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World War 1: The Scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow

Updated on May 15, 2010
The Imperial German Fleet at Scapa Flow, 1919.
The Imperial German Fleet at Scapa Flow, 1919.

"Paragraph eleven - Confirm"

21st June, 1919, approx 10:30am

Negotiations had been dragging on for months at Versailles, and until the treaty was signed Germany was technically still in a state of war with the Allies. The German Fleet, as part of the Armistice agreement, had been disarmed and were anchored in Scapa Flow Britain's main Navy anchorage for North Sea operations. Tensions were running high, as the negotiations turned to the fate of the German Fleet.

In Scapa Flow, Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter had come to a difficult decision. News reports he had been reading did not fare well for his fleet, and he had been quietly making plans.

Early in the morning of 21st June, 1919, the majority of the British Fleet left to go on exercises. Only two ships, destroyers Vespa and Vega, remained in Scapa Flow to guard the now toothless German Fleet.

Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter saw his opportunity and sent a pre-arranged signal out to the fleet: "Paragraph eleven. Confirm." It took an hour for all ships to reply via light signal or flags.

Half an hour later the crews of the Vespa and Vega looked on in horror as the captured ships, one by one, began to slowly sink into the harbour. They scrambled to signal the British Fleet to return. So began the largest scuttling in wartime history, and brought about the last deaths of The Great War.

The German ship Baden scuttled in shallow water in Scapa Flow
The German ship Baden scuttled in shallow water in Scapa Flow
Crew surrendering to the British after scuttling their ship
Crew surrendering to the British after scuttling their ship

How did it all come to this?

When the guns went silent on the 11th of November, 1918. among other things, the armistice agreed on what would happen to the German Imperial Fleet, and U-boat fleet. Article XXIII concerned the internment, in either Allied or neutral ports of the 74 German ships. Their ultimate fate would be decided by the treaty negotiations.

In accordance with the armistice, the fleet sailed to Firth of Forth under Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, arriving on the 21st November, 1918. There, the ships were inspected by the Allies to ensure all weapons had been either removed or rendered useless. Afterwards the German ships were escorted a few at a time to Scapa Flow, where they were to remain until their fate was decided.

Unlike British ships, their German counterparts were not designed to be lived on for long periods of time, and had fewer doors and open recreational spaces. Trapped in enemy territory the German officers and crew soon became restless. This restlessness was exacerbated by paranoia as negotiations at Versailles dragged on and the Allies de-crewed the ships further. Crews were reduced first in December 1918, when the 20,000 strong force was reduced to around 4,700 and crews reduced yet again in June 1919, leaving 1700 crew and officers to man 74 ships.

Von Reuter became convinced that the British were preparing the Fleet to be handed over. If that happened it would be more humiliating than their defeat. In June negotiations were underway on the fate of the German fleet. Von Reuter was out of the loop, and he had no idea what was happening at Versailles. His only news came from the newspapers, which were translated for him to read. If there was a chance the fleet would be handed over lock, stock and barrel then he had to act. In May he had already started to make plans, knowing the outcome might not be favourable. Not being able to return home with his ships was a dishonour he could not deal with.

His plan was simple: remove all the inner doors as quietly as possible, and prepare to scuttle the ship by opening the seacocks, allowing water to flow freely into them.

The British managed to beach the Baden and the cruisers Nürnberg, Emden and Frankfurt, but the rest of the fleet was sunk. The Germans deliberately sunk 400,000 tons of shipping in their enemy's main harbour rather than hand them over to the enemy. Six German crewmen died as a result of the sinkings. They were the last casualties of The War to End All Wars.

Publicly. the British were outraged, but von Reuter's actions did solve the problem of what to do with the German fleet. There was no indication that von Reuter's orders had come from Berlin, and it seemed he had acted on his own in sinking the fleet. It did not stop negotiations or the formal treaty being signed.

All that was left to do now was salvage the ships.

The raising of the Hindenburg, circa 1926
The raising of the Hindenburg, circa 1926

Raising the Fleet

Most of the German ships were salvaged between 1922 and the early 1930s. The salvage operation started with ships lying in shallow waters and then moved onto the more challenging wrecks which had settled into deeper water. This had to be done. Despite the end of the war, Scapa Flow still remained a major British anchorage and the sunken German ships were a hazard to shipping.

