November 21, 2018

November 21st, 1918

0930, 45 miles off the coast of Scotland. The men of the Grand Fleet peer into the haze hanging over the North Sea, looking for the High Seas Fleet. For the first time since the start of the war, essentially the entire British Fleet is assembled. Not just the Grand Fleet, from Scapa and Rosyth, but also the ships from Dover and Harwich, who had guarded the Channel and fought the vicious inshore war against the German light units based in Belgium. Joining them are a French armored cruiser and two destroyers, and the 6th Battle Squadron from the United States. Every ship is flying as many ensigns as possible, for today is the day the High Seas Fleet comes to be interned.1


The High Seas Fleet coming in to be interned

When the Armistice had been signed ten days previously, the plan was to intern the bulk of the German surface fleet in a neutral country.2 Norway and Spain both demurred, so it was decided that 10 battleships, 5 battlecruisers, 8 light cruisers and 50 destroyers would steam to Britain and be placed under caretaker crews until they could be disposed of under the final peace treaty.3 One battleship and one light cruiser are in yard hands, but the other ships sailed on schedule. One destroyer fell victim to a mine on the journey, but the other 70 arrived safely at the rendezvous. Waiting for them are 370 ships and 90,000 men, arranged in two lines to guard the approaching warships.


The battlecruisers of the High Seas Fleet

At last, shapes begin to appear. The line is led by the light cruiser HMS Cardiff, followed by the battlecruisers Seydlitz, Moltke, Hindenburg, Derfflinger and Von der Tann. The sight of "a school of leviathans lead by a minnow" is slightly comical, but the men of the Grand Fleet are still on hair triggers. Even though the Germans are under strict instructions to leave their breech-blocks4 and all of their ammunition at home, there's still the chance that they will decide to die gloriously instead. With 33 battleships guarding them, that wish shouldn't be too difficult to fulfill.


The surrendering German ships seen from a British destroyer

But ultimately, nothing happens. The Germans sail peacefully between the two lines of Allied ships, finally reaching their prison anchorage in the Firth of Forth at around noon. Admiral Beatty, the Grand Fleet's commander, makes a signal. "The German flag will be hauled down at sunset today, Thursday, and will not be hoisted again without permission." Civilian craft of every description from up and down the Forth swarm around the German vessels, marveling at the presence of the enemy who the battlecruisers from nearby Rosyth had so often sortied to meet. At sunset, the flag of every ship in the German fleet is hauled down, never to rise again. As his own flag comes down for the night, Beatty signals again. "It is my intention to hold a service of thanksgiving at 1800 today for the victory which Almighty God has vouchsafed his Majesty's arms, and every ship is recommended to do the same." This message is accompanied by congratulations to the officers and men of the Grand Fleet on their victory, "in no way lessened by the fact that the final episode did not take the form of a fleet action."


Beatty reads the terms of surrender to the Germans

The attitude of the British fleet is one of contempt. It seems incredible to the officers that the second-largest fleet in the world would simply give up without a fight. This was unknown in the annals of naval warfare, and many feel cheated of their chance to prove their superiority. Also cheated are Jackie Fisher and John Jellicoe, who were not invited to witness the spectacle that they had worked so hard to bring about.


British blimp NS8 watches the arriving ships

After a few days, the German ships would be transferred to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, where they waited for interminable months as the negotiations for the final peace dragged on. Most of their crews were sent home, but a few stayed aboard to keep the ships running. Scapa Flow was not a popular duty station even for men of the British fleet, and the German sailors were confined to their ships. The mutinous attitude that had plagued the last year of the High Seas Fleet's existence was still strong, and poor food, slow post and lack of recreation made for terrible morale. But this did not stop men from carrying out their last duty. Seven months to the day after the fleet sailed into interment, the commander of the ships, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, ordered them scuttled to keep them out of Allied hands. A few of them were killed, the last casualties of the war.


1 Internment is the traditional legal practice where a neutral essentially arrests troops or ships of a belligerent that end up in its territory. The details are somewhat complicated (and it has somewhat different meanings on land), but in this case, it essentially meant that the ships were still technically German property, but were being given up as hostages until the treaty was signed.

2 The U-boats were to be surrendered to the Allies outright with no possibility of return. Most were sent to Harwich in southeastern England.

3 The rest of the surface fleet would remain in German waters, but disarmed and under the observation of the Allies.

4 The part of the gun which seals the breech from behind, then moves aside so the gun can be loaded. They're big and heavy enough that you can be sure the gun isn't going to be reactivated by smuggled parts, but their removal doesn't permanently disable the weapons, either.

Comments

  1. November 21, 2018Tuna said...

    A few of them were killed, the last casualties of the war.

    That seems a rather understated way to put the fact that contrary to all the laws of war and maritime customs, the British machine-gunned lifeboats rowing away from the sinking ships.

  2. November 21, 2018John Schilling said...

    Saboteurs, soldiers violating the terms of their surrender, and escaping POWs can all be legitimately shot even if their conveyance of the moment is a lifeboat. And playing the "sinking ship" card, when you deliberately sunk the ship yourself, is very nearly the definition of chutzpah.

  3. November 21, 2018John Schilling said...
    Also cheated are Jackie Fisher and John Jellicoe, who were not invited to witness the spectacle that they had worked so hard to bring about.

    So, Admiral David Richard Beatty was being a Dick, again. I don't suppose any of his remaining battlecruisers spontaneously exploded at the scene?

  4. November 21, 2018bean said...

    I don't have access to a detailed account of the scuttling at the moment, but given the low casualties involved (9 killed and 16 wounded) I don't think it was deliberate policy. If the Germans, who are not supposed to be coming ashore, suddenly start doing so, the guards are likely to be a bit nervous, and that leads to accidents. Also, I'm with John in that they sort of brought it on themselves.

    @John

    Yes, he was being his usual gracious self, although both Fisher and Jellicoe were out of favor by this point. And if any of his ships had exploded, I'd have mentioned it.

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