The Car on the Shore

Nightmare at Scapa Flow reconsidered

A review by David Wemyss (January 2012)


At twenty-seven minutes past midnight on 14 October 1939, soon after the beginning of the Second World War, the German submarine U-47 sailed quietly alongside the little village of St Mary’s on the Orkney mainland and slipped into the historic British naval anchorage at Scapa Flow. Moving through Kirk Sound - one of four narrow eastern entrances - Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien’s objective was to do as much damage as possible as quickly as possible and then get his ship and crew back out again.

It was a clear but moonless night. Visibility was good. It was bright enough to be spotted from the shore, but, even so, Prien needed to remain on the surface to negotiate his way in. Although he seems to have believed he was not on the suicide mission many assumed it to be, he would have known that the risks were enormous.

And his nerves would not have been helped when the U-47 was suddenly caught in the blaze of a car’s headlights. Prien’s log records that the driver sped off towards Kirkwall, only a few miles away. It seemed the alarm would be raised imminently. But it wasn’t, and, not much more than thirty minutes later, HMS Royal Oak was sinking. 833 lives were lost, most of them in nightmarish circumstances. And Prien made it back out into the safety of the North Sea. A few days later the U-47 was tied up in Germany where the submariners were greeted by adoring crowds and dined with Adolf Hitler. Press coverage of the mission was jubilant.

Less than a month later - on 8 November 1939 - Winston Churchill rose in the House of Commons to confirm that the Royal Oak had indeed been sunk by the U-47. Up to then, there had been a number of controversies and doubts about the loss of the famous old ship. In making his statement, Churchill relied on a Board of Inquiry report from the previous month that noted in passing not only Prien’s account of a car on the shore but also a claim in the The Press and Journal (a local newspaper based in Aberdeen) that the driver had actually got out of his vehicle at one point. This story - drawn from German press coverage - must have been known all over Orkney.

But, if the mystery motorist was real, he failed to come forward to identify himself. The Board of Inquiry report simply took it for granted that a car must have stopped at St Mary’s that night but that the driver had not spotted the sinister intruder lit up against the dark seascape. The crew of the U-boat had been alarmed unnecessarily. As for the driver, he had a small but eerie place in history - and didn’t even know it. Or so the story went.

The way into Scapa Flow via Kirk Sound had been identified back in September. War had been declared but Hitler continued to hope that Germany and Britain could yet be allies. Accordingly, he deferred U-boat aggression against Britain and ordered an understated reconnaissance programme instead. It was at this time that another U-boat - the U-16 - managed to have a snoop around the area and chart a possible way in past three big wrecks and several smaller ones (“block ships” scuttled to obstruct the sound, often in conjunction with anti-boat nets, booms, anti-torpedo defences and mine loops). The route was only fifty feet wide and would require adroit navigational skills, but it was definitely achievable.

Its credibility was reinforced by the findings of an earlier incursion carried out just before the war by the commercial freighter Theseus, commanded by a merchant navy captain called Horst Kahle - who just happened to be a German naval spy. In fact the vulnerability of Kirk Sound had even been affirmed within British naval intelligence.

So there was really no need for Albert Oertal, the spy supposedly embedded in Kirkwall for twelve years as a Swiss watchmaker until finally activated to help Günther Prien find his way into Scapa Flow. Oertal was even supposed to have got a lift back to Germany on board the U-47! This appealing but extravagant fiction was the creation of pulp journalism in Germany and America but it was probably inspired by the story of the submarine having been caught in a shaft of light cast by car headlamps.

Meanwhile the willingness of M15 to give credence to the absurd notion that Prien might have welcomed illumination from the shore seems to suggest that they were so embarrassed by the loss of the Royal Oak that they were happy to let people fantasise about spies if that took the heat off them. But the real spies were on the U-16 and the Theseus.

For four decades the car on the shore remained a mystery, one supposedly much discussed by Orcadians. It was not necessarily a mystery about one of their own, of course - in 1939 the islands were teeming with military personnel - although the movement of naval vehicles would have been checkable. Then, in 1980, a nicely-written little book appeared purporting to tell the truth about the sinking of the Royal Oak. This was Nightmare at Scapa Flow by H J Weaver (Cressrelles Publishing Company Limited, Malvern; republished in 2008 by Birlinn, Edinburgh).

Nightmare at Scapa Flow devoted considerable attention to the question of the car on the shore, and identified its driver as a local garage proprietor and taxi driver called Robbie Tullock who was returning to Kirkwall after having taken four young civilians - two men and two women, all of whom worked at the Royal Hotel - to a dance at St Mary’s.

