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    Momentous Events at Scapa Flow ..

    Bonjour Mairiuna, Janice et Jean-Claude! Ca va? – How are you today?

    It was lovely to see you again at the end of September, and to welcome you all for the first time to our home in Scotland – a short visit, but one filled with so many unforgettable moments! 🙂

     

    2012 09 Carte parcours Ecosse

    Google Map of our travel in Scotland © 2012 Scotiana

    In the course of your extended journey around Scotland (your seventh long trip, I think, Mairiuna and Jean-Claude!) you had already travelled as far north as the Orkney islands; now, returning south and heading ultimately for the ferry at Folkestone, you were a little behind schedule. The weather had been bad – no, worse than that, it had been truly awful, with scarcely a day all summer when it didn’t rain! Your experience of Scotland this year must have been spoiled by having so many cloudy, stormy days, and we are really sorry about that.

    Thurso-Ullapool road rainbows & rowan tree © 2012 Scotiana

    Bad meteo but rainbows on Thurso-Ullapool road © 2012 Scotiana

    Now we hear on the radio that the English potato crop has been lost, because the fields are so wet. Don’t you sometimes feel overwhelmed – as we do – by the sheer volume of news that seems to come at us from all directions? I suppose we cope by paying attention only to those items that immediately interest us, disregarding the rest. So much happening in the world! 🙂

    When a rare document or artifact comes up for sale, the newspapers generally have a story to tell about it (fortunately, it’s often as interesting to read as anything else reported that day). Then there are the anniversaries – another constant source of inspiration for journalists. We heard that 6th November marked 125 years since the meeting at St Mary’s Church (in the Calton district of Glasgow, not far from the ‘Barrows’ market) at which, on the initiative of Brother Walfrid, the world-famous Celtic Football Club was set up. And on 14th November fell the 90th anniversary of the first radio broadcast in Britain, from the London station 2LO. This historic short transmission in 1922, 2LO Calling, began, we’re told, with the chimes of Big Ben, and included a favourite new dance record, Three O’Clock in the Morning. (Words were soon added to this happy waltz tune, and the song – catching the mood of the day – became extremely popular. ‘It’s three o’clock in the morning, we’ve danced the night away,’ the young people sang, determined to be cheerful after the long, painful years of the First World War.)

     

    Those who heard this first broadcast – alerted by newspaper advertisements – used simple ‘crystal’ sets, generally fitted into small polished wooden boxes. Inside was a coil of fine copper wire, a tuning capacitor and some bits and pieces – no more than six components altogether. On top was mounted a chip of the crystal material (a mineral such as germanium, lead sulphide or iron pyrites, ‘fool’s gold’) and a moveable contact, which the user had to adjust until a good part of the crystal was found – a tiresome procedure. Trying to hear a radio station properly was frustrating – and a solitary occupation, too, for one had to wear headphones and listen in a quiet room; there was no amplification. As a final disadvantage, the set would not work at all without a long aerial wire (often tied to a high tree) and a good ‘earth’ connection!

    Crystal Radio Advertisement Wikipedia

    Crystal Radio Advertisement Wikipedia

    No real wonder, then, that the crystal set passed so swiftly into history. Jean-Claude, Janice, Marie-Agnès, in the light of what I’ve written above, you may not be surprised to hear that, as a boy, I was part of probably the last generation to experiment with such simple wireless sets. For all their poor performance, it was to me miraculous that they worked at all – and used no electricity! Our next-door neighbour – a kindly, white-haired gentleman by the name of Dr Robert Gray – gave me every encouragement in these pursuits; then, one day, he delighted me with an interesting little gift.

    Sir William Thomson, Baron Kelvin Photo T & R. Annan & Sons Wikipedia

    Sir William Thomson, Baron Kelvin Photo T & R. Annan & Sons Wikipedia

    At this time, Dr Gray had recently retired from his post in the Department of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. (We would say, of course, in modern parlance ‘Department of Physics’ – that part of the Faculty of Science for ever associated with the eminent Victorian, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin.) Kelvin, a brilliant man, had become Professor of Natural Philosophy at the age of 22, a chair he held for 53 years. His country home was at Netherhall, near Largs, Ayrshire; he died there in 1907 and is interred in Westminster Abbey, the highest place of honour that Great Britain affords.

    James Clerk Maxwell Source Wikimedia

    James Clerk Maxwell – Source Wikimedia

    Dear friends, please allow me to continue this slight digression, to share with our readers a little story that I suspect you already know. It concerns another giant of Scottish science, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) a slightly younger contemporary of Kelvin, but whose life was tragically cut short by cancer. (Basil Mahon’s modern biography of Maxwell is excellent. The Man Who Changed Everything – The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. Wiley Paperbound Edition, 2004. ISBN 9780470861714.) As a theoretical physicist, Maxwell laid the foundations for so much of modern science. Albert Einstein wrote: ‘One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell.’

