The Scuttling of the German Fleet: The Aftermath

The Scuttling of the German Fleet: 2019 Summer Exhibition at the Orkney Museum. Panel 5. The Aftermath

Surrendering German sailors.


The chaos that followed the scuttling saw acts of violence that the German government declared as war crimes. Seven men were killed that day, one died of his wounds the following day. One German sailor’s body sank was never found. There were also 21 inured, mostly by bayonet wounds, although the Royal Navy only officially recorded four. A ninth victim, Kuno Eversberg, would be murdered by a British sailor after the peace treaty had been signed. German sailors taken onboard Royal Navy ships were now classed as Prisoners of War and many were robbed and faced physical and verbal abuse from their captors. The eight dead German sailors were buried at the Naval Cemetery, Lyness, along with five other Germans who died of illness before the scuttling. A sixth sailor vanished on the night of 6th December 1918 from SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm, and his body was never found. In total, 15 German sailors would not make the journey home.

The battleship SMS Markgraf capsizing (left). Phorographed by James Omand. Orkney Library & Archive.
Four photographs of the sinking of the battleship SMS Markgraf. Her wreck is still in Scapa Flow. James Omand. Orkney Library & Archive.

Part of the German Government’s complaint of war crimes

Names have been removed as it is not known if this is an accurate account of events.

“When the German fleet was scuppered at Scapa Flow on 21 June 1919, Captain … issued an order to shoot at defenceless German officers and crews who floated in their boats or in the water. According to statements of the allied marine commission, 8 participants were killed and 4 seriously injured. The commander of the “Markgraf”, corvette captain Schumann, was shot on board his ship without any reason. A British officer held a pistol to Second Lieutenant Lampe of the VI. Flotilla’s forehead and pulled the trigger: the bullet only missed because the barrel slid off, but hair and skin were singed. Captain … issued the order personally to his officers to shoot Lieutenant Wehr immediately if his boat V43 sank, even though he knew that it was not possible to close the opened valves; only after a semaphore message from the British repair ship was the shooting abandoned.”

SMS Markgraf. Orkney Library & Archive.
Boarding party removing German flags from a destroyer. Orkney Library & Archive.

“The same fate impended on corvette captain Cordes. Even though he called out “don’t shoot, we surrender, shooting will be a horrible massacre”, the Second Lieutenant of the British trawler “Gamma” threatened him with execution by shooting. Second Lieutenant Horstmann of the “Baden” was bound and forced on the “Baden” and ordered to start the diesel engine under the threat of execution by shooting. On his refusal abuse followed. The shooting continued on the swimming men of lieutenant (junior grade) Hoffmann who had jumped into the water from the boats during the cannonade, likewise on the men from the groups of Nordmann and Klüber. The cannonades were under the leadership of the British naval officers of the armed trawler “Gamma” and “Truston”, as well as the buoy steamer “Bendoria” and aimed against the ships as well as the lifeboats, unmindful of the white flag that was shown and that the crew raised their hands. Civilians also participated in the shooting.”

Salvage work on SMS Baden.
SMS Baden was beached at Swanbister Bay, Orphir, along with the light cruisers Frankfurt (seen here on the left) and Emden.

“The crew under the command of Second Lieutenant Klüber were even forced to return to their sinking ship under the threat of immediate execution by shooting and after lifejackets and lifeboats were taken away they were left behind with the words “Then you shall die on board”. Second Lieutenant Zaeschmar with his men was also forced to return to his sinking boat V126. He had wanted to leave the boat in a cutter with 13 men when he came under fire by a drifter, on which civilians participated again in the shooting, by a destroyer and by the English on V45. The machinist Markgraf, Bleike and Pankrath were killed at this; furthermore Schröder, Hebel and Müller were wounded, so 7 of the 13 persons that were present on the cutter. By an abdominal bullet wound seriously injured, and later deceased, Pankrath was not allowed to be lifted from the alongside attached cutter, instead the cutter was left to drift into the surge with the seriously injured and the two dead, despite repeated pointers to this fact. Only after 2 hours, following multiple requests from “Sainthorst” [Sandhurst, depot ship], were investigations into the cutter pursued.

In general it can be established that ships and lifeboats, despite waving a white flag and raising hands, were shot at by destroyers, drifters and tugboats with machine guns, Winchesters and rifles, always under leadership of British naval officers and with involvement of civilians, and that the shooting was not even abandoned when people jumped from the cutters into the water.”

A statement given by a German sailor about his treatment onboard the Royal Navy battleship HMS Resolution is an insight into the treatment of prisoners on that ship.

Sworn statement of Lieutenant G.:

“The behaviour of the English crew from the ‘Resolution’ was quite beyond belief. At every available opportunity (fetching food, relieving oneself etc.) our men were insulted in the meanest manner, caps were struck from their head, navy cap ribbons were stolen etc.; these things happened even though two guards were always in attendance with bayonet fixed and a sergeant. The first mate seemed to be embarrassed by the unbelievable behaviour of his men, but was powerless against it. The examination of the luggage was performed under the supervision of two officers of the ‘Royal Marines’ in the presence of myself and the whole staff sergeants of the ship. The keys to their clothes bags had been previously taken away from corporals and crews by the English. Nevertheless not a single lock was opened, but every bag was sliced open, in some cases even lengthwise from top to bottom. The staff sergeants put aside whatever was at all possible during this examination, during which a mess was caused deliberately. Footwear, soles, razors, cigars, self-made works were cast aside inconspicuously despite my constant objection.”

German sailors and luggage under tow from a Royal Navy pinnace being taken to a British ship.
German boats under tow by a Royal Navy drifter.
British soldiers guarding a beached German destroyer on the island of Fara. Tom Kent Collection. Orkney Library & Archive.

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