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Scuttling at Scapa Flow: When The German Navy Sank its Own Ships

The Armistice of 11 November 1918, that ended hostiles between the Allied and the Allies, left little for negotiation. The Germans were given a laundry list of terms to agree, but few promises were made by the Allied Supreme Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, in return. One of the conditions of the Armistice was the complete demilitarization of Germany, and the surrender of military material to the Allied.

Germany’s U-boats should be surrendered immediately, the Allied powers decided, but they could not agree what to do with the German surface fleet. It was suggested that they should be interned at Royal Navy’s base at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, until their fate could be determined.

Scuttling at Scapa Flow

Scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow. Photo: Imperial War Museum

On 21 November, 70 German vessels rendezvoused at the Firth of Forth, Scotland, to be escorted to their place of internment at Scapa Flow. Once all the German ships had arrived, Admiral David Beatty of the Royal Navy gave a controversial order to lower the German flags on the ships and not to raise them again without his permission, despite the fact that the ships were still the property of Germany as the peace talks had not yet started. Finally, under heavy Allied escort, the ships began to move out and arrived at the massive natural harbor at Scapa Flow between 25 to 27 November. Four more ships joined the fleet that brought the total number of interned ships to 74—the largest fleet of warships ever assembled.

For the next seven months the ships languished in the harbor and the crew stranded aboard as peace talks were delayed again and again. Food was sent twice a month from Germany, but it was monotonous. The men tried to supplement their diet with fish and seagulls caught from the decks. They were not allowed the go ashore or visit any other German ships, making their interment a veritable imprisonment. Lack of supplies and no entertainment resulted in poor discipline and appalling living conditions. The luckier ones got sent home, but nearly five thousand of the original twenty had to stay behind as caretaker of the ships.

Scuttling at Scapa Flow

Meanwhile, the Allied powers remained divided over the fate of the ships. The French and Italians each wanted a share, but the British wanted them destroyed because they knew that any redistribution of the ships would put their own navy at a proportional disadvantage in numbers compared to other navies. The possibility of the Germans scuttling their own ships to prevent surrender was considered. German Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter himself had suggested it to his chief of staff as early as January 1919. By May that year, Reuter learned that the Royal Navy was preparing to seize the fleet. Reuter felt it was his duty to not let that happen.

On June 18, 1919, Reuters sent out orders to all the interned ships in the harbor. It read:

It is my intention to sink the ships only if the enemy should attempt to obtain possession of them without the assent of our government. Should our government agree in the peace to terms to the surrender of the ships, then the ships will be handed over, to the lasting disgrace of those who have placed us in this position.

Ironically it was the British drifters who were carting those letters around to the officers on the other ships.

On the morning of 21 June, the weather was calm and favorable, so the British fleet left Scapa Flow for exercise, and von Reuter saw his chance. At ten in the morning, exactly an hour after the British fleet had left, Reuter sent a flag signal ordering the fleet to stand by for the signal to scuttle. At about 11:20 another flag signal was sent using semaphore and searchlights.

Scuttling at Scapa Flow

The upper-works of the German battle-cruiser SMS Hindenburg above the water at Scapa Flow.

Below deck, German sailors opened seacocks, torpedo tubes and portholes, and smashed water pipes to flood the ships. In some ships holes were bored through bulkheads to facilitate the spread of water. The ships were deliberately flooded from one side so that they would turn over and sink because that made the ships more difficult to salvage.

About an hour went by before the British realized what was happening. The German ships were tilting heavily to one side, the German flag were once more flying from the masts, and the crews were abandoning the ships. When Vice-Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle received news about the scuttling, he raced back to Scapa Flow just in time to see only the large ships still afloat. By five in the afternoon, 15 capital ships, 4 light cruisers and 32 destroyers were sunk. The remaining 23 ships either remained afloat, or were towed to shallower waters and beached.

Admiral Fremantle was furious. He accused Ludwig von Reuter of not honoring the terms of the Armistice, and had him arrested along with 1,800 other men as prisoners of war. Although privately he praised Reuter’s decision. He was heard to have remarked, “I could not resist feeling some sympathy for von Reuter, who had preserved his dignity when placed against his will in a highly unpleasant and invidious position.”

The incident did not go as peacefully as Admiral Reuter would have wanted. Nine German sailors were shot dead and sixteen were injured by the British troops.

Scuttling at Scapa Flow

Tug alongside scuttled German destroyer G 102 at Scapa Flow. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Salvaging operations began almost immediately and continued throughout the 1920s and the 30s. More than half of the ships were raised and refloated, before the outbreak of the Second World War brought operations to a halt. During the 1970s, some of the scuttled ships became source of low-background steel used in the manufacture of radiation-sensitive devices, such as Geiger counters. Steel manufactured after the Second World War is contaminated with radionuclides released into the atmosphere by nuclear weapons testing during the early years of the Cold War. Such steel cannot be used for devices that contain delicate and highly sensitive electronics. Steel that was manufactured before the nuclear age thus holds special value because they contain low to no background radiation. Pre-1945-era warships are valuable source of such steel.

Since the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the background radiation levels have dropped dramatically to facilitate production of sufficiently low radiation steel without the need to salvage old battleships.

Today, only a handful of wrecks remain at Scapa Flow. In 2001, these wrecks were classed scheduled monuments.

Scuttling at Scapa Flow

Scuttling at Scapa Flow

German sailors fishing from a destroyer in Scapa Flow. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Scuttling at Scapa Flow

SMS BAYERN down by the stern and sinking at Scapa Flow.

Scuttling at Scapa Flow

Scuttling at Scapa Flow

Scuttling at Scapa Flow

References:
# Imperial War Museum, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-scuttling-of-the-german-fleet-1919
# BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-48599958
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scuttling_of_the_German_fleet_at_Scapa_Flow
# Stack Exchange, https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/37782/did-steel-from-wwi-battleships-make-it-into-space

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