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Scapa Flow: Service marks day Germans sank their own ships

The fleet was scuttled after being interned near Orkney for seven months following Armistice.

One of the German ships scuttled in 1919.
One of the German ships scuttled in 1919. Imperial War Museum

A service has been held in waters near Orkney to mark 100 years since the Germans sunk more than 50 of their own ships.

The German High Seas Fleet was interned for seven months at Scapa Flow following Armistice in November 1918, while negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles were ongoing.

Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter was in command of the 74 vessels - viewed as a threat to the UK's dominance at sea - but had not been informed of a last-minute extension to finalise details of the deal.

Admiral von Reuter did not want the assets shared among foreign powers without the German government's consent and was struggling with a mutinous, embarrassed and increasingly bored crew.

With the previous deadline for a treaty passed, he issued an order to scuttle the ships on June 21, 1919.

A total of 52 of the interned vessels sank and a number of his men were injured - nine fatally - in what was to be one of the final acts of the First World War.

The admiral was made a prisoner of war but his act of defiance was celebrated in Germany.

His grandson, Yorck-Ludwig von Reuter, said: "For the professional time of my grandfather's life, this was the hardest time. He made that decision alone.

"It's not only a story of dignity and the honour - Germany had nothing, it was lost - this was a small sunshine for the population in Germany."

The 65-year-old from Bavaria met former Royal Navy commander Charles Fremantle, grandson of Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle, who oversaw the interned German vessels at Scapa Flow, at the service for the first time.

He added: "After 100 years, to come together, it really is a fine gesture."

A flotilla of vessels marked the 100th anniversary.
A flotilla of vessels marked the 100th anniversary. STV

The sinking of the German fleet has been described as a strategic victory for the UK as it closed the door on high-tech warships being distributed among rivals.

There was one sea battle between the Royal Navy Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet, at the Battle of Jutland.

The result was inconclusive and viewed as a failure among the public, as the UK entered the war hoping to prove its naval prowess.

Cameron Stewart, researcher at Aberdeen University, said: "There's a sense of irony that Britain entered this war to prove its dominance at sea.

"They were hoping they could prove Britain had a better fleet. They had one chance to do it - at the Battle of Jutland - and didn't.

First meeting of Yorck-Ludwig von Reute and Charles Fremantle.
First meeting of Yorck-Ludwig von Reute and Charles Fremantle. STV

"This fleet that they wanted to destroy sailed into their own front room and sank themselves."

The scuttling also created the conditions for a major new industry around Orkney - salvaging, with much of the material sold to Germany.

Dignitaries and descendants of those involved with the Scapa Flow scuttling attended a number of services on Friday to mark the centenary of the event.

It involved Royal Navy and German naval officers laying wreaths in the water, including divers going to the wreckage.

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