100 years go today the German High Seas Fleet started to disappear from view after officers and sailors opened up the seacocks and valves in their various ships, many of which had been prepared for scuttling in the days leading up to the 21st June 1919. Water pipes and engine boiler-feeds had been smashed to hasten the end of the vessels, and anti-flooding bulkheads had been drilled to ensure water penetrated every recess.
Of the 74 battleships, cruisers and destroyers riding at anchor in Scapa Flow that morning, 54 went to the bottom, with many of the rest only saved by virtue of being beached by the Royal Naval guard-ships.
The scuttling was deemed to be “hostile” as it was in breach of the terms of the Armistice Agreement and also against the spirit of the agreement that existed between the Kreigsmarine and RN which had allowed Admiral Reuter to retain administrative control of his ships. Reuter had had to oversee the repatriation of three-quarters of the crews to Germany, but still had almost 5,000 men in the fleet. The German crews were subsequently treated as POWs and interned ashore until their release the following year.
Contrary to many versions of this story, the British were acutely aware of the possibility that the Germans would choose to scuttle rather than ignominiously hand over their ships. The Paris Peace Conference was underway and there was little secrecy about the fact that the French in particular wanted to take over a substantial number of vessels for their own navy.
The British were rather less keen on the German ships as they were not technically matched to British operational requirements, often with rather limited endurance. In addition, they were worried that a substantial increase in the size of a modern French navy might upset the balance of naval power – that is to say, the French might be able to challenge the Royal Navy in some way.
That said, it was accepted by the naval command in Scapa that it would be highly advisable to seize control of the ships prior to any announcement from Paris. However, the First Battle Squadron, earlier tasked with job of boarding the German ships, had left for torpedo exercises a couple of days prior to the announcement.
This gave Admiralty Reuter the space he needed to carry out the action. In addition, a troopship had just left Scapa with more German crews heading for home, amongst which were a number of rebellious crewmen (latent Communists), who might have warned the British of the plan. At 1000hr on the 21st, therefore, Reuter issued the order to scuttle, referring to a previously issued verbal order rather than actually spelling it out – semaphore signals to that effect would have of course been read by the British.
The crews went to work and by by midday the first of the capital ships was listing noticeably. At about the same time, the Imperial German Ensign was hoisted on all ships and the cat was out of the bag.
The British 1st Battle Squadron was told of the events and raced back to Scapa. In the meantime, the remaining RN ships were told to get armed men aboard the sinking ships and either stop the flow of water or to try to tow them ashore. In the process, a number of Germans were shot as they refused to assist the boarding parties, or tried to “get away” in their lifeboats. By 1700hr, the last battleship was on the bottom, preceded by 14 other capital ships, four light cruisers and 32 destroyers.
Reuter was taken to the British flagship, HMS revenge, where he was confronted by Admiral Fremantle who described the scuttling as an act of “base treachery”. The German view may be summed -up by Admiral Scheer’s sentiments:
“I rejoice. The stain of surrender has been wiped from the escutcheon of the German Fleet. The sinking of these ships has proved that the spirit of the fleet is not dead. This last act is true to the best traditions of the German Navy. “
The French were of course somewhat annoyed, but one senior officer commented:
” I look upon the sinking of the German fleet as a real blessing. It disposes, once and for all, the thorny question of the redistribution of these ships.”
Of the 21 ships saved and transferred to the British , US or French navies, most were destroyers and almost all had been scrapped or sunk as targets by about 1922. One cruiser, the Emden, survived to 1926, but the damage she sustained in the scuttling was too extensive to allow her to be put back into service and she too was scrapped after being used for testing explosives.
A number of images are from Wikipedia, and sourced from the IWM.