World War I – German Fleet Surrender and Scuttle

World War I – German Fleet Surrender and Scuttle

Panel from temporary exhibition at the Scapa Flow Museum. The text, with extra images, are featured in this blog.

As part of the terms of the Armistice that brought fighting to an end in 1918, Germany had to surrender most of its Fleet. It was interned in Scapa Flow.

By the end of 1918 Germany was fighting alone, as her former allies had already surrendered. Germany requested peace talks that led to the Armistice, which came into force at 11:00 on 11th November. Germany had not yet surrendered, and if peace talks broke down a state of war would still exist. The terms required the withdrawal of all German troops from captured territory and the occupation of part of Germany. Germany had also to surrender much of her artillery and machine guns, as well as 2,000 aircraft, all submarines and most of the High Seas Fleet.

The High Seas Fleet, its guns disarmed, sailed into captivity on 21st November, to be met by the Grand Fleet and naval ships from other Allied countries. The German Fleet was in poor condition, as the naval bases had been under the control of Communist revolutionaries who neglected the ships. The Grand Fleet was now under the command of Admiral Sir David Beatty, Jellicoe having been promoted to the command of the Admiralty.

The High Seas Fleet was escorted to the Firth of Forth where Beatty sent his order,

“The German flag will be hauled down at sunset today, Thursday, and will not be hoisted again without permission.”

The High Seas Fleet then sailed north, entering Scapa Flow on 23rd November 1918. After a few weeks, the full complement of 74 German ships was interned under the command of Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. His command was nominal, as the mutinous crews no longer took orders from their officers.

This state of affairs was worse on the larger battleships, where officers lived in fear for their lives. Von Reuter was forced to leave the battleship SMS Friedrich der Grosse and to transfer his flag to the light cruiser SMS Emden.

Most of the ships’ crews, including the main troublemakers, were repatriated to Germany leaving only a skeleton crew to maintain the ships.

Emden, Frankfurt and Bremse entering Scapa Flow.

Reminiscences of John Tulloch, a child on the island of Cava during the scuttling.
“…some of them [ships] were so near to my home that on a calm day we could hear sailors talking or singing quite clearly. On a Sunday a brass band on the SMS Friedrich der Grosse used to play their German military tunes when the weather was good, so those great ships became a part of my childhood days, a source of jetsam that was picked up on my wandering around the shore of my island home.”

SMS Friedrich der Grosse.

Reminiscences of John Tulloch, a child on the island of Cava during the scuttling.
“As the warmer weather spread over our island we often watched German sailors dive over the side of their ships and swim around for a while as their mates shouted and cheered them on. Then one day when the Patrol Drifter was away up around the north side of the ships a sailor dived over the side of the SMS Nurnberg and doing an overhand stroke swam over to the SMS Moltke where ready hands helped him aboard. Many times afterwards I saw sailors swim from ship to ship until to me the occurrence became a commonplace thing of which I thought nothing.

Looking back now I can see the significance of it all, but as a small boy I just looked upon it as another whim of the grown ups to show their strength and perhaps win a prize.”

The Armistice was due to expire on 21st June 1919, and so far agreement had not been reached between Germany and the Allies. France and Britain insisted on receiving reparation for the cost of the war, which would financially ruin Germany. The venue for the talks was the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, the same room where Germany had forced France to sign the surrender documents in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The terms offered were so harsh that the German Government resigned rather than agreeing to accept them. The deadline was extended until 23rd June so that a new government could be sworn in.

German Ships at Scapa Flow

Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter

News of the extension to the Armistice had not been passed on to von Reuter, who had to rely on four-day-old copies of The Times for information. Knowing that the talks were not going well, von Reuter decided to sink his ships, rather than let them fall into enemy hands, as the Kaiser had ordered in 1914. He informed the officers of his plan and the signal that he would use to implement it.

Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. Courtest of Nicholas Jellicoe and the von Reuter family.
German sailors fishing from a destroyer in Scapa Flow.

The German Fleet was guarded by the First Battle Squadron, commanded by Vice-Admiral Fremantle. The Squadron had been due to carry out exercises at sea that would be finished by 21st June, but these had been postponed due to bad weather.

Fremantle was ordered to carry out the gunnery and torpedo practice on the 21st, despite his suggestion that it should be delayed “until the Germans were off our hands”. When von Reuter saw the British ships leave Scapa Flow at 09:00 he wrongly suspected the activity was linked to the expiry of the Armistice deadline.

Vice Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle. Courtesy of Nicholas Jellicoe and the Fremantle family.

On Saturday 21st June 1919 Rear Admiral von Reuter ordered the scuttling of the High Seas Fleet. Of the 74 ships, 52 went to the bottom of Scapa Flow.

Beyern and Emden in Scapa Flow.

Von Reuter had the signal flags ‘DG’ hoisted on his flagship SMS Emden, an order to keep a close watch for further signals. At 10:30 the signal ‘paragraph eleven confirm’ was hoisted.

This was the order to the senior officers to scuttle their ships immediately. Sea cocks and valves were opened, sea water cooling pipes were smashed and watertight doors were damaged to prevent them from being closed. Seawater poured into the ships and their fate was sealed.

In one last act of defiance the High Seas Fleet hoisted the Imperial flags that Beatty had banned. The ships sank with their colours flying.

The first sign that something was wrong came just after 12:00 when the sound of the ship’s bell of the battleship SMS Friedrich der Grosse was heard ringing the signal to abandon ship. She slowly sank, before turning over and disappearing under the waves, sending up huge jets of water and escaping air.

