Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

The Great Scuttle by David Meara

The End of the German High Seas Fleet

Witnessing History

One hundred years ago last summer an extraordinary and dramatic event took place, a coda to the end of the First World War. The scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, on 21st June 1919, Midsummer’s Day was the greatest single loss of shipping in maritime history, 74 capital ships scuttled, of which 52 went to the bottom.

A panorama of the surrender of the German fleet on 21 November 1918, showing HMS Cardiff leading the German battlecruisers, flanked by HMS Lion and HMS Queen Elizabeth. (The Great Scuttle, Amberley Publishing)

In spite of the drama and magnitude of the event, it is not as well known as it should be, certainly not in England. Partly because it happened after the First World War had ended, partly because of reporting restrictions at the time, partly because it was, publicly at least, something of an embarrassment to the Admiralty and the British Government, and partly because the Orkney Islands seem to be a long way away. Indeed I have discovered that some people are surprisingly vague about where the Orkney Islands are!

So it seemed to me that the one hundredth anniversary year was a chance to remind ourselves of this dramatic postscript to the First World War. My personal interest in this subject stems from the fact that my mother and my uncle were witnesses of the event, because they were members of a party of school children from Stromness Academy who were being given a summer treat. A trip around the interned German Fleet on board the boat the Flying Kestrel: and right in the middle of their outing the scuttling began. Big ships turning turtle all around them, German sailors taking to the boats, English sailors shooting at them, the sea foaming and boiling, panic and pandemonium everywhere. It was an experience they never forgot, and my uncle’s diary account of the experience gave me the idea of writing an eye-witness account of the events of that day to mark the 100th anniversary.

The story of the Great Scuttle is really a drama in three acts:-

Act I)       The Surrender of the High Seas Fleet at the end of November 1918.

Act II)     The Scuttling itself, after 7 months of internment in Scapa Flow.

Act III)    The subsequent salvaging of some of the ships during the inter-war years.

 

The Flying Kestrel, a tug used to take water and supplies to the British fleet. (Orkney Photographic Archive, The Great Scuttle, Amberley Publishing)

Act I

Under the terms of the Armistice of 11th November 1918 the German High Seas Fleet was to be interned in an allied port pending its disposal – and because no-one else wanted it, Admiral Wemyss suggested Scapa Flow.

On 21st November 1918 under “Operation ZZ” the entire Grand Fleet, plus Allies, put to sea, 370 ships and 90,000 men, to rendezvous with the German Fleet off May Island in the Firth of Forth, flying as many white ensigns as possible. One immense line of ships dividing into two lines, meeting the German Fleet in line ahead, 9 battleships, 5 battle cruisers, 7 light cruisers, and 49 destroyers – under the command of Admiral Ludwig von Reuter in the Battleship Friedrich Der Grosse. The British light cruiser Cardiff led the German ships between the two allied lines, which then reversed course to escort the Germans to the Forth.  The whole operation was conducted in silence. At about 11.00 am Beatty gave the order that the German flag would be lowered at sunset and not hoisted again without permission. The entire event was carefully choreographed to demonstrate the power and might of the victorious British and Allied Navies, and the humiliation of the Germans. The British could hardly believe that the German Naval Command would submit so meekly, and so the prevailing mood was one of disgust and sadness.

The ships were then inspected to ensure they were completely disarmed, and then over the next few days groups of ships were escorted northwards by the 1st Battle Squadron to their internment in Scapa Flow.

Von Reuter decided early on in the internment that he would not let his ships fall into enemy hands unless ordered to by his own government, and so began making plans for scuttling but kept them secret, only telling his commanding officers. Vice Admiral Sir Sydney Freemantle, officer Commanding 1st Battle Squadron, didn’t keep von Reuter informed about the negotiations, and in fact took his ships out on torpedo exercises in the Pentland Firth on 21st June because of the good weather. So the fates conspired to present von Reuter with the perfect moment to scuttle his fleet and redeem his country’s honour. For the Stromness schoolchildren, the morning dawned fine and bright, and they prepared for their treat blissfully unaware of the tensions, humiliations and confusions of the previous seven months. It was going to be a day to remember.

