LAST OF THE CENTENNIAL ANNIVERSARIES - THE SINKING OF THE GERMAN HIGH SEAS FLEET
Last month we, and most others, overlooked the centennial of two of the last major events of the Great War, both of which are connected, one actually concluding the conflict. The events, both on the same day, firstly the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow, the second the final signing of the Versailles peace treaty formally ending hostilities between all nations involved, except for Russia which was now the emerging USSR.
The scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet
The construction of the Kaisers High Seas Fleet in the first decade of the twentieth century, was one of the principle causes of Britain’s’ entry into the war. It was felt to be a direct challenge to British Naval supremacy, particularly as its range was limited to action within the North Sea, the channel and around the coasts of Britain. For what other purpose and against what other country could its use have contemplated??
One of the greatest moments for the Royal Navy in the First World War, now totally overlooked and unremembered, was the morning of 21st November 1918 when, led by HMS Cardiff, the German High Seas Fleet sailed in single file between two 20 mile rows of 370 ships of the British Grand Fleet and other allied navies into internment at Scapa Flow.
Once there Imperial Ensigns were hauled down with the instruction "they would not be hoisted again without permission". Most crews were returned to Germany with only a caretaker crew left in each ship. Conditions for the German sailors were poor, all food had to come from Germany, deliveries were irregular and of poor quality. No exchanges between ships or the land were allowed so they were literally prisoners on board.
There had been much discussion during Versailles on the fate of the ships. Both France and Italy hoped to acquire several of the larger battleships for their own fleets. Britain was not keen on this as that might also alter the balance of naval power, and were in favour of surrender and scrapping of the fleet.
Admiral Ludwig Von Reuter German Admiral nominally commanding the interned ships had already made plans for self-destruction rather than handing over the fleet. The Admiralty had also made plans themselves to seize them as soon as the Treaty was signed, but these were delayed as most of the main Grand Fleet had gone out on exercise.
At 11.20am on the morning of June 21st 1919, the day the Treaty of Versailles was signed requiring the formal surrender of the High Seas Fleet, a flag signal was seen to be run up by Von Reuters flagship, a pre-arranged signal to carry out the necessary actions to scuttle the ships. Thereafter crews were noted to be taking to their boats, a forbidden activity, and rowing towards shore. Some of the boats were fired on by British guard ships and four German sailors were killed.
Within the hour most ships of all sizes were seen to be settling down in the water or beginning to list with most of the larger capital ships capsizing within a few hours. The British managed to run a few smaller destroyers aground but the vast majority of the fleet was sunk.
In the late 1920,s and thirties the firm of Cox and Danks acquired the wrecks for salvage. Most of the largest capital ships were re-floated after tremendous efforts, the majority still upside down and were towed away and scrapped. Many wrecks remain today. Interestingly the metal from these is still in demand as they constitute the world’s largest resource of steel not contaminated by radiation from atomic testing and nuclear accident! This is particularly important for scientific instruments involved in radiation measuring!
The sinking of the fleet to prevent their acquisition by the victorious powers could be said to be the last hostile act of the Great War. Although rather humiliated by this act of defiance carried out under the very nose of the Grand Fleet the British government was not displeased by the outcome which prevented other Allies acquiring some of the naval spoils of war!
The German crews and Von Reuter were interned as POWs but were all repatriated during 1920. Van Reuter retired from the navy but was promoted to full Admiral before his death in 1943.
On 18th June 2019 The Scotsman Newspaper reported that the wrecks of four of the German Warships scuttled at Scapa Flow had been put up for sale on E Bay. There are seven remaining wrecks, three battleships, three light cruisers and a mine layer, all now popular diving sites.
The current owner is a Tayside based diving contactor Thomas Clark, who purchased the wrecks from a salvage firm in 1981. Mr Clark who retired recently told the newspaper he hoped ‘someone with a vision for their future ‘will be interested in purchasing the wrecks.
Our Branch Chair, Jonathan has added a new ‘Button’ to our Branch Website www.wfa-birmingham.org.uk (http://www.wfa-birmingham.org.uk)
This directs you to a ‘Drop Box’ site where you will find WFA Fact Sheets. If you don’t have an account with Dropbox it might ask you to have one. You can ignore this and click on ‘or continue to Website’. There are Fact Sheets listed for reading or downloading.