World events on Orkney’s shores: The scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet, 1919

Scapa Flow, the large natural harbour that lies between the Mainland and South Isles of Orkney, was of strategic importance in both of the twentieth century’s World Wars. From this northern base the Royal Navy had easy access to both the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. During the First World War, it was referred to as ‘the stopper in the North Sea bottle’, as control of this key waterway had the effect of ‘bottling up’ the German High Seas Fleet in their bases at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. It was from Scapa Flow that First World War Admiral Sir John Jellicoe implemented a blockade of Germany, preventing goods and food from reaching that country. This would eventually lead to the end of the war, as German manufacturers ran out of materials needed to continue fighting, but it would also caused terrible suffering to the people throughout Germany as food became scarce.

Worn down and starved of materials, Germany sued for peace. The Kaiser was forced to abdicate his throne and go into exile in Holland and the Armistice was signed on 11th November 1918. But the Armistice was not a surrender, only a ceasefire while the terms of surrender were being negotiated. As part of the Armistice agreement most of the German High Seas Fleet had to be surrendered to the Allies – the term used for the coalition that opposed the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria during the war – and then interned.

Where they were to be interned was still unknown to the Germans when they sailed on 21st November 1918. On arriving at the Firth of Forth, between Fife and Edinburgh, in southern Scotland, they were ordered to take down their flags, which were not to be flown again without permission. They were then told that they were to be held in Scapa Flow. The first German ships arrived in Orkney on Saturday 23rd November with others arriving over a period of several days. The last, and largest, to arrive was SMS Baden on 9th January 1919. Most of the ships’ crews had been repatriated to Germany, leaving only a skeleton crew on board the interned ships.

Photograph of the German High Seas Fleet, taken by Thomas Kent. Date: 1919
This panorama of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow was taken by Orcadian photographer Tom Kent about three weeks before the fleet was scuppered. The fleet had been interned in Scapa Flow for almost seven months, following their surrender in November 1918. This image was circulated throughout the world, including publication in the Chicago Tribune.
Orkney Library and Archive TK4129

Armistice extended

The Armistice was due to expire on 21 June 1919 and things were not looking good. France and Britain demanded a compensation from Germany that would have seen them paying the Allies back for the cost of the war until the early 1980s. Knowing that this would lead to the collapse of their economy the entire German Government resigned. The Rear Admiral in charge of the German Fleet, Ludwig von Reuter, was not kept informed of the situation and was relying on days old copies of The Times newspaper for his information. Without a deal by the 21 June a state of war would again exist between the Allies and Germany. He had not been informed that the Armistice had been extended to the 23 June. As he was the only German who was allowed to move between the ships, he communicated his command to scuttle the fleet to all the crews directly, and the plan was set.

Schoolchildren sail out to view the fleet

Saturday 21 June dawned bright and sunny. A group of nearly 200 excited school children from the Stromness Public School huddled in a group at the pier waiting to board the water supply ship Flying Kestrel, which was to take them to see the German Fleet, and the Royal Navy’s 1st Battlecruiser Squadron that was guarding them. The news that the Royal Navy ships had already sailed to carry out torpedo exercises in the North Sea came as a disappointment to them. This action had come as a surprise to Rear Admiral von Reuter as well and he thought the Royal Navy were playing games, imagining that they would rush back to board the German ships, seizing control ahead of the end of the Armistice, which, as far as he knew was to end that day. The Rear Admiral hoisted a signal flag that gave the message ‘Paragraph Eleven Confirm’, his secret order to scuttle the ships. German naval officers were not to let their ships fall into enemy hands, and von Reuter was not going to allow that to happen.

