Scapa Flow: graveyard of the German fleet
Not only is today the summer solstice, which I already knew, but it is also -- and this I didn't know, since my knowledge of World War I is scanty -- the anniversary of the German scuttling of their own fleet at Scarpa Flow, in the Orkneys, in 1919. It's a fascinating bit of history and well worth reading.
(The accompanying photo has this caption: German soldiers from the Nurnberg surrender after the scuttling of the German fleet.)
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Scapa Flow: graveyard of the German fleet
21 June 1919
THE GERMAN defeat in the First World War presented an interesting dilemma for the British and its Allied forces: what should be done with captured or cornered enemy ships?
Scapa Flow first came into the history books around the time of the Vikings (800-1000AD). While they travelled from Scandinavia to Iceland and beyond, the Vikings often used this Orkney outpost to rest and re-supply. The name comes from the Old Norse term Skalpeid-floi, or bay of the long isthmus.
The flow is about 12 miles wide, a sheltered natural harbour between the Orkney isles of Hoy, Flotta and South Ronaldsay. The Royal Navy used it as a base during the war, and from there in 1916 the fleet went to sea to engage the German fleet at the Battle of Jutland.
This was the decisive naval encounter of the First World War.
Germany would eventually lose the war, and although the fighting stopped, it took several months of political posturing to determine what to do with the massive enemy fleet.
A total of 74 German ships, positioned throughout the North Sea, were interned at Scapa Flow. On 20 November, 1918, the day the fleet arrived, Admiral David Beatty, commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet, said to his counterpart, Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter: "The German flag will be hauled down at sunset today and is not to be hoisted again without permission."
As talks continued, the ships were dismantled, essentially rendering a rebellious German crew powerless and humiliated. It was five months before most of their forces were sent home. A supply ship that arrived in mid-June 1919 was returned to Germany with some 2,700 men. This left only 1,700 men to watch 74 ships. The pride of the Kaiser fleet was surrounded by both land and opposing forces. Would the Germans give up their fleet that easily?
The Armistice talks in Versailles were continuing and little news was reaching the commanders in the northern isles. Rear-Admiral von Reuter was getting his information as much as a week late - from the London Times. After the war, he maintained that he received neither news of the peace terms or any official instructions from Germany as to what to do in Scapa. So he decided on his own.
It was a sunny day on 21 June, according to personal accounts, a full 10 months after dropping anchor in Scapa Flow when the German commander issued a historic order.
Down came the Union Jack and up went the German Eagle, and all around us the great ships began to sink, some on even keel and some upended and plunged down quickly and only a wash of waves to show where they had been. –Ivy Scott, 18 at the time, witnessing the scuttling, as told to The Orcadian newspaper in 1984.
Just as British vessels departed for a scheduled military exercise, Rear-Admiral von Reuter ordered flags to be hoisted on his ship, the cruiser Emden, as a signal for the fleet to await instructions. A half-hour later the commander issued the order to scuttle the German Fleet: "Paragraph 11. Confirm." The signal was passed from ship to ship by semaphore and signal lamps. It took an hour to reach all vessels miles apart.
At midday, the crews followed orders, jamming open the condensers and sea valves and committing a mass shipping suicide. It started with the Friedrich der Grosse. The former flagship tolled its large bell, signalling the beginning of the end.
Slowly, the Friedrich der Grosse settled to its side, hung on for a few minutes more, then turned over and slid below the surface. The ship was gone in 15 minutes. One after another each vessel sank to the floor.
With a minimum crew on board, 52 of the disarmed 74 warships were sunk in the deliberate act. The remaining vessels were breached or saved by Royal Navy boarding parties. It was all over by 5pm.
Nine people died and eight others were wounded in the sinkings, according to the British Navy.
The event delayed signing of the final peace agreement with Germany by a week. The Admiralty issued a terse statement, insisting that ''where they were sunk, they will rest and rust''.
In fact, most of the ships have since been salvaged and used for scrap. However, three battleships and four cruisers still remain 60 to 150 feet below the surface. Their remains are among some 80 vessels that lie on the seabed and today are a favourite attraction for divers.
The German wrecks are listed as "monuments of national importance" and are under the protection of Historic Scotland. The protection applies to the battleships Konig, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Markgraf, which originally weighed more than 25,000 tons each. Also protected are the light cruisers Brummer, Dresden, Karlsruhe and Koln, each weighing more than 4,000 tons.
The seven ships lie off the island of Cava.