World War II – Development of the Lyness Royal Naval Base

World War II – Development of the Lyness Royal Naval Base

Panel from temporary exhibition at the Scapa Flow Museum. The text, with extra images, are featured in this blog.

In 1936 Lyness Naval Base was being prepared for another war. A larger fuel oil depot was required, as well as more wharfage and improved shore facilities.

The build up to WW2

Quarry, Lyness.

Surface oil tanks

View of the WW1 tanks during construction work

During WW1 four 8,000 ton oil storage tanks had been built to meet the requirements of oil-fuelled vessels, but more were needed. Between 1937 and 1939, twelve 12,000 ton capacity surface oil storage tanks were erected in a race against time and the Orkney weather. A bund (ear then bank) surrounded each tank as a fire precaution and to contain any oil spilling from a ruptured tank.

Some of the tanks contained steam heating pipes. Heating made the heavy fuel oil less viscous and easier to pump. Two tanks held diesel fuel, while Tank No. 15 was filled with water for fire-fighting purposes.

HM Naval Establishment, Orkney Islands General Plan
Luftwaffe aerial photograph of Lyness Naval Base.

Underground oil tanks

North entrance to the underground oil tanks. Courtesy of Fionn McArthur,

Surface storage tanks were quick to build, but vulnerable to air attack. Between 1938 and August 1943 six underground fuel tanks, with a capacity of 101,000 tons of fuel, were constructed beneath Wee Fea, the hill overlooking Lyness.

The two entrances to these are just modest gaps in the hillside with ventilation shafts nearby. The tunnels, however, are over a quarter of a mile long. A pipeline in the north tunnel fed the tanks with oil. Filter tanks and a sluice outside the north tunnel prevented oil contamination of the groundwater.

Spoil from excavating the tunnels was used to extend the wharf.

Part of the ‘French Road’ at Lyness from roof of ‘A’ power station.

Large numbers of civilian labourers were employed to build these, including miners evacuated from Spitzbergen in 1941. The tanks and their network of access tunnels were a feat of engineering and masterpieces of concrete construction.

The entrances are now gated off and no attempt should be made to access the tunnels, which are unlit and filled with fumes from oil remaining in the tank sumps.

Panel from temporary exhibition at the Scapa Flow Museum. The text, with extra images, are featured in this blog.

Cyril Parks recalls working there:

“The sixteen surface tanks there held a hundred and twenty tonnes of fuel and it was FFO – Furnace Fuel Oil – which was black tarry stuff and it had to be heated because it was that thick it could not run on its own. But it was pumped from the Pumphouse at the base, up to the Pumphouse halfway up Wea Fea (sic) and then from there into the concrete tanks – underground tanks – in Wea Fea.

“… when you entered the entrance, whether it was the north or the south entrance there, it was just like the subway in London. There was just like an archway, you know, and the centre roo lights, there was probably about 130 lights, every twenty yards, you see, there’d be an electric light there. As you entered there the main switch gear was right on the right hand side, and the next compartment was a small room there with a ten-horse, three-phase electric motor and that was for the fan.”

Paravane Depot, Lyness.
A boom defence vessel loading nets from the trough at Lyness Naval Base.
A wartime pier at Lyness. The red building behind it is the WWI Paravane Depot (a cinema in WWII)

Scapa Flow Museum is currently closed for a major refurbishment project, funded by Orkney Islands Council, National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Museums Galleries Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Orkney LEADER fund. The project includes carrying out essential repairs to Pumphouse No. 1 and building an extension to house a new gallery, visitor facilities and café.

Visitors can virtually explore the buildings and former exhibitions at, a 3600 photo record of the main site museum site.

The Island of Hoy Development Trust website has a large Wartime Heritage section focusing on the WW2 history of Hoy.

Stay connected to Orkney Museum for the latest news, stories, exhibitions, events and visitor information.

Scroll to Top