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Caithness Archives

Underwater War on the North Coast

The night of 13th October 1939 was cold, crisp and clear. Along the north coast of Caithness villagers, townsfolk, and crofters settled down to sleep, their normal dreams abetted by recent uneasy fears. For over a month now, Britain and Germany had been at war. Every day trains arrived at Thurso station, their carriages filled to bursting with service personnel, worn and wearied by the long trek north. The majority of these servicemen were sailors bound for Scapa Flow, that great watery bastion of the Royal Navy's Home Fleet.

Midnight came and with it the Aurora Borealis, an electric spectacular bathing the Pentland Firth in eerie, twinkling light. On the other side of the Firth the rugged cliff coastline of southern Orkney dominated the night horizon. Behind these cliffs, the vast expanse of Scapa Flow lay still and silent, empty save for a pair of warships anchored close to the north-east shore. The main body of the Home Fleet was holed up in Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland. In lonely Scapa Flow the crew of HMS Royal Oak, a stout old battleship, snored in their hammocks, secure in the knowledge that they were in the safest place on the whole seven seas. For most of these men the sleep which now claimed them was the last they would ever awaken from.

At 0104 on 14th October, a dull bang shuddered the Royal Oak from stem to stern, disturbing the slumbers of its crew. At first no-one knew what had caused the bang; but a fast spreading rumour that a gas bottle had exploded reassured everybody that the Flow was not under air attack from the Germans. Sleep beckoned once again. Eight minutes later, three tremendous explosions tore the guts out of the battleship. Fire, panic, instant darkness, the nostril-searing stench of burning paint. Men running in every direction at once, fighting to force open jammed hatches, shocked, disorientated, slithering hither and thither, desperately trying to keep a their feet on listing decks awash with oil. Twenty minutes and it was all over. HMS Royal Oak was at the bottom of Scapa Flow along with 833 sailors, among them 17 year old Boy Seaman John Budge, and Lieutenant Hugh Stewart, aged 24, both from Wick.

In the immediate aftermath of the Royal Oak sinking all manner of rumours took wing. A cordite explosion, sabotage, bombs. But the truth was not long in coming - HMS Royal Oak had been sent to the bottom by 4 torpedoes from the German submarine U-47 , whose commander, Gunther Prien found himself the hero of the Third Reich. Hitler himself pinned the Knight's Cross to Prien's breast. It was the proudest moment in the history of the German U-boat service, the consummation of dreams first dreamed in 1914, when the German navy sought ways to redress the imbalance between it and the numerically superior British Grand Fleet. In Britain the news was received with stunned incredulity. Was not Scapa Flow supposed to be impregnable? Obviously it was not.

In retrospect, Prien's achievement in breaching the Scapa defences, sinking a major British warship before escaping unscathed and undetected, bold though it was, was only a partial success. Had the whole Home Fleet, with its new battle cruisers, aircraft carriers and up-to-the-minute battleships, been present in the Flow on that October night, how much more devastation would have been wreaked by U-47's torpedoes is a conjecture to freeze the blood. All things considered, the British were very lucky to escape so lightly, if 833 dead men can be looked upon dispassionately.

As long ago as the days of Charles II, when that great pioneer of British maritime surveying, Captain Greenvile Collins, first dipped a fathom line into its dark waters, Scapa Flow's potential as a deep-water anchorage had been well known to the Admiralty. In 1812 an official report had described the Flow as being the finest roadstead in the entire British Isles, Spithead excepted. One hundred and twenty square miles of almost land-locked water, ten to twenty fathoms in depth, Scapa Flow could have housed all the battle fleets of the world in perfect security. But that was in the days before submarines.

The first torpedo was a sixty pound copper-cased device attached to the end of a long spar. It was carried by the 4 man crew of a cigar-shaped steam-driven semi-submersible craft, the CSS David , in a night time attack on an iron-clad warship, the USS New Ironsides . The primitive torpedo's explosion caused extensive damage to the iron-clad, heralding in a new era in naval warfare. The date was October 5th, 1863, halfway through the American Civil War.

For the next fifty years the submarine was looked upon with scarcely veiled contempt by Admiralty lords. Raised on the spit-and-polish pomp and honour codes of Nelson's day, naval top brass saw submarine warfare as something ungentlemanly, a dishonourable, sneaky way of sinking enemy ships without prior warning. Almost as bad, the dull, grey submarine had none of the aesthetic appeal of huge gun-bristling battleships, and submariners were renowned for their less than band-box smartness. All in all there was something utilitarian about submarines, something that smelled of things plain and workaday. A useful auxiliary they may be, but submarines would never play a decisive role in naval warfare. This was the same blinkered army prejudice against machine guns decked out in the uniform of the Senior Service.

