The Scuttling of the German Fleet: Operation ZZ

The Scuttling of the German Fleet: 2019 Summer Exhibition at the Orkney Museum. Panel 2, Part 1. Operation ZZ

SMS Kaiser on its way to the Firth of Forth, 21st November 1018. Orkney Library & Archive.
Hochseeflotte, the German High Seas Fleet before the war.

By the time of the Armistice, the German ships were in a terrible state, rusting and neglected by their crews. A Soldiers’ Council had been established on all ships, and they were in constant strife with the officers. As part of the Armistice agreement, Germany had already surrendered 6 battleships and 8 light cruisers. A further 74 ships had to be interned in an Allied or neutral port. This consisted of 11 battleships, 5 battle-cruisers, 8 light cruisers and 50 torpedo-boat destroyers. The ships had to unload all ammunition, torpedoes, small arms and flares, as well as disarming the guns by removing breech-block firing mechanisms and range finders.

Unloading shells (above) and bags of cordite explosives (below) from the ships in Wilhelmshaven prior to sailing into internment.
Bread delivery to SMS Von der Tann.

Rear Admiral Hugo Meurer travelled to Rosyth on the Firth of Forth, where the Commander-in-Cheif of the Grand Fleet, Admiral Sir David Beatty, had moved the majority of the Royal Navy. Meurer had been thought of as a commanding officer for the German Fleet, but he was instead sent to the peace talks to negotiate on naval matters. The command fell on another Rear Admiral, Ludwig von Reuter. On the 15th November, Meurer negotiated the internment of the German Fleet. He was alarmed to discover that no neutral country had been identified that could hold the German ships, and it looked like the British had no intention of handing over control of them. He wanted more time before the ships were interned, but this was rejected. Getting the crews to agree to take the ships into internment was achieved by offering a bonus of 500 Marks and a Life Insurance Policy of 10,000 Marks for each man. It was thought that it would take no more than 4 weeks before they would return home. The two fleets, Allied and German, met in the North Sea at 8.00am on the 21st November.

Admiral Sir David Beatty
Rear Admiral Hugo Meurer.
Sailors who volunteered to take the German ships to Scotland.

Operation ZZ was the code name for the meeting of the Allied and German fleets. Instead of 74 German ships there were 70. The battleship SMS König and the light cruiser SMS Dresden were not fit to sail at that time, while the battle-cruiser SMS Mackensen was still under construction. The destroyer V30 had struck a mine the previous day and sunk, with the loss of two lives. When Beatty was informed of the sinking he immediately demanded a replacement.

Plans of the German and Allied Fleets meeting on 21st November 1918.
SMS Kaiser on its way to internment.
The British light cruiser HMS Cardiff leads the German ships to internment.
Admiral Beatty’s flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, with the German ships in the distance. Orkney Library & Archive.
Admiral Beatty (left) watches the German ships from his flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth.

At the arranged time, the two fleets met. It was the largest concentration of ships that the world had ever seen. The Royal Navy, along with representatives from the US and French navies, brought over 250 ships. The combined number of ships is estimated to be around 350 vessels. Admiral Beatty had intended this show of force to be a humiliation for the Germans, but they took it as a compliment. Clearly, their former enemy still considered them a threat. The German ships, flanked on either side by Allied warships with guns cleared and ready for action, were led to Rosyth by the British light cruiser HMS Cardiff. The German light cruiser SMS Cöln had a leak in her condensers (which converts exhausted steam back into water to be reused by the steam engine) and lagged behind the rest of the fleet. On arrival at Rosyth, von Reuter received a wireless signal that said: ‘The German flag will be hauled down at 3.57 in the afternoon and is not to be re-hauled without permission.’ This was seen as a humiliating act by Rear Admiral von Reuter, but he was allowed to retain his use of signal flags, which he regarded as confirmation of German sovereignty of the Interned Squadron.

German ships arriving at the Firth of Forth. Wikimedia.
The German ships arriving at the Firth of Forth.
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