The final cruise of the German High Seas Fleet.

It was 9:30 a.m. when the German High Seas Fleet came sweeping out of the morning fog lying low over the North Sea. Ahead of them lay Scotland’s Firth of Forth. Overhead, the smoke from 70 ships obscured the morning sun. Destroyers led the way, then came the battleships and battle cruisers followed by the light cruisers. Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter’s flagship was the dreadnought Friedrich der Grosse. Ahead of them in full battle array was the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet commanded by Sir David Beatty. Every man aboard the British ships stood at his battle station. The German ships closed within range of the British 15-inch guns, but Beatty’s ships did not open fire or maneuver; they held their formation and advanced slowly. At a signal from Beatty, the British fell in alongside their German counterparts, destroyers beside destroyers, battle cruisers beside battle cruisers, and so forth. The date was November 21, 1918, just another Thursday, except that history was being made here: The last time these two mighty fleets had met was May 31, 1916, of the Danish coast at the Battle of Jutland, a violent engagement that ended in a tactical draw. On this day, however, they were not meeting to finish that fight. The British were escorting the German feet into internment.

Until the moment they sailed meekly into captivity, officers of the Imperial German Navy would never have imagined this, but the armistice agreement of November 11, 1918, included the internment of their High Seas Fleet in a neutral port. The feet—with the ships’ magazines emptied and breechblocks removed from the guns—left the German shipbuilding port of Wilhelmshaven on November 19 to rendezvous with the British feet that was to escort it into internment. No neutral nation had agreed to accept the German capital ships, however; Plan B was to intern them at Scapa Flow, the British naval base in the Orkney Islands of the north coast of Scotland.

On November 21, the Royal Navy guided the Germans into the Firth of Forth. Admiral Beatty ordered the German fag on every ship hauled down, not to be hoisted again, and the final leg of the journey into captivity proceeded quietly. With British airships flying overhead, the two fleets arrived at Scapa Flow—one of the finest natural harbors in the world—on Monday, November 25. Each German vessel was directed to an anchorage spot between the islands of Hoy, Graemsay, and Fara, where they shut down their engines. The British blocked the harbor entrance with nets and mines and removed every wireless radio. In a few days the British sent all German seamen home except for a small volunteer caretaker force of about 200 men and officers aboard each capital ship and 20 men and officers aboard each destroyer; the British did not post guards on board. In the next few weeks four more German warships arrived for internment, bringing the total to 74—11 battleships, 5 battle cruisers, 8 light cruisers, and 50 destroyers.

The rules of internment were simple: German captains could not meet with their admiral, and crews were confined to their ships; they could not visit other ships or go ashore. As weeks turned into months, the bored and mutinous men grew increasingly sullen, and the cold, blustery weather did not help their morale.

While the Allies, in Paris, debated the fate of the German feet, Reuter brooded over prouder days when the High Seas Fleet went toe to toe with the Royal Navy. To him, the ships were still the property of the Reich, and he was still under the kaiser’s standing orders of 1914: “All ships put out of action must never fall into enemy hands.” If fighting were to resume, he intended to carry out those orders. As the months passed, he became convinced that his captors meant to seize his helpless ships. Then, on June 20 the kaiser’s government fell, putting an end to peace negotiations.

On the morning of June 21, the British squadron at Scapa Flow upped anchor and sailed out of the roadstead. Unbeknownst to the Germans, the Brits were going off to conduct routine torpedo exercises. The hypersensitive Reuter had been expecting some sort of move preliminary to his ships being seized as soon as the armistice expired. He was at the mercy of the British but did not mean to submit meekly. If he could no longer fight his command, at least he could deny it to the enemy and go out on his own terms.