Tullock had responded to an appeal for information which Weaver had placed in the local paper The Orcadian. The gist of his story was that his must have been the car that alarmed Günther Prien. But, although he remembered stopping at the shore and noticing that his “one masked headlamp was piercing its light into the waters of Kirk Sound.” he had seen nothing. And he had not got out of the car.

This is where things get a little bit odd. Weaver immediately gets the night sleeper to Inverness and the morning plane to Kirkwall, where he interviews Mr Tullock and finds him to be “generally straightforward”. He claims to have stayed silent all these years because his story was of no interest - a suggestion which Weaver rejects as unrealistic. But, equally unrealistically, Weaver’s reaction to this is to purport to suspect that his interviewee may be “volunteering for a place in history”.

After forty years? It doesn’t ring true. In fact it sounds like a pseudo-suspicion being set up to obscure a more interesting one. But, before we can think more about that peculiarity, another one comes rushing in. We hear that a water board engineer in Orkney called Willie Irving has surfaced all of a sudden to reveal that he is related to Mr Tullock (we’re not told what the relationship is) and that he was actually staying with him in October 1939. Accordingly Mr Irving heard about the trip to St Mary’s the very next morning, the morning when the islanders awoke to the terrible news that the Royal Oak was gone.

It should be noted that by now Weaver’s book is no longer quoting Mr Tullock, who has disappeared from its pages altogether, never to return (and, when you stop to notice, having hardly been there in the first place). Everything is now attributed to Mr Irving, who tells us that his relative was afraid it might be suggested that his headlight had helped the U-boat in some way. Also, he just didn’t want to get involved.

But most of all - according to Irving - Mr Tullock was concerned about three soldiers he had seen at the door of the dance hall whom he suspected should not have been at a dance but down at the shore, on duty as guards. He had remained silent primarily to protect them, and only his family knew the truth.

Yet all the people at the dance could have incriminated these soldiers (who were in fact perfectly innocent). And, as for knowledge of the taxi’s movements, what about the four young civilians who had been in it? And all the other people who could have seen it going about that night? After all, this was 1939 on the Orkney mainland. Non-military vehicles would have been very familiar in such a small community.

Then there was the idea that the headlamps on the shore could have helped Prien. It’s a bit fanciful but you can imagine an ordinary person taking it seriously. But any such notion could only have been short-lived. It was known publicly within days that the mysterious shaft of light had alarmed the German commander, not helped him, although no one could be sure what difference that had made to subsequent causality.

Yet the most striking thing of all is that a week or two after the sinking a Board of Inquiry took place in Kirkwall at which Admirals with triple-barrelled names conducted investigations upon which Winston Churchill later relied in the House of Commons. Although ordinary people would not have had privileged information about these proceedings, Mr Tullock would surely have feared that the question of “the car on the shore” would be discussed.

In fact, the Board not only discussed the matter but even noted the suggestion in The Press and Journal that the mystery driver had got out of his car before getting back in and driving away. One does have to wonder why they didn’t request that the matter be looked into much more closely, since the answer was obviously out there locally. But, even without any of this, the point remains that the oppressive atmosphere in Kirkwall in October 1939 must have been disconcerting for anyone keeping a big secret.

Of course, as Willie Irving had put it, “people are like that around here”. No different from countless other small and isolated communities, Orcadians are insular (no pun intended) and secretive. However you have to wonder if this is a sufficient explanation. Orcadians may be secretive but Orkney was a fundamentally important location in World War Two, and its geographical isolation counted for less in those days. Britain was at war, and the scale of the conflict would already have seemed immense.

Or, alternatively, looked at from a different perspective altogether, maybe the point is that Orcadians really are secretive - very secretive - and that Mr Tullock’s silence required not only a complicit family but also a degree of complicity in the wider community.

And was his story even true? After all, it is a psychological commonplace that people with a secret will sometimes filter out a little of the truth to make themselves feel better. Guilt is relieved by going satisfyingly close to confession. Fresh air can be breathed through a window that has been opened only slightly. Did Robbie Tullock see the U-47 moving through the waters of Kirk Sound?

Of course, if he did, he might not have realised what he was looking at. H J Weaver tells us about an old fisherman who came to believe he had seen the U-47 in Kirk Sound but assumed at the time it was just a tug, sailing very low in the water. Mr Tullock could easily have made a similar mistake.

Or did he recognise the outline of a submarine, set off to raise the alarm, but then change his mind? Was he overtaken by some irreducible stasis - and then conclude afterwards that it would be inadvisable to admit such a thing in public?

People in unexpected situations do odd things. Maybe Mr Tullock was resigned to the fact that a German U-boat was on its way to attack the fleet in Scapa Flow. Maybe he just thought he couldn’t do anything about it. He probably couldn’t have. But popular opinion would have dictated that he should have tried.  

Of course there’s a famous spy story here, the Oertal story, known the world over, a story that has now proved to be more fiction than fact, and so it would be natural to relish something that might restore some of its lost atmosphere.    

I tried to research the local history side of things further but The Orcadian redirected me to the public library in Kirkwall, where my first approach was acknowledged but eventually ignored. The one thing I did establish was that Mr Tullock had died several years ago. Approaches to his family - still running a taxi service and garage, apparently - were met with silence. And then H J Weaver’s publisher revealed that he too had died.

One thing clear from Nightmare at Scapa Flow is that Weaver seems to have moved about Kirkwall and its surrounding area and been well-received. Yet his story of a warm reception simply does not fit with the sense of tangible incongruity surrounding his supposed clearing-up of the “car on the shore” mystery. Why?

The full answer is no doubt lost in what is known euphemistically as the close-knit nature of the Orkney community. Perhaps it was taken to the grave a long time ago. But the questions are less easily buried.  

Why would Mr Tullock reveal himself after forty years to an author advertising for reminiscences in a local paper? I wonder if he wanted to get something off his chest. But not everything. Just enough to feel he had owned up - but on his own terms.

I imagine that his plan misfired when Weaver actually rushed north to interview him. From that point onward in the book, I don’t think you can take anything seriously. Indeed Mr Tullock disappears from its pages almost as soon as he has been introduced to them. Everything is then attributed to Mr Irving, who emphasises the story about not wanting to incriminate soldiers who would have been incriminated anyway - had they not been innocent. We get no acknowledgement of the obvious suspicion that the civilians in his taxi (on the outward journey) would have had to have been complicit in the silence of their driver.

We do get an acknowledgement that the Board of Inquiry noted the suggestion in The Press and Journal that the mystery driver had got out of his car before getting back in and driving away - but Weaver seems uninterested in the Board’s failure to investigate further.

He also fails to dwell on how the atmosphere in Kirkwall in October 1939  would have been very disconcerting for people keeping a secret - a secret linked to national security in wartime.

This is what I mean by tangible incongruity.

There’s one final twist. I approached the public library in Kirkwall once again, this time with a question I’d missed to begin with. Nightmare in Scapa Flow had been available in every bookshop in Orkney for more than thirty years, so there had to have been a flurry of press coverage at the time of its publication. And this might hold the key. I imagined an interview with Robbie Tullock in The Orcadian. Maybe a few reminiscences in the letters page as well. One way or another, a set of simple explanations might fall into place. All suspicions would be dispelled.

Well, no. The library was very helpful this time, but they could find no trace of any coverage in The Orcadian at the time of the book’s publication. Short of going back up to Orkney and trying to get people talking in pubs - which I suspect would not go down too well - I’m not sure what else I can do. My wife and I have had two very enjoyable holidays up there - there are overnight ferries from Aberdeen with limited “cruise ship” catering and cabins - but we have no plans to return in the foreseeable future.

Maybe the book’s publication stimulated a story or review in a bigger Scottish paper - The Scotsman in Edinburgh or The Herald in Glasgow - but neither is electronically searchable for the period in question. Googling wild cards got me nowhere. You’d think that a popular history book (which I’ve seen in every major Scottish city over a period of years, as well as all over Orkney) can’t have been published and re-published without some press coverage of its fairly obvious local and national interest, but I don’t have the time or resources to investigate further - and I also have a nagging suspicion that there may indeed be nothing to find.

Does it really matter? Not much. Yet Weaver’s otherwise excellent book - although not a work of academic history - has set an agenda. Subsequent popular history books treat it as authoritative. The matters discussed in it have never been dealt by an academic historian but then again they probably never will be. This may be it. The end of the road.

It matters enough to have written what I hope is an entertaining essay. I certainly don’t think Mr Tullock did anything unforgivable. But it is not in dispute that he (and a number of other people) kept a secret which - in 1939 at least - others might have found more difficult to keep. And I have speculated - with good reason - on what might fill in the gaps in H J Weaver’s account of how the secret came to be kept for forty years. If my imagination has run away with me, I shall be gracious when corrected.


David Wemyss graduated in law from the University of Aberdeen in 1977 and worked in local government in that city until he retired in 2011 at the age of 56. He continues to live there with his wife and son. Having had four academic papers published in the British theology journal Modern Believing between 2003 and 2008, he is now developing a portfolio of essays in cultural and political criticism.


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