THIS week marks the centenary of what many people believed to have been the last act of the First World War, namely the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.

It is an event that is in the history books for several reasons, not least because it was the largest single day’s loss of shipping, in terms of tonnage, that the world has ever seen. It remains so to this day, ahead of even Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway in the Second World War.

The events leading up to June 21, 1919, were a mixture of tragic farce and miscommunication combined with the determination of Germany’s naval commanders to try to preserve the honour of the fleet that had once been the pride of the no-longer-imperial nation.

As this column previously recorded, the German fleet surrendered en masse in the outer Firth of Forth on November 21, 1918, and, escorted by the Royal Navy to make the largest fleet ever assembled to that date, the German ships moved north to Scapa Flow to await their fate.

The Allies were split about what to do with the 74 German ships that eventually assembled in Scapa Flow, the German flagship Baden being the last to arrive in January, 1919. All 74 were disarmed and no explosives were allowed on board as the Allies feared them being scuttled.

The French and Italians each wanted a quarter of the ships transferred to their navies, while Britain wanted them all scrapped to preserve the Royal Navy’s position as the world’s largest navy. As the German authorities met with the Allies in Paris to discuss post-war arrangements, the question of how to deal with the ships interned at Scapa Flow was constantly debated, with no decision taken for months.

With German naval commander Admiral Franz von Hipper having refused to lead the High Seas Fleet into captivity – he protested at the use of Scapa Flow instead of a neutral port as agreed at the Armistice – the ships in Orkney were under the flag of Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, a career sailor from a Prussian military family.

He was dealing with the new political situation in Germany as much as he was controlling the ships under his command. There was no longer an Emperor. Mutiny in the fleet’s home base of Wilhelmshaven had effectively triggered Germany’s surrender, and in Scapa Flow, many of the ships were now effectively under the control of workers’ committees, including von Reuter’s own flagship Friedrich der Grosse – he transferred to the cruiser Emden.

The German sailors were forbidden from going ashore and denied full rations so that discipline began to break down on many – if not most – of the 74 vessels.

As his own published account of the scuttling showed, von Reuter was determined for the sake of the German Navy’s honour to prevent the fleet being taken over by their former enemies and perhaps used against Germany in the future, and he had backing from the naval high command back in Germany.

From early in 1919, he began to devise a plan to scuttle the entire fleet. He was assisted by the repatriation of the vast majority of the German sailors so that only a minimum of effectively hand-picked crews remained, some 1800 men in all. In the days leading up to June 21, 1919, the situation in Paris became fraught as the signing of the Versailles Treaty approached. Meanwhile, in Scapa Flow, von Reuter sent round the infamous “Paragraph 11” order: “It is my intention to sink the ships only if the enemy should attempt to obtain possession of them without the assent of our government. Should our government agree in the peace to terms to the surrender of the ships, then the ships will be handed over, to the lasting disgrace of those who have placed us in this position.”

The British took their eye off the ball – the British Commander, Admiral Sydney Fremantle, had learned that the treaty was not going to be signed until June 23, so he took the main guard, the First Battle Squadron, out on exercise instead of searching the German ships, which were indeed to be taken under British command as von Reuter feared. It also appears that Fremantle took von Reuter at his word that the ships would be handed over when the Versailles Treaty was signed.

Knowing that the treaty would surrender his fleet, but not knowing that the signing had been postponed – nobody had told him – just after 11am on June 21, von Reuter signalled: “To all Commanding Officers and the Leader of the Torpedo Boats. Paragraph 11 of today’s date. Acknowledge. Chief of the Interned Squadron.”

Immediately, the crews began to open the seacocks, torpedo tubes, portholes and smash the water pipes aboard the ships. The Friedrich der Grosse was the first to list over and gradually sank below the waves.

Over five hours, 54 of the ships sank, while most of the rest were beached. There were brawls when Royal Navy men attempted to prevent the sinkings and stop escapes, and nine German sailors were shot and killed – they are officially recorded as the last “killed in action” fatalities of the Second World War.

Fremantle accused von Reuter of acting dishonourably, but he was acclaimed as a hero in Germany. Over the next decade, the vast majority of the ships were raised and scrapped, but seven wrecked German ships remain on the seabed in Scapa Flow.