The German Fleet at Scapa Flow – 1919

Posted on Friday 19th June 2015

After the Battle of Jutland, the High Seas Fleet steamed back to Germany. Both navies would meet again, this time it would be 20 November 1918, when Berlin was forced to hand over its fleet as payment for the Allies lifting the blockade of Germany. As the Allies debated on how best to share the warships between themselves, a German Admiral took the decision out of their hands.
On Midsummer’s Day 1919, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter seemed unusually distracted as he walked out on to the bridge wing of his interned flagship, Emden, in full battle uniform. He gazed out at more than seventy other interned German warships anchored in Scapa Flow, a remote Scottish inlet in Orkney.
Behind him lay the light cruiser, Brummer, and to his left lay the battleships, Bayern and Friedrich der Grosse. The rising sun had just burnt off the last of the Saturday morning haze. The only sounds came from the water lapping against the Emden’s side and a low hum from a generator somewhere below decks. Von Reuter heard laughter coming from some crewmen unloading stores from a supply boat moored alongside and lent over the bridge’s high rail to get a closer look.
Within minutes the rapid ringing of a ship’s bell somewhere to the Emden’s left shattered the tranquil setting. The order had been given aboard Friedrich der Grosse to abandon ship. Von Reuter followed the sound, only to see her already heeling over and sinking within minutes.
The ringing from other ships’ bells around the Flow began sounding the same order as men clambered into lifeboats or jumped over the side as their ships went down.
Von Reuter felt he had done his duty as the entire German Imperial High Seas Fleet began majestically sinking all around him – by the head, stern or completely upright – like some macabre steel water-ballet.

A Royal Navy guard threatens a destroyer captain at gunpoint to stop him from sinking his vessel.

Coup de grâce
Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter was from a solid Prussian aristocratic family and firmly believed that the honour of the Imperial High Seas Fleet and Germany went before everything. He had the outstanding naval career expected of an officer who reached admiral rank, but unlike most senior officers, von Reuter achieved success while remaining both respected and popular among his officers and men. When hostilities ceased along the Western Front, the Allies insisted that Germany hand over its entire fleet until the final peace negotiations could be settled. On 18 November 1918, with their guns disabled, all seventy-four warships left Wilhelmshaven in north-west Germany and were later met by the light cruiser HMS Cardiff to lead them to the waiting Allied armada.
As the Allies surrounded the German fleet, with all guns loaded and pointing directly at them, many among the British crews hounded the Germans by banging every tin cup, ratchet, crowbar and any other metal object to show contempt for their enemy. Seaman Sydney Hunt remembered the sea-born nervous tension;
We were allowed up one at a time from our action stations, and we could not believe our eyes. It was like a wild dream, just miles of ships. That day of course all leave was stopped. Officers and Petty Officers all got tight, and the crews got hold of anything they could and just bashed it to hell.
In return many German crews replied by mustering their bands and repeatedly playing military marching songs to goad their captors as the solemn procession crossed the North Sea in a black, acrid fog created by the smoke billowing from more than three hundred funnels.
Upon arrival at Scapa Flow, von Reuter was nothing more than a chief caretaker responsible for the administration and organization of maintenance, supplies, medical treatment and all other forms of shipboard routine needed to keep the fleet in serviceable condition. Steaming into the Flow aboard the battleship Von der Tann, he later wrote:
The lower parts of the land showed signs of rude cultivation, trees and shrubs were nowhere to be seen. Most of it was covered in heather, villages were just in sight on the land in the far distance – apart from which here and there on the coast stood unfriendly-looking farmhouses built of grey local stone. Several military works, such as barracks, aeroplane sheds or balloon hangars, relieved the monotonous sameness; in ugliness they would beat even ours at a bet.
Von Reuter thought he would be relieved after delivering the fleet to Scapa Flow and then be allowed to return home. About six months later he was still there, reduced to commanding mutinous skeleton crews aboard rat-infested and by now unserviceable ships, on which rumours and boredom were the new enemies.
Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle was responsible for guarding the High Seas Fleet with a squadron of six battleships, their accompanying destroyers and a patrol of armed drifters. Fremantle’s first directive was to order the lowering of all German ensigns, which could not be hoisted again without Admiralty permission. The German crews saw this as a gross insult. They were not prisoners under the terms of the armistice, only internees who still commanded their own vessels.
As commander of the German fleet, von Reuter was allowed access to British newspapers that had to be delivered four days late lest he act on any fresh news. His officers and men then had to rely on information filtering down through the ranks, which, all too often, was laced with speculation and rumour as it travelled around the fleet. As time moved on, ‘steel-plate sickness’, a marine equivalent of the barbed wire fever known to have affected thousands of POWs during the First and Second World Wars, began to affect the officers and men. Their uncertain future also played a large part in low morale, as the Allies kept prevaricating over how the fleet should be divided.
Later that same spring, news reached the German fleet that the Allies had finally decided their fate. A public statement indicated that Germany was to get a few token warships and the might of their fleet was to be divided up among the Allies and the United States. The news was a crushing blow and tempers flared as everyone argued over how Berlin would react to the ultimatum.
Von Reuter knew his government had three options: they could reject the terms; try to negotiate a better deal or, which was inconceivable, agree. If Berlin rejected the terms then hostilities would commence with immediate effect and von Reuter would scuttle the fleet before the Allies could storm his ships. His thinking was based on a standing order from the German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, that all ships must be scuttled if surrender or a takeover was likely.
A negotiation could reap better rewards for the German people because the fleet could possibly be sold rather than taken as a war prize. Von Reuter saw an outright agreement as impossible. On 29 May 1919, Reichstag Chancellor Philipp Scheidemann publicly announced that the German government had rejected the Allied peace terms. The Allies replied by issuing a warning to Berlin demanding an acceptance of the terms – or at noon on 21 June the horror of the First World War would begin again.
As usual, the news hit Scapa Flow four days later and the shock wave travelled through the fleet like an enemy broadside. Von Reuter decided he had no option other than to obey his Kaiser and scuttle the fleet. After all, he reasoned, under any armistice a state of war still existed and the ships remained German property. Von Reuter spent more than two weeks hatching a plan, which ultimately hinged on the goodwill of the Royal Navy. By now the German fleet had been in Scapa Flow for seven months and although German and British personnel were strictly forbidden to fraternize, illicit trading had sprung up between the two sides. Destroyer Captain Friedrich Ruge recalled:
Officially we were not allowed to have any contact with the British but of course in seven months that could not quite be carried out. We ourselves had quite a lot of contact with drifters. They were not only on guard, they carried mail around and our provisions.
German destroyers sinking and beached off the island of Fara.

