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The Scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet, 1919

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On 21 June, 1919, 72 warships - the core of the German High Seas Fleet - were scuttled in Scapa Flow, Orkney1. The self-destruction of the German High Seas Fleet is one of the most bizarre events in Naval history. Why did it happen? And what happened to the ships afterwards?

Scapa Flow makes Orkney unique in military terms. This area of water is 24km by 13km and lies, lagoon-like, within the shelter of the surrounding islands of Mainland, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay and Hoy. It is one of the best natural anchorages in the world and has been used as such for many centuries, from the Viking fleet of King Haakon in the 13th Century, right up to the present day. Hated by generations of sailors for its desolate location, Scapa Flow has held some of the biggest battle fleets ever to be assembled anywhere on earth. It was Britain's main naval base in both World Wars. Lyness, on Hoy, was the headquarters.

During World War I, the British Grand Fleet used Scapa Flow as a northern base. After a German U-boat managed to enter Scapa in November 1914, the defences were gradually improved by sinking 21 blockships and laying anti-submarine nets. In 1915, after the creation of defensive minefields, Scapa Flow was regarded as a safe base for the fleet and it was from here that the British Fleet under Admiral Jellicoe sailed out to do battle at Jutland in 1916.

After the Armistice: Disarmed and Dishonoured

World War I did not end on 11 November, 1918. It was the Armistice (or cease-fire) that was signed that day. Part of the Armistice agreement - Article XXIII - involved the handing over and internment in Allied or neutral ports of 74 named warships - the bulk of the German High Seas Fleet.

This Fleet had not been defeated in battle and had not suffered the demoralisation and deprivation of the German Army and Air Force. Their final fate was to be determined during the peace negotiations. The decision to inter the Fleet at Scapa Flow was contentious. It was hardly a neutral port, and totally against the spirit of the agreement drawn up under the Armistice. The German Naval officers were furious. To them neutral internment meant that technically they were still in command of their ships pending the outcome of the peace talks. But internment by the British meant virtual surrender. Here was arguably the world's most powerful battle fleet, unbeaten in combat, being defeated by its own politicians.

Officers found it almost impossible to maintain discipline, and it was only the faint hope that the fleet would be allowed home after the peace talks that held the German Navy together. Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter was given command of this force and used Friedrich der Große as his flagship. At best it was a degrading job, but von Reuter, at the personal request of Admiral Hipper, was determined to do his best and somehow preserve the honour of the German Navy at the same time.

The German Fleet arrived at the Firth of Forth from Wilhelmhaven on the morning of 21 November and were met by an Allied force of about 250 ships under Admiral Beatty. Five battle cruisers, eleven battleships, eight light cruisers2 and fifty destroyers (torpedo boats) arrived under von Reuter's command. At 3:57pm the German flag was ordered to be hauled down and the ships were inspected by the British to see if disarmament was complete. From 22 November the British moved the German ships in groups to Scapa Flow, where they all arrived by 27 November.

The following capital ships and cruisers were interned at Scapa Flow:

  • Seydlitz
  • Moltke
  • Von der Tann
  • Derfflinger
  • Hindenburg
  • Kaiser
  • Prinzregent Luitpold
  • Kaiserin
  • König Albert
  • Friedrich der Grösse
  • König
  • Grösser Kurfürst
  • Kronprinz Wilhelm
  • Markgraf
  • Baden
  • Bayern
  • Bremse
  • Brummer
  • Dresden
  • Köln
  • Karlsruhe
  • Nürnberg
  • Emden
  • Frankfurt

By mid December the 20,000 crew who had sailed the ships to Scapa Flow were reduced to caretaker crews of 200 per battlecruiser, 175 per battleship, 80 per light cruiser and 20 per destroyer, leaving a nominal total of 4,565 plus 250 officers and warrant officers.

There were considerable discipline problems amongst the German crews, with 150 of the most troublesome sailors being sent home and von Reuter changing his flag to the cruiser Emden. In June 1919 the crews were reduced to Royal Navy caretaker levels, 75 per battlecruiser, 60 per battleship, 30 per light cruiser and whatever was necessary for the destroyers, a total of about 1,700.

