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  • 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.

  • South Coast Passenger Vessels by John Megoran

    Growing up in Weymouth in the 1950s and 1960s I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of the South Coast coastal excursion paddle steamers. We sailed on them as a family. When I was old enough (and in those days old enough meant from the age of 9) I went on them on my own. They laid up in Weymouth harbour each winter. I cycled past them on my way to school. I got to know some of the captains and crews and watched the progress of their refits. My boyhood dream was to go to sea so that one day I might become captain of one of them but sadly that dream began to look a little thin as my teens wore on and one after another the paddle steamer was sold for scrap leaving a huge void in South Coast cruising.

    Claire, the Hamble-Warsash ferry. (South Coast Passenger Vessels, Amberley Publishing)

    Fast forward fifty years to 2019. Look around the South Coast today. Want a boat ride? You are spoiled for choice. Ok so these vessels are not quite like the paddle steamers of yesterday but they are boats, they go places and they do still get you afloat.

    Mostly they offer shorter cruises of an hour or two in length and can carry between 12 and 250 passengers. Many are based on the principle of an open top deck to get the best of the sun when it is shining with an enclosed saloon below serving drinks and light snacks for when it rains. Most are under the command of Boatmasters, rather than sea-going captains, and have tiny crews of between two and four which make them very economical to operate.

     

     

    Waverley backing out from Swanage. (South Coast Passenger Vessels, Amberley Publishing)

    There are tiny ones like the rowing boats, ferrying eight at a time across the Harbour at Weymouth. There are the bigger launches which enable you to sail past the Portland Harbour Breakwaters, along the River Frome from Wareham or from the beach at Swanage. Sail through the tranquillity and shallowness of Christchurch Harbour on one of them or take a trip from Alum Bay or Yarmouth close up to get stunning views of the Needles. Jump aboard one at Southampton, Portsmouth and Cowes for trips in the Solent. Cross the Hamble River in ferries painted lurid pink. Take a ride across Chichester and Langstone Harbours on a converted lifeboat or a solar powered craft. And what about Brighton Marina from which you can take a short coastal cruise or a tour of the windfarms.

     

     

    Solent Flyer off Southsea. (South Coast Passenger Vessels, Amberley Publishing)

    Then there are the bigger vessels, some of which can carry over 300 passengers on excursions in the Solent, around Poole Harbour, dropping off some of their passengers at Brownsea Island, on to Swanage and Durslton Head. And let’s not forget the Isle of Wight ferries which offer opportunities for all who think that it is the size of ship that matters. For those who like it really big then there are the cross-Channel ferries from Portsmouth or Poole to take you on a day trip to France or the Channel Islands.

    I spent last summer visiting all the current operational South Coast passenger vessels and was astounded and impressed by the sheer quantity and diversity of the boats I found. In an area bounded by Weymouth in the west and Newhaven in the east there are currently well over eighty of them operating with Maritime and Coastguard Agency Passenger Certificates. That’s a lot of boats. That’s a lot of trip options. That’s a lot of boat rides.

    St Clare approaching Portsmouth. (South Coast Passenger Vessels, Amberley Publishing)

    “South Coast Passenger Vessels” is the result of my tour last year and includes details and colour pictures of all of them. Frankly I didn’t know that many of these boats even existed before I started out. Now that I do know I hope that this book alerts you to their existence and encourages you all to find out more about them and to seek them out so that you too can enjoy them and see from the water some of the most spectacular scenery in this beautiful part of Britain. If you get as much pleasure from it as I did last year, you will not be disappointed.

    John Megoran's new book South Coast Passenger Vessels is available for purchase now.

  • Policing South Wales Docks by Viv Head

    Bute Dock Police Naval Style Cutlass. (Policing South Wales Docks, Amberley Publishing)

    During the Nineteenth Century, South Wales exploded into industrial activity; previously peaceful valleys were turned on their head. Iron masters built their furnaces, coal owners sank their pits, the railways arrived and great docks were built all along the coast; at Newport, Cardiff, Penarth, Barry, Port Talbot and Swansea. South Wales became the crucible of the Industrial Revolution.

    Men arrived from all over the country, eager to be part of these great mechanical workings. Seamen of every nationality came on ships ready to carry these fruits of industrial labour to all corners of the world. The docks became a land of opportunity; peaceful coastal communities were turned into overcrowded towns and cities. Disease, prostitution, violence and dishonesty were everywhere.

