Maritime archaeology project to survey shipwrecks of the German High Seas Fleet gets underway in Orkney

24 July 2017
Scotia-15181.jpg The Scotia ship
A collaborative maritime archaeology project to survey World War I shipwrecks is underway in Orkney, using geophysical equipment, ROV and diver survey to collect data.

A collaborative maritime archaeology project to survey World War I shipwrecks is underway in Orkney, using geophysical equipment, ROV (remotely operated vehicles) and diver survey to collect data from three battleships and four light cruisers which remain on the seabed of Scapa Flow.

The project, which began on 23 July, is led by Sandra Henry, ORCA (Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology), University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Kevin Heath of SULA Diving. The project has brought together universities, commercial companies and government bodies including Historic Environment Scotland, Marine Scotland, Ulster University, Heriot-Watt University, University of Dundee, and Seatronics.

The survey is using a suite of geophysical equipment, ROV and diver survey to collect data that will accurately record wrecks of the German High Seas Fleet as they sit on the seafloor today. The data collected will be used to continue to monitor, protect, conserve and promote the shipwrecks. Visualisations of the wrecks by Chris Rowland, University of Dundee 3D Visualisation Research Lab (3DVisLab), will use the latest technologies available to create models of the ships.  

The German High Seas Fleet at Orkney

The High Seas Fleet was the battle fleet of the German Imperial Navy in World War One. On 2 June 1919, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter gave the order to scuttle the 74 ships of the High Seas Fleet located in Scapa Flow. 52 vessels were successfully scuttled, although during the interwar period salvage operations lifted 45 of these vessels from the seafloor. 

HMS Hampshire was an armoured cruiser that was assigned to transport Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, to Archangel in northern Russia for a meeting with Tsar Nicholas II. During this assignment, the ship struck a mine, off Marwick Head, on the west coast of Orkney. She sank in twenty minutes with a loss of 737 men including Lord Kitchener.

HMS Royal Oak was a revenge class Battleship. The Royal Oak under command of Captain Commander W.H. Benn sat at anchor when struck by torpedoes fired from U47 under the command of Kapitanleutnant Günther Prien, resulting in the loss of 833 lives.

HMS Vanguard (pictured) was a St. Vincent class dreadnought battleship destroyed at her mooring by a series of explosions before midnight on 9 July 1917. 843 men were lost out of the 845 people on board. 

Understanding the site

Paul Sharman, ORCA Senior Projects Manager, said: “We are proud and feel privileged to be involved with this important project. We are pleased to be working collaboratively with such a wide range of specialists to provide high quality data which will contribute to the understanding of these important marine archaeology sites and commemorate the sacrifice made by the personnel who were on board HMS Vanguard, HMS Hampshire and HMS Royal Oak.”

The archival research and archaeological remote evaluation surveys that comprise this project will lead to a full understanding of the condition of the wreck sites, contribute to enhanced heritage displays, provide data for academic research and support activities and material for public engagement. 

(Images: Vanguard by permission of Orkney Library and Archive, MV Scotia (the ship from which the work is being carried out) by permission of Marine Scotland, Scapa Flow copyright ORCA)