21st June 1919

The German fleet is scuttled in Scapa Flow

Admiral Ludwig von Reuter was rear admiral of the German navy (the High Seas Fleet) at the end of the First World War. In this capacity, he found himself stranded at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, where the German fleet had been sent following the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, which had brought active fighting to an end. They were parked there while the Allied Powers decided what to do with them.

Peace uncertain

Although the Armistice had brought active fighting to an end, it was just the beginning of a complex political process aimed at formalising the peace. The Treaty of Versailles, which would set out the conditions for the end of the war, was still under discussion and, as von Reuter sat on his ship at the Royal Naval base, he was mindful of the fact that, should negotiations break down, war would in all likelihood return.

If it did, the fleet would almost certainly fall into Allied hands. This would leave Germany undefended at sea while giving the Allied Powers an expanded navy that they could use against his homeland. He therefore decided that there was only one possible course of action: the ships would have to be destroyed before the negotiations concluded.

Allied Powers forewarned

This was not a sudden and unexpected move on Reuter’s part. He had mentioned it months earlier, and the Allied Powers were aware that it was a risk. Reuter told the men on each of the ships to be ready to sink their vessels on 21 June, which was the original deadline for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and on that morning he sent out a signal to the Fleet to carry out the order. This, the sailors did, by smashing pipes and opening sea cocks to let in water, and opening portholes and hatches.

The Dundee Evening Telegraph ran the headline “Scapa Flow is scene of Great War Drama” on 23 June 1919 and told readers that “from the behaviour of the ships it was evident that the sea valves had been opened and in a surprisingly short time the vessels, big and small, began to settle down… by one o’clock the scene beggared description. What an hour before had been a stately fleet riding at anchor was now an array of reeling and rocking battleships whose doom was written in their movements.”

“Cowardly, dishonourable act of war”

In the same paper, a correspondent from New York wrote that “authorities on international law declare that a drastic example should be made of the German officers and men who, under a flag of truce, have committed a cowardly, dishonourable act of war. Their opinion is that the Germans responsible should be shot.”

An hour later, the sailors abandoned their ships, and around 52 of the 74 vessels in custody sank. Most of the men were rescued from the water and 1800 were interred in prisoner of war camps, although around 16 were shot as they tried to swim ashore.

“National misery”

The Globe, on 23 June 1919, carried quotes from a number of German newspapers, including the view of Rundschau that the scuttling was an example of the German sense of duty and honour. Tages Zeitung said that the sinking was a gratifying sign that Germany had reached its lowest point of national misery and that “from today it is possible and probable that the path will again be upwards”.

Lokalanzeiger said that “however angry the enemies may be at the loss of their booty, we think in their inmost hearts they will not be able to deny respect to the brave men who preferred death to disgrace.”

Lokalanzeiger may well have been right in that view. The Daily Herald of the same day carried a short opinion piece commenting that “what they [the sailors] have done is precisely and admittedly what any gallant British seamen would also have done, in the like circumstances”.
Most of the vessels were later raised and scrapped over the following years.



Other events that occured in June

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