Whilst Orcadians were used to the sight of Naval ships in Scapa Flow, the German High Seas Fleet was of a greater order than anything that had been seen before, especially in addition to the Allied ships that guarded the Germans. On Sundays, Orcadians travelled from around the islands to stand and stare at the captured ships lying at anchor in their backyard and guided boat trips around the Fleet became commonplace.

As von Reuter sadly wrote years later, 'We were disarmed and dishonoured'.

Peace Talks Drag On

During the time the Fleet was at Scapa Flow, the peace talks at Versailles dragged on, with several extensions to the Armistice. The Allies were divided over the fate of the ships with many countries wanting a share, whilst the British, the major naval power at the time, were keen to hold onto as many of the ships as possible. The treaty involved the surrender of the interned ships.

Scuttling was on everybody's minds. The British had already circulated orders aimed at minimising the effects of scuttling, but knew in their heart of hearts that they could do little about it. If peace talks did not succeed before the Armistice ended a state of war would once again break out. If this happened, Rear Admiral von Reuter had decided that he would sink his entire Fleet rather than let the British have the ships.

Unfortunately for von Reuter, the only information that he could get about the peace talks was from the British, or what he could read in four-day-old copies of The Times. This lack of up to date information had a bizarre consequence. Von Reuter must have realised that his fleet would never return to Germany, and therefore he would almost certainly have scuttled it, if only to preserve the honour of the German Navy. However his actual decision to scuttle was based on a misleading report in a copy of The Times, which was four days old when he read it.

At Versailles the peace talks were in chaos, and as the end of the Armistice drew near, a final agreement still had not been reached. Eventually the British, tired of the whole mess, gave the German Government an ultimatum either to accept the peace terms by noon on 21 June or face renewed hostilities. That is what von Reuter read in his copy of The Times four days later and that is the information that he acted on. What he did not know is that later on the same day the Germans capitulated, accepted the terms, and the Armistice was extended until 23 June to tie up the loose ends.

The Scuttling

21 June 1919 dawned.

The British battleships at Scapa Flow, the First Battle Squadron, left3 with their escorts for exercises.

Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter dressed in his best uniform and paced the deck of the Emden. He thought that no peace agreement was likely and that hostilities would break out again. He knew that it was likely that Germany would only be allowed to keep a small fraction of its fleet, if anything at all. The surprise withdrawal of the British Fleet for exercises that morning resulted in von Reuter making the final decision.

At 10:30am he ordered the following signal to be hoisted:

'Paragraph Eleven - Confirm.'

This was the prearranged code for immediate scuttle.

The controlled suicide of the entire fleet had begun. It took a while for the message to get around the fleet and it was an hour before all the ships acknowledged the signal.

A party of schoolchildren left the town of Stromness on a boat trip around Scapa Flow to view the German Fleet. Little did they know when they left home that day what they were to witness.

Water rushed in through the open seacocks4 of the German High Seas Fleet. The German sailors had been careful to remove internal doors and to weaken bulkheads, water pipes and condensers. Once the scuttling started the only way to stop the boats from sinking was to tow them and beach them.

The first of the German Fleet to sink after the order to scuttle was issued was the Friedrich der Grösse - the flagship of the Jutland Fleet. This battleship sank beneath the surface at 12:16pm. Steam and oil blasted out as the ships sank. Some like the Bayern sank on their sides, their heavy guns forcing them over as they went down. Those in shallower water like the Hindenburg sank on an even keel. As the boats sank, oil and other debris was left floating on the surface and boatloads of German sailors landed on the islands around Scapa.

The only British warships present were the destroyers Vespa and Vega along with a couple of depot ships and various trawlers and drifters. They signalled the First Battle Squadron which returned to base at full speed.

By 2pm the British First Battle Squadron was charging back into the Flow in a desperate attempt to stop the scuttling. They managed to beach the Baden and the cruisers Nürnberg, Emden and Frankfurt. All the other ships sank. In the confusion nine Germans were shot dead, the last deaths of World War I. Nobody was drowned.

