At the end of the First World War, the German Navy surrendered their warships to the Allied forces. The fate of the vessels was to be decided by the victorious powers but the ships’ remaining skeleton crews had other ideas.

Archivist Veronica Schreuder looked into the NRS archives to see what she could discover… 

GD391-103-1-2-4-20 Hindenburg
SMS Hindenberg, NRS Ref: GD391/103/1/2/4/20

‘As we rounded Fara we saw an extraordinary sight. It looked as if someone had picked up a handful of destroyers and shooed them down on the… beach… any old how. Stern first, bows first, on their sides, and in the distance it looked as if some were on top of each other.’

This was 19-year-old Midshipman Robert Stewart-Peter’s view of the scuttling of the fleet at Scapa Flow on 21st June 1919. In letters sent to his family, now held by National Records of Scotland, he described the deliberate sinking of the German High Seas Fleet off the coast of the Orkney Islands.

Following the Armistice of World War One 74 German vessels, manned by skeleton crews, had been interned at Scapa Flow whilst negotiations took place over their fate.

Robert, stationed on board the HMS Royal Oak, wrote to his father on 25th May describing the ships. The ‘Emden’, he reported, was ‘less Bolshevik than the others, and she is kept very clean’ but the ‘Brummer’ was ‘not only filthy outside, but reeks like a badly kept dog kennel. She is one of the most disgusting objects I have ever set eyes on.’

On the morning of 21st June German Admiral von Reuter, in a bid to deny the allied powers their share of the ships, ordered the scuttling via a flag signal. Seacocks were opened and water passed through bulkheads as the Germans abandoned their ships.

GD391-103-1-2-4-6 Karlsruhe
SMS Karlsruhe, NRS Ref: GD103/1/2/4/6

Robert was on the Pentland Firth for torpedo practice with the 1st Battle Squadron when a signal alerted them that a battle ship was sinking and all other vessels had hoisted their ensigns.

On their return, Robert noted that the ‘Karlsruhe’ had capsized in low water after being towed to the shore but the ‘Frankfurt’ was safely beached. The ‘Baden’ had been saved when the Germans shut her seacocks only after ‘a trawler’s crew opened fire and killed about six and sank a boat.’

Mate Tonkin, in command of a patrol trawler, got aboard the ‘Hindenburg’ and – at gun point – made the Germans open the seacocks on the dry side. This forced the ship upright, but it was ‘beyond capabilities of any other vessels, war or otherwise’.

Aboard the ‘Nurnberg’, Robert helped shut all water tight doors and scuttles ‘taking no end of articles both useful and for souvenirs’. Water coming into boiler and engine rooms made the ship badly list:

‘I was …in the bottom of the ship… [with] sputs [of water] coming through…holes…the only light was a candle. In the midst of this cheerful setting…I suddenly…thought how jolly it would be if the ship capsized when I was down there. It sent me all of a ‘Hoo-ha’. I was up on deck like a rigger as soon as I’d closed that hatch.’

In total, 52 of the 74 vessels sank.

GD391-103-1-2-2
Midshipman Robert Stewart-Peter (Marked “RHSP”, front row”) with ship’s crew.

1,774 Germans were picked up that afternoon. They had violated Armistice and so ‘were treated as prisoners of war… We discharged the Huns at Cromarty… They were properly shaken in the ships.  In fact I think we treated them in too Hunnish a manner, almost as nastily as they would have treated us…  I’ve changed my opinion of many people in this ship since Saturday night.’

The Allied nations were deeply angry at the loss of their share of ships but Britain’s naval superiority had been secured. Two days after the scuttling, Royal Navy whaler ‘Ramna’ hit the hull of battlecruiser ‘SMS Moltke’ and salvage work became a priority.

The few rescued ships were distributed between friendly navies and private companies bought and raised the others. Ernest Cox, an engineer, bought 26 destroyers and two battlecruisers, including the ‘Hindenburg’, were finally raised in 1930.

Salvaging continued until 1939 and seven ships which remain below the water are popular dive sites today.

Veronica Schreuder

Outreach Archivist

National Records of Scotland

This article was originally published last year by History Scotland magazine.

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