Columnists > The cacophony of the referendum debate seemed miles away from Orkney

23 June 2016 | by Peter Hennessy

The cacophony of the referendum debate seemed miles away from Orkney


When future political historians write up the rhythms and the rhetoric, the ebbs and flows, of the 2016 European Referendum campaign, I hope they will linger on a week of events in the middle of it that was all about Europe and yet transcended the shot and shell of the remainers and the leavers.

Paradoxically, it, too, was all about shot and shell – the commemoration of Jutland, the greatest naval battle of all time, which took place inside 12 hours on 31 May/1 June 1916 on the North Sea some 100 miles off the Danish coast. The Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet took on the Imperial German High Seas Fleet.

I witnessed the Jutland commemoration from Orkney with its graceful ring of low sandstone islands encircling the huge harbour of Scapa Flow. Today it is one of the most serene places on Earth, in stark contrast to 30 May 1916. Then it was the geopolitical pivot of the world, as Sir John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet sailed out beneath a red sunset into the Pentland Firth in the knowledge, thanks to signals intelligence, that the High Seas Fleet was preparing to set sail from its base in Wilhelmshaven.

The stakes were enormously high, war-turning, in fact. Winston Churchill was right to describe Jellicoe as “the one man who could lose the war in a single afternoon”. If the German Admiral Reinhard Scheer had shattered the British dreadnoughts at Jutland, the British blockade from the Orkney Islands to the southern tip of Norway would have ruptured. U-boats’ attacks would have progressively starved the United Kingdom. A successful German invasion might even have been possible.


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