again saw its value during WW1: It was the perfect Naval base for protecting the North Sea, and at the end of hostilities, it proved to be a useful parking site for the surrendered ships of the German High Seas fleet.
As part of the terms of the 1918 Armistice, 74 German vessels were interned in Scapa Flow, in custody until their fate was determined by the peace treaty. The enormous ships, Dreadnoughts and Cruisers among them, steamed to Orkney with skeleton crews, dropped anchor in the forty-odd metres of water in the Flow, and then the officers and men waited. They waited for orders, for news, for the end of their war. But little was forthcoming, and the months rolled by.
The German sailors were not allowed ashore and they weren’t allowed on the other German ships. Food was bad, the ships were disarmed and disabled and the men were demoralised. Contemporary reports describe the ships as filthy, officers ‘dumb with shame’, and crews of once-proud sailors descended into near-mutiny. The senior officer of the fleet, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, had overseen the delivery of the ships and he continued to command the interned Squadron. He got his news from 4-day old copies of The Times, and considered that handing over the ships to the British would be ‘a lasting disgrace’.
As the June 1919 deadline for the peace treaty loomed, von Reuter prepared the ships to be scuttled. Better that the Sea take his fleet than the British. Loyal sailors loosened portholes, disabled watertight doors, drilled through bulkheads and laid explosives in the holds. The German ships were designed to stay afloat even after sustaining significant damage, so ensuring that the ships would sink quickly was an engineering challenge. The Seydlitz, for example, survived 23 direct shell hits and a torpedo strike during the Battle of Jutland, and still managed to limp back home. If the fleet were to be successfully scuttled, the sailors would have to fight their ships’ designs.
On the morning of 21st June 1919 Admiral von Reuter believed the Armistice had terminated, and gave the final order: flags spelling out “Paragraph Eleven confirm” were hoisted. It was the coded sign to scuttle, and his men followed his orders. Most of the British Fleet were on exercise outside the Flow, but those that remained tried their hardest to save the German ships – arguably the last casualties of World War One were nine unarmed officers and men of a German ship, shot by British Forces for failing to follow orders and prevent their ship from sinking.
Fifty two ships went down, 400,000 tonnes of military hardware lost in minutes. Such was the sight of these giants sinking below the waves, that a funeral party on the mainland abandoned the graveside to watch the spectacle. The enormous top-heavy Dreadnoughts turned turtle, driving their massive superstructures deep into the seabed, others listed and rolled, still others plunged stern- or bow-first.
The German sailors abandoned to their lifeboats and quietly awaited arrest. Von Reuter faced his British counterparts with silence. Some theories suggest that the British were complicit in the scuttling of the fleet – a tricky problem quickly solved – others suggest it was one of the great maritime disasters of the war.
Over the years, significant salvage operations lifted and removed many of these ships, but seven awesome specimens remain on the seabed –three sister Battleships, 174m long, displacing 28,000 tonnes fully loaded, serviced by almost 1200 men, and four cruisers, still majestically large at around 140m, with different constructions, and helpfully to a diver, lying on their sides rather than upside down.
And that’s what we dive. There’s a startling contrast between the buoyant camaraderie of the divers and the stricken, silent vessels forty metres below.
The conditions in Scapa Flow mean that these aren’t beginner’s dives: 10C water, 3-10m visibility and depths of 30-45m and beyond. And the depth and darkness mean that you survey the wrecks in portions, filling in the shadows and blanks with imagination and emotion: The indignity of the fleet’s imprisonment, the defiance of the interned Squadron, the ultimate majesty of these immense monsters, rusting quietly away.
The wrecks in Scapa Flow tell the stories of human endeavour in these islands, just as the powerful archaeological sites on land do. Diving these wrecks offers rare and privileged access to these stories. Above and below the water, these are small islands, heavy with history.
She dived Scapa Flow with the excellent charter MV Valkyrie www.mv-valkyrie.co.ukadventure travel, anthropology, archaeology, diving, extreme sport, history, maritime history, military history, naval history, Orkney, scuba diving, shipwreck, social anthropology, world war one
Recent Posts on Notebook
- Don't get mad about Amazon and make the right ethical choice
- Chagos: Conservationists are swimming in murky waters
- Justin Webb on the medical advances in tackling heart disease
- The Photography Blog: 'Control Order House' by Edmund Clark - Photographing our response to terrorism
- Dementia Awareness Week: Should we keep an open mind to spiritual solutions?
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter