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Services to commemorate 100 years since scuttling of German fleet

The ships sank seven months after the First World War ended, but created a major new industry for Orkney.

German battle cruiser Seydlitz after it was scuttled (Orkney Library and Archive/PA)
German battle cruiser Seydlitz after it was scuttled (Orkney Library and Archive/PA)

A service will be held in waters near Orkney to mark 100 years since the scuttling of more than 50 German ships after seven months of incarceration.

The German High Seas Fleet was interned at Scapa Flow following Armistice in November 1918, while negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles were ongoing.

Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter was in command of the 74 vessels – viewed as a threat to the UK’s dominance at sea – but had not been informed of a last-minute extension to finalise details of the deal.

Historian Nick Jellicoe said: “What one doesn’t necessarily grasp now is that, for a while, Scapa was the centre of the world in terms of the maritime question of who was going to be masters.

“The real confrontations, in terms of Versailles, were about what to do with this fleet.”

Admiral von Reuter did not want the assets shared among foreign powers without the German government’s consent and was struggling with a mutinous, embarrassed and increasingly bored crew.

With the previous deadline for a treaty passed, he issued an order to scuttle the ships on June 21 1919.

A total of 52 of the interned vessels sank and a number of his men were injured – nine fatally.

It was to be one of the final acts of the First World War.

The admiral was made a prisoner of war but his act of defiance was celebrated in Germany.

After 100 years, to come together, it really is a fine gesture. Yorck-Ludwig von Reuter

His grandson, Yorck-Ludwig von Reuter, said: “For the professional time of my grandfather’s life, this was the hardest time. He made that decision alone.

“It’s not only a story of dignity and the honour – Germany had nothing, it was lost – this was a small sunshine for the population in Germany.”

The 65-year-old from Bavaria added: “After 100 years, to come together, it really is a fine gesture.”

Children on a school trip aboard the Flying Kestrel were coincidentally in Scapa Flow at the time of the scuttling.

John Muir Waters was 12 when he witnessed the vessels go below water, while others were “crying and disturbed”.

He described to his family the noise of steam hissing, gushing water and crew members shouting.

His grandson, councillor Harvey Johnston, will be among those attending the commemorative services.

Mr Johnston said: “There were young German men who died during the period of incarceration – before, during and after the scuttling – these are buried at the naval cemetery at Lyness.

“They died 1,000 miles from their home, we here at Orkney feel a great sadness because of that.”

The sinking of the German fleet has been described as a strategic victory for the UK as it closed the door on high-tech warships being distributed among rivals.

There was one sea battle between the Royal Navy Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet, at the Battle of Jutland.

The result was inconclusive and viewed as a failure among the public, as the UK entered the war hoping to prove its naval prowess.

Cameron Stewart, researcher at the University of Aberdeen, said: “There’s a sense of irony that Britain entered this war to prove its dominance at sea.

“They were hoping they could prove Britain had a better fleet. They had one chance to do it – at the Battle of Jutland – and didn’t.

“This fleet that they wanted to destroy sailed into their own front room and sank themselves.”

The scuttling also created the conditions for a major new industry around Orkney – salvaging, with much of the material sold to Germany.

Dignitaries and descendants of those involved with the Scapa Flow scuttling will attend a number of services on Friday to mark the centenary of the event.

This will involve Royal Navy and German naval officers laying wreaths in the water, including divers going to the wreckage.

PA

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