Weeks before, Reuter had secretly issued sealed orders to his commanders to be ready on his signal to scuttle their ships. At 11:20 that morning, the first signal fags went up on the light cruiser Emden, and every German ship passed the word along. In minutes, seamen were opening all seacocks, torpedo tubes, and watertight doors. They had already welded bulkhead doors open and deep sixed any tools that could be used to halt the scuttling. Soon bells on every vessel were ringing out the signal for “abandon ship.” While the dumbfounded British watched, the Germans piled into boats and began pulling for the nearest British warship. Fearing they were about to be boarded, British captains piped their men to battle stations and placed marines along the railings with loaded weapons. They did not realize what was happening until the German ships began listing. The first to go under was the Friedrich der Grosse, which capsized at 12:16 p.m.

The British squadron was miles out to sea when it received the startling news via wireless: “German Fleet sinking. Return to harbor at full speed.” As they reentered the roadstead, they were greeted by a stunning sight: Scores of ships were settling, some rolling over and going down with a whoosh, others sliding bow first into the deep. Some German crews were picked up by civilian craft; others approached British warships asking to be taken aboard. A few of the Royal Marines panicked and opened the navy’s fire; one German officer and eight seamen were killed, another 16 wounded—likely the last casualties of World War I.

The scuttling took hours. Contrary to later reports, the crews planted no explosives to speed the process. The 28,000-ton battle cruiser Hindenburg was the last of the big ships to go down, coming to rest in 11 fathoms of water. The destroyers took longer because they had been lashed together in twos and threes. By 10 p.m. it was all over. Fifty-one vessels including 15 capital ships lay on the bottom of Scapa Flow. Another nine rested in the shallows with most of their superstructures above water. The British saved 12 ships by running them onto the beach. The battle ship Baden was the only capital ship still upright.

The Allies’ reaction was mixed. British officers on the scene felt equal parts outrage and admiration—outrage at the sneaky trick that had been pulled on them; admiration for a final act of defiance that any honorable officer could understand. The government in London were embarrassed that they had been made to look like “fools and knaves,” as one diplomat put it. Publicly they branded Reuter’s actions dishonorable, and there was talk of summarily shooting him. A more realistic scenario had him being tried as a war criminal along with the kaiser. Secretly, the Admiralty was happy the German navy had been removed from the board. The French believed their British allies had “betrayed a trust” or at the very least showed an appalling “lack of vigilance.” The Americans were not above gloating over the Brits’ discomfiture, but secretly they were of one mind with the British and wanted the feet sunk.

After the shock wore of, the British began figuring out how to make the most of the episode. Some of the ships, like Baden and the light cruiser Frankfurt, could be easily refloated. For the rest, the Admiralty initially announced there would be no salvaging. The expense of trying to put sunken ships back into service was prohibitive. But in 1922, the Admiralty reconsidered its decision and contracted with a scrap metal dealer to carry out what was characterized as “the greatest maritime salvage operation of all time.”

For the next eight years Earnest Cox and his successor raised wrecks, battled winter storms, and fought of creditors to fulfill that contract. Ultimately, they raised 45 ships in whole or part, putting 24 of them back afloat including the Baden; light cruisers Emden, Frankfurt, Nurnberg; and 20 destroyers. In 1934 they even brought the 30,000-ton battle cruiser Derfflinger to the surface from 25 fathoms. The coming of World War II in 1939 put an end to salvage operations until the Cold War. What remained on the bottom were three dreadnoughts and four cruisers, all of them simply too big or too far down to raise.

The Baden ended its life as a gunnery target for the Royal Navy in 1921. The  Frankfurt was turned over to the Americans who put it on the bottom for good by aerial bombardment while testing Billy Mitchell’s revolutionary concepts of naval aviation. The Emden and three destroyers went to France; three others went to Japan. All were broken up for scrap by their new owners, as was the Derfflinger in 1946.

The scuttling of the German feet resonated long after the last ship settled to the bottom. There were echoes of its proud defiance in 1939 when Captain Hans Langsdorf sank the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in a Uruguayan port rather than fight a superior British squadron waiting outside. The French also bought in to the death-before – dishonor notion, sinking their feet at Toulon in 1942 rather than see it fall into German or British hands. German newspapers at the time called the action at Scapa Flow “the Last Cruise of the German Fleet.”

 

Professor and author Richard Selcer has published extensively on the Civil War and Texas history.

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.