21/6/1919 Götterdämerung: the scuttling of the German fleet

On the 16h of June, Germany was given three days to either accept Allied peace terms or face the war’s renewal. That deadline has since been extended to the 23rd, and now the world waits on tenterhooks to see whether fighting is about to resume.

After the armistice in November the German fleet set sail to be interned by the British. It is now at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, manned by a German skeleton crew and closely guarded by the British. The German sailors are deliberately kept isolated, forbidden from visiting the shore or fraternising with their British counterparts, a source of some annoyance to radical German sailors who had hoped to spreading revolutionary sentiment to the British.

The German sailors have now got wind of the Allied ultimatum. They know that the endgame is approaching. Whether his country accepts or rejects the Allied terms, Reuter, the German commander, knows that his ships will never return to Germany but will instead be either sunk or divided out among the Allies. He decides therefore to preserve his fleet’s honour by ordering the scuttling of his ships.
The scuttling is scheduled for today. At Reuter’s order, the German ships raise their ensigns and below decks men open the sea cocks, letting water flood in. As the ships begin to list it dawns on the British observers what is happening. The British race to try and save the ships, forcibly boarding them to close the sea cocks, shooting any German sailors who get in their way. Nine German sailors are killed and 16 wounded, some after they have abandoned ship; they will be the last men killed in the First World War. However the British are too late: only one of the 16 German battleships is saved.

The German crews escape from their ships in lifeboats and are now imprisoned by the British as prisoners of war. Fremantle, the British commander at Scapa Flow berates Reuter for his dishonourable behaviour, though he later notes that he felt that the German had successfully “preserved his dignity when placed against his will in a highly unpleasant and invidious position”.

The Allies view the German fleet’s scuttling as yet another sign of the Teutons’ treacherous nature. However the British in particular are secretly relieved. They had feared that the Paris Conference would insist on the division of the German ships among the Allies, which would have undermined British naval dominance. Now Britannia can continue to rule the waves.


The Derfflinger sinks (BBC News – Scapa Flow scuttling: The day the German navy sank its own ships)

German sailors after abandoning their sinking ship (Plymouth Scuba Diving Submerged Productions – Scapa Flow – The German Valhalla)

18/3/1919 Disputes over the Rhineland and Germany’s fleet

Allied leaders in Paris have now broadly agreed the military terms that will be imposed on Germany. To prevent its future aggression, Germany will be allowed to maintain only a small army. British preferences for this to be an army of long-serving volunteers rather than short-term conscripts have carried the day. The army will have no heavy equipment and should be able only to assist with the maintenance of internal order. The Germans will be obliged not to allow veterans’ clubs or other private associations turn into surrogate military organisations. They are also required to dismantle all fortifications on both banks of the Rhine.

The future of the German navy meanwhile has led to serious disagreements among the Allies. They are broadly agreed that Germany will no longer be allowed to maintain an ocean-going fleet, but there is still the vexed question of what to do with the German ships currently interned at Scapa Flow. The French and Italians have called for these ships to be divided out among the Allies, but the British fear that doing so will undermine their own naval dominance. Lloyd George has proposed the ceremonial sinking in the Atlantic of the German fleet, but Wilson sees this as wasteful. Mistrust on naval matters is building between the British and Americans, with the British afraid that the United States is about to embark on a naval building programme that will hand control of the world’s seas to it.

Another area of tension remains the Rhineland. France has sought the permanent occupation or separation from Germany of this region, but Britain and the United States have instead offered security guarantees to the French against aggression from a resurgent Germany. Now Clemenceau replies to the Anglo-American offer. He accepts that the Allies will not permanently occupy the Rhineland but demands a temporary occupation of at least five years. Furthermore, he requires that afterwards the Rhineland be permanently demilitarised.

Clemenceau’s response irks his allies. Balfour, the British foreign minister, fears that the French are making a terrible mistake, concentrating on weakening Germany instead of reforming the international order to make future wars less likely. But for now Clemenceau is insistent.

21/11/1918 The German fleet sails into captivity

Under the terms of the armistice the German fleet is to be interned by the Allies. The U-boats have already sailed to Harwich in England and now today the German surface fleet sails to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, from there to travel on to the main British naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. Unlike the U-boats, whose crews were returned to Germany, the surface ships will retain their German crews while they are in Scapa Flow; although effectively under British confinement they will not be prisoners-of-war as such and the sailors will remain under their own command.
The German fleet sails under the command of Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter; Admiral Hipper, the fleet’s commander-in-chief, delegated the distasteful task of leading the fleet into captivity. The German ships are escorted by the main British battle fleet, making this the largest gathering of warships the world has ever seen. The two fleets clashed just once at the inconclusive Battle of Jutland in 1916 but since then the British navy has grown further in size and now it is joined by French and American warships, meaning that the Allies now have 23 battleships to the Germans’ nine and nine battlecruisers to the Germans’ five. The whole exercise is a spectacular show of strength by the British, with the German fleet sailing between two lines of Allied ships, either of which would be a match for them.
The British fleet is commanded by Admiral David Beatty, who had commanded the battlecruisers at Jutland. His ships are prepared for any last minute tricks by the Germans: all guns are ready for action, with gun crews in place and ammunition ready to be loaded. But there is no need. The German navy knows it has been beaten and its sailors are not in the mood for suicidal gestures. Without a shot being fired the goal that eluded Beatty at Jutland is now being achieved: the neutralisation of the German fleet.