Once the salvage operation moved to the deeper waters the salvage company, run by Earnest Cox, had to find new and inventive ways of raising the ships so that they could be dismantled and sold for scrap iron. By 1939 the majority of the wrecks had been cleared, but the commencement of World War 2 put a hold to salvage operations, as Scapa Flow became active again as the main base of operations for Britain's North Sea Fleet.

After WW2 ended only three ships remained: König, Markgraf and Kronprinz. Their positions make them almost impossibe to raise, but that does not mean the metal in the wrecks have not been used. They are are source of radiation-free metal, which is vital for certain types of scientific equipment.

German Battleship Hindenberg scuttled in Scapa Flow.
German Battleship Hindenberg scuttled in Scapa Flow.

Comments

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  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR

    Hovalis 

    9 years ago from Australia

    Thanks storyteller. Believe it or not two factors: the ships part was that my dad was very interested in ships, and had so many books on the subject I don't know where to start. He left them lying around the house; Jane's books especially. I can't begin to recall the amount of ships documentaries I've seen over the years.

    As for WW1 itself, that was my grandmother. I remember her showing me a news article - one of those biography types. She told me the story behind it - one of my grandfather's uncles was a Victoria Cross recipient in during the war. In fact, he was the second or third highest Aussie medal recipient at the end of the war. I guess it sparked my imagination a bit. That would be the start, I guess. :-)

  • Storytellersrus profile image

    Barbara 

    9 years ago from Stepping past clutter

    Well done and how did you ever get interested in WW1 anyway? Just curious. Sometimes there is a motivating factor, like family or proximity or... I don't know. Just curious.

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR

    Hovalis 

    9 years ago from Australia

    That would have been fascinating. They'd be great to dive onto, but I don't think any are really accessible.

    Thanks for reading!

  • J D Murrah profile image

    J D Murrah 

    9 years ago from Refugee from Shoreacres, Texas

    Hovalis,

    I enjoyed the article. It was fascinating to see the German ships still in Scapa Flow when I flew into Orkney.

  • J D Murrah profile image

    J D Murrah 

    9 years ago from Refugee from Shoreacres, Texas

    Hovalis,

    I enjoyed the article. It was fascinating to see the German ships still in Scapa Flow when I flew into Orkney.

  • LondonGirl profile image

    LondonGirl 

    9 years ago from London

    Glad to hear you will be doing some more in the future.

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR

    Hovalis 

    9 years ago from Australia

    Thanks, LondonGirl. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I have some ideas, but they require a bit more research than I have time for right now. I have one based on a request, but again I haven't finished that because I need to look a few things up. Thanks for reading!

  • LondonGirl profile image

    LondonGirl 

    9 years ago from London

    Another great shipping-related hub, hope you are planning some more!

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR

    Hovalis 

    9 years ago from Australia

    It's very likely, if he was involved in the raising of the fleet, that he would have made a great deal of money off it. Private firms would never had attempted it if it wasn't profitable. From what I've read, that is how they raised the ships. I don't know the technical side of it exactly, but I believe they used bladders filled with air to make the ships buoyant enough to move. So what he said does seem to track.

  • profile image

    Donald Sinclair 

    9 years ago

    Interesting. I met a man Robert Mac Crone in 1953 who had an engineering firm in Scotland. He was wealthy and I gathered that the start of his wealth was based on work he and his partner did in raising the German fleet - turning the ships upside down and pumping air into the hulls to float them up. Is tghere any credenece to this?

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR

    Hovalis 

    10 years ago from Australia

    I'm glad you found it useful. :-)

  • rharper profile image

    Robert 

    10 years ago from West Texas

    Thanks for writing this hub. They presented this story on the History Channel, but I was unable to see it completely.

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR

    Hovalis 

    10 years ago from Australia

    Actually I think it was a reaction to what was happening at Versailles, which involved all the allies, not just Britain. If anything it proved that a lack of communication can have dire consequences, and it was a diplomatic bungle, not a victory against Germany. The Treaty at Versailles, and its punative measures, directly led to WW2. Another Generation paid the price for that act of revenge.

  • profile image

    buengel 

    10 years ago

    the scuttling of the german fleet was an act that confirms british ruls: right or wrong, my country

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