The ships continued to sink for the next five hours, the last ship to go down being the battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg which sank at 17:00. She was the only ship to sink on an even keel, the rest capsizing under the weight of their superstructures.

SMS Hindenburg sinking.

Among the people who witnessed the sinking was a group of 200 school children from Stromness, who were on a tour of the German ships in the supply boat Flying Kestrel. When it became apparent that the ships were sinking, the small boat headed back to Stromness where anxious parents were waiting.

The Flying Kestrel with school children on board.

The First Battle Squadron was recalled and sailed into Scapa Flow at high speed, but it was too late to prevent the ships sinking.

Eight German sailors died as a result of small arms fire or drowning, as marines tried to force them to return to their ships. A ninth, Kuno Evertsburg, was shot by British Ordinary Seaman Woolley on board HMS Resolution, where Evertsburg was being held prisoner. Woolley was subsequently charged with murder, but cleared by the court. 1,774 Germans were taken prisoner and sent to P.o.W. camps in Scotland and England.

52 ships successfully scuttled themselves, whilst the other 22 were beached in shallow water. They comprised the battleship SMS Baden, light cruisers SMS Emden, SMS Frankfurt and SMS Nurnberg and 18 destroyers.

The Admiralty was quick to denounce the scuttling, but it removed the problem of what to do with the ships. Other Allied countries had wanted to share them amongst the victors, whilst the British favoured sinking them in the deep waters of the Atlantic.

The last thing that they wanted was for these ships to increase another country’s naval power. It has been suggested that the Admiralty knew about the scuttling in advance, but so far there has been no evidence to support this claim.

It has also been suggested that Germany knew about the plan to scuttle the High Seas Fleet, although von Reuter stated that the decision was his and his alone.

After the scuttling the scene in Scapa Flow was one of chaos. The debris from the once proud ships covered the surface with boats, lifebelts, hammocks, sea chests and thousands of other articles. These were washed ashore to be carried off as souvenirs or put to good use. Among the finds were wreaths that seem to have been placed on the decks of some of the ships before they sank.

The flowers used in these wreaths, it was said, were not available in Orkney at that time. It seems that they may have been brought over in the last German supply ship that had visited Scapa Flow, two days before the scuttling took place.

A short extract from the memoirs of Lieut. E J Goudy, serving on HMS Ramillies, who was part of the British boarding party trying to prevent SMS Baden, the newest ship in the German fleet, from sinking. Most of the crew of SMS Baden had been away from the ship drawing stores when the order to scuttle was given, so she was not in such an advanced state of sinking and was successfully beached by the British.

“Water was almost up to the floor plates and I could get no life in the diesel so I told the [German] lieutenant to start it and he looked blank and said, “No Inglis”. So I said, “Right – up on deck.” Cartwright shouted “how about the generator?” I told Cartwright I’d found two Huns below and this one pretended not to understand I wanted him to start the diesel. Cartwright replied “Take him below and shoot him if he won’t do it.”

Down we went again, by this time the water was over the floor plates. I took my revolver out of the holster and pointed it at his head and said, “Go on, start up.” He replied, in perfect English “I’m not going to start it for you, you can shoot me.” I said, “So you do speak English” and he replied “Yes, perfectly.” I couldn’t help admiring the man and I remember thinking “What would I do if in his position.” The water was rising and it was too late to start the engine, and I did not do my duty – I had an admiration for the man.”

The whaler Ramna stranded on the SMS Moltke at low tide.

Reminiscences of John Tulloch, a child on the island of Cava during the scuttling.

“…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. [Tulloch misinterprets this as a Communist flag, when in fact it is the signal to attack the enemy].

Then across the waters a bell began to ring, clang, clang, clang… it came from one of the ships, either the Baden or the Bayern. [It was, in fact, from 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…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.

…I looked around me and on every side battleships, cruisers and destroyers of the German High Seas Fleet were sinking and boat loads of German sailors were rowing towards Cava. Panic seized me and I commenced to high tail it for home…”

“…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 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 SMS Von der Tann turned completely turtle and disappeared in a smother of foam…

“…Drifters and destroyers were now busy picking up boat loads of German officers and sailors that were floating around the Flow, cheering as each ship disappeared to her watery grave. …I was in my glory dragging suitcases, kitbags and boxes out of the sea. … My uncle Harry had yoked one of our horses in a cart and he appeared on the scene, we all threw on our findings until the cart was piled high. … When we had time to look over our treasures some of them proved to be treasures indeed, there were binoculars, typewriters, bottles of whisky, uniforms with gold braid, flags, chocolate, in fact thousands of things that were priceless. I had found a beautiful officer’s dress sword in its scabbard and belt but my uncle spoke me out of it. For weeks afterwards I wore an officer’s full dress cap that sat on top of my ears but it had all the gold braid and trimmings that befitted a
high ranking officer.”

Scapa Flow Museum is currently closed for a major refurbishment project, funded by Orkney Islands Council, National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Museums Galleries Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Orkney LEADER fund. The project includes carrying out essential repairs to Pumphouse No. 1 and building an extension to house a new gallery, visitor facilities and café.

Visitors can virtually explore the buildings and former exhibitions at, a 3600 photo record of the main site museum site.

The Island of Hoy Development Trust website has a large Wartime Heritage section focusing on the WW2 history of Hoy.

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