Scotsman 200: War is over, but maritime casualties go on

To mark the 200th anniversary of The Scotsman, we are dipping into our archives to bring you a selection of some of the biggest stories of the last two centuries. This month we are recalling the two world wars, reproducing The Scotsman's original coverage of many of the wartime events which directly touched Scotland. Today we feature the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.
The German fleet surrenders at Scapa Flow. Seven months later the Germans scuttled their ships to prevent Allied Forces using the vessels.  Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.The German fleet surrenders at Scapa Flow. Seven months later the Germans scuttled their ships to prevent Allied Forces using the vessels.  Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.
The German fleet surrenders at Scapa Flow. Seven months later the Germans scuttled their ships to prevent Allied Forces using the vessels. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.

Monday, 23 June, 1919

70 Warships Sunk at Scapa

By an act of German treachery, almost all the German warships interned at Scapa Flow were sunk on Saturday.

The Interned Fleet included:

Battleships – 10

Battle Cruisers – 6

Light Cruisers – 8

Destroyers – 50

Of these none now remains afloat except one or two of the destroyers. Most of the others have been sunk and the remainder are beached.

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According to the latest information, the fate of the ships is as follows:

Battleships and Battle Cruisers – All sunk (some in shallow water), except the Baden, which was run aground in Swanbister Bay.

Light Cruisers – Five sunk and three beached, partly submerged.

Destroyers – All sunk, except 18 beached and four still afloat.

Skeleton German crews were on the ships as caretakers, and there were no British guards on board. This was in accordance with the naval terms of the Armistice. The ships were regarded as merely interned until their fate was decided by the Peace conference.

The German Rear-Admiral and most of the Germans from the ships are in custody on-board His Majesty’s ships.

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Some boats from the ships refused to stop when ordered, and were fired on, and a small number of Germans were killed and wounded.

In accordance with the terms of Armistice, the German ships were interned with skeleton German crews as caretakers, and without British guards on board.

Scuttled While British Battleships were at Sea.

Kirkwall, Sunday morning.

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The end of the German fleet in Scapa Flow has been even more dramatic than its surrender to Admiral Beatty. At midday on Saturday the red flag and German ensign were hoisted on all the German battleships, battle cruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers, the Kingston valves opened, and, seemingly before the British well knew what was taking place, so many ships were doomed that now but one battleship remains afloat. The British battle squadron which, rightly or wrongly, has been regarded as the guard of the enemy float, was at sea exercising, it is believed.

The hoisting of the red flag seems to have been regarded at first by the British authorities as a simple mutiny on the part of the German seamen. Those of the members of the crews of the German ships who had not taken to boats leaped overboard. All of them were a considerable time in the water before being rescued. Some of the boats from the German ships refused to stop when ordered to do so. These were fired upon. The number of casualties is not known.

The British battleships were recalled to port, and every effort was made, with the assistance of the tugs, trawlers, and drifters already on the scene, to save the ships which still remained afloat. Many of the German vessels had disappeared before the arrival of the last of the British Battle Fleet.

Efforts at Salvage

At 3p.m. practically all the enemy destroyers had been sunk or beached.

Three battleships and battle cruisers remained afloat, two of them lying deep and sinking fast, and of the five light cruisers remaining two seemed near their end.

Of the three heavy ships the Hindenburg, which had cast adrift in an attempt to beach her on the island of Cava, settled down a short distance from the shore with decks submerged and only masts and funnels showing.

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Another, after ineffectual attempts to move her by a destroyer, a trawler, and a drifter, turned turtle, and in less than a minute nothing but the bubbling water where her anchorage had been. The third ship around 4.30pm was apparently regarded as safe, for at that hour a large white ensign, with the German flag below it, was hoisted at the main of the five light cruisers one was cast adrift and came safely ashore Cava island. Two others were taken by tugs and destroyers to Swanbister bay, where they now lie on the sandy bottom. The fourth, while in charge of the tug, listed heavily to port and went down in deep water. The fifth sank by the stern while at anchor.

Of the great fleet of seventy vessels all that remain are thus one battleship; a few dull, reddish-coloured hulls peeping through the shallow waters; three small cruisers, partly submerged; and, on the western side of Fara Island, destroyers, perhaps numbering less than a dozen, no more than a stones throw, so it seemed, from across the water, from the beach.

A Premeditated Act

Thurso, Sunday.

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The sinking of the German ships by their crews recalls the behaviour of the crews on board the interned ships, who landed on the surrounding islands shortly after internment, and engaged in marauding among the defenceless homesteads of the islanders, carrying away such booty as they could, principally that which was service in replenishing their supplies. As the result of that occurrence, their facilities for a repetition were curtailed.

The Surrender and its Sequel

A Dramatic Finale

The sudden eclipse of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow makes a dramatic finale of one of the strangest stories of the sea to be found in history. Many extraordinary and memorable events have occurred during the war, but for dramatic effect and appeal to the imagination there is nothing comparable to the surrender of the German fleet on the High Season on the morning of 21st November 1918. That spectacle the public have been enabled to visualise in a manner impossible with the more extended operations of the fighting on land. No one who was present on that historic occasion could have predicted that the end of the magnificent surrendered fleet would be. That they should have gone down simultaneously in the place of their internment possibly solves a difficult problem for the Allies, and at the same time it affords a companion picture of equally strange and unprecedented character to that episode of last winter in the Firth of Forth, when in the rich glow of sunset the flower of the German Navy came to anchor within the enclosing circle of British ships of war.

Story about German Admiral

None of the German sailors who succeeded in reaching the shore was allowed to land, but all were taken prisoners and sent to the British ships.

Eye-witnesses have various accounts of what occurred. People living in the vicinity of Houton Pier declare that the German Admiral succeeded in reaching Houton early, and that he asked the men at the Aviation Station to go out and rescue some of the German sailors who were in difficulties.

Several men were seen to jump into the water while the Emden was being towed shorewards. One of these Germans made for a buoy, and, reaching it, sat astride it for some hours before he was taken off by one of our small craft.

Mr Archibald Hurd says it is stated that the German Rear-Admiral von Reuter has affirmed that he understood the armistice came to an end on Saturday, and he accepts full responsibility for sinking the vessels, in accordance with an order given in the early stages of the war, rather than surrender them.

The full text of this edited extract can be found at The Scotsman Digital Archive