Bloody Orkney, Excerpt Two: Crossing Scapa Flow

As they walked past armed naval guards and onto the stone pier, Bob reflected on his first view of Scapa Flow. Their plane had flown to the east to avoid it the previous day. From this angle it was impossible to make out much beyond what seemed to be numerous grey ships at anchor and lots of smaller boats moving backwards and forwards between them. A striking feature was the number of barrage balloons that were visible. Some were floating limply over land, and Bob knew these were attached by wires to winches on the backs of lorries. Others were stationed out over Scapa Flow itself and Bob saw that these seemed to be attached to anchored trawlers.

As a pilot, Bob had never liked barrage balloons. They were indiscriminate: their wires could just as easily shear the wing off a defending Spitfire or Hurricane as a Luftwaffe bomber. He thought back to the aircraft he'd shot down in September. What he was seeing now suggested that the pilot had been a brave man, or a reckless one, to fly at low level across Scapa Flow. Bob thought about the length of time the aircraft would have spent over the anchorage, given its size. Even at full speed, the aircraft would have been completely exposed to fire from the defenders' guns for several minutes in the middle of a bright day with excellent visibility. Yet there had apparently been no defensive fire.

After they'd boarded the motor gun boat, Second Officer Jennings told them that it was about 12 miles across the anchorage to the naval base at Lyness.

Bob, who was standing on the boat's open bridge, realised that the day was turning out to be a glorious one. With the November sun still very low in the south-east, visibility in that direction was limited, even using his hand to supplement the peak of his cap in shielding his right eye. Michael Dixon had joined him, and Second Officer Jennings stood a little further away near the vessel's captain, just out of earshot of them given the roar that came from a combination of the engines, the wind and the passage of the boat through the water. Bob had seen Monique and Andrew MacDonald heading down into the small cabin below the bridge.

Dixon leaned over towards him. 'Sorry if I worried you earlier, sir.'

Bob smiled. 'Let's just say that I was a bit slow on the uptake, Michael. But as her father owns the hotel, could I ask that you avoid upsetting her, or her father, enough to have us kicked out before the week's finished?'

'I don't think there's any fear of that, sir.'

'What's her name?'

'Betty Swanson. As you might have gathered from her accent, she's from Orkney.'

Second Officer Jennings moved closer to them and Bob decided it was time to change the subject. He raised his voice and waved his arm to take in some of the warships that were at anchor around them amid the huge expanse of Scapa Flow. 'It's an impressive sight, second officer.'

'Yes, sir, it is. Believe it or not, the anchorage is far from full right now. But yes, there can be few sights like it anywhere in the world.'

As they neared the southern side of Scapa Flow, Monique joined them on the bridge. She pointed to their left. 'Is that a separate island over there, rather than part of Hoy?'

Jennings replied. 'Yes, it is. That's Flotta. They say that the name comes from the Norse for "Flat Island", and you can see why. It sits in the middle of the southern approaches to Scapa Flow, so is home to a lot of the defences at this end of the anchorage. Many of the nets and booms start or end on Flotta and as you'd expect it's heavily defended with anti-shipping and anti-aircraft guns. It also serves as the social heart of the fleet when ships are anchored in Scapa Flow. There's a huge canteen there that sounds like it's Orkney's answer to the wild west. Ships' crews are brought ashore to eat, drink and be merry. Until the time comes to return to their hammocks back on board their ships and nurse their hangovers.'

'Sounds like? You've not been?'

'Not a chance. Kirkwall can have its moments, especially after closing time in the pubs, but it's a beacon of polite gentility compared with the southern islands and with Flotta in particular. In any case, there are no women stationed on Hoy or Flotta other than the nurses in the hospital at North Ness. I'm told that the WRNS will arrive in force when a new headquarters and communications centre has been finished but right now these islands are mainly men only.'

'You've got to be heavily outnumbered, even on Orkney's Mainland?'

Jennings smiled at Monique. 'I did hear it said that at one time there were 600 men stationed in Orkney for every woman and that it was the best place on Earth to catch your man. There are a few more of us here now, but it's still a happy hunting ground.'

As their motor gun boat passed between Flotta on the left and a smaller island on the right, Bob saw what he knew must be the island of Hoy come into view in front of him. 'I take it that's Lyness?'

'Yes, sir,' said Jennings. 'It's the navy's largest base in Orkney, by an awfully long way.'

Bob looked at Lyness with a feeling that teetered between awe and horror. Part of the shoreline was taken up by a series of piers projecting out from the land, each the focus of a bustle of small boats. In the foreground was an assortment of larger vessels, moored or on the move. A little further along the shore was a long waterfront along which two large ships were moored. Inland from the piers and waterfront were extensive areas of what might have been workshops or warehouses and administrative buildings, plus a series of large oil tanks. In the middle distance, where the land began to climb towards the hill that stood behind the base, were more buildings, including multiple rows of huts, and this pattern was repeated out on the flanks of the harbour frontage. The whole area seemed scarred by the effects of recent and continuing construction work that extended a considerable distance up the hillside. The scene was topped off by more barrage balloons.

Bob turned to Second Officer Jennings. 'I'm a fighter pilot rather than a bomber pilot, but even to me those oil tanks look like very tempting targets.'

'That's part of the reason for all the defences against air attack, sir. The ships in Scapa Flow are obviously another. Four of those oil tanks were built in the last war, and a further twelve in the years before this one. More recently they've been building a series of huge underground oil tanks that are rather less vulnerable to attack, beneath the hillside up there. The first one was finished a couple of months ago. Others are still being excavated by miners brought in for the purpose.'

Perhaps the others on the bridge were also reflecting on the rather shocking appearance of the place they had come to visit, because very little more was said before their vessel found its way through a flotilla of small boats to moor at one of the piers.