    Parton Kirks and old graveyard Wikimedia

    Parton Kirks and old graveyard Wikimedia

    Maxwell died at Cambridge, where he had been appointed first Director of the Cavendish Laboratory, but chose to be buried in the modest village churchyard at Parton in Galloway, close to his family’s estate, Glenlair.

    James Clerk Maxwell Monument in Parton Galloway Wikimedia

    James Clerk Maxwell Monument in Parton Galloway Wikimedia

    One or two memorials to Maxwell stand by the edge of the roadway, in addition to the stone that marks his resting place.

     

    Parton Galloway  Wikipedia

    Parton village in Galloway Wikipedia

    Margaret and I visited Parton just a few years ago, and, seeking information, spoke to the lady at Parton Stores (which was also a Post Office, I think.)

     

    James Clerk Maxwell's gravestone in Parton graveyard Ayrshire - Wikimedia

    James Clerk Maxwell’s gravestone in Parton graveyard Ayrshire – Wikimedia

    “Oh,” she said, “a few people still come every week to see Maxwell’s grave – from all over the world. We had a Japanese man yesterday, who’d hired a car and came up from Carlisle.” Now, that’s quite a long way – and Parton has had no railway since 1965. Yes, we thought, a car would be essential. Then, in just a moment, it became clear what the lady really meant – the Japanese gentleman had cared enough about James Clerk Maxwell to pay for a round trip of over 100 miles by taxi!

    But to return to Dr Gray. Explaining that he and his wife had bought a new house by the sea, and would soon be moving away, my neighbour told me that they had already done much tidying-up and clearing of cupboards, and would like to give me a small box of radio and electrical components – which I accepted eagerly and gratefully! Among the contents were reels of copper wire, some enamelled, some insulated with cotton; pieces of various crystal materials; tuning capacitors; and two mysterious-looking small blocks of a black plastic material, with brass pins protruding and printing in German on the side! (One piece of crystal – bright silver in colour, and still in its glass tube – had been sold by a French company. On the side of its little box was printed the endorsement: ‘Recommended by more than 50,000 Frenchmen’. Now, 50,000 Frenchmen, as we know, cannot be wrong – or, at least, they cannot all be wrong! I wonder who first used this clever phrase?)

    radio crystall set

    Radio crystall set – Source Wikipedia

    But how could I – young as I was – forget the story of the black plastic blocks? Made of a material that I now know was ‘ebonite’ (a type of very hard rubber) each was about 70mm tall, and the maker’s name was given on the side; I distinctly remember that the word ‘Aktiengesellschaft’ (= Company or Corporation, usually abbreviated to AG) was there, printed in white in those neat lower-case letters that I always think of as characteristically German. These robust blocks contained crystals that could be adjusted by means of a knurled wheel – and, said Dr Gray, had been removed by a colleague from the wireless equipment of a German naval ship at the end of the First World War. (By the terms of the Armistice agreement of November 1918, the German fleet surrendered to the Allied Powers in the Firth of Forth, Scotland. The ships were disarmed, ordered to lower their ensigns and had their radios disabled; they were, in effect, under arrest.) I held in my hand a personal link to the great German High Seas Fleet!

     

    Map of the fleet's internment at Scapa Flow from 25 March 1919 Wikipedia

    Map of the fleet’s internment at Scapa Flow from 25 March 1919 Wikipedia

    From the Forth, the German fleet sailed under escort to Scapa Flow, Orkney – the magnificent natural harbour, over 100 square miles in surface area, that had been known since Viking times. The most comprehensive book on the story of this sheltered anchorage is This Great Harbour, Scapa Flow by W S Hewison (390pp, 215x135mm. Orkney Press Ltd., 1985. ISBN 0907618111; Second Edition, 1990. ISBN 0907618243.) Scapa Flow had been the principal base of the Royal Navy in the First World War – a conflict that had seen relatively little action involving surface ships. Our navy’s strategy had been to blockade the German High Seas Fleet in port, and in this they were largely successful. But the threat from German submarines (U-boats) was a growing danger; only after the Scapa anchorage had been protected from submarine attack (by the sinking of ‘blockships’) did the Royal Navy feel a degree of security there.

