Though World War I hostilities came to a formal end on Nov. 11, 1918, the parting shots in that long and cataclysmic struggle did not come until seven months later. They did not sound on the former Western Front, whose trench-scarred fields had soaked up the blood of millions between 1914 and the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne. The final shots were triggered within the confines of a broad, sheltered bay in Scotland’s remote Orkney Islands.
That bay, a refuge for ships since the Viking era 1,000 years ago, is named Scapa Flow (from the Old Norse word skalpaflói, meaning “bay of the long isthmus”). As it was the designated anchorage of the British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet during World War I, layered anti-submarine defenses—blockships, mines, nets and booms—sealed off the 125-square-mile body of water. Those defenses were effective at keeping enemy “wolf packs” out, though on June 5, 1916, the armored cruiser HMS Hampshire had just left the sheltered harbor when it struck a mine laid in the open sea by the German submarine U-75. Hampshire sank by the bow within 15 minutes. Among the 737 crewmen and passengers lost with the British warship was Secretary of State for War Herbert Lord Kitchener, who had been en route to Russia on a diplomatic mission.
The next warships to sink in the Orkneys would be German.
As Britain came to dominate the world’s oceans in the 19th century, it adopted a “two-power standard,” calling for a Royal Navy equal in strength to the next two largest foreign fleets combined. By the early 20th century, however, Germany had invested so heavily toward bolstering its navy that in 1912 Britain abandoned the “two-power standard” and called for the navy to achieve and maintain a 60 percent superiority to the second largest national fleet. When World War I broke out two years later, the Royal Navy was arguably the most capable fleet in the world, but the Imperial German Navy was right behind it.
By August 1914 Germany had 15 battleships, four heavy battle cruisers, 63 light cruisers of various types, 90 destroyers, 115 torpedo boats and 31 submarines. While some of those vessels were lost during the conflict, the vast majority remained afloat at war’s end. In addition to calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities, the terms of the armistice required the release of Allied prisoners of war, laid out the process through which Germany would ultimately be forced to pay reparations, and mandated the withdrawal of German forces behind the Rhine River and the surrender of German aircraft, warships and military materiel. In keeping with the latter edict, the surviving ships of the German High Seas Fleet were ordered to Scapa Flow to await final disposition. The last of its 74 vessels arrived at the remote anchorage in January 1919.
That the Imperial German Navy had ceased hostilities was beyond question. But the armistice was a cease-fire and not a formal surrender, thus the ultimate fate of the German warships would remain an open question until the June 28 signing of the Treaty of Versailles, whose terms would go into effect on Jan. 10, 1920. In addition to the five principal Allied powers—Britain, France, the United States, Italy and Japan—the signatories included more than a dozen associated allies and co-belligerent countries. Many had a vested interest in the ultimate disposition of the vessels of the former German fleet. The United States and Britain preferred the warships be broken up for scrap, while weaker allies—particularly the French and Italians—sought to divvy up the fleet for a significant net increase in their respective navies. As each had contributed substantial manpower and wealth toward the war effort, they felt the ships would provide a measure of compensation.
One of Britain’s foremost postwar goals was to remain in possession of the world’s largest navy, and the transfer of former German warships to other nations could well alter the naval balance of power. The British were especially concerned about any increase in the size or quality of the French navy. Though France and Britain had been allies in the late war, they had been staunch enemies through the Napoléonic wars a century earlier and still saw one another as an imperial competitor. For their part, the British were unwilling to accept the possibility of a French fleet anywhere near comparable to the Royal Navy—or, for that matter, the qualitative naval improvement of any potential adversary. The British position, coupled with the bickering among those nations hoping to obtain former enemy vessels, ensured the 74 German warships would remain isolated at Scapa Flow for months after the signing of the armistice. It was a time of deprivation and despair for the crewmen who remained aboard, and the conditions ultimately prompted them to take desperate action.
When Admiral Franz von Hipper, commander of Germany’s High Seas Fleet, refused to lead his warships into internment at Scapa Flow, the task fell to Rear Admiral Hans Ludwig von Reuter. The 49-year-old career officer and distinguished veteran of some of the war’s most significant naval battles had an unenviable task. Reuter was to oversee the bottled-up fleet and ensure the welfare of the thousands of men remaining aboard until the negotiators at Versailles decided the fleet’s fate.
Through midsummer 1919 the vast majority of the 20,000 Germans who had sailed the ships to Scapa Flow were repatriated. For the roughly 1,800 men of the skeleton crews left to tend the fleet, life was decidedly dull and unpleasant. The German sailors were essentially prisoners of their respective vessels, forbidden by the British from either going ashore or visiting one another. Food was not provided by the British, but instead arrived from Germany twice a month and was at best of middling quality. Recreational opportunities were little to nil, morale was horrible, and the real possibility of mutiny preyed on the minds of the German officers.
