The Scuttling of the German Fleet: Salvage

The Scuttling of the German Fleet: 2019 Summer Exhibition at the Orkney Museum. Panel 6. Salvage

A German ship raised using compressed air.
Admiral von Trotha (right) welcomes Rear Admiral von Reuter and the German sailors on their arrival in Wilhelmshaven on 31st January 1920. While von Reuter had saved national pride with the scuttling, the order may have been passed on to him verbally by von Trotha when von Reuter was back in Germany for medical treatment in early 1919.
The light cruiser SMS Nurnberg ashore on Cava. The superstructure of the battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg can be seen on the left. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.
SMS Hindenburg. Orkney Library & Archive.
The bows of the light cruiser SMS Bremse. It was towed into shallow water but turned over before it could be beached. Orkney Library & Archive.


Some of the German ships were beached and later refloated and towed away by the Royal Navy. Ironically, von Reuter’s flagship, the light cruiser SMS Emden was among those that did not sink that day. A British patrol boat had been lying alongside it at the time of the scuttling, and they were late in starting. In total, there were 19 torpedo boat/destroyers, three light cruisers and only one of the large capital ships – the battleship SMS Baden. Despite being a new ship, it was used as a target by the Royal Navy and sunk off Cornwall. There was one more destroyer captured. The B98 was the mail ship from Germany that arrived in Scapa Flow on the 22 June, the day after the scuttling. It was seized by the Royal Navy. During the attempt by the Royal Navy to tow seven German destroyers to Rosyth, a storm blew up, the destroyers broke their tow lines and most sank. One was towed back to Scapa Flow, but sank before arriving. The hapless B98 broke its tow line and drifted north, beaching at Lopness Bay in Sanday, where it was stripped of its valuable metals. The remains of its turbine engines can still be seen at low tide.

The destroyer B98 arrived after the scuttling and was seized by the Royal Navy. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.
(Above and below) the remains of the German destroyer B98 at Lopness Bay, Sanday.

The Admiralty adopted a hard line when it came to deciding what should be done with the sunken ships. “There can be no question of salving the ships. And, as they offer no hindrance to navigation, they need not be blown up. Where they were sunk, there they will rest and rust.” But the sunken ships did form a hazard to shipping. The battle-cruiser SMS Moltke lay on its side, just under the surface at high tide, while the battle-cruiser SMS Seydlitz rose from the sea like a new island.

Beached destroyers. Orkney Library & Archive.
(Above and below) salvaging destroyers. Orkney Library & Archive.
Salvage workers on a destroyer. Orkney Library & Archive.

Eventually, small salvage teams would start to buy destroyers and raise them to be beached and broken up. In 1924, the scrap company Cox & Danks began to salvage not only the destroyers but the big ships, too. This was done by fitting air-locks onto the submerged hulls and filling the ship with compressed air. Teams of workers would then enter the hull and patch holes. They would divide the inside into air-tight compartments, ready to be filled with more air, which would float the ship up to the surface. The hull was cleared of obstructions by divers and then towed to the breakers yard at Rosyth. Ernest Cox, the engineering pioneer who solved the problem of raising huge, upside-down ships in deep water, bowed out in 1933 after making a loss with the salvaging. He sold his interests in Scapa Flow to Metal Industries Ltd, who continued to raise the big ships until World War II broke out in 1939. The remaining three battleships and four light cruisers were sold to small salvage businesses, who broke up the wrecks with explosives and lifted the scrap with floating cranes.

Diver Arthur Nundy during the salvage of the SMS Bayern. It was raised by Metal Industries Ltd. on 5 September 1934. Orkney Library & Archive.
Ernest Cox of Cox and Danks Ltd was a pioneer of salvaging ships. Orkney Library & Archive.
(Above and below) The upright battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg caused more problems than the upside down sunken ships. Here it is seen with superstructure cut away to lighten it. Orkney Library & Archive.
SMS Hindenburg kept developing a list when they attempted to raise it. Orkney Library & Archive. Orkney Library & Archive.
Two views of a salvage attempt on SMS Hindenburg. Tom Kent Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.
The light cruiser SMS Bremse being broken up at the pier at Lyness. Orkney Library & Archive.
(Above and below) Workmen cutting away armour plating and propellers before towing the hulks south to be broken up at Rosyth.
Airlocks were attached to the hull of the sunken ship and air pumped in to push out the water. A work crew would then have to work inside the upturned hull on the seabed, under pressure from the air being pumped in. This caused numerous cases of ‘the bends’. Orkney Library & Archive.
(Above and below) Workers inside the upturned hulls of a ship on the seabed. They had to seal the hull into airtight compartments. Orkney Library & Archive.


The remaining wrecks are now recognised as an international destination for recreational diving and have developed into important marine habitats. Stromness Museum whose own 2019 summer exhibition focuses on the salvage and marine ecology aspects of the ships had an exhibition of German wreck material in 1974, collected during salvage work from as early as the 1920s. The exhibition went on to form a permanent display in the museum, which inspired a visiting journalist, Dan van der Vat, to write the book ‘The Grand Scuttle’ in 1982. This brought the story of the scuttling and the remaining wrecks to a larger audience for the first time. In 2001, the remaining seven wrecks were awarded ‘ancient monument’ status, giving them the same legal protection as Skara Brae or St Magnus Cathedral.

Much material has been stripped illegally by divers over the years and whilst attitudes have changed, heavy fines and protected status have not entirely stopped such thefts. The wrecks are now regarded as structures of significant cultural and heritage importance. While this has protected them from further salvage work, and has curtailed thefts, protected status cannot stop the elements and time from slowly destroying them.

A shortage of coal during the General Strike of 1926 left Cox and Danks with the problem of how to carry on work without the fuel for the salvage vessels. This was solved by Cox when he decided to cut into the hull of the battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz, which was lying on its side, exposing its coal bunkers. It was like having your own coal mine in Scapa Flow. Orkney Library & Archive
Pumping compressed air into the ship made it buoyant again and it shot to the surface. Orkney Library & Archive.
Once on the surface the tall airlocks were replaced with shorter ones. Accommodation huts were built on the upturned hull for the maintenance crew who would sail with the ship when it was towed to Rosyth to be broken up. Orkney Library & Archive.
The maintenance crew on a hull under tow enjoy a game of cricket. Orkney Library & Archive.
The weather could make the trip dangerous. Note the man standing at the bow. Orkney Library & Archive.
SMS Kaiser under tow.
In the dry dock at Rosyth being broken up. Orkney Library & Archive.

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