The one we are going to tell you about is the biggest loss of warships in history and it occurred in just one day. What is really striking about this apparent tragedy is that it was not the result of an enemy attack or an accident, but of the order given by the German rear admiral Ludwig von Reuter to send his own fleet to the bottom of the sea, in the bay of
Scapa Flow (Scotland), June 21, 1919.
A total of 57 ships, including battleships, destroyers and cruisers, 400,000 tons of high-tech warfare, for which he even had to sacrifice the lives of nine of his men. Despite this, many experts do not consider it the decision of a mad military man a week before the end of the First World War, but one of the greatest feats that the German Army has carried out throughout its history.
Why that sacrifice when only a few days later the Treaty of Versailles was going to be signed? It is assumed that Von Reuter was responsible for protecting his fleet and suffering as few human losses as possible, but it is impossible not to think that those nine dead German sailors, the last German fatalities in the Great War, were absolutely gratuitous and unnecessary. .
Since the event was known, and for several weeks, the following headline was repeated on ABC for many days:
‘The sinking of the German squad’. In the different news stories, it was said that Von Reuter took exactly five hours to perpetrate his deliberate act of sabotage, so that his fleet would not become spoils of war for the enemy. As explained on June 24, 1919: ‘The rear admiral declared that the total destruction of his fleet has been completed. And he added that he accepts responsibility for having sunk the ships by virtue of the order given at the beginning of the war that no German ship should surrender.
At the beginning of the First World War, the Royal Navy chose as its main base Scapa Flow, which was located in the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. It was more than 20 kilometers long and 14 kilometers wide, that is, it was wide enough and had the optimum depth to anchor a large number of ships and battleships. It was a very special coastal area, protected by islets, natural reefs and artificial obstacles that made it the perfect anchorage for the British fleet also during the Second World War.
In 1914, the Royal Navy had already decided to delegate Mediterranean patrols to its French partners in order to concentrate on the North Sea, as it was there waiting for the great naval clash with Germany to take place. In addition, from that bay it controlled the North Sea and traffic through the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. It was the best strategic point to face the war in that region and it was very well protected due to its natural accidents and weather conditions.
Great Britain versus Germany
During the Great War, both nations had fought each other in naval battles as important as
Jutlandia, in 1916. The Royal Navy was defeated on that occasion, but by mid-November 1918, with the Kaiser already abdicated, it was clear that Germany had lost the conflict and that her Navy was badly damaged. It was not a shadow of what it had been in the early twentieth century.
With the armistice in the process of negotiation and the ceasefire decreed until the signing of the peace, the British allowed 1,800 German sailors to stay in Scapa Flow in the care of their 74 ships. They did not care that, shortly before, they had carried out two submarine attacks against the English in the bay. However, both were a failure and the coast acquired a reputation as an impregnable place, so they allowed them to remain there until it was all over.
For the German crew this was humiliating and their legal situation was quite ambiguous. They had not given up, but had agreed to a ceasefire while terms were negotiated at Versailles. That means they were actually still at war. While it was ending, they were held there for seven months, sleeping crammed into the boats. They were sovereignly bored and their morale was on the ground, to the point that there were outbreaks of mutiny.
Von Reuter handled the situation as best he could, commanding eleven battleships, five battlecruisers, eight light cruisers, and 50 destroyers. A total of 74 vessels representing a large part of the German Navy. The reason why he decided to sink them all was the product of outdated and erroneous information that came to him through an outdated copy of the newspaper ‘The Times’, where the status of the negotiations was counted.
The article in question, dated June 16, said that the Allies had given Germany the ultimatum that on June 21 the agreements should be closed. The rear admiral was determined not to surrender his ships no matter what. What our protagonist did not know, because the British supplied him with the press four days late, is that the ultimatum had been postponed for two days, until the 23rd.
Von Reuter assumed that hostilities would resume on June 21 and that the enemy should not seize his 74 warships, which would have been disastrous for his country, and the opportunity presented itself when that same day the Royal Navy left maneuvers for the first time since November of the previous year. Only two destroyers remained in charge of the surveillance, a moment that he took the opportunity to send all his ships to the ground.
In fact, Von Reuter had been thinking for months that an agreement at Versailles was not going to be possible and, if it did, he would not have decent conditions for his homeland. Great Britain, however, was not interested in reinforcing its Navy with anyone’s ships. Only France and Italy had declared in secret meetings that it was best to divide the German fleet among themselves as booty.
Faced with this fear, Von Reuter left his perfectly uniformed cabin on the morning of June 21, 1919. He wore his Great Iron Cross around his neck. At 10:30 a.m. he gathered his men and gave the order for each and every ship to sink immediately, taking advantage of the fact that the British had come out to maneuver. They ran to their corresponding battleships, cruisers and destroyers, raised the German flags – something they were forbidden to do – and began to open the valves, hatches and gates. They even extracted the latter so that they would not close while the boats went to the bottom of the sea. Finally, they got into the lifeboats and walked away from the ship.
The 74 ships began to sink: ten battleships, six heavy cruisers, eight light cruisers, and 50 destroyers. When the commanding officer of the British fleet, Vice Admiral Sydney Fremantle, was notified of what was happening in Scape Flow, returned immediately and managed to save 20 of the vessels that had not yet fully submerged. They arrived in time to tow them to shore and killed nine German sailors who were carrying out von Reuter’s orders.
The 52 remaining ships ended up on the seabed at a depth of between 30 and 45 meters. Some are still there, making Scapa Flow the most important marine ship graveyard in the world. A paradise for intrepid divers seeking to immerse themselves in 20th century history. Nothing like it has been seen before in naval history. Berlin made its sadness public immediately, although the German Government was intimately proud of that heroic deed of Von Reuter. He was called to the Fremantle flagship and charged with disloyalty, treason and breaking the sacrosanct code of the Navy. “I am convinced that any English naval officer, under the same circumstances, would have done the same as me,” replied the German.
«In the spacious British bay of Scapa Flow, it is confirmed that the best German warships, interned there since November 22, 1918, a day after the historical date on which the most important nucleus of the German fleet surrendered in the Firth of Forth to the powerful naval forces commanded by the audacious Admiral Beatty ‘,
counted ABC on June 30, 1919.