Tag Archives: navy

Scapa Flow

What happened when the German fleet was scuttled at Scapa Flow?

On the 21st June 1919, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered the scuttling of the German High Seas naval fleet in Scapa Flow, a large natural harbor in the Orkney Islands in Scotland. The ships had been confined there under the terms of the Armistice that ended fighting in the First World War.

America had suggested that the fleet be interned in a neutral country but, as neither Norway nor Sweden agreed, Britain volunteered instead. The majority of the 74 German ships were in Scapa Flow by the 27th November, where they were guarded by British Battle Cruiser Force. The fleet was manned by a skeleton crew of less than 5,000 men that gradually reduced over the next few months as they were repatriated back to Germany.

Negotiations over the fate of the ships took place at the Paris Peace Conference, where the various representatives were struggling to agree on a resolution. While Britain wanted to destroy the ships in order to maintain their naval superiority, France and Italy each wanted to take a quarter each. Concerned that the entire fleet might be shared out between the victors, Admiral von Reuter, the German officer in charge of the interned fleet, began planning to scuttle or purposely sink the ships.

Shortly before 11.30 on the morning of the 21st June the order went out to scuttle the ships. By 5pm 52 of them had sunk. The sailors escaped on lifeboats, and were captured as British prisoners-of-war. Nine sailors were shot and killed, making them the last German casualties of the war.

Dreadnought

The launch of the Dreadnought

On the 10th February 1906 the British King, Edward VII, launched HMS Dreadnought – a revolutionary new type of battleship that made all other ships obsolete. She was the fastest and most heavily-armed ship in the world, and the name Dreadnought began to be used to describe a whole class of similar ships.

You might think that having the best ship in the world would make Britain the undisputed champion of the seas, but the launch of the Dreadnought arguably created more problems than it solved.  Ever since the British government adopted the Two-Power Standard as part of the Naval Defence Act in 1889, the Royal Navy had to have at least the same number of battleships as the next two largest navies in the world combined.  At that point it was France and Russia, but by 1906 Wilhelm II had become Kaiser of Germany and began aggressive military expansion and the development of a German Empire under his ‘World Policy’ or Weltpolitik.

But why was the Dreadnought a problem to Britain the Two-Power Standard?  The issue was that Britain now only had one more Dreadnought than every other country in the world.  With all other ships obsolete in the wake of the new design, it was too easy for other countries to catch up.  When Germany launched the first of its Dreadnought-style Nassau ships in 1908, Britain was forced to keep ahead by building more and more.  The naval arms race and the tension that followed was a major contributing factor to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

German navy attack Scarborough

The German naval bombardment of Scarborough in WW1

Shortly after 8am on the 16th December 1914, the German Imperial Navy attacked the British seaside towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. 137 people died, and another 592 were injured as a result of the bombardment – most of whom were civilians.

The smaller German fleet always sought to avoid direct engagement with the British. Instead they focused on targeted attacks and, after an earlier fast raid on the seaside town of Yarmouth, sought to increase the use of such tactics. The hope was that this would draw out parts of the British fleet and German U-Boats could pick them off one by one.

The Germans had determined that an attack on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby would be possible after a U-17 returned from a reconnaissance mission. It was identified that there were few mines in the vicinity, and no coastal defences, which made the towns an easy target since they were within easy striking distance of Germany.

British Intelligence had already decoded messages that indicated the German battle fleet would be mounting the raid. However, British Admiral John Jellicoe opted to allow the raid to happen and then intercept the German ships on their return. This proved catastrophic, as the British underestimated the size of the German attack, which saw over a thousand shells being fired, and then failed to engage the enemy.

The British public was outraged firstly that the Germans had attacked civilians, and secondly that the Royal Navy had failed to stop them. However, ‘Remember Scarborough’ soon became a key message of the British propaganda campaign and vengeance was used as an incentive for recruitment.

RMS Lusitania newspaper front page

The sinking of the Lusitania and its role in the First World War

The British ship RMS Lusitania sank after being attacked by the German U-boat U-20 off the coast of Ireland on  7 May 1915.

The Lusitania was launched by the Cunard Line in 1906 and was one of the largest ocean liners of its time. It undertook its first voyage in 1907 and went on to win the Blue Riband, the unofficial award for the fastest transatlantic crossing.

The outbreak of the First World War saw Britain impose a blockade on German ports, which prompted the German Navy to attempt the same on the British Isles. However, the Royal Navy limited the impact of Germany’s blockade so the Lusitania was able to continue its journeys between Liverpool and New York City.

On 4 February 1915 the commander of the German High Seas Fleet announced that German submarines would begin unrestricted warfare and sink allied ships in the waters around the British Isles. Prior to the Lusitania’s scheduled voyage from the USA on 1 May, the German Embassy in Washington took out newspaper adverts warning that passengers undertook the voyage at their own risk.

1,962 people and around 173 tons of war munitions were on board the Lusitania when it left New York under Captain William Thomas Turner. Having crossed the Atlantic, the ship was hit on its starboard side at 2.10pm by a torpedo fired by U-20. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes and 1,198 people lost their lives.

The German government attempted to justify the sinking, but it was met with outrage in the Allied countries. Despite the deaths of American civilians, President Wilson chose to remain neutral in the war. Germany abandoned unrestricted submarine warfare in August, but resumed it in early 1917. This, and the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram, led to Wilson’s decision to declare war.

Mutiny on the battleship Potemkin

Russian mutiny on the battleship Potemkin

The crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin mutinied on the 27th June 1905, an uprising that was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film.

Potemkin entered service in early 1905 after her gun turrets were fitted, and therefore did not take part in the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Instead, by the end of June she was off the coast of Ukraine completing maneuvers. It was here that rotten meat allegedly containing maggots was brought on board to feed the crew. Dissatisfied with the ship’s doctor’s opinion that it was fit for human consumption, the crew complained to the captain.

The ship’s second in command, Commander Giliarovsky, confronted the sailor’s delegation and killed spokesman Grigory Vakulenchuk. This triggered the mutiny, in which seven of the ship’s eighteen officers including Giliarovsky and the Captain were killed. The crew chose quartermaster Afanasi Matushenko to take control.

Having hoisted the red flag, the Potemkin set sail for Odessa where a general strike was underway. Here they brought the body of the revolutionary spokesman Vakulenchuk ashore and laid it on the Odessa Steps, where it acted as a focal point for locals to show their support for the sailors. However, by the evening the authorities received orders from the Tsar to take firm action. Estimates say that up to 2,000 civilians were killed.

The Potemkin left Odessa the next day and sailed for Constanța in Romania. The ship was surrendered to the Romanian authorities in return for the sailors receiving safe passage. Potemkin was handed back to the Russian navy, and was renamed Panteleimon.