American minesweeper clearing a mine, from the Tom Kent Collection
On this day in 1919 Kirkwall was officially closed as a British Naval Base after the First World War. The day after also saw the last of the American minesweeping fleet leave Orkney.
Massive quantities of mines were laid, by both sides, during the First World War with the Americans concentrating on the seas between Orkney and Norway. In 1918 alone they laid more than 56,000 mines in this area. As a result, after hostilities had ceased, the big clean up began in 1919 with a large fleet of American minesweepers operating from Kirkwall Bay.
The ships would leave Kirkwall Bay for three or four weeks at a time, with the working day commencing at sunrise and continuing until sunset. The fleet also celebrated Independence Day in Kirkwall. This was actually not the first time the 4th of July had been celebrated in Orkney. In 1918 thousands of american sailors, stationed in Scapa Flow, got leave to celebrate.
In 1919 the minesweepers had been at sea for three weeks and were looking forward to a well earned rest. Friday the 4th of July was declared a holiday for the Flotilla and the ships were all decorated with flags. The celebrations started in the morning with a regatta for rowing boats, and continued in the afternoon with sports at the Bignold Park. In the evening a banquet was held, at which the Freemasons of Kirkwall were entertained by the Freemasons from the Flotilla. Elsewhere, an evening of entertainment was enjoyed at the YMCA hut by a large crowd of crewmen. The entertainment provided included one Mademoiselle Peter, female impersonator, who danced the Salome Dance and the Dance of Death.
The minesweepers and their crews began to leave Orkney around the middle of September 1919. They had been popular visitors and many a local would have been sorry to see them leave. As the local newspaper rather quaintly put it, “more than one american had found his affinity in some fair Orkney maid”!