In 1914 Germany, necessity forced the doors of traditional prejudice. The German High Seas Fleet having less than two-thirds of the battleships currently in service with the British Grand Fleet, could not hope to defeat its rival in the pitched battle that was sure to result when the British came steaming down from Scapa Flow to attack the German navy in its home ports. There was only one plan feasible - the Grand Fleet would be lured into German waters where a chain of U-boats would be lurking ready to torpedo the British capital ships. This done, the fast, torpedo-armed German destroyers would dash out of port to engage the surviving British battleships. Once German numerical superiority had been established, the German capital ships and cruisers would finish off what was left of the Grand Fleet. Their iron-sided naval shield destroyed, the British would have no alternative but to sue for peace on German terms. Simple, except the British naval command of 1914 was not that of Horatio Nelson's era.

Britain's Grand Fleet was the greatest the world had ever seen. The mighty assembly of battleships that rode at anchor in Scapa Flow overawed the whole world. Surely, no-one, not even Germany, would be foolish enough to challenge such a naval force? No-one did by design, but had they done so they may have found that British naval might was not what it seemed to be. Superior in numbers the Grand Fleet may have been; but many of its ships suffered from potentially fatal design flaws. Also, no matter how big it is, a ship is merely a weapon, dependent for its effectiveness on the skill and determination of those who wield it. In our day, Viet Nam showed that even the most up to date military hardware is powerless in the face of a fanatically determined enemy. The Grand Fleet's invincibility was a myth swallowed by the Germans - the truth was that such was the British public's faith in their fleet, no-one was brave enough to risk committing it to a battle in which it might be defeated. There was another naval myth, likewise accepted by the Germans - Scapa Flow was impregnable.

The First World War started badly for the German navy. While on land their armies carried everything before them on a wave of non-stop martial violence, German naval forces did little but skulk in port, their only success achieved half a world away in the Indian Ocean, where the light cruiser Emden spent a fruitful three months harassing British merchant shipping. By November, when she was grounded on a coral reef during a fierce fight with the Australian cruiser Sydney , the Emden had destroyed 23 ships plus cargo valued at over |15 million, and tied up the valuable time of 80 hunting warships. The Emden's heroics were scant compensation for what had befallen the High Seas Fleet on August 28th, 1914, when a training exercise off the Heligoland Bight was surprised by a British raiding force. After a somewhat haphazard battle, the German ships fled for home, leaving behind three cruisers and a destroyer, sunk with the loss of almost 1,000 men.

With the German navy penned up in its home ports, the Royal Navy ruled the seas, its ships ensuring the universal safe passage of the hundreds of merchant vessels so vital in maintaining the wartime British economy. Every day squadrons steamed out of Scapa Flow into the choppy waters of the Pentland Firth, heading to every point of the compass, patrolling the sea lanes or engaged in manouvres, turning, keeping line, blasting off salvo after salvo from their giant guns, dreaming of the great day when the German Fleet came out of port. The much vaunted German High Seas Fleet seemed nothing more than an expensive ornament. However, the Germans did have 31 U-boats in service, silent, deadly predators, prowling unseen the great North Sea between Germany and the Shetlands.

On 2nd September 1914, the submarine U-21 was approaching the Firth of Forth on the lookout for Leith-bound merchantmen to sink. Suddenly, a British warship appeared in her periscope. It was the cruiser HMS Pathfinder . One single torpedo from U-21 sufficed. Striking Pathfinder in the area below her magazine, the German torpedo caused a fire which exploded Pathfinder's ammunition supply, sending her swiftly to a watery grave along with her crew of 268. This was the first U-boat success. Others swiftly followed.

U-9 had orders to patrol the waters between the Dutch coast and the English Channel. Here, on 22nd September, the German submarine came across three British cruisers anchored off the Hook of Holland. Within an hour the 12,000 ton warships HMS Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue had all been fatally torpedoed with the loss of 1,459 British sailors. Worse was to come. On 15th October U-9 sank the cruiser HMS Hawke off Peterhead, causing First Sea Lord, Admiral John Fisher to declare that U-9 had cost more British lives than were lost by Nelson in all his battles put together. Amongst German submariners, morale rose. It rose again when U-27 sunk the British carrier HMS Hermes on October 31st. The cinderella of the German navy was dressing for the ball.