HMS Cardiff leading the German ships (Wikipedia)

HMS Queen Elizabeth leads the 2nd British Battle Squadron; Diagram (BBC News: The day the entire German fleet surrendered)

The German fleet at sunset (Spitfires of the Sea (@seaspitfires) on Twitter)

See also fascinating Twitter thread from Spitfires of the Sea

4/11/1918 The Red Flag flies over Kiel #1918Live

German sailors in Kiel were engaged in acts of mutiny but now, after exchanging gunfire with officers yesterday, they are now engaged in revolution. The sailors are demanding the overthrow of the German monarchy, an immediate end to the war and radical reform of the German constitution, including votes for women and universal adult suffrage. Souchon, the naval commander at Kiel, is unable to control the situation. The city’s garrison is largely siding with the sailors, leaving Souchon with no force to suppress the revolt. Port workers too are joining the revolutionary sailors, who now are preparing to send agitators to other bases to encourage them to join the revolution.

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Revolutionary sailors (Wikipedia: Kieler Matrosenaufstand)
[picture shows sailors from later in the month, in Berlin rather than Kiel]

3/11/1918 The Kiel mutiny escalates and unrest spreads across Germany, but the Kaiser again declines to abdicate #1918Live

The sailors of Germany’s fleet are in a rebellious mood. A recent mutiny prevented the fleet’s commanders from sending them off to die in a doomed battle with the British, but the mutiny’s ringleaders have been placed under arrest. In Kiel the sailors have been demonstrating to demand the release of their comrades. The naval garrison here is commanded by Souchon, who in 1914 managed to bring Turkey into the war on Germany’s side. Now though he is struggling to maintain order. Troops stationed in Kiel are proving unreliable, with soldiers openly sympathising with the sailors.

Today the sailors decide that they have had enough of demonstrating. Breaking into army barracks, they seize arms, with the soldiers offering no resistance. Then they free the mutineers from their captivity. It is only at this point that blood is shed, when a brief firefight breaks out between the sailors and a group of officers; seven men are killed, a few dozen injured. But the bloodshed emboldens the sailors. To each other and to Kiel’s soldiers and workers they begin to talk of revolution and the overthrow of German authoritarianism.

Unrest is spreading across Germany generally, with strikes and demonstrations becoming more political in their demands. Demands for the removal of the Kaiser are increasingly heard, but Wilhelm is determined to hold onto his throne. He announces that if necessary he will lead his army against the malcontents, declaring that he has no intention of abdicating “on account of a few hundred Jews or a thousand workers”.

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Sailors and their sympathisers demonstrate in Kiel (’56 Packard Man — Steamship Sunday 1918: German Sailors Mutiny)

Karl Arteit, a radical leader of the sailors (Homepage Klaus and Renate Kuhl: Sailors’ revolt in Kiel)

1/11/1918 Sailors mutiny in Kiel, unrest spreads across Germany, but the Kaiser will not abandon Germany in its hour of need

Mutinous sailors forced the commanders of Germany’s fleet to call off their suicidal plan for an advance into the English Channel. In an effort to restore discipline, the naval authorities have arrested ringleaders of the mutinies and sent the most unruly ships to separate ports. However the dispersal of the rebellious ships has served only to spread discontent to previously reliable squadrons. Sailors based in Kiel now start refusing orders and demanding the release of their arrested comrades. They also start to fraternise with dockworkers and soldiers garrisoned in the town, who prove receptive to the sailors’ rebellious message. Souchon, the recently appointed naval governor of Kiel, finds himself unable to contain the unruliness.

Unrest is in fact spreading across Germany, with striking workers demanding an immediate end to the war. People are also calling for the overthrow of the Kaiser and the establishment of a republic. Wilhelm Drews, Prussia’s interior minister, travels to the army headquarters at Spa to bravely tell the Kaiser that calls for him to go are growing. The Kaiser is furious, telling Drews that he cannot abdicate, because if he were to do so the army would disintegrate and Germany descend into chaos. The Kaiser will not abandon Germany in its hour of need.

Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia (Color by Klimbim)

29/10/1918 Mutiny breaks out in the German fleet #1918Live

President Wilson has stated that the Allies will not negotiate with an authoritarian Germany. To placate him the Germans have sacked Ludendorff and rewritten their constitution to sideline the Kaiser and transform Germany into a parliamentary democracy. Although Prince Max has been struck down by influenza, the Chancellor’s indisposition has not paralysed the German government. A note has been despatched to Wilson drawing attention to the constitutional changes and asking if now at last substantive negotiations for an armistice can begin.

