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In 1919 German sailors struck one final blow for the Fatherland

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 1 on Friday, 28 February 2014

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This edited article about World War One first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Scapa Flow 1919,  picture, image, illustration

The German sailors at Scapa Flow opened the sea-cocks and scuttled the entire German Fleet on the instructions of Rear-Admiral Reuter, by Graham Coton

Seven months had passed since the guns had ceased firing on the Western Front. The soldiers had come home, and the politicians were just about to sign The Treaty of Versailles. The war to end all wars was over, and the British people were preparing to go on a gigantic spree which was to last well into the twenties.

It was the month of June, 1919, and for the British, at least, the horrors of the past four years were beginning to recede. But for the German people it was a very different matter. The twin spectres of poverty and hunger stalked the land, and inflation was around the corner. But worse still, perhaps, was the hopeless sense of defeat that pervaded the whole nation which was also all too conscious that The Treaty of Versailles was about to heap further humiliations upon them. If any people needed something to boost their morale, they were the Germans at this point in their history. As it happened, something was about to occur which was to cheer them up immeasurably.

Towards the end of 1918, when the terms of the armistice were still under discussion, the question of the internment of the German Fleet had been thoroughly examined, and it had finally been decided that the Fleet should be interned at Scapa Flow, a landlocked anchorage in the Orkney Islands. In due course the German Fleet, consisting of 74 ships and valued at £60,000,000 had arrived. And there it had stayed, while the Powers wrangled among themselves as to what should be done with them. France asked that they should be divided among the victorious nations, America suggested that they should be sold as scrap, and Britain put forward the idea that they should all be sunk. Six months later, they were still arguing among themselves.

Meanwhile, the German sailors at Scapa Flow were understandably growing more and more weary of the life they were being forced to lead. Technically, they were free German citizens, but in reality they were little better than prisoners of war. Condemned to be caretakers until the Powers decided what was to be done with the ships, they spent their days cleaning and polishing, or wandering aimlessly around the decks under the constant surveillance of the British drifters patrolling the waters of the Scapa Flow. It was a situation which was not helped by the instructions which the Admiralty had given the drifters. Any boat leaving a ship and attempting to land was to be fired upon, and, if necessary, sunk.

Taking everything into account, the interned sailors at Scapa Flow might well have been excused if they had become apathetic and dispirited. In actual fact they were just about to strike one final blow for the Fatherland.

On the Saturday of June 21, 1919, the patrolling drifters suddenly noticed that some of the masts of the German Fleet were trembling violently. Then, before their startled gaze, one of the ships toppled majestically on to its side and then sank. Soon afterwards, the crews of other ships started to jump overboard to join their comrades already struggling in the water. They had hardly cleared the decks when two more ships slid beneath the surface.

And that was only the beginning.

Powerless to do anything, the crews of the drifters watched ship after ship go down. Then, galvanizing themselves into activity, they moved forward with some of the local tugs to rescue the German sailors struggling in the icy waters of Scapa Flow. Some boats which had been launched from the sinking ships were fired upon, and a number of men in them were killed or wounded. In the meantime, more ships had sunk.

Within a few hours Scapa Flow had become the graveyard of the German Navy. Where there had once been 74 ships floating peacefully at anchor, there were now only the masts of most of them protruding from the water. Only eighteen of them had been saved and these now dotted the shore like beached whales.

The next morning the people of Britain learned that the German sailors at Scapa Flow had opened the sea-cocks and scuttled the entire German Fleet on the instructions of Rear-Admiral Reuter. The question now was – who was to be held responsible?

The truth of the matter was that no one could be blamed. Rear-Admiral Reuter had acted as any other brave and honourable officer in command might have acted. Moreover, as he was at pains to point out at the enquiry, he had been issued with orders early on in the war that no German man-of-war was to be surrendered, and he had therefore only been carrying out orders.

Nor could anyone in charge of the British ships be blamed. Under the terms of the armistice, the ships had been interned, and not surrendered to the British, which meant that the crews of the British Naval ships which had eventually arrived on the scene, were in no position to board the ships to prevent the scuttling. Anyway, the whole operation had been carried out so swiftly and efficiently as to make it impossible for anything to be done.

The German Press had, of course, reflected something of the country’s pride in this act of defiance by their sailors. Naturally, it was not a view that was shared by the Allies. The New York Times thundered: “The infamy of the German Navy is now complete,” and the French newspapers spoke of treachery and broken promises.

Whatever the action was, it proved to be one for which a heavy price had to be paid. Instead of surrendering her Fleet which she would never be able to use anyway, Germany was forced to hand over a large part of her mercantile Fleet to the value of the ships that had been sunk. Except for the affront to her national pride, Britain emerged very much in pocket. After lying at the bottom of the Scapa Flow for eighteen years, most of the large ships were raised and sold as scrap metal.

Also, by their action the German seamen had solved the problem which six months of debate had not been able to clear up. Moreover, they had solved it in the way that Britain had always wanted the problem to be solved – by sending the German Fleet to the bottom of the ocean.

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