A bold and secret plan was drawn up for a U-boat to penetrate right into the heart of the British naval stronghold, Scapa Flow itself. The Germans suspected that there would be at least a couple of weak links in the Flow's defences, the main problem being negotiating the potentially deadly currents and tides which ebbed and flowed at hair-raising speed all around the anchorage. With a top submerged speed of only 8 knots, a U-boat was ill-equipt to tackle the 10 knot tides of the Pentland Firth. Nevertheless, it was worth risking one submarine, especially if the prize was half a dozen British battleships.

Kapitanleutenant Heinrich von Hennig commanded U-18 , a fast boat with a maximum surface speed of 14 knots. On November 23rd, 1914 Hennig was picking his path through the treacherous currents between Brough Ness, South Ronaldsay and the Pentland Skerries. His stomach was half-ways into his throat as U-18 passed Swona and headed for Hoxa Sound between South Ronaldsay and Flotta, but luck was with the German cartain. An ancient steamer was in front of U-18 , taking supplies into Scapa Flow. Reasoning that the steamer would know the location of any hidden mines, Hennig seized the opportunity and followed hard on its heels. His luck held out - he had entered Scapa Flow, he was in the enemy's inner sanctum.

Raising his periscope Hennig took a slow look around. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but an expanse of empty water. No battleships, no heavy cruisers, nothing worth loosing a torpedo off at. All his mind-sapping efforts, his navigational skills, his daring and his enterprise had been in vain. The Grand Fleet was not at home, it was out making a sweep of the North Sea. Crestfallen, Hennig made ready to take U-18 out of the Flow, carrying with him the vital intelligence that Scapa's defences were vitually non-existent. Hopefully he would return with a U-boat pack, find the Grand Fleet at anchor and at one stroke reduce the disparity in numbers between the opposing fleets.

As U-18 passed through Hoxa Sound on its way towards Swona, Hennig raised the submarine's periscope in order to get a fix on his position, a necessary precaution if U-18 was not to be swept on to the dangerous rocks that surrounded it. But luck's pendulum had swung the other way. He was spotted by the armed trawler Dorothy Gray . Full speed ahead came the trawler, ramming the U-boat before it had time to dive. This was bad news - worse was soon to follow. HMS Garry , a British destroyer ploughed into U-18 , damaging its hydroplanes, causing the submarine's level control to malfunction. Rising and sinking erratically, U-18 limped into the Pentland Firth, its crew making superhuman efforts to evade their pursuers. Nature is an unfeeling enemy. It respects human heroism not one little jot. Once in the surging tidestream of the Firth U-18 found itself powerless to prevent being carried on to the Pentland Skerries. Scrambling into the conning tower, Hennig opened the hatch to see a pack of destroyers bearing down on him. The game was up. Hennig scuttled his vessel and awaited capture by the British navy.

When nothing was heard from U-18 the German command assumed that she had been caught and destroyed trying to break into Scapa Flow. This could only mean that the anchorage was indeed impregnable. All further plans to attack the Grand Fleet's home base were now abandoned. If only the Germans had know the truth, history may well have taken a far different turn.

What had saved the Grand Fleet was not U-boats, but fear of them. On September 1st, a periscope was sighted peering out from the waters of Scapa Flow. Within hours the Fleet had shipped anchor and headed off to Loch Ewe, returning three weeks later when the periscope alarm turned out to have been false. On 16th October, another U-boat scare drove the Grand Fleet to distant Lough Swilly in Ireland, from where it returned a month later when the alarm was once again confirmed false. This unscheduled absence had postponed a planned sweep of the North Sea, a sweep the Fleet were engaged on when U-18 came calling at Scapa. By such chances are empires lost and won.

The U-18 affair dispelled once and for all any false ideas of security the British Admiralty may have held regarding Scapa Flow. It also exploded the theory that the Orkneys were beyond the range of German submarines. By February 1915, a range of anti-submarine defences ringed the Flow, defences destined to remain untested for over 3 years.

Come 1916, with stalemate on the Western Front, the German High Seas Fleet at last put to sea. On the afternoon of 31st May, off the coast of Denmark, they stumbled across the Grand Fleet. It seemed as though God had answered British prayers and delivered the German Fleet into their hands. The battle of Jutland raged all afternoon and halfway through the night. British losses were 3 battle cruisers, 3 cruisers and 8 destroyers; they had 6,784 casualties. The Germans lost 1 old battleship, a battle cruiser and 9 smaller ships, along with 3,000 men. Notwithstanding this casualty imbalance, Jutland was regarded as a victory by the British. The German Fleet had turned away at the cruicial moment.

