The Grand Scuttle

Last fall I took a trip to the Orkney Islands in Scotland. In preparation, I took this book off the shelf.

I inherited it from a late friend of mine who had a keen interest in naval history and World War One history.

He tried three times to make it to the Scapa Flow Museum. Once he got no closer than London due to a missed flight. Another time he made it to the ferry port on the mainland, but the ferry wasn’t running. Another time, he made it to the museum – only to find it closed for remodeling.

I didn’t do much better. It was closed when I was there too.

This book, published by the respected Naval Institute Press, is still well thought of by historians. You can still find it in places in the Orkneys. It was in The Orcadian Bookshop in Kirkwall, and I believe I saw copies at the Stromness Museum when I nipped in for an all too short look at some of the artifacts from the Grand Scuttle.

Review: The Grand Scuttle: The Sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919, Dan van der Vat, 1986.Grand Scuttle

The scuttling of the German Fleet on June 21, 1919 sank more marine tonnage in a single day than any time before or since.

Van der Vat’s book looks at the German High Seas Fleet from its beginning as a notion in the head of Captain Alfred von Tirpitz to its voyage to outer space.

Some parts of that story are relatively well known.

Histories of the war’s beginning often talk about the Anglo-German naval arms race as a cause of World War One, and van der Vat places too much emphasis on it. Germany lost that arms race by late 1912, and both sides knew it. But he does show it was a definite cause in the souring German-British relations before the war.

Certainly, German naval actions in skirmishes in the North Sea and, of course, the Battle of Jutland have gotten wide coverage.

Likewise, the actual scuttling of the fleet on the summer solstice has certainly been covered elsewhere. The nine German sailors who died that day – half shot in lifeboats as they left their sinking ships – are the symbolic last German casualties of the war.

Where the book shines is in its coverage of the fleet between the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice and the scuttling and the fate of the fleet after the scuttling.

Van der Vat looks at the political conflicts around the German High Seas Fleet after the Armistice. Who would get those ships? Would Germany be allowed to keep them? Would nations like France get them? How were they to be divided up by the victors? Did Britain really want other countries boosting their navies with them?

The German Navy was mutinous at the end of the war. Admiral Reuter, at the fleet’s bases in Wihelmshaven and Kiel, had to deal with Sailors Councils. They assumed the right to be consulted in command decisions and approve officers.

So, Reuter found many of the approximately 20,000 men crewing the ships into internment an unruly bunch. But he had a deadline to meet. The fleet was to present itself for internment by November 21, 1918 or hostilities would resume.

So, on that date, 74 German ships, flying no ensigns and their guns disabled, assembled in Scotland’s Firth of Forth under the guns of more than 250 Allied ships. For some British officers and sailors, it was something of a bitter day. They had hoped to sink the German fleet in combat.

In Scapa Flow, it was to be a long eight months for the Germans.

The German High Fleet was not designed to operate far from its home bases. The living conditions on ships were not good. The superior German armor on them also made the spaces more cramped than on British vessels.

Their British minders had considered the possibility of a scuttling and took appropriate steps. Crews were not to travel between ships or fraternize with members of the British Navy. There would be no radios on board. Their mail would be censored. Germany had to pay for the coal to keep steam up – a condition of their internment, and food was shipped from Germany.

The dreary winter took its toll on mind and spirit. By the time the fleet sunk, there were only about 1,700 Germans in the harbor, a skeleton crew. Many had left when the ships reached Scapa Flow. The rest between then and June 17, 1919. Some asked for leave to return home often to simply desert the navy in the chaos of post-Armistice Germany. Others were shipped off for sickness, particularly dental problems.

Reuter was happy to reduce his numbers because of discipline problems, particularly on the large battleships. Only on the small torpedo boats had discipline and morale been maintained.

Reuter himself returned briefly to Germany in December 1918.

As van der Vat points out, it is very unlikely he did not discuss scuttling the fleet with government and military officials. But, in his memoirs and official inquiries, he always maintained it was his sole decision. That was done, very likely, to avoid implicating the German government in breaking the terms of the Armistice.

Out of contact with their government, their news censored, the Germans had no idea what was going on with peace negotiations in Paris. However, an enterprising sailor had built a homemade radio and picked up news that the Armistice was set to expire on June 23, 1919.

Around 10 AM on June 21st, Reuter, in his dress uniform, sent the signal for scuttling to the cadre of officers and sailors in on the plot: “Paragraph Eleven. Confirm.”.

Under the eyes of a group of Stromness schoolchildren touring around the interned fleet and an angry British Navy, the scuttling began. It was over by 5 PM.

Not all the ships were scuttled – German ships were not designed to be easily scuttled. Some were only beached. Some were saved by British sailors. The book’s appendix, besides providing a map of Scapa Flow with the ships, has an appendix of all the technical specifications and fate of each ship. Reuter’s order for scuttling is also provided in full.

The French were furious. So were the British – publicly, but Prime Minister David Lloyd George was secretly pleased that the Germans had solved a military and political problem for them. No other nation’s navy would get those ships.

The story didn’t end there. Starting in 1922 with local salvage efforts by Orcadians and through about 1981 salvage efforts continued. Some ships were raised and towed as far as the Firth of Forth over 275 miles away. The innovative techniques used in raising the ships is covered.

But there are still some German ships at the bottom of Scapa Flow and a popular attraction for divers from all over the world.

So, what about outer space?

Well, there is a rumor that metal off some of the German ships was used by American spacecraft to house sensitive radiation detectors. Steel smelted after 1945 has trace amounts of radioactivity in it. It’s introduced in its smelting since the atmosphere has radioactive particles in it from the days of nuclear weapons being detonated in the atmosphere.

Van der Vat tried to confirm this rumor with NASA, but they could neither confirm nor deny it after a search in their records.

I did a far from exhaustive search on the Web of a Million Lies and didn’t find anything more conclusive. “Low background steel” is, in fact, a desirable material for some scientific applications though its use may be coming to an end. And metal from warships has been used for such purposes including American warships sunk in 1945. But there’s no direct evidence the fruits of von Tirpitz’s brain made it into space.

Either way van der Vat’s book still stands as the classic work on the singular event of the Grand Scuttle.

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