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Kiwi Konexions: Remembering Scapa Flow

“.And shed a tear for lonely Scapa Flow.' I have danced so many times to that song and heard the story, I have flown over Scapa Flow and landed in Orkney, but here in New Zealand I never expected to find myself in deep conversation with a very old man who wanted to know about Scapa Flow,'' writes Glen Taylor in this wonderfully evocative article.

Do you recall my dear how once, you walked with me,
Across the warm brown hills, towards the shining sea?
And how we lingered long upon the shore to see
Beloved ships come sailing up the Flow

It is very strange the coincidences which life throws at you from out of the blue. After many months of waiting and many visits to the outpatients department of our hospital, (I am sure the car would find its own way to the hospital carpark if I just put the key in and said “find,”) my husband was to have his cataract surgery. We were to be allowed to pass through
the red door on the fifth floor and turn left into the surgery area. What a world of difference to the world beyond the door. Here we had friendly staff who smiled and made you feel at ease, we had cleanliness and we had peace and quiet. Martin and I sat down and waited until he was wheeled off to the theatre. I crossed the room and went to join a volunteer
worker who had driven an old lady in from one of the rest homes and we chatted until the old lady returned with her big eye patch and was able to be taken home.

What has this got to do with Scapa Flow? The nurse in charge, a lovely girl, came over to talk and made me a cup of milo, very welcome on a cold winter’s day, and then she went off to deal with an old man who had just returned from theatre. Once dressed and given a sandwich and hot drink the nurse wheeled him over to me and said, “Would you mind looking after this man, he is 93 and from the Monticello Home for old soldiers, his driver isn’t here yet?”

Of course I wouldn’t. He smiled at me through his one eye and asked me where I was from. “Scotland,” I said. “Do you know Scapa Flow,” he asked? And so our conversation began. He had been in the war and knew all about the German submarine which had found its way into Scapa Flow and sunk “The Royal Oak,” although he wasn’t sure of the name of the ship. He wanted to know what the place was like and could you see the
wreck and we chatted on. The nurse joined us and said her grandfather had been on the Atlantic conveys and so the time passed.

We saw then anchored proudly as the sun went down,
And heard a lonesome bugle from the old Renown.
And o’er the gleaming ocean, like a brand new town,
10,000 port lights winked on Scapa Flow Being an ex history teacher and still very much an historian I was able to fill in all the gaps which seemed to be missing. “What about old Winnie” said the old man, “a great man?” “The right man at the right time,” I said but he made quite a few mistakes before that, the ANZAC’s should never have been landed on Chunuk Bair, at Gallipoli. And so the First World War led to the Second one.

“What about Hitler” asked the old man? “Couldn’t be allowed to get away with what he was doing,” I said, “but then if they had not drawn up the Treaty of Versailles in the way they did he probably would never have come to power.”

The question and answer conversation continued. “Britain had its back to the wall,” he said. ”Why didn’t Hitler invade?” I reminded him of the treaty Hitler had with Russia and then went on to tell him of Germany’s need for oil and how Hitler broke the pact and invaded Stalingrad, thus splitting his
forces. “Mother Winter” kept Russia safe, as it had done on many occasions in the past, not least the Napoleonic wars. Scorched earth and retreat, leaving nothing for the invading army except the bitter cold and their inadequate clothing. So Britain breathed again.

The pact with Japan was suspect too and Japan saw it as an entry by the back door. It is rumoured that it was known in high circles that Japan intended to bomb Pearl Harbour, hence a large number of American ships were not at anchor, but enough to bring America into the war. This was to mark the beginning of the end. Britain, alone, had held Germany at bay for far too long and could not have survived without the help of the Americans. Would they have come without Pearl Harbour? I thought of the photograph of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin together and then of the Cold War which was to follow. War makes strange bedfellows.

And for a while we met not on that darkened shore,
No winking port lights then, to glint the wave tops o’er
And there were those who came but will return no more.
Who are asleep in lonely Scapa Flow.

The old man’s face was alight with enthusiasm and interest and he had someone to talk to who could speak his language and answer his questions. The nurse was still with us, her last patient for the day had been dealt with and she asked about so many things. Here in a place where most folk are apprehensive and afraid an animated conversation was going on between three people. I told them of my dad’s time in the war, building
the Lancaster bombers and serving in the Home Guard and how proud he was when he was issued with a real rifle and bayonet, although my mother screamed when she saw it. On a Sunday walk with dad, he pointed out the trails of the first Spitfire he had been proud to work on.

It was a long, long time ago and the youth of today would have been bored to hear our chat but would they have played the part which that old soldier played? His driver arrived and he thanked me for talking to him.

With a smile on his face and a twinkle in his one eye, he asked me one more question before he left, “Who actually won the war?

But that was yesterday, and now they come no more,
Among the small green isles, where oft they lay of yore,
And so we linger sadly, by an empty shore,
And shed a tear for lonely Scapa Flow.

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