With the High Seas Fleet once more stagnating in home moorings, the burden of Germany's naval effort fell squarely on its U-boats. The submarine service seized the opportunity with both hands; the gloves came off as unrestricted war was declared on any vessel carrying supplies to Britain. While on the Western Front millions of soldiers grappled with the frustrations of trench warfare, at sea a handful of U-boats almost succeeded in bringing Britain to its knees. By April 1917 British shipping losses had reached 875,000 tons per month. Merchant sailors refused to sail. U-boat hunting tied up most of the Grand Fleet's light warships, causing concern that in the event of a sudden break out of the German High Seas Fleet, the British would have too few ships available at Scapa to defeat their enemy. Calculations were made indicating that Britain would run out of food by July. At the last moment a system was instituted which saved the British from the humiliation of having to sue for peace on German terms - the convoy.

The results were immediately successful. Flocks of merchant ships shepherded by destroyers baffled the waiting sea wolves. U-boat losses increased as the numbers British merchantmen sunk grew less. By the end of 1917, the tide had turned decisively. As war's fortunes ebbed away from them, the German navy planned a last ditch spectacular, a final do-or-die attempt to inflict a mortal blow on the Grand Fleet. As a prelude to this, on September 10th 1918, the coastal submarine UB-83 was despatched to Scapa to test, once more, the Flow's defences. It was all to no avail. At the mouth of the Pentland Firth the Royal Navy were waiting. As she sneaked into the Firth UB-83 was detected by HMS Orphelia , a destroyer stacked to the gunwhales with depth charges. The German submarine went down with all hands.

Back home at Kiel, the great German naval base, the officers of the High Seas Fleet prepared their iron charges for a naval Armagedon. On October 29th, 22 battleships, 12 cruisers and 70 destroyers weighed anchor off Schillig Roads, a massive armada which would sail to Scapa, destroy the British Fleet and save Germany from the disgrace of defeat to which its army's ineptitude had brought it. However, a worse enemy than British warships stood in the way - Communism. Fresh from laying Russia's rulers in an early grave, the political doctrine of Marx, Engels and Lenin now threatened Western Europe. At Kiel this seductive doctrine fell on hungry ears. Driven to distraction by years of vain waiting for glory that would never come, the sailors of the High Seas Fleet rose in mutiny. They would sail not one nautical mile for Admiral, Kaiser or whoever. They wanted to go home. And home they went.

In stark contrast to their surface-borne brethren, Germany's submariners remained the proud fighting force that had been battling the British since day one of the War. Had they not sunk over 12 million tons of shipping? Had they not almost crippled the entire British economy? The men who commanded the German U-boat fleet knew with a certainty that battleships were finished - the age of the submarine had dawned. One last attempt on Scapa Flow. Who would volunteer? Hundreds threw their names into the hat. Late on the evening of October 28th 1918, a hand-picked crew led by Hans Joachim Emsmann, an admiral's son, guided UB-116 through the Pentland Firth and into the mouth of Hoxa Sound. Every man-jack was kite-high with anticipation. No nets, no mines; this time . . .

But things had moved on. Scapa was now guarded by remote devices called hydrophones. The British knew fine well where U-116 was. They also knew what fate awaited her. Without warning a net of mines exploded, triggered remotely by the vibrations of U-116's engines. The submarine fell to bits, its crew of 34 brave volunteers perishing to a man. Came daylight and British warships spotted the tell-tale traces of air bubbles mingled with oil breaking the surface of Hoxa Sound. As a precautionary measure a rake of depth charges were hurled into the water, before divers were sent down to confirm the U-boat's fate. Digging their way through wreckage and debris, the divers came across the grim legacies of mines and depth charges. Bodies everywhere. Reaching the submarine's control room, they found it inaccessible, crushed beyond repair, its door partly jammed open. Through this door stretched the forearms of a man, believed to be Hans Joachim Emsmann. It was a grisly end for a proud naval fighting force - the U-boat arm of the Imperial German navy. Next: Fishermen against U-boats in the Far North.

Note: The sinking of HMS Hampshire, along with Lord Kitchener, by a mine off the coast of Orkney, has been excluded from the above article. Doubts exist as to the truth of the official version of the Hampshire's end. Anyone having any information on this potential mystery is requested to contact us on Thurso 892623 or 895342.

 

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Stephen Cashmore & David Bews 1998


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