    HMS Cardiff leading the German high seas fleet Wikipedia

    HMS Cardiff leading the German high seas fleet Wikipedia

    As the war progressed, German U-boats had taken a terrible toll of British merchant shipping. Without the introduction of armed escorts for merchant ships (the ‘convoy system’) we would have faced calamity, for by the end of hostilities it was estimated that one half of our total shipping tonnage had been lost to submarines. Ships were perhaps uniquely important to the British at this time – now almost 100 years ago – for we depended upon them absolutely for trade and to maintain links with our far-flung Empire. The bible scholars of 1611 (that group of learned men who prepared for King James the ‘Authorised Version’ of the Bible, whose anniversary fell last year) wrote in Psalm 107 of those “that go down to the sea in ships; that do business in great waters.” Aren’t those powerful images – words that do justice to the special relationship the British have had with the sea?

    This Great Harbour Scapa Flow W.W. Hewison

    This Great Harbour Scapa Flow W.W. Hewison

    The Armistice agreement did not end the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers, but – subject to a list of conditions – brought a welcome end to the fighting to allow a peace treaty to be negotiated. Most importantly, this ceasefire was due to end on Midsummer Day, 1919. Predictably, perhaps, treaty negotiations dragged on for months, with no sign of agreement. At Scapa Flow, the German sailors – demoralised and virtual prisoners aboard their ships – were in a state of mutiny; when an order was given, the men’s committees would ‘consider’ whether to obey. German officers were glad to send their most troublesome men home. In time, it was agreed – to improve living conditions – that only a minimum number of men should stay aboard. (From an original crew of over 1,000, the largest ships retained just 72.)

    German sailors fishing from a destroyer in Scapa Flow.1919 Wikipedia

    German sailors fishing from a destroyer in Scapa Flow.1919 Wikipedia

    What thoughts were in the mind of Admiral von Reuter, the German commander, as Midsummer Day approached? He would certainly have been mindful of the general instruction – from Kaiser Wilhelm himself – that no German ship should, under any circumstances, be handed over to the enemy; and now he must have feared that hostilities might soon resume, no peace treaty having been concluded.

     

    Destroyer G 102 sinking in Scapa Flow Harbour Wikipedia

    It’s clear to us now that von Reuter must have had a secret plan, circulated to the captains of all 74 ships in the group; for shortly after mid-day on 21 June 1919 began the most dramatic series of events ever witnessed in Scapa Flow. The Germans began to sink, one by one and flags flying, the ships of their High Seas Fleet! W S Hewison writes: “In less than five hours of a fine summer afternoon, 52 ships – including the biggest and most powerful – had foundered and now lay at the bottom of Scapa Flow under as much as 120 feet of water, while the rest of the 74 were either damaged or beached or both.” Mr Hewison records that a total of 1774 German sailors were rescued from their ships and taken into custody, while nine lost their lives that day, most of them shot for defying British orders.

    The Man Who Bought a Navy – The Story of the World’s Greatest Salvage Achievement at Scapa Flow Gerald Bowman 1964

    The Man Who Bought a Navy – The Story of the World’s Greatest Salvage Achievement at Scapa Flow Gerald Bowman 1964

    These huge ships contained a lot of expensive metal, but for years it was considered that to salvage them for scrap would be impossible. The talented English engineer Ernest F G Cox (1883-1959) – a man without experience in salvage work – thought otherwise, and between the years 1924-1932 his Company raised seven large German warships and 25 destroyers, the task being abandoned only when it was judged to have become too dangerous. Cox was considerate towards his men. His work is described in the book The Man Who Bought a Navy – The Story of the World’s Greatest Salvage Achievement at Scapa Flow (by Gerald Bowman. 240pp. Harrap, 1964, etc. Quite expensive to buy, sadly.)

    Today, the wrecks of only seven German warships of the High Seas Fleet remain in Scapa Flow – the battleships König, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Markgraf (each of 26,000 tons) and four light cruisers (of 5,000 tons) – Köln, Karlsruhe, Dresden and Brummer. They are immensely popular with recreational divers (see scapaflowwrecks.com )

     

    Kirkwall Cathedral John Rae memorial © 2012 Scotiana

    Kirkwall Cathedral John Rae memorial © 2012 Scotiana

    Marie-Agnès, we have enjoyed very much reading your recent posts on St Magnus Cathedral; as you say, one could easily spend several hours looking at all that’s there, as well as marvelling at the grandeur of the building itself. A marble effigy of the renowned Arctic explorer Dr John Rae (1813-93) – recumbent, dressed in his cold-weather clothes, his gun at his side – lies at the farthest end of the great cathedral.

     

    Kirkwall Cathedral HMS Royal Oak Memorial © 2012 Scotiana

    Kirkwall Cathedral HMS Royal Oak Memorial © 2012 Scotiana

    More prominent, perhaps, is the moving Memorial to the dead of HMS Royal Oak, the huge battleship blown up in Scapa Flow by a German U-boat in the first weeks of the Second World War. A book records the names of all the seamen – over 830 in total, of whom almost 150 were boys – who died in this attack in the early hours of 14 October 1939; a living Memorial, for each Monday a fresh page in the Roll of Honour is turned.

