The scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919 was perhaps the most dramatic moment of the entire war at sea during the First World War. In a single day almost all of the modern ships in the German fleet were sunk by their own sailors to prevent the British from seizing them as part of the final peace agreement,
Although that scuttling is the main focus of this book, we start earlier, with the collapse of morale on the ships of the High Sea Fleet, and the loss of control by the officers, which led to a series of revolutionary mutinies on the fleet. A key part of the problem was the rigid divide between the officers and their men, probably made worse by the sailors spending most of their time living off their ships in barracks which broke the normally tight links of life on ship. A classic example of this came when the fleet commanders came up with the idea of one final sortie, which they expected would see them suffer a crushing defeat, but which they saw as being more ‘honourable’ than simply going down to surrender. Unsurprisingly their men didn’t share the officer’s desire for a death or glory final ride! These mutinies later became part of the ‘stab in the back’ myth, which was focused on diverting attention away from the looming defeat and collapse of the German army on the Western Front and on to other possible causes of Germany’s surrender.
To modern eyes the British attitude to their defeated German rivals comes across as unnecessarily harsh and unjustifiably triumphalist, and one can’t help but think that this played a part in embittering the German sailors. Beatty’s attitude on the day that the two fleets met feels wrong, and his arbitrary decision to forbid the Germans from flying their own flag while interned had no legal basis. However we have to remember that these events came at the end of four years of bitter, brutal warfare. Many of the British sailors will have lost friends during the war, and the German use of unrestricted submarine warfare meant that the German Navy was hated at the time. Even the most sympathetic of attitudes probably wouldn’t have stopped the scuttling, but it might have left fewer long term grudges to disrupt the peace.
The chapter on the scuttling itself makes one realise just how dramatic an event it really was. These warships didn’t just gently slip under the wages - some capsized, others went down at one end, with the other dramatically rising into the air before they slipped under water. This was all accompanied by a vast cacophony as the cold water hit the hot boilers, steam escaped, air escaped from underwater compartments, and the flow filled with small boats carrying hundreds of German sailors. No wonder some of the relative handful of British sailors left at Scapa Flow on the day panicked and over-reacted!
The story didn’t end with the scuttling itself or even with the return home of the last German soldiers. In the post-war period an impressive salvage operation was carried out, starting with the destroyers but moving on to include some of the ten battles ships and five battle cruisers that had been scuttled. This was a very impressive achievement in its own right, and well deserves a chapter.
This is an excellent study of a fascinating event, and really makes one appreciate the scale of the scuttling and its repercussions.
1 – Germany and its Navy
2 – The War’s Closing Days
3 – Armistice
4 – On to Internment – Rosyth
5 – On to Internment – Scapa Flow
6 – Dividing the Spoils at Versailles
7 – Planning ‘Der Tag’’. Saving the Navy’s Honour
8 – Midsummer Madness
9 – Captivity and Repatriation
10 – Scapa – At the Centre of World Attention
11 – Rebalancing Sea Power – Scapa to Washington
12 – The Greatest Salvage in History
13 – Scapa Flow in History and Today
Author: Nicholas Jellicoe