Review: Scapa Flow Museum

Reviewing the best military history exhibitions with Taylor Downing.

Scapa Flow Museum
Open 9.30am-4.15pm (closed at times during winter)
Lyness, Hoy, Orkney KW16 3NT (accessible by a ferry service [35 mins] from Houton on the Orkney mainland)
01856 791300

Scapa Flow is a vast natural harbour in the Orkneys, to the north of mainland Scotland. In the First World War, it was where the Grand Fleet was based. And in the Second it was the anchorage for the Home Fleet, therefore playing a central role in the naval history of two wars.

The entrance to the Scapa Flow Museum at Lyness, on Hoy, in the Orkneys. It has recently undergone a major £4.4 million refurbishment.

A new museum, a major £4.4 million refurbishment from the previous visitor centre, opened in July this year. It contains world-class displays and tributes to those who served, worked, and died in Scapa Flow.

The museum is on the Orkney island of Hoy, at Lyness, where the heart of the Scapa Flow naval base was located. Access is by a short ferry ride from the Orkney mainland. Walking up to the museum from the ferry terminal, you’ll pass the giant propeller and shaft that were once illegally salvaged from the wreck of HMS Hampshire. Along with a huge ship’s anchor, they give an idea of the vast scale of naval machinery in the last century.

Inside the refurbished museum. Orkney’s links with the sea date back a thousand years, when the Vikings anchored their longships on the islands.

The museum itself is located in a new building next to the fleets’ former pumphouse. A visit begins with a display of items relating in general to life at sea. Specific to Scapa Flow are samples of the giant steel nets that were used as boom defences in an attempt to prevent enemy submarines from getting into the vicinity. These were opened only when Royal Navy vessels needed to enter or leave the Great Harbour.

A large display looks back over several centuries of Orkney’s links with the sea. The Vikings anchored their longships in Scapa Flow a thousand years ago. And the site was first used by the navy in the Napoleonic Wars. But in the Edwardian era, after discussion within the Admiralty as to the best place to locate the Grand Fleet in the event of war with Germany, Admiral John Fisher opted to go for Scapa Flow.

This gave the navy quick access both to the Atlantic and to cut off the North Sea in the event of the German High Seas Fleet trying to break out of its Baltic base.

Old pump house

You’ll then walk through the old pump house, where oil was pumped from giant storage silos to waiting ships. The scale of the heavy machinery needed for such an operation is awe-inspiring.

Early diving equipment on display. Scapa Flow is a favourite spot for divers who want to explore the many warships littering the seabed, although some wrecks, as war graves, are off limits.

The transition from coal to oil in the pre-Great War navy had enormous consequences. For half a century, the Royal Navy had been powered by Welsh coal, and Britain had its own almost limitless supplies. But when Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty took the momentous decision to change to more efficient and powerful oil-fired turbine engines, there followed a major shift in foreign policy. Britain looked to the Middle East, initially to Persia (Iran) and then to Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the Gulf, to establish alliances that would guarantee access to oil supplies.

These alliances lasted for half a century and more. The geopolitical context of naval decisions is clearly laid out in crisp, informative display boards.

The First World War section includes among its many displays two main stories. That of the Battle of Jutland from 31 May to 1 June 1916, when the Grand Fleet under Admiral Jellicoe sailed out to intercept the German High Seas Fleet led by Admiral Scheer. Code breakers in the Admiralty alerted Jellicoe to the German plan to break out and there followed a series of actions off the Danish coast.

German gunnery proved far superior to that of the Royal Navy. More British ships were lost than German, and the Royal Navy lost twice as many sailors as the Imperial German Navy. But the German fleet never again tried to leave its base and challenge the British at sea.

German ships Emden, Frankfurt, and Bremse entering Scapa Flow ahead of their internment there following the German defeat in World War One, November 1918. They were intentionally scuttled in June the next year.

At the end of the war, the German fleet surrendered, and 74 ships were interned in Scapa Flow. On 21 June 1919, fearing that his fleet was about to be taken over by the Royal Navy, Admiral Reuter gave the order to scuttle his ships while the navy was away on exercises.

The museum powerfully tells this story through a variety of first-hand accounts, and it also tells of the many salvage attempts to bring up the sunken ships during the 1920s and 1930s. There are images of the ships that are still there today – a favourite spot for divers who want to explore these giant dreadnoughts that lie on the seabed.

Supposedly impregnable

By the Second World War, many of the old defences had fallen into disrepair and the result was disastrous. At high tide on the moonless night of 14 October 1939, U-47, commanded by the daring Günther Prien, penetrated the feeble defences on the east side of Scapa Flow.

HMS Royal Oak. The battleship was sunk on the orders of daring U-boat commander Günther Prien just over a month into the Second World War, shattering the perception of Scapa Flow’s ‘impregnability’.

Once inside, he spotted a large First World War battleship, HMS Royal Oak. He fired a total of seven torpedoes, three of which hit the battleship. Royal Oak went down in minutes with the loss of 835 lives.

Tragically, many of these were boys or cadets who were on the ship because she was at harbour and not on active service, when they would have been disembarked. I rather wish the display had made more of this appalling fact. Royal Oak lies on the seabed today, slowly leaking oil. But as a war grave, only Royal Navy divers are allowed to visit it annually.

Prien was feted in Berlin by Hitler and became the first of many U-boat captains to be lauded for their bravery. The supposedly impregnable harbour at Scapa had been entered. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill again, ordered that new defences should be rapidly laid down: a series of barriers were constructed across the eastern entry to the Flow, many by Italian prisoners of war. They are known to this day as the Churchill Barriers. But the loss of the Royal Oak was a tragedy that should never have happened.

Naval weaponry on display. The Battle of Jutland, the most significant sea battle of the First World War, demonstrated the superiority of German gunnery over that of the Royal Navy.

The museum also tells the story of the vast support structure that grew up in both world wars to service and provision a fleet that at one point numbered 150 vessels. In addition to all the skills needed to maintain ships on battle-ready station, there were the vast stores and depots as well as living quarters for thousands of naval and civilian workers.

In the Second World War, cinemas were constructed and accommodation provided for large numbers of those from the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRENs) who were stationed at Scapa.

The museum paints a vivid picture of life on this immense naval base. For some, it was a godforsaken and remote spot. For others, it brought a sense of camaraderie and an opportunity to explore the beautiful landscape and wildlife of the Orkneys.

The old pump house at Scapa Flow next to the new museum building. Oil was pumped from giant storage silos here to waiting ships.


The museum contains a huge array of artefacts that help to show what life at sea on a naval vessel was like. I was particularly taken by the foldaway washbasins that both British and German naval officers’ cabins were equipped with. And there is much to show what life on shore at Scapa Flow base was like, from the tools that were in common use to service naval vessels to the newspaper, The Orkney Blast, established by writer Eric Linklater in 1941 to help keep up morale against the gloom of life in wartime Orkney.

But best of all, the museum masterfully combines the broad context of naval warfare in the two world wars with an abundance of individual stories. Letters and diaries and whole display cases tell of individuals caught up in the cosmic events of world war in a moving and vivid way.

Additionally, there are a series of trails around the remains of wartime Lyness, including to the Naval Cemetery and the Russian memorial to the Arctic convoys. Lyness itself is not an easy place to get to – but this new museum makes it well worth the trouble.

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