On the 21st of June, 1919, the German High Seas Fleet was scuttled in Scapa Flow.
Over one hundred thousand years ago, Orkney was a wee blot on the landscape of the north-westernmost European peninsula. What we know today as Great Britain only became an island around five thousand years ago, after the onset of the Devensian cold stage. Sometime before that, during the run in to the current Holocene period, which began around twelve thousand years ago, Orkney was separated from Scotland. Retreating ice saw to that divorce. Throughout the Dark Ages and until the mid-15th Century, Orkney was the realm of Norsemen and Vikings and its territory had been disputed by several Scots Kings. Later, in 1473, Orkney was annexed to the Scottish Crown. Much later, during World War I, the British Grand Fleet used Scapa Flow in Orkney as a northern base and it was from there that Admiral Jellicoe sailed out to do battle at Jutland, in 1916. The name, Skapa Flow, comes from the Old Norse for ‘Bay of the Long Isthmus’ – Skalpeid-floi.
Most folks probably think that World War I ended on the 11th of November, 1918, however, that is only the date that the cease-fire was signed – Armistice Day. Part of the Armistice Agreement involved the German Navy handing over the core of its High Seas Fleet, seventy-four named warships, for internment in a neutral port, until peace negotiations determined its fate. The Fleet was ordered to Scapa Flow in Orkney, where it arrived in November 1918. Over the succeeding months, there was a lot of conflicting ideas about what should be the fate of the Fleet and, far from reaching an agreement, the Allies could do nothing but argue. From the German perspective, there was an additional problem; Scapa Flow wasn’t a neutral port, it was decidedly the opposite, being British territory.
Understandably, the German Naval officers, commanded by Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, were ‘unglücklich’ about the Allies having reneged on the Agreement in such a manner. Technically, neutral internment meant that the German Naval officers would still be in command of their ships, pending the outcome of the peace talks. Internment at Scapa Flow, on the other hand, meant, effectively, virtual surrender to the British. The German Naval officers felt betrayed – sold down the river – by their own politicians.
During the peace talks, which took place at Versailles, the Allies continued to argue over the fate of the German Fleet. Under the Armistice Treaty, the basic idea was for the ships to be surrendered and the Fleet divvied up between the Allies, many of whom wanted a share, regardless of their part in the war at sea. The Brits, of course, as the major naval power at the time, wanted the lion’s share and had, of course, engineered the Fleet’s internment in Orkney. Dastardly, old boy!
Back in November, 1918, instead of sailing direct from Wilhelmshaven to Orkney, the German Fleet had taken a circuitous route to Scapa Flow. It arrived in the Firth of Forth on the 21st of November, where it was met by an Allied force of about two hundred and fifty ships. Admiral von Reuter’s Fleet consisted of five battle cruisers, eleven battleships, eight light cruisers and fifty destroyers. The following day, the British herded the German ships to Scapa Flow, where they all arrived by the 27th of November. By June, 1919, the crews had been reduced to caretaker levels and the world awaited the outcome of the peace talks.
At Versailles in June, 1919, the talks were in turmoil and a final peace agreement had still had not been settled, much less a decision on the fate of the German Fleet. The Allies lost patience and gave the Germans an ultimatum – accept the peace terms by noon on the 21st of June or face renewed hostilities. Unable to contemplate more of the horrors of war, the Germans capitulated. The Armistice was extended until the 23rd of June.
However, von Reuter didn’t know his Government had relented. He carried out his momentous decision based on what he read in The Times. The trouble was that he was only able to get four day old copies of the newspaper and the last report he read was about the ultimatum, not the outcome. Nevertheless, he had already decided that he would sink his entire Fleet rather than let the British have the ships. Blockaded in Scapa Flow and with only a skeleton crew per ship, there was no way von Reuter was going to be able to fight his way out if war did resume. He also realised that the Fleet would never be allowed to be repatriated to Germany. As bizarre an episode of self destruction as it was, the scuttling of the ships was inevitable, not least for the honour of the German Navy. And everyone knew it was going to happen.
Rear Admiral von Reuter’s timing was facilitated by the British Fleet having sailed out on exercise that morning, leaving just two warships on guard. Once alerted, the British First Battle Squadron charged back into Scapa Flow in a desperate attempt to stop the scuttling. They managed to beach four ships, but all the others sank. Three battleships and four cruisers still remain below the surface. They are listed as ‘monuments of national importance’ under the protection of Historic Scotland and attract scuba divers from all around the world. Salvage operations started in the early 1920s and more took place in the ‘70s, but further salvage is no longer technically possible. However, the ‘König’ remains an important source of quality radioactive free metals needed for certain types of sensitive scientific instruments.
Whilst the Fleet was lying in the harbour, curious Orcadians used to travel from all over the islands to see the ships. Some ingenious folks even arranged sightseeing excursions and, on the day of the scuttling, one such trip included a party of unsuspecting schoolchildren from Stromness. One of these was James Taylor, who wrote a little melodramatically, “…suddenly, without any warning and almost simultaneously, these huge vessels began to list… 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.” In truth, nobody drowned, but tragically, in the ensuing chaos, eight German sailors were wounded and nine shot dead – the last deaths of World War I, in June 1919.