Historic Spotlight: German High Seas Fleet

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German Submarines moored in Harwich, England. Photo credit to the Imperial War Museums

Nicholas Silva, Staff Writer

First formed in 1907, the German High Seas Fleet was a massive naval force; the arch nemesis of the British Royal Fleet. The fleet was comprised of 70 ships, including state-of-the-art battleships, as well as cruisers, and destroyers. However, the British constructed massive volumes of warships to oppose them, and these succeeded in preventing what had been a great chance of defeat.

The British used their ships to form a blockade, locking the High Seas Fleet in the North Sea, and over time, they succeeded in weakening the fleet. Surrender was inevitable, and eventually occurred, securing the armistice which ended WWI.

Though when reparations were demanded for damages inflicted during the war, there came to be the question of what to do with all the warships. Some countries such as France and Italy, wanted to add some of the ships to their own navies, however others, such as the British, wanted them destroyed. While their fate was being decided, the ships were interned in the Scapa Flow, the central body of water in the Orkney Islands, which are an archipelago off of Northern Scotland.

As time went on, the ships began to be stripped of their weaponry, and the German Admiralty feared that the ships would soon be claimed by a foreign nation, specifically the British. On June 17, 1918, nearly a year after the fleet was interned, rear-admiral Ludwig von Reuter gave the order to scuttle, or sink, the fleet.

All hatches, portholes, and other outlets were opened, allowing water to pour into the mighty metal behemoths, slowly dragging them down to the depths. The British, upon realizing the mass-scuttling, were able to tow a few of the smaller ships to the shore, or otherwise halt the sinking; but in the end 52 of the ships were sunk. However, for the most part, the British viewed it as a good thing, since it spared them from having to deal with divvying them up amongst allies, or else destroying them. The Germans too were reassured, feeling that they had scored one last victory.

The remaining ships were primarily given to allied navies. In the 1920’s, some pioneering scrappers such as the young Ernest Cox, raised most of the ships from the depths of the Scapa Flow. Cox himself salvaged thirty of the ships. However, there still remain several warships laying abandoned on the seafloor, left for posterity; to preserve the memory of the largest gathering of warships ever seen in the world.