The name Scapa Flow comes from the Old Norse Skalpaflói, meaning ‘bay of the long isthmus’, which refers to the thin strip of land between Scapa Bay and the town of Kirkwall. Coming just weeks after the outbreak of World War Two, it was one of Britain’s worst naval disasters.

On this day in 1939, the battleship HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed and sunk in Scapa Flow with the loss of 833 lives. Scapa Flow has been used as a harbour since Viking times, the name Skalpaflói being given to it by the Vikings. With somewhat mixed messages coming out of Paris during May and early June, the atmosphere at Scapa Flow remained very tense, with military confrontation becoming a real possibility. Both sides were now considering the implementation of plans that could, essentially, lead to this conclusion, but they were being considered for very different reasons. This attack was quickly followed by air raids, and the fleet was forced to put to sea. During World War II the British fleet was again stationed at Scapa Flow, where it underwent considerable attack by both submarines and aircraft early in the war. It was an even worse shock because it happened inside a famous and supposedly impregnable naval base. In 1939 the battleship Royal Oak was sunk, with a loss of 833 lives, by a German submarine.

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