The Scuttling of the German Fleet: Eyewitness Accounts

The Scuttling of the German Fleet: 2019 Summer Exhibition at the Orkney Museum. Panel 4. Eyewitness Accounts

Fleet tender Flying Kestrel.
The German ships in Scapa Flow. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.
The 137 feet long tug and passenger tender Flying Kestrel was commandeered by the Admiralty during World War I and used as a tender to carry water to the ships in Scapa Flow.

Eyewitness Accounts

On the morning of Saturday 21st June 1919 a group of excited schoolchildren gathered at the pier in Stromness to board the fleet tender, Flying Kestrel. It supplied the ships with water from Stromness but today it was hired to take the children from Stromness Public School on a trip to see the German ships in Scapa Flow. At that time the Stromness Primary School and Stromness Academy, as they are now, were combined in the one place, the Stromness Public School. The children arrived at the school at 09:45 and proceeded to the pier. It would be a school trip like no other and one that would never be forgotten.

Ivy Scott, a pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

“It was a good day for a sea trip – a light breeze and the sun shining when we, pupils and teachers of Stromness Academy, set sail on the Flying Kestrel, which ran water out to the fleet from the Pump Well, in Stromness. This day she embarked us all for a trip down Scapa Flow to see the German Navy. A boy from my school group lived in Lyness, so he was an excellent guide, shouting in a loud voice the name, tonnage and gun power of each ship as we came along. Our headmaster, Major Hepburn, had given us instructions on how to behave in such circumstances. We simply stared, amazed. One of our party was handing around a poke of sweets, and we were all just chatting pleasantly.”

Peggy Gibson, a pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

[The pupils had been] “warned by the teachers that [we] hadn’t to make any noise or cheer. We were to show no signs of hate or anything, but no signs of friendliness either … I thought it was rather hard. And not to wave to the men.”

This photograph of the Flying Kestrel seems to show its decks full of small children, some standing on the lower railings. This must be the Stromness Children leaving on that fateful day, 21st June 1919. Orkney Library & Archive.
The Flying Kestrel at home in Liverpool. It used to take sightseers on cruises around the Irish Sea.
The German ships at anchor around the small island of Cava (middle right), as seen from Orphir. It was here that John Tulloch witnessed the scuttling from the Calf of Cava, the small lump of land that is held on to Cava by a narrow spit of land. It looks like another island in this photograph. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.

John Tulloch, a small boy on Cava.

“As I sat upon my knoll, musing my childish thoughts and watching the cattle and arctic terns and the surrounding ships I saw a flag being hoisted on the flag halyards of the SMS Friedrich der Grosse, the ship nearest to the Calf of Cava. When the flag reached its highest point a light breeze caught it for a moment and it fluttered out, the iron cross and double eagle of Germany, then right behind it another red flag climbed the mast but no breeze stirred it, like a piece of old rag it hung in shame*. Then across the waters a bell began to ring, clang, clang, clang…” [the bell of the SMS Friedrich der Grosse]

“…I gazed around from ship to ship and could see that they were all now either flying flags or in the act of hoisting them, and a great number of the ships were listing over to one side. Returning my gaze to the Beyern** that was lying immediately in front of where I sat I could see that something most unusual was taking place aboard as she had now taken a dangerous list to the right. Many times before I had seen ships being listed over so that seaweed and barnacles could be scraped off their bottoms and at first this occurred to me, but as the Beyern kept listing further and further my mind panicked. “She has listed too far, they will never get her back.” I thought. By this time I was standing up with excitement, then from the far side of the ship appeared two boats loaded with sailors; they headed straight for the Calf of Cava, their nearest shore right below where I was standing. I was rooted to the spot in fascination as the Bayern continued to list further and further until she at last dropped over on her side, hesitated for a few moments before turning upwards, then with a slow motion the bows disappeared under the water, the stern shot up into the air and with a smother of foam and exploding bubbles of air she slid into the depth of Scapa Flow. For a while I stood in a daze watching fountains of water shoot up from where the SMS Beyern had disappeared. Then across the waters floated a German cheer, “hooch, hooch, hooch”. Suddenly my senses returned; I looked around me and on every side battleships, cruisers and destroyers of the German High Seas Fleet were sinking…”

*[John Tulloch had mistaken this red flag as Communist, when in fact it was the signal to attack the enemy.]

** [Actually the battleship SMS Friedrich der Grosse.]

SMS Bayern sinking. Orkney Library & Archive.

Kitty Tait, a pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

“We were looking at them and I saw what I would say would be one of the biggest ships – suddenly it shuddered and shuddered and shuddered and then suddenly it toppled over and I can remember seeing Germans coming off on rafts.”

