When the Armistice to end World War 1 was signed on the 11 November 1918, a group of RFA vessels were operating with the British Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, amongst these was the ‘Belgol’ class oiler RFA Fortol which had only been completed at the shipyard of Archibald McMillan and Son, Dumbarton in May 1917.
RFA Fortol at Scapa Flow
RFA Fortol – stern view
Life on the Scapa station would have been busy as the ships of the Grand Fleet needed fuel and provisions on a regular basis, this would have been a nice job in summer, but in winter it would have been a whole different matter. However an interesting event was just around the corner, and was something that the RFA’s present in the Orkney station would have witnessed at first hand.
The day after the Armistice was signed, the terms of the document were sent to the German High Command, instructing them that they were to prepare the High Seas Fleet ready for sea by the 18 November, if they failed to comply then the allies would occupy Heligoland.
Germany surrendered 176 U Boats first, these were sailed to Harwich on the 20 November under supervision of the Harwich Force, in the meantime Admiral Franz Von Hipper the head of the German Navy did not want to lead his fleet into captivity, so delegated the task to his deputy, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter.
On the 20 November 1918, 70 ships of the German High Seas Fleet left Germany and were met by HMS Cardiff the next morning who led them to a rendezvous with 370 ships of the British Grand Fleet who escorted the German ships into the anchorage in the Firth of Forth.
Admiral David Beatty then signalled the German ships;
“The German flag will be hauled down at sunset today and will not be hoisted again without permission”.
Between the 25 and 26 November the German ships were moved to Scapa Flow, where they were led to their respective anchorages, the destroyers in Gutter Sound and the Cruisers and Battleships to the North and West of the Island of Cava, just around the corner from the RFA Anchorage. Four more German ships were to join the interred fleet before the end of the year, the Battleship “Konig” and the Cruiser “Dresden” with the Destroyer “V129” arrived on the 6 December after completing engine repairs and the Battleship “Potsdam” arrived on the 9th December.
The German seamen were effectively confined to their ships, though food was sent to them from Germany at least twice a month, mail was getting through, though this was slow as it had to be censored both coming and going. The crews of these ships were thoroughly demoralized and the officers found it difficult to maintain discipline. British Officers and men were forbidden to interact with the Germans unless on official business, and this may have proved difficult to any of the RFA ships that had to go alongside to supply them with fuel, coal and fresh water unfortunately accounts of this do not seem to have survived.
One good point about the interment of the German Fleet was that during December 1918 15,000 men from a total of 20,000 were repatriated back to Germany, leaving enough to maintain the ships, and after that the men were repatriated at around 100 a month.
Negotiations on the fate of the Grand Fleet took place at the Paris Peace Conference and it was agreed that under Article XXXI of the document the Germans were not permitted to destroy the ships, whilst negotiations were under way Admiral Beatty was approving plans for the German ships to be seized as he suspected that they would try to scuttle them when the decision on their fate was known.
The signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which would have ratified the Armistice, was due to come into force at noon on the 21June 1919. The First Battle Squadron under Admiral Fremantle was told to be prepared to board the interred ships in force if necessary to ensure that the ships were not being prepared for scuttling. Admiral Fremantle submitted a plan to Beatty’s deputy, Admiral Madden on the 16 June, effectively to take over the German ships on the 21/22 June, before this could be put into action however word was received that the signing of the treaty had been delayed until 19:00 hrs on the 23 June.
Admiral Fremantle was ordered by Admiral Madden to take the First Battle Squadron to sea for anti torpedo exercises; the plan was to return to Scapa Flow on the 23 of June leaving plenty of time for his fleet to take over the interred ships before news of the treaty reached the Germans.
At around 10:00 hrs on the morning of 21 June Rear Admiral von Reuter sent a flag signal to his fleet ordering them to stand by for the signal to scuttle, just over an hour later at 11:20 the signal was sent instructing “All commanding Officers and the Leader of the Torpedo Boats (Destroyers). Paragraph eleven of today’s date. Acknowledge. Chief of the Interned Squadron”. This signal was repeated to all ships by semaphore and signal lamp.
Scuttling of the ships began immediately, internal water pipes and valves were smashed, the sea cocks were opened, ports and scuttles had been loosened and in some ships the crews had bored holes in internal bulkheads to speed up the scuttling process. Nothing could be seen until around noon when the Battleship “Friederich der Grosse” began to list heavily to starboard, then all the German ships hoisted the Imperial Ensign at their mainmasts, as soon as this was done the crews began to abandon their ships.
This action caught the British unprepared as there were only three Destroyers, seven Trawlers and a number of Drifters left at Scapa Flow as well as the RFA ships. About an hour later at 12:20 hrs Admiral Fremantle started to receive radio reports of what was happening, he immediately ordered his ship to turn around and steam at full speed for Scapa, with forethought he radioed ahead to order all available craft to prevent the German ships sinking and if possible to beach as many as possible. At the time there were a number of RFA ships based at Scapa Flow, though exact numbers and names are not clear, however the following Oilers were stationed there. RFA Petroleum, Ruthenia, Celerol and Fortol, along with the mooring vessels Bullfrog, Fidget and Holdfast, the Torpedo Sub-Depot ship RFA Sokoto and the water carrier and distilling ship RFA Perthshire and it is presumed that some of them helped to beach the scuttled ships, whilst the rest would have had a grandstand view of this historic event.
By the time Admiral Fremantle’s fleet arrived back in Scapa Flow at around 14:30 hrs only one of the large ships was left afloat, the rest had either sunk or were sinking, during all of this nine German sailors were shot dead and around sixteen were wounded as the British attempted to stop them scuttling their ships.
In the afternoon of the next day, some 1,774 men from the German ships were picked up and transported to Invergordon, where they were interred at the POW camp at Nigg Island. Of the 52 ships that were sunk at Scapa Flow, they were left where they were until after the war when all but seven were salvaged by a private company, of the destroyers and other ships that were beached, all of these were either scrapped or given to allied navies and eventually scrapped or expended as targets.
The seven ships of the German High Seas Fleet that still lie at the bottom of Scapa Flow are designated as Ancient Monuments and a licence is required to dive on them.
The photographs of the ships we proudly present in this article have, we are sure, not been seen for a great many years and record the events of June 1919, another moment in the story of the RFA as a witness to history.
Hull and propellers of the SMS Seidlitz
The SMS Nurnberg beached on Cava Island
A beached German destroyer
The sepia images are courtesy of Madam D Antonisen which she has very kindly donated to the RFA Historical Society – additional images of RFA Fortol at Scapa Flow and at Invergordon and her crew can be found in the Historical RFA Gallery. The Editor of the RFA Historical Society is very grateful to have received such rare images of RFA Fortol and the scuttling of the German High Sea Fleet. Thank you Madam