Navy tackles oil leak from battleship war grave

IT IS ONE of the Royal Navy's most sacred war graves. Torpedoed by a U-boat in 1939 with the loss of 833 lives, the battleship HMS Royal Oak lies beneath 90ft of water at the bottom of Scapa Flow in Orkney.

Oil has always seeped from the wreck in small quantities, but two years ago it began to be washed ashore, raising an agonising dilemma: the obvious way to avoid environmental disaster was to slice open the hull and draw out the oil, but that would have meant violating the sanctity of the grave. Last week, however, a pioneering operation aimed at satisfying environmental fears and preserving the grave began smoothly, concluding a two-year search for a way to drain off the estimated 2,000 gallons of oil the Royal Oak took to the bottom on the night of 14 October 1939.

The vessel was torpedoed at her moorings by a U-boat which sneaked through a blockade at the entrance to Scapa Flow, a key wartime naval base. She sank in just 15 minutes. To this day the ship is still honoured with an annual remembrance service.

The site is a haven for wildlife. More than 8,000 grey and common seals swim around Orkney, while puffins and many waders flock to the islands in their thousands. Leakage from the Royal Oak and other vessels on the sea-bed has left a thin, shiny film of surface oil on the waters of Scapa Flow.

The Navy has spent the past two years exploring ways to avoid cutting open the wreck, with naval engineers working on a three-dimensional computer model of the ship based on the original plans at the Royal Naval Museum at Greenwich. "The fact that the ship is a war grave is one of the most important points we had to consider," said Steve Willmot, an RN press officer based at Faslane.

"The Royal Oak was the first major naval casualty of the Second World War and involved an immense loss of life. It wasn't just a question of sending divers down to the wreck, drilling a few holes and pumping off what came out. We had to maintain the integrity of the war grave. Everything we've done is with the approval of the Royal Oak Survivors Association and families of the dead."

Experts from the Ministry of Defence's Naval Support Command manufactured a metal umbrella-shaped canopy, secured to the upturned hull of the wreck with cables, siphoning off the oil which is leaking at a rate of a gallon an hour.

The canopy was lowered into place last week and the first gallons of oil have been collected in what the Navy described as a successful operation. The canopy will be drained each month in a process expected to last 15 years, though the Navy is exploring ways of accelerating the drainage.

Orkney has strong naval links stemming from the two world wars. In 1919 the German High Seas fleet of 71 ships was scuttled in Scapa Flow and many British ships guarding the entrance were also holed. Many Orcadians felt strongly that the Royal Oak should not be tampered with but, conscious of the Braer tanker disaster which spilled 84,500 tonnes of crude oil off Shetland in 1993, they were also keen for the leak to be tackled as quickly as possible.

Environmentalists have expressed concern at the slow process of the solution, and would prefer the oil to be drained off swiftly rather than allowing a potential disaster to linger on for 15 years. Ross Flett of Orkney Seal Rescue said: "Scapa Flow is an important area for seals, and while the oil is down there, there is a possibility it could leak from other parts of the ship."

However, David Flanagan, a spokesman for Orkney Islands Council, thought the best solution had been found. "There has been mixed opinion but we're pleased with the way this has been handled. In some ways I think local people see the sheen of oil as a memorial to the dead of the ship and as long as that sheen doesn't cause any environmental problems they won't mind," he said.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week