Back 1000 years ago, Viking ships found refuge in the 120 square-mile bay embraced about the islands of Orkney, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay and Hoy. This shallow-bottomed bay is one of the greatest natural anchorages in the world. Why then should it be known as a naval graveyard? That is what two world wars will do.
The natural advantages of this huge, safe harbor and its location a long way from the action caused the Government of the United Kingdom to choose Scapa Flow as their main naval base during both World Wars. At the end of World War I, 74 ships of the German Fleet were kept at Scapa Flow until the Treaty of Versailles could decide their fate. After nine months of waiting – and planning – the German commander gave the order to scuttle the ships so that they would not remain in British hands.
The British tried desperately to save the fleet, but the Kaiser’s men had prepared so carefully that 52 ships were lost, along with nine German sailors who died trying to prevent the British saving their ships. What irony!
In World War II, Scapa Flow was once again pressed into service. However, the Navy had not prepared adequately for the danger posed by u-boats. On 14 October 1939, a U-boat torpedoed the battleship HMS Royal Oak and 833 men were lost. Days later came one of the first Luftwaffe attacks on Britain.
As a result, Italian prisoners, captured in North Africa were sent to Orkney to construct a series of causeways linking the small islands around the bay. The so-called Churchill barriers effectively kept u-boats out, and by chance, gave access to the outer islands. The Italians left a remarkable legacy in the form of a chapel, constructed out of two Nissen huts and whatever other materials they could lay their hands on, and decorated mainly by Domenico Chiocchetti, who stayed to finish the job after the others were released.
The chapel is a favorite stopping place for tourists on their way from the airport to the main town of Kirkwall, while Scapa Flow hides its hidden hulks under a blanket of blue.