Photograph of Flying Kestrel, possibly at Stromness, Orkney. Date: c.1919
The water supply ship Flying Kestrel carried water from
Stromness to Scapa Flow, serving the Royal Navy ships during World War One and to the interned German Fleet during 1918-19. Close examination of the image, during co-curating for this virtual museum, has alerted us to the significant number of children onboard, standing on the bottom rail amidships. This suggests that the photograph was taken on the 21 June 1919, the very day when children from the Stromness Public School were taken on a trip to see the German ships. The buildings in the distance may be the house on the Inner Holm and the fish curing station on the Outer Holm in Stromness harbour.
Orkney Library and Archive L5128/4

Witnesses to tragedy

As the Flying Kestrel sailed between the rows of German ships they began to sink – their flags flying in defiance of the Royal Navy order. Between 12:00 and 17:00 52 of the 74 German warships went to the bottom of Scapa Flow. Seven German sailors were shot dead that day, with an eighth dying of his wounds the following day. A ninth sailor, Kuno Eversberg, was shot and fatally wounded onboard HMS Resolution on 24 June, dying of his wounds on the 29 June. He was the victim of a premeditated revenge killing of a German – any German. Although a British sailor was tried for his murder the verdict was Not Proven, as there was doubt as to whether the fatal shot was fired by the defendant or another sailor.

Researched and written by Tom Muir

Orcadian voices: A vital record

And we were evidently in a difficult position or a danger, where we were ordered out of the way.  They were sinking each side of us and the ‘Seydlitz’ would be a few hundred yards away when it turned turtle.  And we had to stop, I remember, at one stage.  And then, evidently, we were given a direction how to get back to the depot ship.  And we stayed there for a bit, and the captain seemed to get some orders to go a different route back because we went away outside where the ships were, the next time.  But, to us it just seemed to be an adventure story that we had been reading.  We didn’t understand that it was a piece of history we were seeing being enacted.  We thought it was just put on, probably, for our benefit, as schoolchildren.

Mrs Henrietta Groundwater, recorded in the 1970s
Photograph of Henrietta Groundwater. Date: 1970s
Henrietta Groundwater was one of the around 200 schoolchildren who witnessed the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet on board the Flying Kestrel in Scapa Flow on the 21 June 1919.
Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Constance Graind

The Orkney Archive cares for a collection of recordings that give us a compelling insight into the first-hand experience of these internationally important events, as they affected the lives of people living in Orkney at the time. In these recordings, the recollections of adults who had been among the schoolchildren visiting the fleet in June 1919, the eye witnesses have the usual Orcadian understatement.  The recordings include interviews with Ernest Marwick, and with Kath Gourlay. The latter, a broadcaster with BBC Radio Orkney, used to interview older people from throughout the isles just to record their stories. Her work, along with that of Anne Marwick who was the Sound Archivist at the Orkney Library’s Archive Department, has saved many fascinating first-hand accounts of events, important for Orkney and the world.

To listen to the recording of Henrietta Groundwater click HERE.

Scapa Flow: Busy waters

Today the waters of Scapa Flow are still filled with activity. Fishing vessels, crews of marine archaeologists and life scientists, oil tugs and rigs, ferries and pleasure boats populate these waters. Visitors from throughout the world visit the Flow, keen to research and explore this deep, almost land-locked harbour at the crossroads of the Atlantic Ocean.

M. V. Keila P.H., Oil on Canvas, artist unnamed. Date: late 20th century
This painting is interesting for its depiction of the kinds of vessels now found sharing Orkney’s seas, and often seen alongside each other in Scapa Flow today. The fishing boat Keila, this version built in 1989, is shown on the right side of the canvas. It is accompanied by an oil tanker on the left. The oil tanker is not named in the painting’s title, but the artist has painted its name, Kosan, on its side. The painting was donated to The Orkney Museum by Roddy Hibbert.
Orkney Museum 2004.3.2 

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

Find out more

To visit the website of the Orkney Library and Archive click here.

To visit the website of the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre click here.

Find out more about the maritime heritage at Scapa Flow by clicking here.

To see a film of Orcadian musician and archaeologist Sarah Jane Gibbon singing and speaking about her song “Rugged Western Shore” commissioned to commemorate the sinking of HMS Hampshire close to Marwick Bay, Orkney click here.

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