Ness Battery

I visited Ness Battery today: a wartime site outside of Stromness. Andrew Hollinrake gave a tour of this well-preserved historical site.

Gun emplacement at Ness Battery, Stromness
Gun emplacement at Ness Battery, Stromness.

The gun emplacement at Ness Battery

The Ness Battery guards the entrance to Scapa Flow, which was an important base for the British Navy in both World Wars. In World War 1, before there was any danger or air raids, the huge cannons were standing out in open air, almost invisible from the sea. In World War 2, however, overhead cover became a necessity, so the gun emplacement we see today are roofed with concrete.

Crews of nine men manned each cannon, and worked in shifts to stand guard for approaching ships day and night. These were 6 inch caliber guns: the largest which can be loaded by hand, without the use of hydraulics. Each shell weighs 100 lbs / 45 kilograms! At the Ness Battery today, the gun emplacements, underground ammunition store and control tower from which the distance to approaching vessels was measured are all preserved.

In the photo, we see the twin hills of the neighbouring island of Hoy. The range of these cannons was so long that in theory, it could shoot between those hills and into the Pentland Firth on the other side of the island!

Inside the Mess Hut at the Ness Battery

The most remarkable thing about the Ness Battery is how well preserved the wooden huts are. One is currently open to visitors: the Mess Hut, where the men would have eaten their meals and spent most of their spare time. Inside, the hut is laid out for an evening’s entertainment, with a wartime piano from which would come the tunes of wartime favourites such as We’ll Meet Again, and The White Cliffs of Dover.

What immediately strikes you as soon as you go in, is the beautiful mural that covers the walls. It shows idyllic scenes of English countryside: nostalgic, perhaps, for the men who had been posted to Orkney, far away from their own homes. One detail is a signpost, simply saying “north”, as if the nostalgic memory is pointing out of the picture towards the harsh reality.

Another interesting detail is the little shop window scene that is painted on the hatch where the food was served from the kitchens. The building painted here has been given the name Rose Cottage: At first glance an idyllic name, but in reality an in-joke for anyone familiar enough with the navy to know that the quarantine area on board a ship, which held men suffering from what the guide with a euphemism called “tropical diseases and such like”,¬†would have its own separate crockery, all marked with a red rose and therefore the whole sick bay came to be known as Rose Cottage.

Under the ceiling is another remarkable detail. Beneath the motto “Ubique” (everywhere, omnipresent) we find another, more humorous slogan: “Come the three corners of the world in ships, and we shall sink them!” This is an adaptation of a quote from Shakespeare’s King John:

Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

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