    Alexandra Railway & Dock Police in 1921. (Policing South Wales Docks, Amberley Publishing)

    Into this mix of blood, sweat and coal dust came the dock police, charged with keeping a lid on rough communities bent on self-intent. Crime and murderous violence were rife; it took a breed of hard men to step in and take control. The docks were a dark and treacherous place; PC John Foulkes served at Swansea Docks during the latter part of 1890.  One morning when he had not returned to the police station at the end of his night duty, a search was made and his body was found in the water by a fellow officer. There were no witnesses and no evidence of foul play. Cause of death was found to be drowning. So at some point in the night, he had stumbled and lost his footing, or perhaps simply lost his way, or perhaps had challenged someone and ended up in the water. Nobody knows – he was simply doing his job when, alone and in the dark, he had been overtaken by death. Neither was John Foulkes the only one, at least three other officers drowned on duty. The docks could be a fearsome lonely place sometimes.

    Each of the ports employed their own police forces. Over time they amalgamated to join into a single force, the British Transport Police. Then in the mid-1980s came privatisation and containerisation; it was perceived that the police had done their job and were no longer needed. So, in 1985, the last dock policeman switched off the light, locked the police station door, got into his car and drove away. Men, and they were almost entirely men, who had sort to preserve the peace 24 hours a day, seven days a week for almost 130 years. Men dedicated to looking after the lives of others, who occasionally gave their own lives to the cause; men who worked twelve hours a day without a single day off throughout the years of the Great War. Men who did the dirty work that others turned away from.

    Policing South Wales Docks provides an illustrated insight into some of the darker and lighter moments of the dock coppers’ working lives. They weren’t always angels themselves but they do deserve to be remembered. In the 1970s I was privileged to serve at Cardiff Docks for seven years before my police career took me elsewhere. It was an experience unlike any other and I recall it often.

    Viv Head's new book Policing South Wales Docks is available for purchase now.

  • Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History by Carol McNeill

    The three-masted Lord Gambier, built in Newcastle, was one of the Kirkcaldy whaling ships. (c. Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History, Amberley Publishing)

    Kirkcaldy harbour has a long and fascinating history, and as a local history researcher and author I’m surprised at myself for taking so long to start tracing its background!

    Its recorded history goes all the way back to the 16th century when James V of Scotland sailed from Kirkcaldy to France with seven ships to collect his French teenage bride, Madeleine de Valois, in 1536. It was also the last place that the Marquis of Montrose saw before he was taken to Edinburgh to be executed for treason in 1650.

    Kirkcaldy captains and seafarers led adventurous and dangerous lives; it seemed to be all in a day’s work to sail to the continent and indeed as far as Russia on trade missions.

    Elise Schulte was one of the huge ships to transport grain in the 1950s to what was then Hutchison's flour mill. (c.Tom Mutch, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History, Amberley Publishing)

    There was also a whaling fleet of several ships which sailed to the Arctic for the lucrative trade in whale oil and meat: an uncomfortable period to read about now but it was of its time, and has to be recorded. It was also a dangerous business for the captains and crew, when the whaling ships became stuck in the polar ice for weeks on end until the spring came. With the extreme conditions and rations fast running out, there was a high mortality rate and no opportunity even to bury the men whose bodies could only be placed overboard on the thick ice.

    But there were easier aspects to research; in particular, the grand houses belonging to ships’ captains and owners which overlooked the harbour – three of which have escaped the developers and have been restored to their former glory with intricate panelling and plasterwork revealed.

    Nairn's canvas factory was built right opposite the harbour. (c. Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History, Amberley Publishing)

    I had a tremendous stroke of good fortune and unlooked for assistance in writing this book, when I was handed the copy of a memoir with first hand reminiscences of life at Kirkcaldy harbour in the early 18th century. It contained interviews with ship owners and captains and included actual eye witness accounts of John Paul Jones’ American ships threatening Kirkcaldy: The ships were so close to the shore that we could see they were Dutch built, and that those on board were wearing red shirts.  The local minister prayed for the wind to change direction; it did, and the ships were blown off course and away from Fife.  It also recorded the time when a local ship sailed to Russia, probably for the flax trade, which was a fairly regular occurrence. On this occasion however, the captain was met on the quayside and told that since he had left his home port, their two countries were at war, and he and his crew were put under house arrest. The captain had been prepared to give the Russian officers some liquor which he had brought specially from Scotland: but when he was met with this news, he promptly asked the officers for his bottles back!

    Now the only ships which come into our harbour are the long low grain ships servicing the huge flour mill; if it weren’t for that very welcome commerce, no doubt the harbour would now have been completely shut down and remain just a fond memory.

    Carol McNeill's new book Kirkcaldy Harbour: An Illustrated History is available for purchase now.

  • British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years by John Megoran

    Monarch at Weymouth, 1960. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    Looking back on my life I was so incredibly lucky to have grown up as a boy in Weymouth in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when the harbour there was such an epicentre of paddle steamer activity. Not only did the Consul, Embassy and Monarch lay up there each winter but they were subsequently joined by the Princess Elizabeth and visitors like the Bristol Queen and Sandown which came for work on their engines and boilers undertaken by paddle steamer operator Cosens and Company of Weymouth.