Von Reuter’s key was in the distribution of mail. He made seventy-four copies of his scuttling orders and asked the Royal Navy drifters to kindly deliver his envelopes to every interned ship while delivering supplies and other routine correspondence. It was an act of kindness he was to relish up to the day he died.

On 17 June 1919 the Royal Navy innocently delivered von Reuter’s Coup de Grâce around the entire German fleet. The twelve-paragraph letter ordered that all gangway, bunker and internal doors were to be opened immediately von Reuter’s order was given, along with all ventilators and portholes. Provision was to be made to open and fix all sea valves at short notice and arrangements made to evacuate all personnel. Paragraph Eleven stated: ‘It is my intention to sink the ships only if the enemy attempts to seize them without the consent of our government.’
Upon von Reuter’s direct signal for all ships to confirm Paragraph Eleven, they were to be scuttled immediately. He gave no definitive date, however, in case the Royal Navy discovered his plan. Four days later, on the morning of 21 June, von Reuter stood on the bridge of his new flagship the Emden and looked out over his fleet gently floating on an unusually calm, sunny day.
His Chief of Staff, Commander Ivan Oldekop, informed him that most of the British Guard Fleet had surprisingly left the Flow on manoeuvres. Von Reuter immediately ordered the raising of the flag signal ‘D G’ which meant that all ships’ bridge watches must look out for further signals. Ninety minutes before he thought hostilities would resume, von Reuter ordered the signal. ‘To all COs and the TB (torpedoboat) Leader. Paragraph Eleven, confirm. Acknowledge. Chief of the Interned Squadron.’ The Emden’s signalmen fluttered the order around the fleet by lamp as well as by semaphore and Morse code.
While the signal was relaying from ship to ship, a Royal Navy drifter called the Trust-on was moored alongside the Emden, delivering stores. Her armed guard sat around on deck joking and smoking cigarettes while her crew passed stores up to the waiting German sailors. Von Reuter walked out on to the Emden’s bridge wing and stood calmly looking down at the men who were innocently unaware of what was now taking place. Neither the German sailors loading the stores nor the Trust-on’s crew noticed that von Reuter had changed into his full-dress uniform, hung his highest insignia of decorations around his neck, pinned his Iron Cross First Class to his frock coat and was standing there – waiting.
On that same morning, fifteen-year-old James Taylor was among a group of 160 excited schoolchildren from Stromness Higher Grade School who were boarding the water tender Flying Kestrel for a day’s outing to cruise around the interned fleet. Seeing the giant warships coming into view drew most children out on deck for the thirty-minute run down the Bring Deeps to the first anchorage by Cava where the battleships and light cruisers were grouped. The time was approximately 11.00 am – sixty minutes before von Reuter thought hostilities would resume.
When the Flying Kestrel reached the first and biggest of the warships, all was still quiet on the Flow. First the children were taken around the big battle cruisers, Hindenburg, Kaiser, Von der Tann, Moltke and Seydlitz. Well into old age, James Taylor vividly remembered the impression the towering rusty steel walls made on him and his school friends:
At long last we came face to face with the German fleet, some of them huge battleships that made our own vessel look ridiculous.
Some of the children noticed that many of the German ships began raising flags, but thought no more of it. One of the flags was the German ensign, which Admiral Fremantle forbade them to raise upon their arrival in the Flow. The other flag was the red code letter ‘Z’, which meant that battle was imminent. Shortly afterwards the Flying Kestrel received a radio call stating that the German fleet was sinking. But the Flow still looked calm. Her captain continued hesitantly as the Flying Kestrel’s crew looked out on the fleet. All they saw was an increase of activity aboard some of the ships, but as the minutes moved towards midday, the activity increased dramatically. Sailors in life-jackets began jumping off their decks into the water. Others were piling into boats or on to life rafts.
Soon the Flying Kestrel was surrounded by ships that were heeling at odd angles. Slowly it dawned on the children that something extraordinary was happening and that the ships were, indeed, sinking. The Flying Kestrel was advised to make for the depot ship, HMS Victorious, to receive orders.

