The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

The Scuttling of the German Fleet in Scapa Flow

As a condition of the Armistice agreement of 11 November 1918, 74 ships of Germany's High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) were escorted to Scapa Flow to be interned. Before leaving Germany the ships were disarmed and once anchored in Scapa Flow the bulk of their crews were taken home.

The German ships lay in the Flow for many months as discussions continued about what to do with them. As time dragged on, with no solution on the horizon, the crews grew more weary. They were not permitted to leave their ships, the food was poor and morale was extremely low.

Fearing the ships would be taken and divided up between the allied powers, the German commander, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, considered the scuttling of all 74 German warships. As early as January 1919 he had mentioned this possibility to his chief of staff and had made up detailed plans of how to do this.

On 18 June 1919 the Admiral felt he was left with reliable men to carry out the preparations. On this day he sent out orders to the interned ships, which stated:

'It is my intention to sink the ships only if the enemy should attempt to obtain possession of them without the assent of our government. Should our government agree in the peace terms to the surrender of the ships, then the ships will be handed over, to the lasting disgrace of those who have placed us in this position.'

The sinking of the German ships, June 21 1919. © Orkney Library & Archive.

At 1000 on 21 June the signal was given to stand by. Then at 1120 the flag signal was sent and this was repeated by the use of semaphore and searchlights to all the ships. The scuttling began immediately. The sea-cocks were opened to let in water, water pipes smashed and bulkhead doors left open. Some ships were saved by British sailors running them ashore before they foundered, but by late afternoon 52 warships had sunk including 14 battleships. The last to disappear beneath the waves was the battle cruiser SMS Hindenburg, which sank at 1700. 

In the confusion, nine Germans were shot dead and around 16 wounded, as the British tried to order them to stop the scuttle. These can be considered the last fatalities of the First World War.
Between the wars many of the ships were salvaged by Cox & Danks and later by Metal Industries Ltd., but seven remain on the sea bottom. They are protected through designation as Scheduled Ancient Monuments, and are very popular dive sites with divers today. 

The Bayern sinking by the stern. © Orkney Library & Archive.