Last secrets of German war ships sunk off Orkney revealed

The last secrets of the German warships that were scuttled and later salvaged from Scapa Flow following the end of the First World War have been revealed.

A driver examines remains of the SMS Derfflinger which was known as the Iron Dog by the British Navy given its resillience. PIC: Bob Anderson.

The largest survey of the North Sea salvage sites has now been completed ahead of the 100th anniversary of the sinkings ordered by the German Imperial Navy after its fleet was interred by the British around the islands.

More than 40 ships were salvaged after they were scuttled in June 1919 by the Germans in order that their assets would not fall into the hands of Britain and her allies.

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Dozens of salvage sites littered with maritime archaeology remain off the coast of Orkney, sparking a growing need to record the historic underwater landscape.

The German battleship SMS Bayern sinking at Scapa Flow in June 1919. PIC: PA/Imperial War Museum.

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Divers are more frequently turning to the salvage areas, which do not have the same level of protection as the wrecks of the seven German battleships that still lie on the seabed. Now, the full scale and composition of the salvage areas have been documented for the first time after Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (Orca) and SULA Diving finished its research.

Philip Robertson, Historic Environment Scotland’s marine expert, said: “As the centenary of the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet approaches, the publication of this report marks a significant milestone for marine archaeological heritage in Scapa Flow, and we are particularly grateful to the many volunteers who have assisted us in documenting what survives of the Fleet following one of the greatest salvage feats of all time.”

The German fleet interned at Scapa Flow at the end of World War One. PIC: TSPL.

The salvage operation is considered an unparalleled achievement in British maritime heritage. Initially, it was said the recovery of the larger German vessels was an impossible task given their sheer size and weight, but a unique method was used to recover these vessels, most of which were lying upside down on the seabed in depths up to 45 metres. The basic principle was simple – fill the vessels with air to the point that they floated to the surface. The process of flotation itself caused parts of the vessels to fall away, leaving behind debris which tells the story of these once-fearsome vessels.

The salvage site of SMS Derfflinger – known to the British as the Iron Dog – which was anchored to the west of Cava was among those examined by the Scapa Flow Underwater Salvage Sites Survey.

The warship was involved in the sinking of two British battle cruisers at the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of the conflict that involved 250 ships and killed around 9,000 men off the north Denmark coast. The vessel remained off Orkney until 1946 and it was “often reported that she spent more time floating upside down than upright,” according to the survey report.

Last autumn, a Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle found a large diesel engine from the ship, with volunteer divers discovering remains of a tripod mast that was fitted during repairs following the Battle of Jutland.

Parts from the vessel’s searchlight platform were also discovered, as well as a torpedo mast and spotting top – or lookout area.

The final remains of SMS Moltke, a battlecruiser that saw action at the battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland and endured significant damage throughout its service, were also recorded. Interned near the island of Cava, remains include a diesel engine from a pinnace – a small support vessel – and small anchors.

Pete Higgins, Senior Project Manager at Orca, said:” The German High Seas Fleet Salvage Site Project provides an insight into one of the most spectacular episodes in maritime history, when 44 warships were raised from the seabed of Scapa Flow and salvaged. The report brings together the archaeological remains of this operation and not only records the position and scale of the debris field, but also tells the story of these ships and their salvage through the remaining artefacts.”