SCAPA FLOW - THE GERMAN FLEET LIES AT ANCHOR
(MP161). Frank Watson Wood (1862-1953). Watercolour signed and dated (LR) 1918.
Limited Edition worldwide: 12 copies
Standard size: 27.5 x 7.5 ins (69.8 x 19 cms ) approx.
Price band (mounted/matted): £160-185
There is that wonderful anecdotal letter written, we are told, by a Boy Seaman of the Grand Fleet who on arriving at Scapa in a dreadnought as Europe was going to war in the last days of July 1914 wrote home to say “Dear Mum, I cannot tell you where I am. I don’t know where I am. But where I am there is miles and miles of bugger all. Love Ted”. Scapa, they say, left its mark on all who served there!
One of the great natural anchorages of the world, Scapa Flow lies amongst the Orkneys, that group of some 70 or so islands that, separated by the narrow Pentland Firth, sit 6 miles north of the north easterly point of Scotland. Ten miles long and 8 miles wide, Scapa Flow covers an area of some 140 square miles: with its sandy bottom (shallowish, nowhere being much in excess of 20 fathoms), its nearly land-locked, surrounded as it is by a ring of low islands through which there are three main navigable entrances. What was the dreadnoughts’ “grand entrance”, Hoxa Sound, which runs north up past Swona island from the Pentland Firth and which is about 5 miles long; the “tradesmans’ entrance”, Switha Sound, which also runs north up from the Pentland but which is narrower and more tortuous and was commonly used by smaller craft; and over to the west is Hoy Sound, approached from the Pentland via The Old Man of Hoy to starboard and then, as you round Hoy island itself and turn to starboard to enter the sound, past Stromness on the port side. There were other, less conventional, ways of entering too - as Kapitan-Leutnant Gunther Prien of U-47 famously proved that night in October 1939 when he skilfully slithered into Scapa through Kirk Sound into the eastern end of Scapa for which HMS ROYAL OAK paid with her life. Through this entrance to the Flow and all the others too, the the tides race and swirl taking their lead perhaps from the Pentland Firth through which seas pour in a fast torrent - sometimes up to 10 knots - as the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea level with each other.
It was of course these very natural phenomena that made Scapa such an ideal base for Admiral Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet. Large enough to hold all the navies in the world, Scapa sat astride the sea routes then so strategically vital to Great Britain, and once its entrances had been belatedly but properly and painstakingly secured by boom, blockship and constant patrol, it offered unrivalled security for the fleet that lay within. The prevailing weather with its frequent winds of gale and storm force strength added to its relative invulnerability to a would-be intruder whilst at the same time making life for those inside the Flow memorably hard too And all the fleet’s supplies - coal, oil, ammunition, food, stores, personnel - all had to come by sea where it was subject to the same often violent and disruptive forces of nature. It was indeed a wild and lonely place, a place of outstanding sunsets and colourful skies we are told, of glassy flat seas one day and foaming maelstroms with shrieking winds the next. It was to the Flow that the surrendered High Seas Fleet came in November 1918 and here that on 21 June 1919 most of it scuttled itself. In February 1920 the Admiral Commanding Orkney and Shetland hauled down his flag and the Royal Navy, apart from infrequent visits, left Scapa again to the Orcadians - until war clouds again loomed and the white ensign returned to this hauntingly beautiful, yet oft wild and storm lashed anchorage
This painting does not, however, show the British Fleet in residence: dated 1918 it is of the High Seas Fleet which had surrendered on 21st November, initially going to anchor in the Firth of Forth on which the city of Edinburgh sits. On 22nd November two HSF destroyer flotillas departed for Scapa and over the next 48 hours the light cruisers and remaining destroyers followed too. The heavy ships sailed under escort of Royal Naval battleships and battle cruisers on 24th November, and by 27th November 70 German ships were at anchor in Scapa. On 6th December the battleship KONIG who was accompanied from Germany by the light cruiser DRESDEN and a destroyer arrived. The 74th ship, BADEN, did not arrive until 9th January 1919 - so she is definitely not in Wood’s painting here of 1918. Running through the big ships, from left to right, it looks as if Wood has suggested a Kaiser Class dreadnought, 2 Bayern Class dreadnoughts, a further Kaiser, the battle cruiser DERFFLINGER perhaps, then what looks like a light cruiser (DANZIG, MUNCHEN or LUBECK distinguished by their pronounced ram bows); with the remaining heavy ship over to the right looking very similar to a Konig Class dreadnought. Light cruisers and destroyers are dotted around. Of the 20,000 or so men who had manned this armada for its last voyage across the North Sea, 4,000 were embarked in Scapa aboard German supply ships and sailed for home on 3 December 1918; and by 12th December another 11,000 had been removed back to Germany. It could be that the merchantmen here in the painting are some of those very supply ships that were used to ferry these sailors.