November 20th and 21st 1918 were to be ignominious days for the German nation. After four years of the most terrible war in human history and the humiliation of defeat and surrender of her land forces her proud navy was to surrender to the British leaving the fate of the vessels entirely in Allied hands. On the 20th, 150 submarines were handed over off Harwich. The next day the surface ships were to be handed over to the British in a ceremony off the Firth of Forth – although this was not technically surrender, as the peace treaty was still to be signed, there were no doubts about who were victors and losers that day.
Despite the cessation of hostilities, the atmosphere among both sets of men was tense particularly on the British side as they waited for the lines of huge German ships to appear over the horizon. Many of these same men had waited endless months for a chance to fight the Germans and prove their mastery of the oceans. Through four years of raging war ashore the two powerful fleets had only one confrontation – the indecisive Battle of Jutland in May 1916. Now they would see each other close up for the first time. The British commander, Admiral Beatty aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, had positioned his ships in two parallel lines as they waited for the early morning fog to clear and the Germans to arrive. As the light improved, around 9:30am, the ‘sausage’ balloon carried by HMS Cardiff appeared in the distance. Cardiff was leading the file of German ships towards Beatty’s waiting fleet. The German ships were led by SMS Friedrich der Grosse.
Even as the huge German ships steamed between the watchful British eyes the British sailors could hardly believe that they would surrender so meekly and fully expected that the Germans would open fire at any moment – they did not. Around 11am Beatty signalled to the German ships ‘The German flag will be hauled down at sunset today, Thursday, and will not be hoisted again without permission.’ It was over. Two days later the first German ships steamed into Scapa Flow through Hoxa Sound. On December 3rd the first two transports Sierra Ventana and Graf Waldersee, arrived to start to take off the German sailors leaving only care and maintenance crews aboard. This exercise was concluded by 13th December leaving 74 ships with 1800 men aboard – their long internment had begun.
The German fleet was anchored around Cava from the Barrel of Butter in the north and down both sides of this small island which lies in the westerly half of Scapa Flow. Morale aboard the ships was understandably poor and their commander, Von Reuter, struggled through the tedium to keep discipline and any semblance of command as his men brooded and complained about their situation. Their position was worsened by indecision among the Allied countries about what to do with the fleet. Some favoured breaking up, some scuttling at sea and a third group wanted to split the ships between the winning nations to bolster their own fleets. Even while this debate was going on, a plan was brewing in Von Reuter’s mind which would snatch the initiative from the Allied commanders. He had secretly planned the destruction of his own fleet at a series of meetings in early June 1919.
On 20th June 1919 Von Reuter’s flagship, SMS Emden, raised an unusual signal – the top flag was a white ball on a blue pennant, the lower one a yellow and blue pennant – which was answered by all the ships in the interned fleet. The signal aroused no suspicion and the next day, June 21st, the British First Battle Squadron and its escorting destroyers left Scapa on an exercise. The first signs that something was happening started to appear just before noon. Around the anchorage German sailors were lowering boats and leaving their ships. The few British sailors remaining in Scapa were at a loss what to do. Their vain attempts to order the Germans back to their ships were met with various excuses but none of the Germans would return to their vessels. A few shots were fired. Initially the British could not understand why. Then slowly the incredible truth began to dawn as the German ships began to settle in the water.
This first unique action was to pave the way for another – the largest and most successful salvage effort ever attempted. At first, the rusting shells of the German fleet were not viewed as worth the effort to raise but as time went on the eyes of many people began to focus on the massive horde of prime steel lying waiting in the sheltered waters of Scapa Flow. The first destroyer was raised in 1922 by an unknown Stromness man. In June 1923 the Admiralty sold a portion of the sunken fleet to a Mr J W Robertson who had formed the Scapa Flow Salvage and Shipbreaking Company Ltd. His efforts were not too successful as he succeeded in salvaging only the destroyer S131 which was lying almost beached in very shallow water. Then, in January 1924, the heroes of the Scapa salvage effort arrived on the scene – the company of Cox and Danks were to raise many of the ships and tow them to breakers yards round Scotland over the next few years. Ernest Frank Guelph Cox was to provide the expertise, Thomas Danks provided the money necessary to get started. They were to prove fantastically successful.
The outbreak of World War II brought the salvage work to an end as the anchorage once again became the HQ of the British Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. The remaining German wrecks – three battleships and four light cruisers plus the remains of two destroyers and innumerable piles of wreckage and detritus were left undisturbed until rediscovered by sub-aqua divers many years later. The huge in tact wrecks lying in relatively shallow, sheltered waters, have become a Mecca for divers from all over the world.
The three massive battleships – Konig, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Markgraf – and the four light cruisers – Brummer, Cöln, Dresden, and Karlsruhe – must be among the best dive sites in the world. The huge battleships lie almost upside down in 40 – 50 metres of water resting on the superstructure leaving the deck, with their huge 12 and 15 inch guns suspended above the passing diver making an awesome sight. The three totally in tact cruisers (Karlsruhe being the exception as it is somewhat broken due to some later salvage efforts) lie on the their sides in 35 – 40 metres providing a side on view of these almost perfect wrecks for the diver to explore. Scattered across the anchorage their are literally dozens of sites where piles of underwater wreckage make fascinating exploring for the hundreds of divers who travel to Orkney each year. The most dramatic of these lesser sites are the four gigantic guns of the battleship Bayern which lie close together, upside down where they fell when the ship was being salved.
With care and attention these underwater museum pieces will provide pleasure and excitement for sub aqua divers for many years to come.
The German Fleet – Wreck Map
The Remaining Wrecks