Now the Flow was in chaos. Wooden crates, hammocks, sea chests, furniture and personal effects were bursting from the submerged ships and popping up everywhere. Several children described a boiling, swelling mass as air escaped from beneath the sea all around them, and metal could be heard tearing and grinding under the water.
Many witnesses reported the strange sounds for hours after the fleet had disappeared. The children were far more thrilled than frightened by what was happening. Some of the younger ones cheered and clapped, thinking that the spectacle had been put on especially for their benefit.
Salavage operations on German battleship Baden.

The German fleet was now beyond simply ‘damaged’ and the surrendering German seamen were now legitimate POWs under Oliver’s Naval Discipline Act. Only two days before von Reuter ordered Paragraph Eleven, Admiral Fremantle finalized what action should be taken. One plan was called Operation SA, which was to be implemented should the Germans surrender peacefully.
The other, Operation SB, was to be implemented should there be any form of resistance, which meant Royal Navy personnel should be armed, ‘Officers, revolvers; petty officers, revolvers and cutlasses; rank and file, rifles and sword bayonets.’ The key to the plan’s success was immediate and simultaneous action to take all ships at once, which would require ten capital ships and twenty destroyers.
The Admiralty accepted that if either plan was required, the German personnel would become legitimate POWs. Although in an advanced state of preparation, neither plan could be implemented. With the main British Guard Fleet out of the Flow, the few remaining guards aboard the drifters could not cope, their numbers falling well short of the shipping and manpower needed to control any sudden German insurrection.
The Flying Kestrel could not safely return to Stromness back through the sinking mass and had to be given an alternative route to avoid any possible danger to the children. Their new course took them on a wide arc around the German fleet, passing vessels which, having received their scuttling orders slightly later, were still in the early stages of sinking. German lifeboats were full to the gunwales with unarmed officers and men with their hands raised. Some were waving makeshift white flags when the children heard a rifle crack.
Some children saw German sailors surrendering on the stern of a ship when one of them was shot, his body crumpling and falling into the sea. Fifteen-year-old Katie Watt watched a string of lifeboats being towed by a Royal Navy drifter. She saw a sailor shot dead as he was trying to cut his launch free. The remaining Royal Navy personnel had lost control.
One lifeboat had cleared away from the destroyer V.126 as a Royal Navy drifter closed in. The German sailors were ordered back to save their ship. When they refused, the Royal Navy opened fire, instantly killing three men and wounding four more. Aboard another lifeboat a stoker was shot in the stomach and died later.
The final killing took place later that same day when a German sailor, now a legitimate POW, was shot dead in front of a number of other prisoners, simply for refusing to follow a British order. When the other Germans protested, the Royal Navy blamed a crazed sailor for the death and made an arrest. The following year the case was dropped. The other killings were blamed on misunderstood orders and the atrocity has never been accounted for.
Altogether nine men were killed and sixteen wounded throughout the Royal Navy’s unofficial shoot-to-kill policy. All were unarmed. All were surrendering. And all were the last casualties of the First World War.
After receiving news that the fleet was being scuttled, Admiral Fremantle raced his squadron back to the Flow to save what he could. He was too late. The drifters only managed to tow a few destroyers and smaller warships towards the shore and beach them. Fremantle was furious. He had von Reuter delivered to his flagship, HMS Revenge, for the benefit of a hastily called press conference. Von Reuter was led out to the Revenge’s poop deck where he was positioned beneath her White Ensign as it rolled and snapped in the late afternoon breeze. Fremantle vented his impotent rage in a formal verbal rebuke.
He accused von Reuter of cowardice and violating common honour as no officer in von Reuter’s position had the legal right to scuttle his fleet. In his defence von Reuter insisted that the British four-day newspaper delay meant he did not know Germany’s position had changed since earlier that week.
Chancellor Scheidemann had resigned, the German government had voted to accept the peace terms without alteration and the deadline had been extended by another forty-eight hours. But neither the British nor the German government formally notified von Reuter that such dramatic changes in the peace talks had occurred.
The reason why von Reuter was never notified remains a mystery. Collectively, all the information at his disposal pointed to renewed hostilities and he was adamant that any senior officer of any navy would have done the same in his position. Von Reuter had legally carried out a standing order of his superiors in a time of war, which included the armistice period when the warships were still German property. Failure to do otherwise was tantamount to treason against his own people – facts of which both Berlin and Whitehall were fully aware. After the Royal Navy openly murdered nine surrendering German seamen, von Reuter ended up on the Allies’ Atrocity List, usually reserved for savage crimes during time of war against military and civilian personnel.
Fremantle was unmoved by von Reuter’s defence. When the public dressing down was finished, von Reuter clicked his heels, turned, and went into captivity confidently feeling he had permanently placed the Imperial High Sea Fleet far beyond Allied reach.
Three days later the Admiralty appointed independent salvage experts to report on the viability of raising at least some of the 400,000 tons of shipping now littering the seabed. Their report stated that salvaging some of the lighter ships might be possible, although the Admiralty concluded, ‘Where they rest, they will rust. There can be no question of raising them.’
But within five years, the question of raising the German fleet was both addressed – and answered – by a Wolverhampton-born scrap dealer with no prior knowledge of marine salvage techniques; Ernest Cox.
Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter.

