WARTIME artefacts from battleships sunk off Orkney are being lost forever due to the wrecks collapsing in on themselves, according to concerned divers.
The ships lie on the seabed in Scapa Flow where the German High Seas Fleet scuttled after being sent there as a condition of the armistice ending the First World War.
Also on the seabed is the British warship, the Royal Oak, which was sunk by a German submarine in 1940 and is now an official war grave for 833 of the crew who perished.
But seven German wreck sites are also protected, meaning it is illegal for recreational divers to remove any objects.
Local divers are now calling on government agency Historic Scotland (HS) to give them more freedom to retrieve such objects from the seabed.
Scapa Flow was home base for the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet during the First World War (1914-18), and the northern base for the fleet in the Second World War (1939-45).
In 1919, it became famous for the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet.
Following the defeat of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s war machine the year before, 74 ships were interned at Scapa Flow, pending a decision on their future under the terms of the peace Treaty of Versailles.
On 21 June 1919, after nine months’ waiting, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, the German officer in command, decided to scuttle the fleet because the negotiation period for the treaty had lapsed with no word of settlement.
However, he had not been kept informed that there had been a last-minute extension to finalise details.
At present, sightings of objects on the seabed are reported to Historic Scotland, which admits Scottish ministers are keen to keep activity to a minimum to preserve the site.
But John Thornton, of Scapa Flow Diving, says most divers are not aware of the procedure, and in any case it often does not work.
He said: “Groups of divers exist that are interested in the preservation of such artefacts, not just for the next generations but those way ahead.
“These objects must be saved, and this is what responsibility to our naval history is about, not protection with little, or no, action.”
The wrecks are suffering major deterioration due to the subsea conditions, Thornton said. And he believes this will get worse as time goes on, making it harder to recover important items in the future.
But a Historic Scotland spokeswoman said: “Consent can be given for objects to be removed from the scheduled German High Seas Fleet wrecks.
“Scottish ministers’ policy on consent is that actions are the minimum necessary to preserve what is culturally significant about a monument and is normally only for planned projects with a clear research design by suitably qualified personnel, where the necessary funding for fieldwork, post-fieldwork research, artefact conservation and publication is in place.
“Where significant items are genuinely in immediate danger of loss, for example in the case of sailors’ postcards discovered on the wreck of the SMS Karlsruhe, consent has been given for removal on account of their apparent uniqueness and delicate condition, but with the same provisions about funding, research, conservation and publication.”
But Thornton believes it can take too long for approval, meaning divers cannot access the sites until it is too late.
He said: “If we see a plate we should be able to pick up a phone or e-mail Historic Scotland and get authorisation to rescue it before part of the ship collapses and it breaks or disappears. It could take months before they get ministers’ approval, and then they send their own divers at high cost to the taxpayer.”
One example, he said, was when an experienced diver reported he had come across the bugle used aboard the SMS Markgraf. He added: “This would have been used at the Battle of Jutland of 1916, nearly a 100 years ago.
“We reported it to HS and asked if we could retrieve it, document its position and then, at our own expense, restore and conserve the bugle.
“The HS response was to ask for its position so that their group of professional divers could retrieve it. The cost for this would have been well in excess of £1,000 a day for the dive team and vessel.”
That operation was unsuccessful. Thornton said: “The bugle is still in the wreck and will stay there, as the bulkhead has collapsed. Access is impossible and the bugle will never be recovered. The diver who found it could have taken photos and retrieved it in one dive, at no cost. He is the only one to have seen this bugle since 1919.
“We know of many objects, now buried, that should have been recovered and conserved. Why not allow divers to find, recover, document and preserve such objects while we can?”