If you go just about as far north as you can go by car, and then take a two hour ferry ride, you will end up in the Orkney Islands. Beautiful and rugged, the islands cover an area of some 1200 square miles of wild ocean, encompassing some seventy tiny islands. The Ocandians make a living much as they always have, fishing the wild seas and farming the bare windswept land. Apart from its awesome beauty, (when the sun sets on a clear evening, you wonder if it is the start of the second coming) Orkney has little to commend it apart from the friendliness of its people and a particularly good malt whisky.
However there is one thing that makes these islands unique, and that is Scapa Flow, just about the best natural anchorage anywhere in the world. Hated by generations of sailors for its desolate location and mind numbing boredom, Scapa Flow, in its time, has housed some of the biggest battle fleets ever to be assembled anywhere on earth. It was from here that the British Fleet under Admiral Jellicoe sailed out to do battle at Jutland, and it was here that the horrendous tragedy of the Royal Oak took place, leaving eight hundred dead. Even so, all this would no doubt have passed forgotten into history if not for one of the most bizarre events in Naval history, the self destruction of the entire German High Seas Fleet. How could this have happened?
Today with our reliance on nuclear arms, and the consequent rundown of our conventional forces, it is almost impossible for most of us to imagine the sheer might of the Battle Fleets at the turn of the century. Today we consider the aircraft carrier Invincible to be a huge ship, but compared with something like the German Battleship Konig, she does not seem quite so impressive. Even her armament does not really compare for all its twentieth century sophistication. The Konig for instance had ten twelve inch guns in five twin turrets all on the centre line. This meant that they could all fire broadside. Each shell weighed over nine hundred pounds, so when the Konig roared, over nine thousand pounds of armour piecing high explosive hurtled through the air at over 2400 feet per second. Only God could help if you were on the receiving end.
In their day the British and German Battle Fleets represented the ultimate in high technology, and were I suppose their equivalent of today’s nuclear arms race. Vast amounts were spent by both sides to build bigger and more powerful ships, and in this manner the seeds were sown that finally brought forth the terrible harvest of destruction in the Great War.
The German Navy under Tirpitz were convinced that if their fleet was powerful enough, Britain would accede to their ambitions in Europe rather than concede control of the high seas. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Britain with its huge Empire depended on the Navy, and over the years had kept a relatively small standing Army, relying on it’s awesome sea power to quash any stirrings abroad. The emergence of a powerful German Navy on its doorstep had a destabilizing effect and was bound to provoke mistrust between the two ‘super powers’. Soon the balance of power in Europe became irrevocably unbalanced. War was inevitable, and each countries Navy was determined not to be found wanting.
In the event the War at Sea was inconclusive. The two huge Battle Fleets met only once, at Jutland, and the outcome of that battle has been argued over ever since. Both sides claimed victory, and although the German Fleet sunk more ships and killed more sailors they failed to seize control of the North Sea. For the rest of the war they never again challenged the British Fleet to a full action, so strategically the Germans lost, and with their defeat went their best chances of winning the war.
On the 5 October 1918 with its Armies in mutiny on the Western Front, and the Navy barricaded by the British, the German Government offered an Armistice, and by the beginning of November hostilities ceased. The German High Seas Fleet based at Wilhelmhaven was due for dispersal to neutral ports to await the outcome of the peace talks. It soon became clear however, that the logistics of interning seventy four ships in different neutral ports would be virtually impossible, so the British insisted that the entire fleet should be interned at Scapa Flow. This was hardly a neutral port, and totally against the spirit of the agreement drawn up under the Armistice. The German Naval officers were not unnaturally furious. To them neutral internment meant that technically they were still in command of their ships pending the outcome of the peace talks. But internment by the British meant virtual surrender. They felt the dishonour very keenly. Here was arguably the worlds most powerful Battle Fleet, unbeaten in combat, finally being defeated by the betrayal of its own politicians.
Meanwhile in Germany revolution was sweeping the country, and on board the High Seas Fleet morale, already at rock bottom, broke down into widespread mutiny, and the formation of so called ‘Soldiers Councils’. Officers found it almost impossible to keep any discipline, and it was only the faint hope that the Battle Fleet would be allowed home after the peace talks that held the Navy together. The man chosen to lead the mighty German Fleet into internment was Rear Admiral Ludwick von Reuter. At best it was a degrading job for any officer to take on, but Reuter, at the personal request of Admiral Hipper was determined to do it and somehow preserve the honour of the German Navy into the bargain.
On the 19 November 1918 Reuter led the High Seas Fleet out from Wilhelmshaven on their last journey, a rendezvous with the British Fleet at the Firth of Forth. Here, five Battlecruisers, eleven Battleships, eight Lightcruisers and six flotilla’s of fifty Torpedoboat-Destroyers were to be inspected to make sure they had completely disarmed in accordance with the terms of the Armistice. When satisfied the British Navy would lead this once proud German High Seas Fleet in groups to their final anchorage, Scapa Flow. As Reuter sadly wrote years later, ‘we were disarmed and dishonoured’.
Reuter saw internment under the British as virtual surrender. With their love of legal niceties, the German Navy still saw the peace talks as a vehicle for their own salvation on equal terms, almost as if the war had not been lost but somehow brought to a draw. The British however considered the Germans to be the vanquished and treated them accordingly. In 1918 there was not much evidence of the British sense of fair play around Scapa Flow.
Scuttling was on everybody’s minds. For Reuter it seemed the only way of denying his ships to the Enemy if the peace talks went badly. The British had already circulated orders aimed at minimising the effects of scuttling, but knew in their heart of hearts that they could do little about it. (In the event all but twenty two of the ships completely sank, the rest were beached). Seven months were to go by until the Armistice came to an end, If the peace talks had not succeeded a state of war would once again break out. If this happened, Rear Admiral Reuter had decided that he would sink his entire fleet of seventy four ships rather than let the British have them.
Unfortunately for Reuter, the only information that he could get about the peace talks was what he was told by the British, or what he could read in four day old copies of the Times. This lack of up to date information had a bizarre consequence. By now it was almost certain that Reuter knew that his fleet would never get back to Germany, and therefore he would almost certainly have scuttled it, if only to preserve his notion of the German Navy’s honour. However it must be said that his actual decision to scuttle was based on a misleading report in a copy of the Times that was four days old.
At Versailles the peace talks were in chaos, and as the final date drew near, a close agreement still had not been reached. In the end the British, tired of the whole squalid mess, gave the German Government an ultimatum to either accept the peace terms by noon on the 21 June or face renewed hostilities. That is what Reuter read in his copy of the Times, and that is the information that he acted on. What he did not know is that later on the same day the Germans capitulated, accepted the terms, and the Armistice was extended by two days to tie up the loose ends.
So when the 21 June 1919 dawned, there was Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter dressed in his best uniform pacing the deck of his flagship the Emden. At ten thirty he ordered the prearranged coded signal to be hoisted, Paragraph Eleven – Confirm. The controlled suicide of an entire fleet had begun. With their customary good timing the British had chosen this day of all days to withdraw the escorting Battleships and their attendant destroyers from Scapa Flow to send them on exercise. The only witnesses were a bunch of school children on a boat trip to view the ‘defeated Hun’. In a recent television programme some of those children, now grown old relived their memories. The passage of time had done nothing to diminish the clarity and vividness of their recollections. For them it had been the most incredible experience of their lives, and they could never forget it. If you are lucky enough to dive on the remains of this once mighty fleet, I can assure you that you too will always remember it. It is truly the German Valhalla.
Special Report: Scapa Flow: