The Scuttling of the German Fleet: Life Aboard Ship

The crew of the battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg in Scapa Flow, Easter 1919. Courtesy of Aglef Kaiser

The crew of the battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg in Scapa Flow, Easter 1919. Courtesy of Aglef Kaiser (see the blog post ‘Rare Photographs of Scapa Flow’)
German destroyers in Scapa Flow. Orkney Library & Archive.
German sailors fishing off the side of a destroyer in Scapa Flow. Orkney Library & Archive.

Life Aboard Ship

The remaining crews soon found that lack of food and boredom were their real enemies. Many took to fishing from the ships, which led to mocking editorials in the local newspapers about the ‘High Seas Fishing Fleet’. They had been refused any contact with other ships, other than Rear Admiral von Reuter, who could visit his officers. No shore leave of any sort was allowed, so the sailors were confined to their ships. It was the responsibility of the German Government to supply them with food – the British only supplied fresh water from the reservoir in Stromness, and coal. At least one sailor created a spring-loaded ‘gun’ to shoot seagulls for food.

Above and below: German postcard showing the German ships in Scapa Flow.

Parties of German seamen attempted to land on one of the islands, but were turned back by a picket boat. Under cover of darkness, however, a raid seems to have been made on a flock of sheep. Two were killed and taken back to the ship for meat. Small Germans boats came alongside British cruisers, their crews pleading for food. This resulted in most of the small boats being removed from the German ships and beached at Mill Bay in Hoy, leaving just two boats on each vessel. The scenery was not to the Germans’ taste either. The German newspaper Hamburger Nachtrichten reported one sailor saying:

No place could be more God-forsaken.’

Scap Flow, looking west towards where the German Fleet was anchored. This photo was taken on the 12th February 2010, but the weather is not always as mild as is seen in this photograph.
Crewmen sleeping onboard the battleship SMS Prinzregent Liotpold in Scapa Flow.

Complaints from German sailors were treated with scorn by a Royal Navy sailor who said they were ‘squawking after four weeks in Scapa Flow. We’ve been here for four years.’ An officer answered him ‘If you were on a Hun ship you’d be squawking too!’

In another newspaper article, a German sailor said that the ships were: ‘made to fight, not live in’. This is a very valid point. The ships of the Royal Navy were not the last word in comfort, but they were designed to accommodate the crew when at sea, which could be for long periods of time. The German crews were stationed in ports at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel and lived ashore in accommodation huts. The conditions onboard ship must have been cramped and cold. Another problem was the rats. With the ships having been neglected for so long, rat infestation was a real problem and the demand for rat poison was constant.

Live pigs were kept onboard the German ships for fresh meat. Here we see the pigsty onboard the battleship SMS König in Scapa Flow.
Crew of the light cruiser SMS Karlsruhe in Scapa Flow. Orkney Library & Archive.
SMS Karlsruhe. Her remains still lies in Scapa Flow.

Mail delivery to the German sailors came from Germany, and the mail was handed over to a Royal Navy ship to deliver. The British ship would then sail close to the German ships and then throw the mail sacks onboard, or in the sea alongside. At first the mail was not censored, but later it was sent to London to be censored before being sent to Scapa Flow, which delayed it considerably. Von Reuter was also refused direct communication with his superiors in Germany, which would ultimately lead to what happened next.

The mail arriving by drifter in Scapa Flow. Orkney Library & Archive.
A concert party onboard a German ship.
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