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The Royal Navy Base of Scapa Flow and its role in World War I

Updated on April 13, 2014

World War I is not much discussed these days as almost a hundred years have passed, but a study of this Great War can be a rewarding experience for a student of history. Many people have been particularly interested in the naval battles between the German fleet and the Royal Navy. Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm knew that to win the war, defeating the Royal Navy was of paramount importance and he set about this task in earnest, as he built a massive fleet to counter the British navy.

One of the most important naval bases for the royal navy was Scapa Flow. Traditionally the ports on the Atlantic and the south of England had been the home of the royal navy, but at the beginning of the 20th century the royal navy developed the natural harbor of Scapa Flow in Scotland. This port was not only a superb natural harbor, but had openings to the Atlantic and the North Sea and the British admiralty were of the opinion that this was the most significant base to counter the German high sea fleet. Scapa Flow thus became home to the main fleet of the royal navy.

Scapa Flow comes into existence

During the entire period of the war from 1914-18 the naval base at Scapa Flow was one of the safest bases of the royal navy. The port had an elaborate system of submarine nets and sunken merchant ships that thwarted German submarines from breaching the naval base. There were just two unsuccessful attempts to enter Scapa Flow and as such the British fleet was safe and intact. Only an internal explosion, unrelated to any enemy effort accounted for the warship HMS Vanguard sinking with a complement of 845 sailors of who 843 met a watery grave.

Scapa Flow: Home of the Royal Navy

Scapa Flow was the lynchpin of the Royal naval defenses. The port with its natural inlets and islands was spread over 100 sq. km. It was home to nearly 160 warships including 30 dreadnaughts. The dreadnought was the predominant type of battleship in the early 20th century. The earlier ones were run by coal turbines and the later models used oil.

Significance of Scapa Flow in the Battle of Jutland.

A clash between the German fleet and the Royal navy was always on the cards. The German fleet had to score a decisive victory to gain control of the North Sea and clear a passage to the Atlantic. The German fleet consisting of 99 ships sailed to engage the Royal Navy. The royal naval fleet sailed from Scapa Flow with 151 ships under command of Admiral Jellicoe. The significance of Scapa Flow thus cannot be underestimated as it allowed the Royal Navy armada easy access to the North Sea to engage the German fleet. The battle went against the German fleet, though they won a tactical victory in the sense that more Royal Navy ships were destroyed. But the effect of the battle on the German High Sea fleet was that that it could not break the stranglehold of the British fleet.

Scapa Flow and Scuttling of the German Fleet

The end of the war brought Scapa Flow back to limelight. As per treaty the German naval warships numbering 74 were captured and brought to Scapa Flow in November 1918. The warships in due course were planned to be confiscated by the British navy. The negotiations dragged on for 10 months in Paris when Admiral Von Reutor took a fateful decision to scuttle the warships. In June 1919 amidst great secrecy, when the royal naval fleet had proceeded for an exercise Von Reutor put his plan into action. He was able to scuttle 52 warships of the German high sea fleet which sank in the waters of Scapa Flow.

Once the scuttling was in progress the Royal navy intervened and were able to save about 20 ships. The British could however save only one battleship. In effect Admiral Von Reutor was successful in the main of not letting the ships fall into the hands of the Royal Navy.

Under Water Scene

Most of the German warships are still there under the sea and enterprising divers can dive below water and see the ships. Guides are available who will guide you to underwater German fleet which is a sight for enthusiasts. The significance of Scapa Flow as a part of the extended power of the British Navy cannot be underestimated.


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    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you teaches, hope you can get a chance to visit Scapa Flow

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      I would love to take a tour someday and see this. Thank you for the historical information.

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Barry for commenting

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Barry for your comment

    • barryrutherford profile image

      Barry Rutherford 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Great information given the Centenary of the Start of ww1 is now upon us.

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you DDE

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      An interesting and very educational hub.

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you billy, its great of you to comment

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I am always interested in information about the World Wars, having been a history teacher. Thank you for this.