Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Scapa 1919: The Archaeology of a Scuttled Fleet

By Innes McCartney
Osprey, 2019
David F. Beer, Reviewer

The German ships of 1919 have passed from weapons of war to economic resources to cultural artifacts. The centenary of the Grand Scuttle is an opportune time to compile a comprehensive new study based on original data of the Grand Scuttle and the salvage years, and highlighting how this seamlessly interfaces with surveys of the extant archaeology we see today. (p. 8)

As its title implies, Innes McCartney's volume is for the historian and the marine archaeologist. However, if you've ever read Dan Van Der Vat's excellent 1982 book The Grand Scuttle and wondered what happened after the German navy performed the greatest ship scuttle in history, then Scapa 1919 is the book for you. Appropriately, it appears one hundred years since the event took place.

Following a preface and introduction, this profusely illustrated book, printed on high-quality gloss paper and replete with excellent photographs and maps, is divided into four parts. Part One looks at the scuttle itself and its immediate aftermath up to the first commercial salvage operations from 1919 to 1924. Part Two describes the heavy industrial salvage work done from 1924 to 1939 by two large companies, Cox & Danks and then Metal Industries. Part Three takes a careful look—with many color plates—at the current condition of the surviving wrecks in Scapa Flow. The book concludes with a look at 'The cultural legacy of the Grand Scuttle,' plus four very useful appendices.

The island of Orkney, some ten miles north of mainland Scotland, consists of many isles, coves, and inlets. One of the most noted is Scapa Flow, easily identified on a good map. Because of its spacious and sheltered nature, it was an important Royal Navy base in both World Wars but was closed in 1956. Here on 21 June 1919, the interned German fleet of 74 ships, on the orders of its commander Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, scuttled itself rather than be handed over to the Royal Navy—a kind of nautical hara-kiri.

The history of these ships in the century since they sank is the focus of Innes McCartney's book, and it's an intriguing story. First the author gives us a graphic picture of political events leading up to the internment, life for the sailors on the interned German ships, the management of the fleet and its men by the Royal Navy, and the final plans and execution of the scuttling. Many interesting details come from these early chapters. The atmosphere on the German ships was volatile:

In fact, it bordered on impossible to maintain any semblance of discipline on board the German ships. The larger the ships, the more fractious the relationship seems to have been between officers and men. Since they were not at sea, the workers councils regarded themselves as being in joint command. Routine maintenance was not carried out and the fetid conditions gave rise to rats and cockroaches. The battleship Grosser Kurfurst was held to be the most disgusting, while the discipline on the battlecruiser Derfflinger (von Reuter's old command) and on Von der Tann was said to be 'hair-raising'. (p. 24)

Von Reuter was fearful of a general strike breaking out among his men, thus giving the British a good excuse to seize the fleet. Some 20,000 German sailors had brought their ships into Scapa, but within a year transports had repatriated all but about 5000, leaving only skeleton crews on board. All mail home was censored. No shore time was permitted, not even to stroll around nearby uninhabited islands. Although officially banned, fraternization among German and British crews flourished, since Scapa was also a busy Royal Navy base. A thriving black market developed between the two—especially at night.

Most of this book, however, focuses on the history of the German ships after they were sunk. It's a fascinating history, especially for readers who would like to know more about the technology of underwater archaeology and the hundred-year history of the hulks of Scapa. Seventy-four ships sank on that June 1919 day and all but eight of them have over the years been salvaged and broken up. Some never sank—the Royal Navy managed to beach them. There is some photographic record of the ships before and during the scuttle, plus a few witness and news reports. It's from this point that McCartney really begins his story.

Official salvage didn't begin until 1922, a time lapse that gave the good folks of Orkney time to take advantage of the situation. Even Royal Navy ratings had pilfered souvenirs as the ships sank or were beached, but more serious looting, or "the illicit removal of items" was to follow, as the Daily Record and Mail observed:

The target of this activity shifted from trinkets to the valuable non-ferrous metals the ships contained. To this day many island communities regard shipwrecks as a bonanza of wealth to be freely acquired, and it seems this happened in the immediate months after the scuttle…It was observed that some islanders made their fortunes at it… It seems that those hardy, storm stiffened sons of Ultima Thule have been stripping the Seydlitz with hammer hacksaw and spanner for months when the fishing was slack. (p. 67)

Some official small-scale salvage by local firms began in 1922, and the Royal Navy was to play a considerable part in lifting operations. In 1924 the firm of Cox & Danks was assigned the job. They were surprised to find that torpedo tubes had vanished and that every bit of brass and gun-metal had been stripped from the Hindenburg. Apparently divers and heavy lifting equipment had been available to the looters. Some of the spoils had been shipped to the smelters in herring barrels. (p.68)

Range Finder of SMS Kaiser on Ocean Floor at Scapa Flow
(Inset shows position on Ship Model)
From UHI Archaeology Institute Report

The story of Cox and Danks' pioneering salvage work is interesting and impressive yet ultimately unfortunate. The company used innovative ways to salvage 32 of the wrecks and send them to the ship-breakers, risked life and limb of their employees—four died on the job and others suffered burns, falls, or other injuries-and the company folded in 1931 with the drop in metal prices. The salvage business was bought by Metal Industries in 1933, just when metal prices were beginning to recover, and the company made good profit from the German wrecks. Work ended when World War II broke out in 1939, although an ongoing project, salvaging the battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger and scrapping her, was not completed until 1948. The story of these two companies, the characters involved and the wheeling, dealing, prices paid, salvage innovations, vessels and parts reclaimed, and other details are all covered in these well-illustrated chapters.

The second half of the book, Part Three, describes and pictures the surviving wrecks in Scapa Flow with much haunting underwater photography. Here the author shows the results of his 2017 ten-day underwater survey of the seven major ships and two torpedo boats, plus related debris, that still rest in the Flow. The project was carried out with the Sea War Museum Jutland in Denmark, which opened in 2015 and is dedicated to commemoration and study of the 1916 Battle of Jutland. Author Innes McCartney describes the technicalities and equipment used for the survey in his Preface and Introduction. He devotes a chapter to each ship in Part Three, chapters filled with graphs, diagrams, and photography revealing the current condition of the wrecks. They have corroded, shifted, deteriorated, and bits and pieces have broken off or wandered. A century under the ocean has eerily taken its toll.

It's a relief to read that these ghosts are now allowed to rest more or less in peace. Since 2002 their remains have been officially recognized as monuments under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act. This gives them the same protection as other famous sites on Orkney, such as the Ring of Brodgar and the Stenness Standing Stones. Also, as an internationally recognized recreational diving site, hundreds of divers now make their way to Scapa Flow each year.

I'd rarely ever thought of underwater archaeology—which was shortsighted considering how much stuff must lie at the bottom of the world's oceans—and this book really opened my eyes. Scapa 1919 is admittedly a quite technical book on one level, but there is much for the non-technical reader to appreciate. The volume splendidly achieves what the author in his concluding paragraph hopes it has, namely to

. . . show that in addition to the seven internationally important protected wrecks, much more of the Grand Scuttle and the salvage years can still be detected 100 years after the event than might be presumed. The wreck sites at Scapa Flow comprise a globally significant historical and cultural artefact, an underwater industrial landscape of unique character to be enjoyed, studied and revered for many decades to come. (p. 305)

I think we can all agree with this.

David F. Beer

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