At the Armistice signed with the Allies on November 11, 1918, Germany agreed to surrender all of
her warships. Over 200 U-Boats were quickly handed over. The order, however, also involved the
surrender and internment of seventy-four manned warships to neutral ports, their fates to be
determined later by a final peace treaty. Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter was given command of
this devastated captive force.
|Scapa Flow: The Ritual Suicide of the Imperial German Navy
When the German force set sail for the Firth of Forth where the British were to content themselves
with their disarmament before moving them to other ports, one of its torpedo-boats strayed off
course and was sunk by a mine. When they arrived at the Firth of Forth on November 21, they were
confronted by an unnecessarily overwhelming fleet of over two hundred and fifty allied ships with
their gun crews prepared for action in the greatest assembly of naval might in history. They were
escorted in groups to their internment at Scapa Flow from November 22 to the 26th, and all arrived
by November 27. Here they would sit, their German flags ordered removed, in increasingly cold,
damp, windy, miserable and humiliating conditions, waiting for terms of a final peace treaty.
The captive Germans protested that they were not interned in a neutral port and that the British were
breaking the spirit of the Armistice. The Germans were forbidden from going ashore or visiting the
other ships and could communicate only by flag or signal lamps. Food was only brought out twice a
month from Germany. Their mail was censored, and they were allowed only four day old British
newspapers. The small stocks of coal and oil they were permitted barely enough to keep warm, and
considerable discipline problems erupted aboard the ships from these and other hardships. The
"peace talks" meanwhile were dragging on, and the Allies were bickering over the fate of the German
ships: The French and Italians each wanted to grab a quarter of the ships, the Americans had no keen
interest in them, and the British wanted them destroyed. The Germans had no voice in the matter
and Von Reuter was kept in the dark as to the actions of the others.
The German admiral and his fleet, with only a skeleton crew on each ship, were isolated at the
Gutter Sound inlet of Scapa Flow. Eight long, miserable months later, his ship a veritable prison ship,
von Reuter feared the worst. In the last few days of the armistice, reports in his four day old British
newspapers claimed that a formal treaty was only days away from being signed and that the German
Fleet would be immediately seized and divided among the victorious allies as they saw fit.
On the morning of June 21, 1919, the British fleet that had been guarding the Germans left harbor
briefly for training exercises and von Reuter calmly put on his full dress uniform at noon and quietly
signalled the fleet the predetermined code for immediate scuttle, the signal being a reference to a
German navy drinking song that contained a line about ‘letting in the water’.
The British ended up using the beached warship SMS Baden for target practice to test the effects of
different weapons including bombs until she was finally destroyed by gunfire in 1921. SMS Frankfurt
was likewise sunk as a target in 1921. A British engineer later bought 43 of the sunken ships as
salvage. Eight of the ships remain on the bottom of Scapa Flow.
There were only two British warships present and they frantically signalled the absent squadron who
returned at full speed, but they only managed to beach the battleship Baden and the cruisers Emden
(the battle cruiser Emden had become Reuter's new flagship), Nürnberg and Frankfurt. All of the
other major ships were sunk. German deck crews mobilized to prevent boarding and recapture of
their ships by British marines, however one British group succeeded in killing the captain and first
officer of the battleship SMS Markgraf as well as seven other men, some shot to death while drifting
in their lifeboats. These were the last men killed in combat during World War One. There were no
British casualties and no drownings.
In less than five hours, the last ship, SMS Hindenburg, lay on the bottom with 52 others. 17 were
beached and only four small torpedo boats that were taken over by the British went undamaged. It
was at the time the largest loss of shipping in a single day in history, amounting to 400,000 tons. The
furious British arrested von Reuter and made him a prisoner of war along with the other 1,773 men
of the fleet's remaining crews, but they eventually returned to Germany as heroes. Von Reuter retired
and was promoted to full Admiral in 1939. He died in 1943 at 74 years of age.
However, the German Chancellor and principal opponent of the proposed treaty had resigned, and a
two day extension to reach agreement was granted. Unfortunately, Reuter had no way of knowing
this from his old newspapers. He could have easily assumed that hostilities had or were about to be
resumed and his fleet was again at war. Concerned that the British would seize the ships without
notice (the British did indeed have plans for armed seizure of the ships), and unwilling to sacrifice the
disarmed, impotent fleet in such a humiliating manner, von Reuter and other German officers came
up with the painful plan to destroy it instead.
By mid-December, the 20,000 crewmen who had sailed the ships to Scapa were reduced to a
caretaker crew of 4,565 plus 250 officers and warrant officers. In June, 1919, the crews were
reduced to Royal Navy caretaker levels, or about 1,700 men. Conditions were deteriorating aboard
the ships and morale was bitterly low.
Von Reuter, like other German officers, was stunned to find himself being treated like a common
criminal rather than as an officer and a gentleman. Willing to move on and let bygones be bygones,
to shake hands and return to their mutual lands to begin the healing and rebuilding, they did not
understand that the British attitude was not one of mutual cooperation and respect, but contempt and
loathing. They were astonished that the victors placed sole responsibility for the war on Germany,
and at the sheer greed, intransigence and vindictiveness which surfaced during peace negotiations.
Within an hour, all of the ships had acknowledged the signal and the German sailors hauled down
the detested British Naval ensigns that had been forced upon their ships and raised the Imperial
Kaiserliche Marine's black eagle ensign. The engineering crews broke open the control valves to
flood their ships. The first of the German Fleet to sink was von Reuter’s flagship, the beautiful SMS
Friedrich der Grosse. News reports of the day cited that only some school children on shore
witnessed the sinkings, but recently photos have surfaced of at least a part of the event, including
the sinking of SMS Derflinger, the Bayern and the Seydlitz bottom up.
|The Last Casualties of the War