When he led the fleet into Scapa Flow, Reuter likely hoped at least some of the interned vessels would be repatriated with his sailors after the treaty was finalized. Based on his since revealed communications via courier with the German high command, however, the admiral came to learn the Allies intended to permanently allocate the entire fleet. Given his proud family tradition of military service to the Fatherland, Reuter could not in good conscience allow such a humiliation, and on June 18 he issued orders to his subordinate captains to begin preparations for the scuttling of every German vessel in Scapa Flow.
The plan called for crewmen to simultaneously open their ships’ sea cocks, flood valves, portholes, watertight doors, hatches and torpedo tubes, thus allowing the largest possible volume of water to enter each vessel until its buoyancy was overcome. While simple in theory, the specifics took significant time to implement. Fortunately for Reuter, the British unknowingly abetted the effort. In addition to the restrictions placed on German sailors’ movements, British sailors were only allowed to visit the German vessels on official business. Furthermore, any such visits had to be announced well in advance, so the Germans knew exactly when the British would be coming aboard and scheduled their preparations accordingly.
As soon as Reuter made his intentions clear to the captains of the individual vessels via semaphore and signal lights, their respective crews set to work—opening watertight doors and condenser covers, loosening porthole latches and boring holes through bulkheads. One German captain recorded having set his sea cocks on a hair-trigger turning and placed large hammers beside key valves. Working both feverishly and furtively, the Germans completed their preparations within a few days, all within hailing distance of thousands of British sailors.
All that remained was for Reuter to order the scuttling plan into action.
At 10 a.m. on June 21, just days before the British intended to seize control of the High Seas Fleet, Reuter gave the flag signal his men had been anticipating. As the British remained wholly unaware of what was transpiring, the German crews were able to carry out their admiral’s order with alacrity and without interference. Around noon, as the first vessels started to list at anchor, every ship proudly hoisted the Reichskriegfahne, the Imperial German ensign, an act forbidden under the terms of the armistice.
After opening their ships to the sea, the crews took to lifeboats, pushing away amid roiling clouds of steam and great spouts of seawater. A party of Orkney schoolchildren on an outing in a small steamer had an unforgettable view of the enemy fleet going down at anchor.
Only then did the British realize something was horribly amiss. Vice Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle, commander of the naval force guarding Scapa Flow, quickly dispatched all available watercraft, filled with armed sailors and Royal Marines, with orders to keep German crewmen aboard their vessels and either prevent the warships from sinking or beach them. Predictably reluctant to remain aboard warships already awash, and likely not understanding the commands shouted in English, German sailors continued to board their lifeboats. The late-arriving British sailors and marines were incensed at what they regarded as the dishonorable and illegal destruction of the surrendered fleet. Though the Germans were unarmed and posed no real threat, some of the British opened fire, wounding 16 enemy sailors and killing 10—including Captain Walter Schumann of the battleship Markgraf. These unfortunates were the final casualties of World War I.
Reuter’s operation to deny the German vessels to the victorious Allied nations largely succeeded. Of the 74 German ships in Scapa Flow, 15 of the 16 battleships and armored heavy cruisers, five of the eight light cruisers and 32 of the 50 destroyers sank. The remaining warships either stubbornly remained afloat or were beached by the British. The 1,774 Germans who survived the day’s events were picked up and taken ashore. Fremantle promptly issued a general order declaring they were to be treated as prisoners of war for having broken the terms of the armistice. They were sent to POW camps in Britain. While most were soon repatriated, Reuter and several of his senior officers remained imprisoned in Britain until released in January 1920.
Though Reuter was vilified in Britain, his countrymen feted the returning admiral as a hero who had preserved the honor of the Imperial German Navy. Despite his newfound fame, he was left without a suitable command, as the Treaty of Versailles severely restricted the size and manpower of Germany’s postwar armed forces. Forced into retirement, he pursued local politics and wrote a book about the events at Scapa Flow. One more honor remained. In the summer of 1939 Reuter was promoted to the ceremonial rank of full admiral in the Kriegsmarine, Nazi Germany’s reconstituted navy. On Dec. 18, 1943, the admiral who had sunk his own fleet died of a heart attack at the age of 74.
John Miles is a native Texan and retired U.S. Marine officer who writes for a number of periodicals and delivers historical presentations throughout the American South. For further reading he recommends Scapa Flow: The Account of the Greatest Scuttling of All Time, by Ludwig von Reuter; The First World War and the Paris Peace Agreement, by Karel Schelle; and The Grand Scuttle: The Sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919, by Dan van der Vat.