Crew of a German destroyer taking to the boats as it starts to sink.

'We were allowed up one at a time from our action stations, and we could not believe our eyes. It was like a wild dream, just miles of ships. That day of course all leave was stopped. Officers and Petty Officers all got tight, and the crews got hold of anything they could and just bashed it to hell.'

Then German battleship, Bayern, sinking by the stern.

Salvage party working on a German destroyer.

'The Flow was in chaos. Wooden crates, hammocks, sea chests, furniture and personal effects were bursting from the submerged ships and popping up everywhere. Several witnesses described a boiling, swelling mass as air escaped from beneath the sea all around them, and metal could be heard tearing and grinding under the water.'

The Hindenberg rests at Scapa Flow.

Salvaging the high seas fleet
Ernest Frank Guelph Cox was born on 12 March 1883, in the heart of Wolverhampton’s industrial metalworking district. His ingenuity in engineering made him renown throughout the industry. By the time he was in his late 20s he had acquired his own forge, and during the war won a munitions contract to produce brass shell cases. Once the war came to an end he set up a new foundry in Sheffield to cope with the tons of metal collected from the battlefields.
Cox made his first venture into shipbreaking when won the contract to decommission two ageing battleships, HMS Orion and HMS Erin.
By 1923 Cox was trying to find more scrap metal to feed his business when a friend suggested he take a look at the German Fleet at Scapa Flow. Eager to undertake a new challenge, Cox went out to investigate the possibility of salvaging the ships. Cox recalled:
The sight at Scapa Flow was one of the most fascinating I have ever seen, and could not fail to stimulate the imagination of any man who was fond of engineering problems. As one travelled round Scapa Flow, the sunken battleships could be seen, some of them projecting out of the water and others just beneath the surface so only the tops of their masts were visible. After thinking the matter over carefully I decided to undertake the work of salvaging the fleet and returned to the Admiralty with that proposal. They agreed as a start to sell me twenty-six destroyers and two battleships.
The Admiralty thought Cox was some kind of eccentric millionaire who was bound to fail. But where they had seen only resting, rusting hulks back in 1919, Cox saw tens of thousands of tons of ferrous metals, like cast iron, wrought iron and steel – and lucrative non-ferrous metals like brass, copper, lead, bronze, gunmetal and manganese, as well as armoured cable, turbine blades, steel rope, resistance wire, anchors, and chains, which were still intact and would find a lucrative post-war market. After dismissing the professional criticism without a second thought, all Cox had to do was solve the technical and logistical nightmare he had just bought into, and the biggest salvage operation in history could begin.

Salving German destroyer.

Further Reading

Cox's Navy
(Paperback - 232 pages)
ISBN: 9781848845527

by Tony Booth
Only £14.99

On mid-Summer's Day 1919 the interned German Grand Fleet was scuttled by their crews at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands despite a Royal Navy guard force. Greatly embarrassed, the Admiralty nevertheless confidently stated that none of the ships would ever be recovered. Had it not been for the drive and ingenuity of one man there is indeed every possibility that they would still be resting on the sea bottom today.

Cox's Navy tells the incredible true story of Ernest Cox, a Wolverhampton-born scrap merchant, who, despite…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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