    A young Tony McGinnity bought the Consul in Weymouth after she had been withdrawn in 1962 and after that failed he set himself up as a ship broker handling the sales of pretty much all the UK paddle steamers withdrawn in the 1960s through his office at 11 Custom House Quay, Weymouth.

     

     

    Consul sailing up Weymouth Harbour, 1958. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    In the summer we went for trips aboard them to Lulworth Cove, Portland Bill, the Shambles Lightship, Swanage, Bournemouth and Totland Bay, Isle of Wight which to my young eyes seemed as far away as the moon. I was so taken with them that I even built a paddle steamer replica in our back garden.

    Then each September, just as a new school year started, Consul, Embassy and Monarch retreated to lay up in Weymouth Harbour. The boilers were blown down making the steamers float higher in the water exposing a skirt of green weed which soon dried out and changed colour to white. Hats were put on the funnels to stop the rain going down. The brass was coated in a film of grease and carefully bandaged with strips of tarpaulin to keep it from the elements. The buoyant apparatus were stacked on deck and covered to protect them from the worst of winter storms.

     

    Embassy at Bournemouth. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    There the steamers slumbered until the awakening dawn of spring brought out the workforce from the yard. Maybe a little bit of decking needed renewing like on the Consul in 1962. The Monarch had a new inner funnel fitted in 1959 and the Embassy had a new front fitted to her wheelhouse in 1964.

    Then the fitters started work on the engines and boilers. Painters came aboard to start to transform the ships before they went off to the slipway or dry-dock for Board of Trade survey and underwater anti-fouling painting. Consul was small enough to be hauled out on Cosens own Weymouth slipway but the other paddlers had to go to Portland, Poole or Southampton instead. When they came back ready for their new summer seasons how fresh, shiny and new they looked.

     

     

    Monarch at Weymouth, 1961, awaiting a tow to the scrapyard. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    All this was part of my daily childhood life. My cycle route to school took me past the harbour and the paddle steamers. I would stop and gawp, watching everything going on. Occasionally in the darkest depths of winter, and when there was nobody about, I would sneak aboard. Consul was always locked up but Embassy and Monarch had open access to their alleyways. Embassy had a cover over her engine room skylight so her machinery was always cloaked in darkness but not so on the Monarch. No cover there and what a winter joy it was to stand there looking at her engine bathed in sunlight from the skylight above and to try hard to figure out how it all worked.

    It seemed to my young eyes then that these paddle steamers had been there for ever and would be there for ever more. It therefore came as a huge shock and deep personal outrage for me to read in the Dorset Echo in November 1960 that the Monarch was to be withdrawn. I just could not believe then that such a wicked thing could happen.

    But happen it did. In March 1961 Monarch was towed away to be scrapped in Cork and I shed a tear. My grandmother, who knew Cosens general manager Don Brookes, heard of this and came round to our house the following week clutching a brown paper parcel tied up with string. When I opened it, what joy! Inside was the name pennant and house flag of Monarch.

    So the 1960s wore on with one paddle steamer after another being withdrawn. Glen Gower, Glen Usk, Whippingham, Compton Castle, Totnes Castle, Alumchine, Medway Queen, Sandown, Kingswear Castle, Talisman, Bristol Queen and Cardiff Queen, the list of withdrawals just went on and on.

     

    The author in Kingswear Castle's wheelhouse. (British Paddle Steamers: The Twilight Years, Amberley Publishing)

    It was though tempered with little bursts of optimism these recommissions were all short lived. Freshwater was bought for further service on the Sussex Coast in 1960 and from Bournemouth but that lasted for only two seasons. Consul was bought by Tony McGinnity but again only lasted for just two years. Princess Elizabeth enjoyed six golden summers in private ownership, three of then running from Weymouth when I really got to know her. Through that I was lucky enough to be invited for part of the delivery voyage of the Jeanie Deans south from the Clyde to London and again for her first few trips on the Thames of what turned out to be a very short career as the Queen of the South.

    In April 1967 I went aboard the Embassy for the last time just before she too was towed away to be scrapped and it was then that the penny finally dropped. Paddle steamers were on the way out and rather than finding a career aboard them as I had hoped, I would have to look elsewhere to make a living.

    Looking back I can hardly believe my luck that in the end, and by a rather circuitous route, I did become a paddle steamer captain and was able to spend thirty years of my adult life running the paddle steamer Kingswear Castle on the Medway and Thames. But that is another story told in another book.

    John Megoran's new book British Paddle Steamers The Twilight Years is available for purchase now.

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