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A week before the Treaty of Versailles was signed, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter sank 57 ships between battleships, cruisers and destroyers of his own fleet so that they did not fall into the hands of the English.
At the end of June 1919, in the last sighs of World War I and a few days before the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the following headline was repeated many days on ABC: « The sinking of the German squad ». The articles referred to the order given by Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter to send to the bottom of the sea, in the bay of Scapa Flow (Scotland), to his own fleet before it fell into the hands of the enemy: Britain. In total, 57 ships between battleships, cruisers and destroyers, 400,000 tons of high-tech warfare, which is still considered the greatest naval loss in history forged in a single day.
Five hours really took Von Reuter to fulfill his objective, in a deliberate act of sabotage so that his ships did not become spoils of war. As this newspaper explained on June 24, 1919, three days after the incident: «Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter declared that the total destruction of his fleet has ended. And he added that he accepts the responsibility of having sunk the ships under the order given at the beginning of the war that no German ship should surrender.
It was the biggest loss of warships in history. But the really exceptional thing is that it was not a consequence of a battle or an accident, but of the orders given by the man who was in command of the German army located in Scapa Flow. The same one that was supposed to be responsible for fighting with her and keeping her afloat. Nine of his sailors died in that order, the last fatalities of his country in the First World War, since peace was signed a week later. What is still discussed today is whether that decision was a kind of naval suicide without the slightest sense or a heroic act of war and love of country.
This confrontation was born a few years before the start of the Great War. Specifically, at the end of the 19th century, when the British Government observed that the German Navy was considerably increasing its number of warships and that said fleet was undergoing an important modernization process. The William II kaiser had indeed launched an ambitious naval program and the superiority of the Royal Navy was threatened. This unleashed an arms race between the United Kingdom and Germany. The former developed a new generation of gigantic and heavily armed ships, while the latter manufactured more agile, fast and devastating artillery models.
The bay Scapa Flow was over 20 kilometers long and 14 kilometers wide. It was located in the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. It was a very special coastal area that was protected by islets, natural pitfalls and artificial obstacles that made it the perfect anchorage for the British fleet during the two world conflicts. In 1914, the Royal Navy had already decided to delegate to its French partners the patrolling of the Mediterranean to concentrate it in the North Sea, since there he expected the great naval clash with Germany.
It was at the beginning of World War I when the Royal Navy chose Scapa Flow as its main base. It was wide enough and had the optimum depth to anchor a large number of ships and battleships. From this bay, Britain 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 was very well protected due to its natural accidents and weather conditions.
During the war, both nations had faced such important naval battles as Jutland 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 already lost the conflict and that his Navy was badly damaged. It was not a shadow of what it had been at the beginning of the 20th century or in 1914.
With the armistice in the process of negotiation and the ceasefire decreed until the signing of the peace took place, the British allowed 1,800 German sailors to stay at 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. Both had been a failure and the coast acquired a reputation as an impregnable site. That’s why they allowed them to stay there until everything was over.
For the German crew that was humiliating. His legal situation was quite ambiguous. They had not given up, but had agreed to cease fire while negotiating the conditions of capitulation in the Treaty of Versailles . Therefore, they were still at war. And while it was over, they stayed there for seven months, sleeping crammed into the boats. They were bored sovereignly and had morale on the ground, to the point that rioting conatos occurred. Ludwig von Reuter handled the situation of his men as he could, as responsible for the eleven battleships, five battle cruisers, eight light cruisers and 50 destroyers. A total of 74 vessels representing a large part of the German Navy.
A delayed “The Times”
The reason why Von Reuter decided to sink his entire fleet was, in fact, the outdated and erroneous information that came to him through a back issue of the newspaper “The Times” where the state of the negotiations was told. The article in question, dated June 16, said that the Allies had given Germany the ultimatum that agreements should be closed on June 21. And the Rear Admiral was determined not to deliver his ships to the enemy no matter what.
What our protagonist did not know, because the British supplied him with the press four days late, is that the ultimatum was postponed two days, until 23. Ludwig von Reuter assumed that on June 21 hostilities would resume and that the enemy should not take his 74 warships, which would have been disastrous for his army.
Von Reuter was presented with an opportunity he could not waste, according to his perception of the situation. On June 21, 1919, the Royal Navy left maneuvering for the first time since November of the previous year. Only two destroyers remained in charge of the surveillance, at which time he took the opportunity to swoop all his ships.
A On June 21, at 10.30
It was far from an impromptu decision. Von Reuter had been thinking for months that an agreement in Versailles would not be possible. Or at least, in decent conditions for their homeland. He did not know that Britain really was not even interested in strengthening his Navy with anyone’s ships. Only France and Italy were of that opinion, and they had said so in secret meetings: it was best to divide the German fleet as a spoil of war among all.
Fearing that this would happen, Ludwig 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 he gathered his men and gave the order to immediately sink each and every one of the ships, taking advantage that the British had left to maneuver. They went running to their corresponding battleships, cruisers and destroyers, raised the German flags (which were forbidden to do) and began to open the valves, hatches and hatches. They even extracted the latter so that they did not close while the boats went to the bottom of the sea. And at the last moment they boarded the lifeboats to get away from the ship.
The 74 ships began to sink: ten battleships, six heavy cruisers, eight light cruisers and 50 destroyers. When the British fleet commanding officer, Vice Admiral Sydney Fremantle , was notified of what was happening at Scape Flow, he returned immediately and managed to save 20 of the vessels that had not yet submerged. They arrived in time to tow them to the coast and killed nine German sailors who were under Von Reuter’s orders.
45 meters deep
The remaining 52 ships ended up at the bottom of the sea at a depth of between 30 and 45 meters. Some are still there. Never before has anything like it been seen in naval history. Berlin made his sadness public immediately, although the German Government was intimately proud of that heroic deed of Von Reuter. He was called to the Fremantle captain ship and accused of disloyalty, treason and missing the sacrosanct code of the Navy. “I am convinced that any English naval officer, in the same circumstance, 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 were sunk by their own endowments, interned there since November 22, 1918, one day after the historical date in which the most important nucleus of the German fleet surrendered at the Firth of Forth to the powerful naval forces commanded by the bold admiral Beatty, ” ABC said on June 30, 1919 .
Some of these ships were recovered in the following years, although in the Second World War many others ended up at the bottom of the bay, which remained a strategic place from the military point of view. Today, Scapa Flow is the most important marine ship cemetery in the world. A paradise for intrepid divers looking to immerse themselves in the history of the 20th century.
Source: ABC History