At 5pm on 21 June 1919, the last ship, the Hindenburg, went under.

James Taylor, one of the school pupils who witnessed the scuttling, wrote the following:

'On Saturday June 21st 1919, I rose very early, as it would never do to be late for a school treat which was to take the form of a cruise on the Flying Kestrel to visit the surrendered German Fleet. The thought of sailing up to them made us boys almost sick with excitement! At long last we came face to face with the Fleet. Their decks were lined with German sailors who... did not seem too pleased to see us. Suddenly without any warning and almost simultaneously these huge vessels began to list over to port or starboard; some heeled over and plunged headlong, their sterns lifted high out of the water. Out of the vents rushed steam and oil and air with a dreadful roaring hiss. And as we watched, awestruck and silent, the sea became littered for miles round with boats and hammocks, life belts and chests... and among it all hundreds of men struggling for their lives. As we drew away from this nightmare scene we watched the last great battleship slide down with keel upturned like some monstrous whale.'

Another recalled:

During that time we watched the marvellous display as the German ships sank all around us. I counted them, 12 capital ships going down. Some went up by the bows, some by the stern and some stood up in the water. It really was a marvellous display. In a way it was a very sad sight to see all these men getting into their boats, you really wondered what would happen to them. They had lost all their possessions. The whole thing was done in such a peaceful way. It was just the air escaping from the ships as they went down that caused the turbulence on the sea.

Another wrote:

The light cruisers settled by the stern. As the afterpart of the ship disappeared, the bows and a hundred feet or more of the hull projected sheer from the sea, looking like some huge whale leaping through space.

Charles Bunday, a British seaman, witnessed the scuttle and took a series of extraordinary - and now famous - photographs.

Over 400,000 tons of modern warships were sunk, the largest loss of shipping in a single day in history. Publicly the British were outraged but in private there was a sense of relief that the problem of what to do with the fleet was now ended. Considerable efforts were made by British Intelligence to prove that the scuttling had been authorised by Berlin but they never found any proof.

In all, five battlecruisers -Seydlitz, Moltke, Von der Tann, Derfflinger, Hindenburg, 10 battleships - Kaiser, Prinzregent Luitpold, Kaiserin, König Albert, Friedrich der Grösse, König, Grösser Kurfürst, Kronprinz Wilhelm, Markgraf, Bayern, five cruisers and 31 other ships were completely sunk.

The Salvage Operation

To start with, the British Admiralty's reaction was 'Where they are sunk, they will rest and rust. There can be no question of salvaging them'. But the wrecks were a hazard, and a few local boats found themselves going aground on the submerged hulls. Those that had been beached were removed almost immediately.

It was not economic to start salvage operations until 1922. At first, destroyers lying in shallow water were dealt with quite easily. The main challenge came with the deeper wrecks. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s most of these boats were raised. The salvage was remarkably successful and was the largest operation of its kind in history. It attracted much media attention and was largely the result of Ernest Cox's ingenuity. Detailed records have been kept of the history of each German ship after the scuttle.

Cox was a wealthy scrap metal dealer from London who had never salvaged anything underwater before. His dream was to raise the Hindenburg which lay upright in 20 metres of water with its funnels and superstructure above the waves. In 1923 he bought the Seydlitz and Hindenburg plus more than twenty of the scuttled destroyers. He developed a successful system of salvage by experimenting on two of the shallower destroyers. By the end of 1925, 18 destroyers had been salvaged. The costs of the operation were allayed by the salvage team being able to use the large amounts of coal that remained within the wrecks for fuel.

In 1926 he started on the Hindenburg. A ship this size had never been lifted before and required new methods of salvage. Cox's solution was to send divers down to patch all the holes in the hull and then to pump air into the sealed vessel until it rose. Initially this failed and she went back to the bottom in a gale, costing the company £30,000. After a few more unsuccessful attempts on the Hindenburg Cox turned to the Moltke.