James Taylor, a pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

[The German ships’] “decks were lined with German sailors who….did not seem too pleased to see us. Suddenly without any warning and almost simultaneously these huge vessels began to list over to port or starboard; some heeled over and plunged headlong, their sterns lifted high out of the water. Out of the vents rushed steam and oil and air with a dreadful roaring hiss. And as we watched, awestruck and silent, the sea became littered for miles round with boats and hammocks, lifebelts and chests… and among it all hundreds of men struggling for their lives. As we drew away from this nightmare scene we watched the last great battleship slide down with keel upturned like some monstrous whale.”

Boats leaving German destroyers. Orkney Library & Archive.
SMS Seydlitz lying on its side. Orkney Library & Archive.

John Tulloch, a small boy on Cava.

“The SMS Seydlitz was anchored in shallow water therefore did not turn turtle like most of the others, she heaved over on her side and there she lay like a monster whale with one half above water. The Germans must have had pigs aboard as one swam away squealing in terror until it eventually cut its own throat with its front hooves.

“The SMS Moltke turned turtle near the island of Rysa Little but as she was also in fairly shallow water we could hear the masts and superstructure crunching as it broke with her weight bearing down upon them into the sea bed. When she finally subsided her keel still showed above the water where it could be seen for some time afterwards, but she kept settling down until only her keel showed at low tide.”

The Royal Navy whaler Ramna grounded on the hull of SMS Maltke. Orkney Library & Archive.

Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, Commander-in-Chief of the Interned Squadron.

“What a sight! In front of us the Grosser Kurfürst reared herself steeply into the air. Both cables parted with a loud clinking; she fell heavily to port and capsized. The red coating of her bottom shone wide over the blue sea.”

SMS Grosser Kurfurst sinking. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.

Len Sutherland, pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

‘I saw at least one sailor shot on the deck of one vessel, but whether by a German officer or a British officer I could not say. There was chaos aboard the ship. Sailors were making rafts and jumping into the water.’

J.R.T. Robertson, pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

“On the way back we passed the sinking ships, very close to, and saw what appeared to be hundreds of men on the surface swimming. As we looked further away, we heard small arms fire – machine-guns. I can still hear it, and heavier guns; and eventually, of course, we got back to Stromness.”

Rosetta Groundwater, a pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

“Men were in boats, and I definately saw one man shot. He dropped right out of the stern of the boat. The other men were standing with their hands up. I presume it was surrender.”

Armed boarding party alongside a German destroyer. Eight German sailors were killed that day; a ninth would be murdered in Scapa Flow while a prisoner. Orkney Library & Archive.

John Tulloch, a small boy on Cava.

“But they did not all sink without some effort from the few British ships still remaining in the Flow. Drifters were pulling at huge battleships like ants with large beetles. Two destroyers, the Westcott and the Walpole, were now tearing around the Flow blowing out anchor chains. The drifter Clonsis had the SMS Dresden in tow, but could not quite make it to Cava before it sank. The anchor chains of the SMS Nurnberg was somehow dropped and this ship drifted into the shore directly below my home on the island of Cava.”

“The SMS Derfflinger was anchored under the cliffs known as The Bring on the island of Hoy, and she made a great fuss about sinking. After listing over and over until she lay on her side then she turned turtle and her stern shot up into the air until she appeared to be standing on her bows, then she dived into the depth below, something aboard her exploded and fountains of water shot into the air, after a little while a second explosion sent more water rocketing out of the sea above her. The water around where she had vanished seethed and boiled for a long time after she had gone. She must have been a mighty Gladiator in battle and such an undignified death was hard to bear.

“The SMS Kaiser turned over at a great speed. I was watching her turn over and saw a steam pinnace that was in the davits on her off side soar into the air; the fastening ropes broke and it somersaulted over and over slowly in the air before it dropped down into the sea right side uppermost and floated away to drift in below my home and lie on the rocks until my uncle later salvaged it.”

The light cruiser SMS Nurnberg ashore on Cava. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.
The battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger sinking. Orkney Library & Archive.

Peggy Gibson, pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

“As a child I thought, why shouldn’t they go down with their flags flying, even though they had been conquered. We felt sorry for them, you see – we felt sorry for those that were in the sea and the struggle with the ships. Being children, we didn’t think of them as being an enemy.”

Kitty Tait, pupil on the Flying Kestrel.

“At the time that they were sinking the ships my own mother was at the end of the pier and my eldest brother was home on leave out of the Navy. He was lying in bed, and of course they were all up the wall about us down there – frightened we were going to be pulled under with the suction of the ships going down. She surely ran upstairs to this older brother and shouted,

“James Robert, do you know what the Germans are doing?”


“They are sinking their ships rather than let the British get them, or the French or any of the Allies.”

And he just said,

“Yes, Mother, if that had been the British you would have said – ‘What brave men’.

A German destroyer sinking. Note that it has been half painted. Orkney Library & Archive.
The battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg was the last ship to sink at 17:00. The light cruiser SMS Nurnberg is behind it, note the boats leaving. John Tulloch’s home is behind it on the island of Cava. Orkney Library & Archive.

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