Scapa Flow – keeping the Grand Fleet fed and fuelled

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    Malcolm Lewis

      I am interested to find out more about the logistical support for the huge Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow in WW1. Sam Willis in his recent excellent TV programme about the base was not able to include comments on the supply arrangements for the many warships and the thousands of men manning them. Whilst the RN was gradually changing over to oil fuel at that time many ships still relied on coal. Getting both oil and coal to Scapa would have needed a fleet of merchant ships. A battleship required a thousand tons at a time or many gallons of oil.
      The Royal Fleet Auxiliary had been formed before the war in 1906 to provide colliers but I doubt it would have had many such ships to fill the total supply requirements. The Mary Rose and Strongbow incident in 1917 involved a convoy of colliers sailing from northern Norway which apparently was a regular run. Surprisingly that the Navy was getting large quantities of coal from Spitsbergen in the Arctic Circle, where Britain had mining interests, rather than from UK coalfields. Maybe it was considered a source less vulnerable to U-boat attack than shipping it up the North Sea.
      I would be interested to receive any recommendations for reading on the subject. From extracts I have read of Arthur Marder’s, “Dreadnought to Scapa” (Vol 1), it does not include much on the victualling of the Fleet.

      Frank Scott

        SNR forum topic ‘Coal and Oil supplies to the RN in WW1’ (2009) contains a lot of information & references to cover this query. Among other things it refers to a master’s thesis on the Supply of Scapa Flow. Unfortunately the correspondent chose to be anonymous, so it is impossible to contact him/her to take up their offer to email a copy of that thesis.

        This is one of the many reasons why anonymous entries on the Forum are no longer permitted.

        Malcolm Lewis

          I received a response to my query from Peter Hulme on the Maritime History site (MarHst). I have posted my response to him here too for the benefit of the SNR Forum.
          Thank you Peter for making the pdf available of Jellicoe’s book “The Grand Fleet 1914-16 Its Creation, Development and Work; Admiral Viscount Jellicoe of Scapa 1919”.
          It is a most informative account of the strategy involving the fleet and its bases by the man who was in charge. Regarding my original query about replenishing the Fleet at Scapa it clearly was a problem right from the beginning of the war.
          The Admiralty had decided to base the fleet at Scapa some two years before the outbreak of war but because of Government financial constraints had done nothing to provide any defensive measures or facilities for maintaining ships or their crews. Jellicoe had the task of hurriedly organising a secure anchorage on this remote island subject to constant gales or fog and solely reliant on supplies by sea.
          There was a shortage of colliers for a long period and often warships had to go on patrol short of coal in their bunkers. I can’t find a reference to coal being sent to Thurso by rail although this might well have happened. Jellicoe refers to colliers going to and fro to Cardiff. Of course all the other Naval bases had to be supplied too as well as the merchant fleet and industry.
          Jellicoe comments on the lack of harbour defences at Scapa in 1914. He says “We did our best in the Fleet to give the impression that we had obstructed the entrances…………it may have seemed impossible to the German mind that we should place our Fleet, on which the Empire depended for its very existence, in a position where it was open to submarine or destroyer attack. This view, however, did not relieve the minds of those responsible for the safety of our Fleet from the gravest anxiety whenever the more valuable ships were in undefended harbours”.
          For the sailors serving in the Grand Fleet based at Scapa it was a testing assignment with little entertainment and infrequent leave. The “naval train” from Thurso to London took 24 hours. Married men headed home for a brief family reunion. Younger unmarried men probably headed for the bright lights.
          Goodbye – I’ve got to go
          From dear old Scapa Flow
          I’m heading for Soho.
          Malcolm Lewis

          J.D. Davies

            I have a section on the logistics of getting Welsh coal to Scapa in my book Britannia’s Dragon: A Naval History of Wales.