This wreck lay nearly upside down in fairly shallow water. Divers were sent down to plug all the holes in the hull: thirty men took nine months to complete the work necessary for a successful lift. Eventually in June 1927 the Moltke was raised upside down and taken to Lyness pier where 3000 tons of metal were taken off her and sold for scrap. Ironically, a German company agreed to tow the hulk to Rosyth for final breaking. On the way the great hull only narrowly avoided collision with the Forth Rail Bridge.

Next was the Seydlitz which lay on its side in 20 metres and gave the salvage team many difficulties because they decided to lift her sideways. The first lift failed and the ship rolled back into deeper water. After further unsuccessful lifts she was finally brought up in November 1928. Six months later she was towed to Rosyth.

A deeper wreck, the Kaiser, at a depth of 45 metres, was then tackled. This gave very real diving challenges to the team who had to work with an ingenious air lock system in the dark. However, the ship turned out to be fairly straightforward to float and by March 1929 she had been lifted. The journey to Rosyth was uneventful.

Work then started on the cruiser Bremse. She was raised relatively easily, despite some flash fires as a result of the considerable amount of fuel oil inside her. She was not seaworthy so the wreck was broken up at Lyness. Cox then returned to the Hindenburg and after more work and patching she was finally salvaged in July 1930. Unlike the others, the Hindenburg was raised upright.

The Von der Tann followed. Fatalities were narrowly avoided when a pocket of inflammable methane gas within the hull was accidentally ignited by a flame cutter and exploded. Another explosion happened in the next wreck - the Prinzregent Luitpold and one man died. These were the last wrecks that Cox lifted and by 1933 they had both been towed to Rosyth for scrapping.

Cox then sold the business to the Alloa Shipbreaking Company. Over eight years he had lost £10,000 on the project, but had made his name as an innovative salvager. It is alleged that every Friday 10% of Cox's Scapa workforce was sacked and had to reapply for their jobs on Monday morning, to encourage 'good work'.

The final salvages on the bigger wrecks - the Bayern, Grösser Kurfürst, Kaiserin, Friedrich der Grösse and Derfflinger - were carried out by Alloa throughout the 30s. Good profits were made on all these ships. By 1939 further salvage became impossible due to preparations for World War II.

After the World War II Nundy Ltd blasted a number of holes in the remaining wrecks - the König, Markgraf and Kronprinz Wilhelm to enable the valuable non-ferrous metals to be retrieved. More salvage took place in the 70s. But further salvage of the deep and rusting wrecks is no longer technically possible, so that apart from the occasional retrieval of radiation free steel from the König, the wrecks are left in peace.

The Scuttling Remembered Today

There are still eight of the German High Seas Fleet lying on the bottom of Scapa Flow and they attract scuba divers from around the world. Battleships Kronprinz Wilhelm, Markgraf and König; light cruisers Karlsruhe, Dresden, Brummer and Köln provide some of the best diving in Britain and although deep, they are accessible to skilled and experienced divers.

In Stromness it is hard to avoid the history of the German scuttle. Local shops sell t-shirts5, tea towels, mugs and other souvenirs commemorating the 21 June 1919. Local dive boats leave daily in the summer, taking scuba divers to explore the wrecks6. Stromness Museum has a fascinating number of artefacts from the scuttled Fleet, from ships' bells and uniforms to crockery and navigational instruments.

In Lyness on the island of Hoy there is a museum telling the story of Scapa Flow in the two wars. It is possible to reach the museum by way of a sight-seeing tour on Scapa Flow on a boat which launches an ROV7 onto Dresden, which is the closest that most of us will ever get to the remaining scuttled ships.

1A group of islands off the north coast of Scotland.2These 24 made up the full complement of capital ships and cruisers of the High Seas Fleet.3Quite coincidentally, but fortuitously for the Germans.4Valves below the waterline of the ship to let water in or out.5One of which depicts von Reuter looking at the drowning Fleet and shouting 'Idiots! I said Subtle Retreat, not Scuttle the Fleet'.6These explorations also visit the block ships which were sunk during the war to block the entrances to Scapa Flow.7Remotely Operated Vehicle.

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