Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, June 19, 2014

21 June 1919: The Great Scuttling at Scapa Flow

This Saturday is the anniversary of one of the most memorable postscripts of World War I, the scuttling of the German surrendered fleet at Scapa Flow. Of the 77 ships interned, 52 were irretrievably sunk. In their rage, the British summarily executed a number of German sailors who posed no danger to them; nine were shot dead and many more wounded. Only a few cruisers, destroyers, and the 15"-gun battleship Baden were rescued; the remaining German fleet sank to the bottom, where seven of them remain to this day. It was the largest sinking of naval tonnage in a single incident ever — more than 400,000 tons.

German Submarine Sinking

On 21 June 1919, a party of schoolchildren from the town of Stromness was being taken on a trip around Scapa Flow to view the German Fleet. Little did they know when they left home that day what they were to witness.

The following is a piece written by one of the children, James Taylor, one of the pupils who witnessed the scuttling:

On Saturday June 21st 1919, I rose very early, as it would never do to be late for a school treat which was to take the form of a cruise on the Flying Kestrel to visit the surrendered German Fleet. The though of sailing up to them made us boys almost sick with excitement!

At long last we came face to face with the Fleet. Their decks were lined with German sailors who....did not seem too pleased to see us. Suddenly without any warning and almost simultaneously these huge vessels began to list over to port or starboard; some heeled over and plunged headlong, their sterns lifted high out of the water.

Battle Cruiser SMS Seydlitz Rolling Over

Out of the vents rushed steam and oil and air with a dreadful roaring hiss.

And as we watched, awestruck and silent, the sea became littered for miles round with boats and hammocks, lifebelts and chests....and among it all hundreds of men struggling for their lives.

As we drew away from this nightmare scene we watched the last great battleship slide down with keel upturned like some monstrous whale.

Sources:  Scapa Flow and City of Art Websites, U.S. Navy Archives

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