Reply To: Scapa Flow Naval History Conference 23-24 November

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Sam Willis

    Thanks Malcolm: the original Gallipoli thread can be followed here:

    And this is Geoff’s contribution:

    ‘…The alleged “lack of anticipation by the Admiralty that the Germans would scuttle their ships at Scapa Flow after the Armistice” made in the opening post fairly misses the point.

    The initial terms of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 required that the German Fleet was to be “interned in neutral ports” and to remain there until the decision was taken as to their future. A week later the phrase was modified to include “Allied ports”. It was stipulated that when the Treaty of Versailles came into effect, only then and not before would the interned ships be considered as surrendered, although they could be inspected to ensure that that had no armaments aboard. Until the Treaty of Versailles came into effect, they remained the property of the German Reich.

    The fact that the German ships had survived intact, and there they were at Scapa Flow for all the world to see, showed what the Royal Navy had failed to do in four and a half years of war. The fact that the Grand Fleet had immobilized the German Fleet into ineffectiveness was not the same as sinking it: officers on both sides wanted a Final Battle, and just before the end, the Germans were prepared to issue a challenge known as Operational Plan No.19 inviting the Grand Fleet to meet them on the Hoofden. Mutiny on the German lower decks put paid to the plan, for apart from salving naval honour, what use would it have served?

    The Peace Conference, to which the Germans were not invited, began in Paris on 18 January 1919. By March 1919 it had been agreed by Britain, France and the United States that the Germans ships were to be confiscated, but no agreement could be reached where they would go. On 7 May 1919 the peace terms were finally published, requiring the Germans by their signature to renounce all claims to their warships “presently interned”.

    On 16 June 1919 the Allies released the final text to the German Government, allowing the Germans until 21 June 1919 to sign, or the state of war would be resumed.

    On 20 June, the Scheidemann Government resigned. At the German request, the Allies extended the deadline to expire on 23 June 1919.

    Admiral Reuter pretended that he had no knowledge of the two-day extension, at the expiry of which ownership of the ships at Scapa Flow would pass to the Allies, and the Royal Navy would take lawful possession of them. Accordingly, to prevent the ships “falling into the hands of the enemy”, he pre-empted the British by ordering all sea cocks opened on the night of 21 June, a clause forbidding the scuttling of the ships not having been included in the terms of the Armistice.

    Vice-Admiral Fremantle had planned to storm the interned ships at midnight on 21 June. After being notified that the German Government had been granted two days’ grace, suddenly he received a mysterious order to take his squadron to sea for routine exercises. Even at the time, many observers guessed that the British had secret knowledge of the intention to scuttle and had closed their eyes to it in order to put an end to the endless wrangling with the French and Americans about which ships went to which Allies, these latter including the Italians and Belgians and so forth.

    It does appear that Britain was in favour of scrapping or sinking the ships rather than that they went to strengthen the fleets of other States, and particularly not France, for Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, the First SeaLord, wrote:

    “I look upon the sinking of the German Fleet as a real blessing. It disposes once and for all of all the thorny questions of the distribution of these ships…”