I realise I’m going backwards in time, but I’ve been stuck in a hiatus for a few weeks and I’ve come back in the mood to do what I want. It may be the middle of July, but I wanted to talk about the scuttling of the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow on 21 June 1919, so I’m going to. I’ll start with some background.
The Imperial German Navy had seemed immensely important in 1914. The Kaiser’s mighty maritime sword, built at high speed and vast expense in the decades before the War, had been a major factor driving the global naval arms race before 1914, igniting rising tensions between Britain and Germany during the early twentieth century and as such taking a portion of blame for the outbreak of the Great War. Its centrepiece was the High Seas Fleet, based in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea coast, and apparently capable of challenging the hitherto unquestioned dominance of the British Royal Navy in northern European waters.
Back when ruling the waves still meant ruling the world, the High Seas Fleet came across as the ultimate super-weapon, wielded by an unashamedly ambitious and aggressive superpower. As such it scared the sense out of the rest of the world’s great powers, and really messed with the British Empire’s sense of security, triggering levels of fear and paranoia not seen in Britain since the Napoleonic Wars.
Major surface warships failed to live up to their billing as decisive weapons during the First World War, functioning for the most part as highly expensive deterrents or as adjuncts to the global battle of blockade and trade. Though this was at least partially acceptable to the British, for whom protection of trade and maintenance of blockade were strategic imperatives, it left the High Seas Fleet with very little to do beyond glowering across the North Sea at the even more massive force put in place to keep it quiet, the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet.
Apart from a few raids on British coastal targets and the occasional skirmish between minor surface ships, none of them strategically important, the High Seas Fleet only once threatened to engage its stated enemy, at Jutland in the middle of 1916. Despite all the propaganda surrounding that battle, nobody on either side doubted that a low-scoring draw left the strategic situation in the North Sea essentially unchanged, which was fine by the Royal Navy but represented failure for the High Seas Fleet. Even before the German Third Supreme Command chose to put all its naval eggs in a different basket and devote every possible resource to submarine warfare, the German Navy’s state-of-the-art surface warships – finished as long-range commerce raiders and now all clustered with the High Seas Fleet – were recognisably redundant.
Through the last two years of the War, give or take one or two secondary operations in the Baltic, the High Seas Fleet was starved of resources and action, and by the autumn of 1918 it was a crippled shell, its crews politicised and mutinous, its ships confined to harbour. By November 1918, it was a military irrelevance – but for the British its very existence remained a powerful symbol of the forces that had dragged them into a European war, while the Royal Navy needed any triumph it could parade as a counter mounting domestic criticism of its wartime endeavours. No surprise, then, that surrender of the High Seas Fleet was among the terms of the Armistice on 11 November.
Seventy German warships duly arrived off the Firth of Forth on 21 November, and then weighed anchor at Rosyth under the guns of British ships ready to respond to any hostile action. None came, and the ships were soon moved north to Scapa Flow, where they remained (along with four more ships rounded up during the next few weeks), interned and manned by skeleton German crews, while the world decided what to do with them.
Like most post-War issues discussed in Paris, the fate of the High Seas Fleet prompted arguments between the major powers involved. While Britain and the United States were both quite happy to see it destroyed, both Italy and France could think of very good reasons to keep and use their share of its ships. The argument was still unresolved in June 1919, by which time most of the German crews had been sent home and only a couple of thousand remained in Scapa Flow, but with the Treaty of Versailles ready for signature, the British had made plans to seize control of the fleet on 23 June.
Confined to their ships, fed on rations brought over from Germany and condemned to uncomfortable idleness, the interned crews were finally released from their purgatory on 21 June, when fleet commander Rear Admiral von Reuter gave the order to scuttle. Designed to salvage the German Navy’s honour by preventing British seizure, the operation was carefully planned, so that all the ships scuttled simultaneously and sank as quickly as possible – and it took the Royal Navy by surprise.
When the few British ships still watching over the prizes attempted to save some ships and ground others in the shallows, they were opposed by the crews, and the nine German sailors killed during the ensuing fighting were the last official fatalities of the First World War. British efforts prevented 22 ships from sinking but 52 went down, a tally that satisfied German honour while saving a quietly grateful Royal Navy the trouble of further arguments with the French and Italians.
Of the ships saved, the few kept afloat were eventually distributed among Allied navies, while those beached were left to the assiduous attentions of local looters. The fate of the sunken ships has meanwhile depended on private enterprise. The first destroyer was sold by the Admiralty and raised for scrap in 1922, and between 1926 and 1934 scrap dealer Ernest Cox raised 32 wrecks, most of them destroyers but including a battleship and a battlecruiser. Cox made an overall loss on his work at Scapa Flow, but scrap companies were able to make substantial profits by salvaging some of the Fleet’s biggest ships during the later 1930s, and operations have continued sporadically ever since.
A century on, only seven ships of the High Seas Fleet remain beneath Scapa Flow, and in July 2019 four of those were sold by the Admiralty on eBay, with three battleships going for a knock-down £25,000 each and the cruiser Karslruhe fetching a mere £8,500. So much for Royal Navy’s supposed glory in defeating the world’s second most feared armed force, so much for the eternal honour of the Imperial German Navy, and so much for the much-vaunted glamour of old-school fleet warfare, a concept designed to deliver remote attacks by the most lethal weaponry known to contemporary technology against distant targets all around the globe.
Back in 1914, most military planners in most major states regarded a powerful battlefleet as the ultimate weapon, or at least the ultimate deterrent. Meanwhile their diplomats, politicians and press barons saw it as a weapon too dangerous to ignore, frightening to the point at which it became a cause for war. Today, one of the handsome, frightening ships of the High Seas Fleet can be bought for less than the price of a new family car, so let’s roll our eyes at the enormous cost in money and lives of planning the next war with the weapons of the last – and let’s hope we’ll all be buying rusty, redundant nukes for peanuts on eBay a few decades from now.