Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/May 2019/Op-ed
- By TomStar81
By June 1919, the Allied and Central Powers had begun to close in on a peace treaty that would effectively end World War I in the diplomatic and legal sense. While the politicians endlessly debated the minutiae of the peace that was to be imposed on the Central Powers for having lost the war, across the waters in Scapa Flow, a final act of defiance in the name of the German Empire was brewing among personnel of the 74 surface ships that had sat interred there since the announcement of the ceasefire the previous year. The German U-boats had been confiscated with no chance of return but the politicians had set aside some of the time debating the ramifications of the capture and internment of the surface ships, and Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter made final preparations to implement a plan he and other ranking officers of the interred fleet had been working on for some time.
Admiral Reuter had assumed command of the German High Seas Fleet when the Allies had signed the armistices, and was instructed to make the fleet ready to sail. Initially, the Allies had sought to inter the German fleet in a neutral port pending disposition of the assets, but Norway and Spain refused offers from the Allies to accept the fleet. At the suggestion of Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, 1st Baron Wester Wemyss, the German fleet sailed to the Firth of Forth, at which point the Imperial German Naval Ensign was formally hauled down across all ships present and they were surrendered and led under armed escort to Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands off Scotland pending a final disposition of the assets.
From the time the fleet was interred in Scapa Flow, morale was poor. The British made postal services and basic medical services available, and cigarettes and cigars were provided, but the sailors were refused shore leave and thus were forced to remain aboard the ships they had sailed in on. British services were also very skeletal in nature, outgoing and incoming mail was heavily censored and while basic medical care was provided, more specialized services such as dental care were withheld. Food shortages also compounded the problems; what food that came from Germany was bland, and food shortages resulted in some men fishing or attempting to capture seagulls to supplement the diet or in some cases simply to kill the boredom. Meanwhile, in Paris, nations privy to the peace conference demanded a share of the interred ships. Germany's surfaces assets included prized vessels such as battleships that were sought by the victorious powers to replace or in some cases to supplement their own fleets. This in turn created friction at the peace conference over how to dispose of the surface assets, which was compounded by the fact that under the terms of the armistices then in place Germany was not allowed to scuttle its own ships.
In May 1919, Admiral Reuter learned of the proposed terms of the Versailles Treaty as they related to the interred ships at Scapa Flow. Resolving that the fleet should be destroyed rather than fall into the hands of the Allied Powers, Reuter drafted orders for the remaining men under his command, including an explicit mention of the scuttling of the surface fleet in paragraph 11, which stated: "It is my intention to sink the ships only if the enemy should attempt to obtain possession of them without the assent of our government. Should our government agree in the peace to terms to the surrender of the ships, then the ships will be handed over, to the lasting disgrace of those who have placed us in this position." These orders were dispatched to the interred fleet on June 18. Meanwhile, among the Royal Navy officers and admirals entrusted with guarding the fleet, concern began to grow that the Germans would attempt to intentionally destroy their ships before the peace treaty was signed. Attempts to convince the Admiralty of the threat fell largely on deaf ears, the Royal Navy had no reliable indication of the German attitude towards the peace terms or reliable indications that the Germans were prepping to scuttle. All the same, the Royal Navy had a plan in place to seize the battleships after the official peace treaty had been signed, and had begun moving their own assets toward Scapa Flow to execute it following the formal signing of the peace treaty.
On June 21, 1919, having learned that the peace treaty was to be signed at noon that day, Admiral Reuters set his plan into motion. At 10:00AM, a signal flag was hoisted informing all ships to make preparations for scuttling. At about 11:20 the flag signal was sent: "To all Commanding Officers and the Leader of the Torpedo Boats. Paragraph Eleven of to-day's date. Acknowledge. Chief of the Interned Squadron." The signal was repeated by semaphore and searchlights. Scuttling began immediately: seacocks and flood valves were opened and internal water pipes smashed. Portholes had already been loosened, watertight doors and condenser covers left open, and in some ships holes had been bored through bulkheads, all to facilitate the spread of water once scuttling began. One German ship commander recorded that prior to 21 June, seacocks had been set on a hair turning and heavily lubricated, while large hammers had been placed besides valves.
For the first 20 minutes, nothing noticeable occurred as it takes time for a massive metal object compromised by water to show signs of distress. This had been shown to be true several times previously - notably, in 1912, part of the reason for the massive loss of life aboard the passenger liner RMS Titanic had come due to the perception that the ships was still 'safe' since there was initially no list or other perceivable effects of the collision with the iceberg, causing some passengers to remain aboard the vessel rather than boarding the lifeboats during the initial evacuation phase. That all changed around noon, when the battleship Friedrich der Grosse began to list heavily to starboard. Around the same time, crews aboard all interred ships in Scapa Flow raised the Imperial German Navy ensign in violation of orders not to do so before making preparations to abandon their ships. The Royal Navy assets present were insufficient to adequately stop all ships from being lost; in an attempt to preserve some of the ships the screws scrambled to do what they could. Around 12:20PM Royal Navy Admiral Sydney Fremantle began receiving reports of the scuttling and order his ships back to Scapa Flow at full speed at 12:35PM. He arrived too late to stop the scuttle; by the time his ships reached the scene only one battleship and a handful of other surface vessels were left. Bringing Admiral Reuter aboard his battleship, Fremantle blasted the German commander for acting against the armistices and ordered his men to inter the Germans as POWs, however he privately felt some sympathy for the enemy admiral having salvaged some victory for himself, his men, and his nation in the face of overwhelming defeat.
News of the scuttling and its aftermath met with mixed reactions. Of the 74 interred ships of the Imperial German Navy, 52 had been sunk, including 15 of the 16 battleships that had survived the war as well as 5 of the 8 cruisers and 32 of the 50 destroyers. Those ships that remained afloat had either had either been intentionally beached to keep them from sinking or had not sunk in the first place and thus been pounced on early enough by Royal Navy authorities to prevent them from sinking. French and Italian representatives were upset that the fleet was gone and with it their chance to get a piece of it, although Admiral Weymss was relieved that the final issue of the dismantling of the German High Seas Fleet had been addressed by its own destruction. Imperial German Navy Admiral Reinhard Scheer interpreted the sinking as a German implementation of the Japanese seppuku, having found their redeemed honor through great sacrifice of both themselves and their ships. This redemption would carry on into the Third Reich, where the destruction of the fleet as an act of defiance would become a standard of honor to which the nation hoped to rise to once more and a deliberate contrast to the army, which remained "shamed" such as it were, for failing to win any meaningful victory and being subsequently disarmed at the end of the war.
Initially, the Royal Navy declared the scuttled assets of the Imperial Germany Navy in Scapa Flow to be beyond economical salvage and were content to leave the ships as they were for economic reasons. In 1923, in response to complaints that the ships were a hazard to navigation, a salvage company formed and began to work on raising the destroyers. This salvage effort continued in earnest through the 1920s before tapering off due the bulk of the salvageable ships being raised, however some salvage work has continued to varying degrees up to the present day in part because the massive amount of metal sitting on the floor of Scapa Flow has not been exposed to air-bursted nuclear weaponry, which makes the metal from the scuttled ships valuable for geiger counters and other radioactively sensitive products.