    In Scapa Flow the wreck site of HMS Royal Oak, marked by a green buoy Wikipedia

    In Scapa Flow the wreck site of HMS Royal Oak, marked by a green buoy Wikipedia

    At Scapa Flow, a buoy marks the location of the wreckage of HMS Royal Oak. The site has been designated as a War Grave; it is a sacred place, and any disturbance is forbidden. Each year, on the anniversary of the sinking, there is a memorial service and tributes are laid on the water. (On Sunday 14 October 2012, the 73rd Anniversary Memorial Service took place; among those present was Mr Kenneth Toop from Hampshire, now 89 years of age, but a boy of just 16 on the night of the disaster. Mr Toop is Honorary Secretary of the Royal Oak Association. See hmsroyaloak.co.uk )

    HMS Royal Oak Wikipedia

    HMS Royal Oak Wikipedia

    Günther Prien (1908-41) one of Germany’s most brilliant U-boat commanders, accepted the challenge of penetrating the supposedly ‘secure’ anchorage of Scapa. Demonstrating great skill and daring, and taking advantage of an exceptionally high tide, Prien guided his U47 through a tiny opening into the Flow. At the most critical point – forced to the surface by the shallowness of the water, and his keel touching the seabed – Prien courageously ordered full steam ahead. Looking around in Scapa Flow, he found only HMS Royal Oak; by a great stroke of luck the rest of the fleet had left on a mission, the ageing battleship staying behind to protect nearby Kirkwall from aerial attack. (The 29,000 ton Royal Oak, dating from 1916 and with a crew of 1259, had many anti-aircraft and small guns; and her ‘big guns’, at 15 inches, were of the largest size ever fitted to a British warship. Their range was 18 miles.)

     

    The new electrically-driven torpedoes carried by Prien’s U47 were a little unreliable (Wikipedia). But the U-boat’s second attack on the huge battleship was devastating. At 01.16 on 14 October two (possibly three) separate great blasts were felt on the bridge of Prien’s submarine – over a mile away – as HMS Royal Oak was torn apart. She sank in minutes; U47 made good her escape.

    By 17 October, Prien had docked in Wilhelmshaven to a hero’s welcome; next day, in Berlin, he was decorated by Adolf Hitler with the new Knight’s Cross, each of his men receiving the Iron Cross. (Commander Günther Prien did not survive the war, being presumed dead with his crew when U47 was destroyed in the N. Atlantic by depth charges. But his success was extraordinary – in under two years, Prien and his men had sunk 30 ships, totalling almost 200,000 tons.)

    Orkney Churchill Barriers © 2012 Scotiana

    Orkney Churchill Barriers © 2012 Scotiana

    A bitter lesson had been learned by the British war leaders. The Scapa anchorage had to be made permanently and fully secure. It was decided that, although the cost would be high, four massive stone and concrete barriers would be built to seal the gaps giving access to Scapa Flow. Winston Churchill (1874-1965) – not yet Prime Minister – gave his approval to the project in March 1940; the Barriers, topped by causeways, would ultimately bear his name. Linking the small islands, they allow one now to drive all the way from Kirkwall down to St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay.

    Orkney Churchill Barriers concrete blocks © 2012 Scotiana

    The big concrete blocks of Orkney Churchill Barriers © 2012 Scotiana

    In total, some 580,000 tons of loose rock were needed, and about 333,000 tons of concrete. Labour was in short supply, but from January 1942 it was decided that Italian prisoners of war, captured in North Africa, should be sent to work on the Barriers. (At first they protested that this was ‘war work’ and went on strike; but they were persuaded that the causeways would be of lasting benefit to the people of Orkney, and resumed their task.)

    Orkney The Italian Chapel © 2012 Scotiana

    Orkney The Italian Chapel © 2012 Scotiana

    All of these men had done skilled work in civilian life. Two new camps were built to house them. Jean-Claude, Janice, Marie-Agnès, you probably know that some of the men of Camp 60 had real artistic ability, and that the small Chapel they built survives today, and has become known all over the world. The last time that Margaret and I crossed the Barriers – now a few years ago – the national flag of Italy flew proudly beside this little church. Can good come from the horror of war, I wonder?

    Orkney The Italian Chapel St Michael and dragon Italian flag© 2012 Scotiana

    Orkney The Italian Chapel St Michael and dragon Italian flag© 2012 Scotiana

    A bientôt.
    Iain.

     

     

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