Caption: Although the vast city of ships has long since departed, the tangible remains of the impact the Grand Fleet had on Orkney can be seen across the islands.

In the days before the outbreak of the First World War, many of the ships of the Royal Navy were redeployed from their home bases in southern England to the very different environment of Orkney and the vast natural harbour at Scapa Flow.

Before 1900, the Royal Navy had spent centuries building up the bases for its ships in southern England. As the traditional naval threats to England and subsequently to Britain were from France and Spain, this had always been the logical choice.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the newly unified Germany began to expand its influence, both through colonization and through vast industrial and military growth.

This new potential threat to the British Navy led to a naval arms race between the two, and also led the Royal Navy to consider new bases more strategically positioned for this new danger. Construction began at Rosyth in 1903 and continued throughout the First World War.

Rosyth became the base for the Royal Navy’s fleet of battle-cruisers during the war. A base was also begun in the Cromarty Firth in 1912, but most of the home fleet was to be sent even further north when the war came.

The vast natural harbor at Scapa Flow in Orkney had long been recognized for its sheltered anchorage and strategic position between the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

Caption: A First World War coast artillery position outside Stromness, built as part of the network of defences to guard the Grand Fleet within Scapa Flow.

Ships of the Royal Navy had visited it on several occasions in the years before the war, but there were no military facilities of any kind in place there in summer 1914.

Nevertheless, it was to Scapa that the majority of the home fleet was sent in the last few days before war broke out. Renamed the Grand Fleet and placed under the command of Admiral Jellicoe on the day war was declared, the vast array of ships now stationed in the remote northern islands would be a culture shock for both the military personnel and the islanders.

The first concern for Jellicoe was that absolute lack of facilities for the fleet. The traditional bases were equipped with extensive defences to protect the ships at anchor within, but at Scapa Flow there was nothing to protect the fleet at all, save some small guns taken ashore from the ships themselves.

As a result, a massive wave of construction began across Orkney, while the fleet itself generally stayed away from Scapa at sea and in other harbours until this was completed.

Caption: HMS Iron Duke was the flagship of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow during the First World War, and returned there during the Second World War to serve as a depot ship.

The lack of a safe harbour for rest and recuperation began to show for some of the sailors.

“And so it went on – week by week, month by month. Out of harbor at dawn, days at sea, to Scapa Flow again at dusk, coal and provision and away by dawn."

"As the winter months drew on, the rain, wind and snow added to the discomforts and difficulties that had to be encountered. The only real pleasure that entered our lives at this very trying period was the letter from which helped to make our lot a little more endurable.”

By early 1915, Scapa Flow was sufficiently well defended for the fleet to remain, and construction continued to enhance the base and its facilities until the fleet finally moved south to Rosyth towards the end of the war.

Today, the evidence of this vast undertaking can be found across the islands, the legacy of hundreds of thousands of men who came to call the islands home during the First World War.


Image copyright

Header image & Third Image: HMS Iron Duke, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.
First image: View towards Flotta, copyright RCAHMS
Second image: Artillery position outside Stromness, copyright Historic Scotland


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