The day 400,000 tons of modern warships sank

The final plunge of the German battleship Bayern at Scapa Flow
The final plunge of the German battleship Bayern at Scapa Flow
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Nine German sailors were shot dead – the final deaths of the First World War which had ended seven months earlier.

It was also the biggest loss of shipping in one day in history.

The event hardly warrants a mention these days, but 93 years ago this month the final throes of the so-called Great War ended in Scapa Flow, Orkney.

It was the day the interned German navy scuttled its own fleet to prevent the Royal Navy getting its hands on their ships as spoils of war.

I’m grateful to Dave Aldous, of Norfolk Street, Southsea, for sending these pictures from his collection of the events on and shortly after June 21, 1919.

Germany signed the Armistice with the Allies on November 11, 1918. Article XXI ordered the surrender of all German U-Boats and 200 were handed over.

Article XXIII involved the handing over and internment in Allied or neutral ports of 74 named warships, their fate to be determined by the peace negotiations.

Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter was given command of this force and apart from the unpleasant task of surrendering a powerful undefeated fleet he also had major problems with his men, many of whom were mutinous. He also had to ensure his fleet was disarmed.

The British checked each ship to ensure they had been disarmed and were apparently impressed with the quality of the ships, if not their companies. The entire German High Seas Fleet arrived at Scapa Flow by November 27, 1918, and there they stayed until the following June.

By mid-December the 20,000 men originally interned in their ships had been reduced to about 5,000.

During this time the peace talks had been dragging on, with several extensions to the Armistice, and the Treaty of Versailles was not ready until May 1919. The Allies were divided over the fate of the ships with many countries wanting a share, while the British, the major naval power at the time, were less keen to boost the strength of rival navies. The treaty involved the surrender of the interned ships.

When Reuter heard this he became concerned that the British would seize the ships without notice and started planning to scuttle the fleet. The British were well aware of the danger and had plans for armed seizure of the ships.

On the morning of June 21, Reuter signalled the fleet ‘Paragraph eleven. Confirm.’ It was the code for immediate scuttle.

It took a while for the message to get around the fleet and it was an hour before all the ships acknowledged the signal.

Nobody drowned as the ships went down, but those nine Germans were shot.

More than 400,000 tons of modern warships were sunk, the largest loss of shipping in a single day in history.

Publicly the British were outraged but in private there was a sense of relief that the problem of what to do with the fleet was now ended.