Those vessels were sunk by their own crews in Scapa Flow

This is how the sinking of 52 warships in 1919 contributed to the space race

Sometimes some apparently unconnected historical facts can come to be related in a surprising way, as in the case at hand.

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The German fleet was escorted to Scapa Flow after the World War I

With Germany’s defeat in World War I, its formidable Navy was left at the mercy of the Allies. A total of 72 German warships were led by their own crews – escorted by 370 Allied ships – to the Scottish anchorage of Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, where the largest British naval base of that time was located. There their cannons were disabled and their crews were reduced to the minimum necessary to keep the ships active until their delivery, which would perhaps be the greatest German humiliation of the moment, since that fleet was still large enough to give a lot of war.

The German fleet being driven into Scapa Flow in late 1918 (Source: FirstWorldWar.com).

The sinking of 52 German ships by their own crews

There, with the fleet anchored in Scapa Flow, they spent seven months. The German admiral who still commanded that fleet, Ludwig von Reuter, believed that the British would try to seize his ships on June 21, 1919, and launched a plan for that naval force to have an honorable end: sunk by their own crews rather than handed over to the enemy. Unbeknownst to the Allies, an order was issued to scuttle the fleet later that day. In total, 52 ships sank for 5 hours before the impotence of the British. The waters swallowed 10 battleships, 5 battlecruisers, 5 light cruisers, and 44 destroyers. The German Navy would never recover from that loss, not even in World War II.

The German battleship “Bayern” after its sinking in Scapa Flow on June 21, 1919. It was one of the sunken ships that could be rescued in the interwar period (Source: FirstWorldWar.com).

Seven of the German ships could not be rescued

In the interwar period, most of the wrecks of those 52 ships sunk in Scapa Flow were taken to the south of the anchorage and broken up there, to sell their steel for scrap. It was a colossal task, but not all the ships could be rescued. Seven of the German ships were too deep to be recovered, so they were abandoned there. There were three three battleships (the “Markgraf”, the “Kronprinz-Wilhelm” and the “Konig”) and four light cruisers (the “Brummer”, the “Dresden”, the “Cöln” and the “Karlsruhe”). Its wrecks still rest in that anchorage, relatively intact, along with the remains of two British battleships: HMS Vanguard -sunk on July 9, 1917 due to an internal explosion, a tragedy in which 843 of its 845 crew perished- and the HMS Royal Oak, sunk on October 14, 1939 by two torpedoes launched by the famous German submarine U-47, captained by the intrepid Günther Prien.

The Trinity nuclear test, carried out on July 16, 1945 near Socorro, in New Mexico (USA). It was the first detonation of a nuclear device. This detonation, as well as the atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nuclear tests carried out in the following years, ended up irradiating the entire atmosphere and contaminating the steel manufactured since then (Source: United States Department of Energy / Wikimedia).

Nuclear explosions and their effects on steelmaking

The wrecks of those ships would have gone down in history and would only deserve the attention of diving enthusiasts today if it were not for two events that occurred at the end of World War II: the explosions of the atomic bombs of the Trinity Test in the USA and of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Both those detonations and the nuclear tests that were carried out over the following years in different parts of the world marked a before and after in the manufacture of steel: since 1945 everything that is produced is contaminated by radionuclides, small traces of radiation that spread throughout the earth’s atmosphere with those nuclear explosions and that contaminate the steel when air is used in its manufacture.

The wreck of the British battleship HMS Royal Oak, which still rests at the bottom of Scapa Flow (Source: Ocean Optics Ltd).

A solution for NASA: the steel from the Scapa Flow wrecks

These traces of radiation are too small to affect the daily uses we give to steel, but they affect the manufacture of certain instruments such as Geiger counters to measure radioactivity, certain medical and scientific instruments, and some aerospace instruments used to detect the radiation. This posed a problem with the start of the space race. NASA scientists needed steel that was not contaminated, but where to find it? Well, under the water. It so happened that the German wrecks at Scapa Flow had good quality steel, having been manufactured using the Bessemer process, and furthermore, they were not contaminated with radionuclides, especially those seven that remain under water.

The Pioneer 10 probe, which travels beyond the Solar System, could be one of the NASA spacecraft in which Scapa Flow steel was used, according to Dutch historian Daniel van der Vat (Source: NASA).

During the Apollo program, NASA purchased large quantities of steel from the Scapa Flow wrecks to make highly sensitive instruments that could not be made with the irradiated steel produced today. The Dutch historian Daniel van der Vat has pointed out that this material from the Scapa Flow wrecks would have been used in the Apollo program and in the Voyager and Pioneer probes. NASA has never confirmed it, but neither has it denied it. It is curious to think that a probe that is beyond the Solar System could carry on board steel extracted from German warships of the First World War sunk in Scapa Flow.

Main photo: Historic Environment Scotland. One of the Scapa Flow wrecks.

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