Today, we visit the remains of two World Wars. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Scapa Flow is a sheltered
bay nestled in the Orkney Islands just beyond the
northernmost tip of Scotland. The Orkneys are flat,
green, and quite beautiful. A buoy with a memorial
plaque bobs in Scapa Flow. Eight hundred sailors
from the English battleship Royal Oak
are entombed below it. I was in fourth grade when a
German U-boat made its daring raid into the very
middle of this sheltered anchorage and found the
Royal Oak there on Friday the 13th --
in October, 1939.
One torpedo from the first salvo hit the ship, and
it did minimal damage. It wasn't clear to the crew
what the muffled WHUMP! really meant. The Germans
were given the twenty minutes they needed to reload
a second salvo. This time they scored three solid
hits. In minutes the ship had capsized and sunk. It
landed with its superstructure crushed on the
bottom and the keel just thirty feet from the
surface. Only a third of its crew -- chilled and
oil-soaked -- got out alive.
It was frightening news for me. The gathering
clouds of WW-II had darkened my childhood ever
since the Japanese and Italians invaded China and
Africa. Now the pride of the British Fleet had been
sunk in home waters. In my childish fear, I asked
how long it would be before I saw enemy submarines
in the Mississippi.
The Royal Oak was state-of-the-art
naval weaponry when it was built in 1914. Its great
15-inch guns were then the largest ever put on a
ship. By 1939 it bulged with protective siding to
absorb torpedo impacts. But technology had moved
too quickly, and that siding wasn't enough to
absorb the new German torpedoes.
The Royal Oak was, ironically, not the
first battleship that went to the bottom in that
cold, quiet anchorage. Twenty-nine years earlier,
after WW-I, the Allies had herded the defeated
German Navy into Scapa Flow. Then, without warning,
German skeleton crews made a kamikaze decision.
They scuttled their whole fleet before the Allies
So there's far more than just the Royal
Oak at the bottom of Scapa Flow. The surface
of those waters is still smoothed today by slow,
unremitting oil leaks that've gone on for 70 years.
The well-built hull of the Royal Oak
still holds air pockets that its drowning sailors
Of course, we saw no German submarines in the
Mississippi River. Eight hundred English sailors
were a tiny fraction of the millions who died to
prevent that. And Scapa Flow is a mute monument to
the head-over-heels arms races that fueled those
two failed wars of conquest. It is as beautiful a
cemetery for yesterday's war machines as it is for
the men who died in them.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds