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Issue 65 - Into The Murky Waters

Scotland Magazine Issue 65
October 2012


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Into The Murky Waters

Emma Inglis takes us into a world of wrecks, battleships and treasure

On the 21st June, 1919 Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter stepped out onto the deck of his flagship, Emden, and surveyed his fleet for the last time. It had been a cold and miserable seven months interned in Scapa Flow in the Orkney Isles – but today finally, with the British fleet out on exercise, Ludwig von Reuter could put his long held plan into action. Reuter was calm, ebullient even, as he issued his order, “Paragraph 11. Bestätigen.” Reuter’s signal for immediate scuttle was quickly passed from ship to ship.

Soldiers that had sat idle for months were dispatched to open the seacocks and smash the water pipes. The aim was clear. Not a single boat should be left to fall into British hands. As water roared into the ballast tanks the huge German battleships began to tilt and list. Some, simply, heeled over and plunged headlong; their sterns lifted high out of the sea. As the soldiers abandoned their sinking vessels, Reuter calmly stepped into a lifeboat and was rowed to shore. More than 50 of his ships sank that day.

Some 90 years later a diver fins forward through the green-tinged water of Scapa Flow to see the ghostly remains of the Cöln, one of only seven of the German ships that was never salvaged. She lies starboard side; her immense body encrusted with plumose anemones and bright dead man’s fingers. Shoals of glass fish swim through the latticework of her eroding bridge and dart through her twisted cables and deteriorating bulkheads. Down here – at depths of more than 30 metres – she belongs to another time, and other occupants, and is slowly rusting away. Her guns have fallen from their casing and her funnels are absent from the main deck. Nevertheless she still provides divers with a fascinating glimpse of the Great War, and to see her is to gain rare access to an extraordinary episode in Scottish history.

Scapa Flow provides divers with some of the world’s best ship wrecks, and attracts serious divers from around the world. Thousands visit each year. The seven submerged German ships are now protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act, and overseen by Historic Scotland.

They are spaced intermittently; some in better condition than others. Cöln is one of the better preserved ones. The rule is that you ‘take only photographs and leave only bubbles’- but in truth there is little here that a diver would want. The post-war salvagers have long put paid to that.

Another battleship in Scapa Flow, HMS Royal Oak, intrigues divers but as a designated war grave access is strictly off-limits. Unless you are a diver of the British armed forces and even then only if special permission has been given.

The Royal Oak was part of the Grand Fleet that assembled at Scapa Flow at the start of the Second World War.

Early in the morning of 14 October, 1939, she was torpedoed by a German submarine, U-47, that had managed to slip silently into the supposedly impregnable Scapa Flow, navigating sunken block ships and rusted steel nets. The Royal Oak’s crew of more than 1200 had no warning and little chance of escape. More than 800 were killed – boys as young as 14 – trapped in the sinking ship, or perishing in the freezing cold seas. The commander of the German U boat, Gunther Prien, returned home a hero, and was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for his daring.

As well as battleships, Scotland’s seabed also boasts galleons, frigates and the tantalising promise of treasure ships. None is better known to divers, and treasure seekers, than the Blessing of Burntisland. The Blessing was a ferry that operated between Burntisland and Leith. It sank during a storm in 1633 in the Firth of Forth while carrying Charles I's possessions during his coronation tour of Scotland. It is said to contain a legendary 280- piece silver dining service as well as other royal possessions, which today would be worth millions of pounds. Contemporaneous reports record that Charles I was furious at its loss and rounded up and jailed 19 witches in Lancashire, accusing them of inciting the squall that swamped the vessel. More likely the ship sunk because it was overloaded with his treasure, and courtiers. Many of whom drowned when the Blessing went down. Despite various recent attempts to locate the vessel using dowsers and sonar technology, no ship has ever been found. However, the evidence for her existence in the water is compelling enough for there to be a Protection of Wrecks order placed on the site to deter bounty hunters.

Located close to the wreck of the Blessing is another protected vessel that lies deep in the waters of the Firth of Forth. Like a monstrous man made reef, the huge liner HMS Campania rises from the bottom of the muddy seabed; 41 foot high and 623 foot long. She is covered, stem to stern, with sea urchins, anemones and brittle stars. Lobsters inhabit her portholes and black velvet swimming crabs scuttle along her decks. It is hard to imagine her as she started life; as one of Cunard’s first great liners. In 1893 she broke the record for the passage from New York to Ireland. Later that year she took the Liverpool to New York record. She was converted into an aircraft carrier during the First World War, and saw a number of patrols with the Grand Fleet. But in November, 1918, she broke anchor and ran across the bows of a nearby battleship. She was fatally holed and sank; an inglorious end for such a magnificent ship.

For the diver, Scotland’s waters represent some of the best wreck diving experiences in the world. Tales of sunken battleships, treasure ships, or vessels emblazed in marine life, lure divers from far and wide to the Scottish seas. But nothing ever prepares them for the sheer magnificence of what they see here, or for the very humbling sense of having seen it.

Scotland’s seabed is truly astounding.