Battle of Scapa Flow
Scuttling of German High Seas Fleet
The Armistice that ended the First World War signed on November 11 1918 ordered for the surrender of all German U-Boats and the handing over of German surface warships to the Allies. In all, over 200 U-boats and 74 warships were interned, awaiting their fate to be decided by peace negotiations. Consisting of over twenty capital warships, including eleven battleships, the Germans had the humiliating task of sailing into Scapa Flow for disarmament.
The fleet was manned by a skeleton crew of German sailors under the command of Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. Crew discipline broke down several times, with many of whom mutinous over the disarmament.
The disarmament talks would run for several months, with the representatives of several navies meeting and discussing over the spoils of war. Many nations wanted a share in order to expand their own naval powers while at the same time, it was against Great Britain’s interest to see the strengthening of rival navies. Finally, on May 1919, after much extensions and debate, the Treaty of Versailles was ready. It called for the complete surrender of the entire German fleet interned at Scapa Flow.
On hearing the news, Admiral Ludwig wasn’t too impressed and immediately made plans to scuttle the fleet instead of handing them over. The British were well aware of this possibility and had kept a watchful eye over the activities of senior naval officers. Nevertheless, their window of opportunity would open on the morning of June 21 1919.
That morning, the British fleet stationed at Scapa Flow made off to the open seas for training exercises, leaving only a handful of destroyers and armed vessels to guard over the interned German fleet. As soon as the British fleet had left, Admiral Ludwig gave the signal to scuttle. It took about an hour and by the time the British returned, over 400,000 tons of steel was sent to the bottom of the Flow. To this date, this is the largest maritime disaster in a single day in history. The loss of life was minimal, however, with only nine sailors being shot in the ensuing chaos.
There was a public outcry over the actions of the German crews, with London sending a protest note to Berlin. Nevertheless, the fate of the High Seas Fleet was finally laid to rest – at the bottom of the Scapa Flow.
Over the years, while Hitler was busy rebuilding the New Germany, the British were busy raising sunken wrecks. In what was once the pride of the Imperial Navy, one by one the former veterans of World War One were raised and scrapped. However not all the scuttled ships were raised. Eight wrecks still remain to this day. The salvage operations paid handsomely and for the British, they had the Germans to thank for.
In August 1939, in the last salvage operation, the German Battle Cruiser Derfflinger was raised. Instead of being scrapped like the others, she was being filled with concrete and sunk as a blockship in one of the harbor entrances as protection against a submarine penetration. The Germans resented the fact that their own ships were being used against them.
This was the prelude, which made Scapa Flow hold such a special place in the hearts of many German sailors.
Next: Defenses of Scapa Flow
Ships Interned at Scapa Flow
Battle of The Atlantic
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