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By Robert Farley, The National Interest
One hundred years ago, the German High Seas Fleet committed suicide.
On June 21, 1919, the crews of seventy-four German warships attempted to scuttle their vessels in order to prevent the Allies from taking them. Over the course of a few hours, fifty-two modern warships sank. In the modern history of naval combat, there has never been an event as devastating as the self-destruction of the German fleet at Scapa Flow. The scuttling immediately became legendary, closing one chapter of German naval history and opening another.
Shortly after the armistice that ended World War I, the Germans surrendered their fleet to the Allies. The British in particular very strongly believed that Germany should be deprived of her fleet at the earliest opportunity, in no small part because of the role of that fleet in Britain’s war calculations. In addition to concerns about militarist revanchism, the Allies also had to worry about communist revolution. The High Seas Fleet had experienced a mutiny in the last two weeks of the war that had spread across Germany and helped precipitate the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Allies had no interest whatsoever in watching the fleet fall into the hands of German revolutionaries so soon after the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia.
The terms of the armistice required the fleet to depart from Kiel for Scapa Flow. The Grand Fleet met the Germans near Kiel on November 21, 1918, and escorted them north to Scapa. For much of the journey, the Allied escort included American and French warships. The mere existence of the fleet posed a political problem. While many of the German ships were approaching obsolescence (less because of German workmanship than because of the rapid pace of technological change) some of the units were still worthy of front line service. France, Italy, and Japan all coveted the most modern German vessels, which included the super-dreadnoughts Baden and Bayern, as well as several modern battlecruisers.
Most, although not all, of the warships interned at Scapa Flow were veterans of Jutland, the colossal clash between the Grand Fleet and the High Seas Fleet. Relations between the Germans and their British hosts were periodically tense. Germany was forced to maintain upkeep for its crews and ships, including regular shipments of food. The persistent Allied naval blockade had combined with influenza to ravage the country, making even paltry deliveries of food a trial. Moreover, unlike their British, Japanese, and American counterparts, the warships of the High Seas Fleet were not designed for long-range deployment and habitation. The German sailors had few creature comforts, and morale reportedly bottomed out very quickly.
With the Germans still in physical control of the ships, the Royal Navy understood that an attempt at scuttling might ensue. The honor of the German navy, the German Empire, and the war effort itself were at stake. The British had considered simply seizing the ships from the Germans, although this risked violating the armistice and at the very least would have led to bloodshed with the crews.
Indeed, the Germans had prepped the ships for scuttling over the previous several months, removing doors and taking other steps to reduce watertight integrity. They waited for motive and opportunity. As the Paris Peace Conference dragged on, both the French and the Italians had made claims upon the fleet. As the deadline for signing the treaty approached, both the Germans and the British made their preparations, the latter to seize the ships and the former to scuttle them.
On June 21, a comedy of errors ensued. The signing of the treaty was postponed two days, although it is unclear how aware the German sailors were made of this fact. The British commander decided that the fabulous early summer weather offered a great opportunity for practice, and the bulk of the Grand Fleet left Scapa Flow for maneuvers on the morning of June 21. Only a few patrol and utility ships remained.
Admiral Ludwig von Reuter gave the order for scuttling, and every German ship obeyed. The British didn’t notice until around noon, when the battleship Friederich der Grosse began to list noticeably. At this point, the rest of the fleet raised the Imperial German Naval ensign, which the British had officially forbidden. At that point, the scuttling became a race between the water and the Royal Navy. The Grand Fleet, notified by radio of the sinking, began to return immediately. The few Royal Navy ships in attendance picked up survivors, but were unable to save very many of the sinking ships.
Ten battleships, five battlecruisers, four cruisers, and thirty-two destroyers were successfully scuttled. From the German point of view, the operation was an enormous success. The stain of surrender had been removed from the navy, at least. Hundreds of thousands of tons of steel, and many millions of German marks, slid beneath the waves as the fleet that Tirpitz had championed came to an end. When the German admiral was plucked from the sea, a tense confrontation with the Royal Navy Admiral Sydney Fremantle ensued. Von Reuter took full responsibility for the order to scuttle the ships, with Fremantle responding that the action as “an act of base treachery.” Nine Germans were killed during the fights that ensued following the return of the British warships. Mostly, this seems to have happened because the German disobeyed direct orders to stop scuttling the ships, but in a few cases, Royal Navy sailors may have taken more violent steps than were strictly necessary.
The super-dreadnought battleship Baden was beached, and later used for testing by the Royal Navy. Had the ships survived, several might have served effectively through the interwar period and into the Second World War. Baden and Bayern, modern super-dreadnoughts carrying 15” guns, were the equals of any battleships afloat, and could have served creditably in the French or Italian navies. The battlecruisers Derfflinger and Hindenburg would also have represented an improvement for a few different navies.
Although some of the ships scuttled in relatively shallow water, the British initially expressed
little interest in recovery efforts. The Germans had, after all, solved a major political problem by eliminating a point of dispute between the victorious Allies. Refloating the battleships would only reopen the thorny question of which country was most entitled to them. Moreover, global scrap iron prices had plummeted at the end of the war as excess material flooded the market.
A few ships of the High Seas Fleet remained in Kiel, where they had steadily deteriorated in physical condition. The Treaty of Versailles parceled these ships out, but also prohibited the recipients from putting them back into serviceable conditions. Most were quickly scrapped or sunk as targets. The most famous of these, SMS Ostfriesland, became one of the victims of Billy Mitchell’s obsession with naval bombing.
A few years later, the Royal Navy determined that the wrecks had become a hazard to shipping. There was also renewed interest in acquiring the ships for scrap. An engineer named Ernest Cox eventually acquired the rights to several of the ships, and developed innovative techniques for refloating them. This involved patching the hull and pumping in air in order to provide flotation. Overall, Cox refloated thirty-three of the ships, including two battlecruisers and five battleships.
Today, many of the ships of the High Seas Fleet remain at the bottom of Scapa Flow, where wreck-divers often visit them. Given the enthusiasm with which scrappers have taken to robbing the Pacific of naval wrecks, the vessels at the bottom of Scapa may soon be the last easily accessible ships of their era.
The destruction of the High Seas Fleet on June 21, 1919 still marks the greatest destruction of naval power in a single day in modern military history. In a few hours, Germany went from being a first-rate naval power (behind only the United Kingdom and the United States) to completely lacking a modern fleet. Memories of 1919 would color Germany’s efforts to rebuild its fleet in the 1930s, as well as British wariness about the expansion of German power.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI*, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.*