“The commander of the 70 impounded ships had his men destroy the vessels rather than see them awarded to the victors.”
Yet mere days before the inking of that fateful (and controversial) document on June 28, 1919, one German naval officer ordered a final act of defiance against the Allies. The incident involved the ships of the Kaiser’s once-mighty High Seas Fleet, interned since the Armistice at the British naval base at Scapa Flow in Scotland’s Orkney Islands.
The commander of the 70 impounded ships had his men destroy the vessels rather than see them awarded to the victors. British cruisers keeping watch over the captured armada responded to the audacious undertaking with lethal force. Nine died in the ensuing fusillade – they would be the last casualties of a war that claimed 17 million lives. Here’s how it happened.
There were 35 provisions of the Armistice signed at Compiègne on Nov. 11, 1918. Among them, Germany agreed to evacuate its armies from France, Belgium and Eastern Europe and hand over 5,000 artillery pieces and more than 1,500 aircraft. Berlin also ceded the bulk of its navy to the Allies. It further agreed to sail its fleet into captivity beginning one week after the ceasefire. The 70 vessels to be handed over included 10 battleships, several cruisers and dozens of destroyers. All were to be escorted to the Scapa Flow until such time as the victors could determine their fate. The fleet’s 20,000 sailors would man the ships for the transit. It was agreed they would be gradually repatriated once the convoy had reached its destination – skeleton crews would remain aboard the interned vessels as custodians.
Berlin ordered Franz Ritter von Hipper, admiral of the High Seas Fleet, to personally command the voyage. Interestingly enough, Hipper, 55, had only days earlier been planning to sail the vast armada into the Thames Estuary to provoke a final and decisive showdown with the British. He flatly refused to shepherd those same vessels into ignominious internment. Instead, Hipper delegated the unpleasant task to Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, a 49-year-old veteran of the battles of Dogger Bank, Jutland and Heligoland Bight. the chief was however on hand to watch the flotilla depart from Wilhelmshaven.
“My heart is breaking with this,” he wrote of the spectacle.
Reuter, aboard his flagship Friedrich der Grosse, led the defeated fleet into the North Sea where it rendezvoused with the Allied navies. More than 370 British, French and American fighting ships were assigned to escort the vessels into captivity. It would take six weeks for all the stragglers to arrive at Scapa Flow. Anchored around the tiny uninhabited island of Cava, the captured ships lay idle under the guns of a squadron of British battlecruisers. For the German crews, it was the beginning of a six-month floating purgatory.
Stranded at Scapa Flow
Already deeply demoralized by four-years of war, the German sailors had become virtual prisoners aboard their own ships. Discontent within the ranks was already endemic – mutinies had erupted in in both Kiel and Wilhelmshaven just weeks earlier. Within a month of the fleet’s arrival, most of the sailors were released and shipped home. By early 1919, fewer than 5,000 remained aboard to maintain the vessels. All winter, these skeleton crews, along with von Reuter and a handful of officers, shivered aboard their damp ships. The British prohibited the sailors from going ashore and barred all but the officers from visiting other vessels in the fleet. Poor rations, sporadic mail from home, illness and idleness steadily sapped the spirits of the men. Morale plummeted and discipline began to break down. Sailors formed revolutionary committees and haggled with officers over which orders they would deign to carry out. Von Reuter himself was forced to relocate to the cruiser Emden after his own raucous crew kept him awake nights stomping on the deck above his quarters. Meanwhile, the fate of the fleet was being decided more than a thousand miles away.
Fighting Over the Spoils
All winter, the delegates from the Allied nations met in Paris to dictate terms to the vanquished. Along with the issues of war guilt and reparations, the matter of Germany’s substantial navy was tabled. France and Italy pressed for the ships of the High Seas Fleet to be distributed among the Allies – namely them. Britain, hoping to maintain its superiority at sea, lobbied for the vessels’ to be broken up rather than see them reinforce the navies of Europe.
As the talks dragged on, von Reuters was convinced that the Allies’ were planning to unilaterally take the ships at Scapa Flow. In May, he secretly gathered his officers to discuss plans for their destruction and penned orders instructing crews to act on his signal. “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,” wrote von Reuter.
There would likely be no resistance from his men on this count. The fleet’s troublemakers had long since been repatriated. The British had been shipping his sailors home by the hundreds all winter and von Reuter had discharged the more mutinous ones first. The nearly 1,800 men that remained were among his most reliable.
Unbeknownst to the German admiral, his fleet’s jailers anticipated his plans.