            Geoffrey Brooks

              I find the observations by Malcolm Lewis very interesting regarding the shortage of colliers in 1914. I have been puzzled for some time as to why the two new German colliers “Baden” and “Santa Isabel”, whose purpose it was to maintain von Spee’s squadron coaled up, were sunk undamaged after inspection within an hour’s sailing time east of Port Stanley on 8 December 1914.

              Malcolm Lewis

                Coal to Scapa
                David Davies in his well-researched and most interesting book “Britannia’s Dragon a Naval History of Wales” confirms that South Wales steam coal, preferred by the RN, was mainly transported by rail via complicated routes to Grangemouth on the Forth and bagged for transhipment by colliers to Scapa.
                A fleet of small colliers was required by the Navy to facilitate the coaling alongside of several warships simultaneously – hence the problems Admiral Jellicoe experienced early on in the war because of the lack of small colliers.
                It is somewhat ironic that the best steam coal was mined on UK’s west coast and required by the main fleet based on east coast ports and transported to the Forth and Scapa at high cost. Some Northern English and Scottish mines supplied coal in small amounts. Welsh coal when burnt caused less ash and less damage to furnaces as well as producing less smoke although all pictures I have seen of the Grand Fleet at sea shows them making a lot of smoke which greatly reduced visibility at the Battle of Jutland.
                It was apparently pre-war Admiralty policy not to build large coal stocks in ports with the intention of using colliers as storage which would follow the fleet and also the fact that the quality of coal deteriorated in long term outside storage. This was of course not the case with oil fuel but whilst Government was keen for the Navy to move to oil the Admiralty was resistant for a number of reasons. The mining industry fought hard for the Navy to stay with coal with its “Back to Coal” campaign. Prime Minister Lloyd George, a devoted Welshman, together with First Lord Winston Churchill were instrumental in making the Admiralty change to oil. (see Warwick M. Brown’s thesis referred to below below)
                Ref The RN fuel supplies 1898-1939 the transition from coal to oil -Warwick M. Brown Kings College, London 2003. htkps;//


                  I am not quite sure where the problem of small colliers came from. What was more the difficulty was that in order to get the fleet replenished quickly, each capital ship required its own collier on stand by and each collier, on average, carried about twice the amount of coal that was needed after a usual North Sea sortie (roughly 1,000 tons each ship). This was thus somewhat inefficient in terms of carrying capacity and became a source of concern later in the war when tonnage was in shorter supply.
                  In the absence of mass coal loading systems at wharves (and nearly 30 dreadnoughts would have required ‘mass’ in every way), colliers, or large barges which would have needed tugs, were the only mechanism for the simultaneous and thus rapid replenishment of the fleet on return to harbour. The ‘down time’after a sortie was always a major concern of the C-in-C, although it is fair to say that the highest concern related to the destroyers, whose endurance at fleet cruising speeds was very limited.

                  Northern steam coal was not used by the RN from the nineteenth century because it made so much smoke. In reality, for the coal burning big ships, only the 40 collieries in the portion of the South Wales coal fields produced the semi-bituminous ‘Admiralty steam coal’ with the right balance of volatiles, carbon &c that was fully suited to high speed, long distance naval operations. And even then, the problems of trimming meant that 25% of what they carried was effectively inaccessible (i.e. it could not be got out of the lower reaches of the bunkers fast enough to supply the stoke holds at the cruising speeds required with a submarine threat).

                  Malcolm Lewis

                    I must admit to being a little confused about the transport methods used to transport coal to Scapa Flow before and during WW1. Jellicoe in his paper “The Grand Fleet 1914-16” refers to most of the coal going from Cardiff to Scapa by collier as does Warwick Brown whereas Davies says the bulk went by rail via Grangemouth. My understanding is that Cardiff docks did not have a bagging facility whereas ports such as Portland and Grangemouth did and to speed coaling prebagged coal was an Admiralty requirement, especially at Scapa.
                    Maybe David Davies or James G could bring clarification
                    to this piece of history please?

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