Sinking ships
War Stories

The Scapa Flow Scuttling: The day the German Navy sank it's own ships

June 14 2019

In waters off Orkney a century ago, 52 German warships were sunk in one day - but this huge naval loss was not inflicted by enemy forces.

Instead the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow was a deliberate act of sabotage ordered by a commander who refused to let his ships become the spoils of war.

It was the single greatest loss of warships in history and the nine German sailors killed that day were the last fatalities of World War One. The final peace treaty was signed just a week later.

After the fighting in WW1 ended in November 1918, the entire German fleet was ordered to gather together in the Firth of Forth, near Edinburgh, to be "interned" by Allied forces.

Nine German battleships, five battlecruisers, seven light cruisers and 49 destroyers - the most modern ships of the German High Seas Fleet - were handed over to the victorious forces off the east of Scotland.

Within a week, the 70 German ships were escorted to the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow, off Orkney, where they and four other vessels were held while the details of the peace talks were worked out.

The day the German navy surrendered in the Forth

The final decision on their fate was to be taken at Versailles, but until then German sailors were kept on board their ships in the vast natural harbour. At Versailles, the victorious powers wrangled over what to do with the ships. Britain and the US wanted them destroyed. The French and Italians thought it better to share them out between the Allies.

"The ships were not actually surrendered and that's why there were no British troops on board them to prevent them being scuttled," Tom Muir from Orkney Museum told BBC Radio Scotland's When the Fleet Went Down. "They were German government property and remained that throughout their time here."

The German commander, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, was not kept informed of what was happening outside of his ships. He had to rely on briefings from British commanders and old copies of the Times newspaper, according to Tom Muir.

The peace talks had been intended to conclude on 21 June but the deadline was extended. As far as von Reuter knew the talks had failed and he was fully expecting his ships to be boarded and seized by the Royal Navy. The German admiral felt duty-bound not to let that happen.

Mr Muir says: "Von Reuter had already sent letters around the commanders of the ships telling them that he was planning to have the fleet scuttled at his signal. Ironically it was the British drifters who were carting those letters around to the officers on the other ships."

On the morning of Sunday 21 June 1919, the British fleet took advantage of good weather to steam out of the harbour on exercise. At 10:30, von Reuter's flagship, Emden, sent out the seemingly innocuous message - "Paragraph Eleven; confirm". It was a code ordering his men to scuttle their own ships.


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