Sydney Robert Fremantle, the British vice-admiral assigned to watch-over the enemy vessels, raised concerns that the interned crews might attempt to scuttle their own ships. He weighed the idea of storming the flotilla and putting the crews ashore. But with no actual evidence of plans, little could be done. Meanwhile, the negotiations in Paris wore one.
Pulling the Plugs
By June 20, news arrived that the peace talks were drawing to a close. Von Reuter guessed that within days, possibly hours, the fleet would be seized by the Royal Navy. With several of the British guard ships away performing torpedo drills, he acted. At 10 a.m. on June 21, von Reuter signaled the fleet to scuttle their ships.
All across Scapa Flow, German officers threw open the pumps, flood valves and portholes aboard their ships. Hatches were unsealed between compartments as the water rushed in. In a final act of defiance, many skippers ran up their colours as their men prepared to take to the lifeboats.
It took more than two hours for the British to notice anything was amiss. It wasn’t until after midday when the battleship Friedrich der Grosse was seen listing heavily that patrol vessels sounded the alarm.
Fremantle’s squadron, still drilling in nearby waters, sped back to Scapa Flow at flank speed but it was too late. By the time he had returned, 52 German ships had settled onto the shallow harbour bottom, many of the doomed vessels’ superstructures and smokestacks protruded from the surface. Others had capsized and were laying hull up.
In all, 10 battleships went down, including the Koenig, Kaiserin, Grosser Kurfürst, Kronprinz, Markgraf and the Prinzregent Luitpold. Another ten cruisers and battlecruisers were also scuttled, along with more than 30 destroyers.
Fremantle’s patrol boats managed to beach 22 of the sinking craft before they touched bottom; boarding parties struggled to keep the ships afloat. Among those saved was the battleship Baden.
The British vessels opened fire on the German crews pulling for shore in their lifeboats, killing nine and wounding 16. The rest were recovered and imprisoned on the mainland. Von Reuter was hauled aboard the British flagship HMS Revenge where he was personally chastised by Fremantle.
Down the Drain
While the Allies, particularly the French, were incensed by the developments at Scapa Flow, London quietly rejoiced at the news. The loss of the ships, although embarrassing, deprived Europe’s other navies of the vessels and all but guaranteed British naval superiority for the foreseeable future. One admiral even called the sinkings “a real blessing”.
Von Reuter’s brazen act electrified Germany and provided a perfect tonic for months of post-war despair.
“I rejoice,” wrote Admiral Sheer, one-time commander of the armada. “The stain of surrender has been wiped from the escutcheon of the German Fleet.”
The Versailles Treaty was finally signed on June 28. Under its terms, the Allies distributed what few German ships could be salvaged to friendly navies; the rest of the fleet remained submerged at Scapa Flow. Many of the hulks would be raised over the next 20 years.
In 1924, one Scottish entrepreneur named Ernest Cox purchased the rights to 26 of the sunken destroyers at a cost of just £6,500. Remembered as “the man who bought a navy,” Cox re-floated several of the vessels to sell for scrap before turning his attention to the heavier capital ships. Prior selling his business in the early 1930s, he managed to recover the cruisers Moltke, Seydlitz, Von der Tann and Hindenburg, the light cruiser Bremse, and the battleships Kaiser and Prinzregent Luitpold.
Seven of the wrecks were too deep to be raised and eventually would become popular attractions for scuba divers.
But it was more than just recreational snorkelers who frequented this watery graveyard. In recent decades, makers of radiation detection technology harvested cuttings from the remaining ships’ hulls for use in their devices. Since the German fleet’s steel pre-dates the testing of nuclear weapons, none of the metal was contaminated by the trace amounts of radioactive isotopes discharged worldwide since the 1945 Trinity explosion. This so-called ‘low-background steel’ is much sought-after for makers of Geiger counters and various medical devices. Any ship submerged before the end of World War Two is a source of this precious material — few places on Earth have so many old steel hulls in such shallow water as Scapa Flow.
Von Reuter was imprisoned in Britain until 1920. He was released and returned home before the year was out. Ironically, the man who had struck one last blow for his Germany would find no work in his nation’s miniscule post-Versailles navy. Instead, he moved to Brandenburg and became a public servant. He later penned a book about his experiences in Britain: Scapa Flow: Grave of the German Fleet.
Reuter’s pluck and audacity would later be celebrated by the Nazis. In 1939, Hitler symbolically promoted the 70-year-old to full admiral. He died four years later.
Fremantle’s career suffered little following the loss of the fleet he was charged to protect. He too was promoted to full admiral in 1923 and appointed to the prestigious Portsmouth Command. He retired from the navy in 1928 with honours and died in 1958 at the age of 90.