 

German destroyers ashore on the island of Flara. (Author's collection, The Great Scuttle, Amberley Publishing)

Act II

Leslie Thorpe, my uncle, twelve years old at the time, wrote a detailed account of the day afterwards in his diary and in a letter to his father. He takes up the story:-

“Went down to see the German Fleet. Everyone came to school about 9.45 am and we marched to the Flying Kestrel, which was at the New Pier.” The Flying Kestrel was a tug from Liverpool, used to supply water and general stores to the British ships in Scapa Flow.

The Stromness Senior School classes were being taken on the trip, leaving behind the Infants, and they marched down to the pier in class order, between two and three hundred children in all. Leslie Thorpe goes on:-

The Kestrel was quite big enough to hold us, and we had liberty to go almost all over her. We had the Red Ensign at the stern, the Union Jack at the bow, and the pennant with the ship’s name at the fore-mast-head. We passed through the hurdles” (the anti-submarine defences) “and the first German ship we came to was the SMS Baden. She is a battleship, having two masts, and two funnels close together, two big guns aft, and two forward. The next was the battlecruiser König Albert. The battlecruisers all have very pointed sterns, and their names are at the stern instead of at the bow.

The next ships were the battle cruisers Kaiserin, Derfflinger, Hindenburg, Von der Tann, Moltke and Seydlitz. I never noticed the Kaiser or the Karlsruhe. Perhaps I wasn’t looking when we passed them.” The central section of my book continues the narrative of the scuttling, largely using eye-witness accounts, which vividly bring to life the events of the 21st June 1919, and the impact it had on those who watched the drama unfold.

At the end of that extraordinary day there must have been many excited children being coaxed to bed. Admiral von Reuter, after a game of piquet with his flag lieutenant in his cabin aboard the British flagship, HMS Revenge, now a prisoner of war, settled down in his bunk. The next day he and the rest of the German sailors were taken south to prisoner-of-war camps in England.

 

The battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg has by this stage settled on the bottom, with only her masts, funnels and the upper part of her superstructure showing. (Imperial War Museum Photographic Archive, The Great Scuttle, Amberley Publishing)

Act III

This extraordinary drama was played out over the years leading up to the start of the Second World War, when through the efforts of Ernest Cox, a scrap metal merchant from the Isle of Sheppey, and his successors, all of the destroyers and many of the bigger vessels were salvaged, using pioneering techniques and sheer dogged hard graft and determination.

Seven wrecks still remain at the bottom of the Flow, now scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act. They have become a top diving destination, bringing in a substantial boost to the local economy. Those wrecks and the German graves at Lyness Naval Cemetery on the Island of Hoy remain as mute testimony to the events of that day in 1919.

The events of the 21st June 1919 were never forgotten by those who witnessed them. When interviewed for a magazine article in her 85th year one of the schoolchildren, Peggy Gibson said:-

“I still think about it. It was really remarkable, and not something anyone could easily forget, seeing those great ships first listing, then sinking, with a great roar of steam escaping, and the German sailors jumping into the water.”

One hundred years on, there are no witnesses to the scuttling still alive. But, through the memories and records they left behind, the drama, chaos and terror of that fateful day can be vividly recreated for later generations for whom the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet is simply part of distant history. Young Leslie Thorpe called his outing on the Flying Kestrel with his sister and schoolmates “a most thrilling experience”, and in a PS to his long letter to his father describing their adventures, added:-

“Don’t you think I’d better write a book about the scuttling of the German Fleet!”

Over the succeeding years a number of accounts have indeed been written, and one hundred years later my own account of that one momentous day, Saturday 21st June 1919, fulfils that young boy’s aspiration, and tells this dramatic story afresh, through the eyes of those who saw it happen. As the young Leslie Thorpe said to his sister Winnie at the time: they were indeed “witnessing history.”

David Meara's book The Great Scuttle: The End of the German High Seas Fleet is available for purchase now.