But not everyone in Germany wants an immediate end to the war. Ludendorff’s dismissal has neutered resistance within the army, but the leaders of Germany’s navy do not an armistice before they have had a last crack at the British fleet. Hipper, the fleet commander, and Scheer, the naval chief of staff, have made secret plans for the fleet to sail out and attack enemy shipping in the Channel. This will inevitably bring out the British fleet, leading to a final showdown between the two great navies. Of course, the German fleet is now much smaller than the British, so the battle will end with its destruction and the loss of thousands of lives, but honour of the German navy will have been restored.

Preparations for this death ride are proceeding in secret but rumours begin to spread among the German fleet’s sailors. They are less keen on this suicidal mission. When word spreads through the fleet that tomorrow they will embark on their death ride, sailors on three of the battleships declare that they will not obey orders. Insubordination spreads, obliging the naval commanders to call off the mission. In an effort to contain the sailors’ unrest, they now order the dispersal of the ships with the most unruly crews to different bases. The ringleaders of the mutiny are also placed under arrest by loyal sailors.

24/10/1918 The German navy prepares for a glorious last battle #1918Live

Fighting continues on the Western Front but it looks like the war will soon be coming to an end, unless of course Ludendorff succeeds in blocking the government’s armistice negotiations. The imminent peace is not an appealing prospect to the commanders of Germany’s navy. They feel that they have not played enough of a part in Germany’s war effort and that peace will leave them at a disadvantage compared to their comrades in the army. True, German U-boats have been attacking Allied shipping and there was a time last year when German leaders actually believed that the U-boats would force Britain to surrender. However the U-boat war failed and Prince Max has now ordered the submarines back to port. And the great battleships of the German navy have sat out the war, not venturing from port since the indecisive Battle of Jutland in 1916.

The commanders of Germany’s navy now decide that the war cannot be allowed to end before the German fleet has fought one last battle with the British. Admiral Scheer has succeeded Holtzendorff as the navy’s chief of staff. Together with Admiral Hipper, the fleet commander, he works out a plan for the navy’s final battle. The battleships will sail out into the North Sea and down to the Channel, there to attack Allied shipping. The British fleet will certainly sail south to intercept the Germans but U-boats and minefields will deplete British numbers before the two fleets clash.

The British fleet is now twice as large as the German. Under any realistic projection of the damage U-boats and mines will inflict, the British will still be strong enough to completely destroy the German fleet. Scheer’s plan has no chance of success and will cost thousands of lives, but it will restore the honour of the German fleet.

Planning proceeds in conditions of the utmost secrecy. In just a few days the German fleet will set sail.

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The planned attack (Wikipedia)

10/10/1918 The sinking of the RMS Leinster

The U-boat campaign failed to win the war for Germany; indeed, by bringing the United States into the war, the U-boats have brought defeat to Germany’s door. Yet the U-boat campaign continues, with the submarines attacking Allied shipping wherever they can. The adoption of convoys has made attacks on trans-Atlantic shipping difficult, so now the U-boats are more frequently targeting ships plying coastal routes between British ports or crossing between Britain and Ireland; ships making these short journeys tend not to travel in convoys, leaving them more vulnerable to submarine attack.

The RMS Leinster travels backwards and forwards between Holyhead in Wales and Kingstown, just south of Dublin. As well as passengers, she carries post for the Royal Mail, a lucrative contract for her owners. But today, shortly after leaving Kingstown, the Leinster is spotted by the German submarine UB-123. Three torpedoes are fired. The first misses but the second and third hit, the last causing a huge explosion.

The ship sinks quickly in heavy seas. There are survivors but 565 of the people onboard lose their lives. Many of these are military personnel but the dead also include civilian passengers and postal workers who were sorting the mail.

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A contemporary depiction of the Leinster‘s sinking (Irish Medals: The Sinking of the Royal Mail Ship Leinster)

An Post commemorative stamp (Irish Times — RMS ‘Leinster’: The sinking of a ship off Dublin by a German torpedo)

30/4/1918 The UB-85’s mission of failure comes to an embarrassing end #1918Live

German U-boats are still attacking Allied shipping, their crews pushed to the limit of endurance in a desperate efforts to inflict unsustainable losses on the enemy. By now though there is clearly little likelihood of the submarines winning the war for Germany; the claims by Admiral Holtzendorff that the U-boats could end the war by the autumn of 1917 now seem laughably naive.

Declining morale and the sending forth of U-boats crewed by insufficiently trained crews is taking its toll on the submarine fleet. Today in a bizarre episode the UB-85 is lost after its crew forget to close a hatch when it submerges. Water enters the U-boat, disabling its electrical engine, and forcing it to surface but the submarine could still have used its diesel engine to escape approaching British ships. Instead its commander orders his men onto deck, where they shout “we surrender!” at the British before abandoning ship. The UB-85’s mission had already been one of complete failure, with every torpedo it fired missing its target.

NOTE: In later years reports will emerge that the UB-85’s troubles stemmed from an attack by a sea monster. This story has no basis in fact and appears to have been made up in 2005. See Recovered WWI German U-Boat Revives ‘Sea Monster’ Tales

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UB-148, a similar vessel to the UB-85 (Wikipedia)