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The ancient Norwegian earldom of Orkney is now extinct

Posted in Historical articles, History, Invasions, Scotland, Sea, Ships, World War 2 on Monday, 30 April 2012

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This edited article about the Orkney Isles originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 697 published on 24 May 1975.

Viking ship, picture, image, illustration

Viking raiders left Norway for the Orkney Isles

In a large room, deeply carpeted, two men in naval uniform stood in front of a wall-chart of the North Sea. The older man, a stick in his hand, traced a line slowly from the German naval base at Kiel across to a group of islands off the north coast of Scotland – the Orkney Isles.

The year was 1939, With Lieutenant Prien, commander of U-boat U47, Admiral Doenitz, Flag Officer (Submarines) of the German Navy, was planning the impossible – an attack on Scapa Flow, the largest expanse of water at the southern end of the Orkneys.

Scapa Flow is almost surrounded by small islands, and for two world wars ships of the British Home Fleet were based there.

The reasons for choosing Scapa as a naval base were these: firstly, the route from the Atlantic to Germany must pass either through the English Channel, or between North Scotland and Norway. Battleships at Scapa Flow could easily sail to intercept any enemy ships using this last passage.

Secondly, tides and currents swirl dangerously through the channels which separate the little islands around the Flow, making those channels extremely dangerous for shipping, so providing a natural defence from attack from the sea.

Thus thought the Admiralty. Admiral Doenitz, however, thought otherwise.

“You will note, Lieutenant,” he rasped, “that on the east side of the Flow, between the Orkney mainland and the island of Burray, there are two channels through which you might pass. They are partly blocked by sunken ships; you will sail between them. That is all. Heil Hitler!”

On October 8, 1939, Lieutenant Prien’s submarine slipped quietly out of Kiel and into the North Sea. Five days later, as dawn broke, Prien could see a faint blue streak on the horizon. It was Orkney.

On the evening of October 13, the U47 surfaced, and crept cautiously towards the islands. Surprise was essential.

What were the British defences like, wondered Prien as the deck beneath his feet trembled to the throb of the diesel engines. The navigating officer tapped him on the shoulder.

“That’s Kirk Sound, where the blockships are,” he whispered. Prien looked around. Nothing in sight. It would soon be too dark to see.

“Then in we go!” he murmured.

Slowly the submarine edged through the eddying water, swinging close inshore to avoid the dark outline of one of the sunken blockships. Another blockship seemed to slide by to starboard. “If I stretch out my arm I could touch that one”, thought Prien. Scapa Flow opened before him. They were through.

Just before one o’clock in the morning, the U-boat commander picked out the dim shape of a large ship, moored in the north part of the Flow. Anxiously he manoeuvred the submarine into position with urgent whispered words of command. “Stand by the torpedo tubes!”

At two minutes to one, the U47 lurched as her torpedoes streaked away. There was silence for what seemed like hours. Had they missed?

Then a huge column of water shot up over the bow of their target, and the rumble of the explosion echoed across Scapa Flow.

Aboard the Royal Oak (for that great ship was Prien’s victim) men clattered to action stations. The captain suspected an internal explosion, and sent men hurrying to investigate. Then another salvo struck the ship, and the Royal Oak went to the bottom.

The U47 stole out the way she had come in. The impossible had been done. A submarine had attacked Scapa Flow – and got away unscathed.

It seems strange to think that this daring act could have benefited the islanders, but that is exactly what it did. As a result of the attack, the Admiralty decided to join the islands on the east side of Scapa Flow with a causeway thus making a permanent barrier across the eastern approaches to the anchorage. These Churchill Barriers, as they are called, have a total length of about 1 and a half miles, and cars can now drive from the southernmost island over the barriers to the mainland.

Orkney is no stranger to naval warfare. The early Picts who settled here over two thousand years ago terrorized the coasts of Britain in their stout little wooden ships. It was only eight miles across the Pentland Firth from Orkney to Scotland, where rich prizes were to be had for the taking. Then, as evening fell, the pirate ships would slip home to the islands, and the echoes of shouting and laughter would rebound from cliff to cliff as they passed.

In the ninth century came the Norsemen, fleeing from the oppression of Harald Haarfager (Fair Hair) of Norway. Their boats grounded on the Orkney shores, and a Norse settlement was established.

Using the islands as their base, these Norse rebels made constant raids against Norway. Did the war-boats of Olaf Long Axe and Lars the Red steal silently out of Scapa Flow, from the same place where, a thousand years later, the battle cruisers of Admiral Jellicoe put to sea for a trial of strength with the German High Seas Fleet?

Harald Fair Hair, stung by the rebel raids, launched an expedition against the islands, and took them under his control. There followed a series of Norse earls as rulers of Orkney: Sigurd the Stout, whose enchanted banner won his battles, but was death to whoever bore it; Earl Thorfinn the Mighty, who visited the Pope in Rome, and was converted to Christianity; and Earl Harald, last of the Norse Orkney Earls.

The King of Scotland wanted to buy Orkney from Norway, but King Hakon Hakonson would not agree, to the extent that he fitted out an expedition against Scotland in order to prove his point, at the end of July, 1263.

It was not until 200 years later, however, that the Orkney Isles came under the rule of Scotland.

Orkney has always been an agricultural community. Nowadays less than half its land can be used for farming. Little grain is grown, and of that amount most is used for foodstuffs – particularly for poultry, because the islands have a thriving trade in eggs.

Prosperity is not easily come by in this island outpost of Britain, but the islanders are tough and hardy – like their Norse ancestors.

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