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The Last Days of the High Seas Fleet - from Mutiny to Scapa Flow

Jellicoe Nicholas

Was von Reuter, the fleet's commander, acting under orders or was it his own initiative? Why was 21 June chosen? Did the British connive in, or even encourage the action? Could more have been done to save the ships? Was it legally justified? And what were the international ramifications? This new book analyses all these issues, beginning with the fleet mutiny in the last months of the War that precipitated a social revolution in Germany and the eventual collapse of the will to fight. The Armistice terms imposed the humiliation of virtual surrender on the High Seas Fleet, and the conditions under which it was interned are described in detail. Meanwhile the victorious Allies wrangled over the fate of the ships, an issue that threatened the whole peace process.

Using much new material from German sources and a host of eye-witness testimonies, the circumstances of the scuttling itself are meticulously reconstructed, while the aftermath for all parties is clearly laid out. The story concludes with the biggest salvage operation in history' and a chapter on the significance of the scuttling to the post-war balance of naval power. Published to coincide with the centenary, this book is an important reassessment of the last great action of the First World War.

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On 21 June 1919 the ships of the German High Seas Fleet - interned at Scapa Flow since the Armistice - began to founder, taking their British custodians completely by surprise. In breach of agreed terms, the fleet dramatically scuttled itself, in a well-planned operation that consigned nearly half a million tons, and 54 of 72 ships, to the bottom of the sheltered anchorage in a gesture of Wagnerian proportions. This much is well-known, but even a century after the Grand Scuttle' many questions remain. Was von Reuter, the fleet's commander, acting under orders or was it his own initiative? Why was 21 June chosen? Did the British connive in, or even encourage the action? Could more have been done to save the ships? Was it legally justified? And what were the international ramifications? This new book analyses all these issues, beginning with the fleet mutiny in the last months of the War that precipitated a social revolution in Germany and the eventual collapse of the will to fight. The Armistice terms imposed the humiliation of virtual surrender on the High Seas Fleet, and the conditions under which it was interned are described in detail. Meanwhile the victorious Allies wrangled over the fate of the ships, an issue that threatened the whole peace process. Using much new material from German sources and a host of eye-witness testimonies, the circumstances of the scuttling itself are meticulously reconstructed, while the aftermath for all parties is clearly laid out. The story concludes with the biggest salvage operation in history' and a chapter on the significance of the scuttling to the post-war balance of naval power. Published to coincide with the centenary, this book is an important reassessment of the last great action of the First World War.

ISBN: 9781526754585
Format: Hardback
Author(s): Jellicoe Nicholas
First Publishment Date: 30 May 2019

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  1. Very highly recommended. review by Peter Wykeham-Martin on 29/08/2019

    Last days of the High Seas Fleet – from mutiny to Scapa Flow by Nicholas Jellicoe
    Nicholas Jellicoe’s book on Jutland justifiably gained high praise for a marvellous blend of detailed research and objective personal analysis from John Jellicoe’s grandson. He has now turned his attention to the fate of the German High Seas Fleet (HSF) following the Armistice. After Jutland, the once proud HSF had been eroded by a general malaise, lack of seatime and leadership into an impotent force. The HSF was led into interment at Scapa Flow by Reuter on 21 November 1918 and was met by an overwhelming show of force from the Grand Fleet including 24 battleships. The German ensign was lowered at sunset that day with the order that it was not to be raised again. This was seen as the “ultimate by the Germans, which was only reinforced by intrusive inspections of the HSF. With peace, the problem of what to do with the HSF was to prove a major issue at Versailles. Beatty was determined to retain British naval supremacy and was only too well aware of the challenge from a growing US Fleet.
    As the numbers of German personnel at Scapa was reduced down to only 1700 by June 1919, the stage was set for the final act of the HSF. With no weapons, the Germans either had to accept the Versailles terms of surrender or scuttle. Reuter issued orders that any order to surrender should be seen as the signal to scuttle and preparations were to be made. Meanwhile, the British were making plans to seize the ships and were certainly alive to the strong possibility of pre-emptive German action. However, with an extension to the Versailles deadline, the British First Battle Squadron under Fremantle sailed on exercises on 21 June. Reuter denied any knowledge of the extension and with Scapa virtually empty of British ships, executed his plan to scuttle the German Fleet. The scuttling was meticulously carried out using every method to sabotage any salvage; Scheer’s former flagship sank in less than 45 minutes. There were some violent confrontations as the few British destroyers and small craft tried to prevent the Germans scuttling their ships. In all, 54 ships were scuttled with the loss of 8 German lives in the melee. Reuter, soaking wet, was met by Fremantle on the Revenge which had returned too late to prevent the scuttling, with the words “I presume you have come to surrender”. The remaining Germans were finally repatriated to Germany in January 1920 to a heroes welcome; Scapa Flow was to be seen as redemption of the German Navy’s reputation.
    The book also covers the subsequent extraordinary salvage efforts by Ernest Cox and Metal Industries which started in 1924 and continued until the outbreak of WWII, raising all but 8 ships. The question of what to do with the HSF had been a difficult one for the Allies, and reaction to the scuttling ranged from the indignant to relief. The author comments that there is significant documentary evidence that it was an avoidable situation; the Admiralty had been given plans to seize the ships but no order was given.
    With very clear tables detailing the countdown to the scuttling, this is a tale of deception and disciplined action by a Fleet that had been reduced to a demoralised entity. Using detailed research, particularly from German sources and eye witness accounts, Nick Jellicoe has produced another highly enjoyable read on a fascinating episode. Very highly recommended.

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