Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Rear Admiral Joseph Strauss, Commander, Mine Force One, Atlantic Fleet, to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels

Kirkwall, Orkney Islands,

21 June 1919.

From:     Commander Mine Force.

To:       Secretary of the Navy.

Via:      Force Commander.1

Sub ject: Sinking of the Interned German Fleet at Scapa Flow.

     1.   I have to report the sinking of the interned German Fleet at Scapa Flow today. At about 12:30 I received word from Commander White, R. N., Senior Naval Officer at Kirkwall,2 that at noon a German ship had sunk and simultaneously the German colors had been hoisted on all of their ships. No information reached me from Admiral Prendergrast, commanding the Orkneys and Shetlands,3 who was, at the time, the Senior British Naval Officer in the vicinity. Vice Admiral Sir Sydney Freemantle, commanding the Fifth Battle Squadron (now the guard squadron in Scapa), was absent exercising at target practice in Pentland Firth. Commander White came on board shortly after one o’clock and announced that several more German ships had been sunk. I at once went ashore, taking Captain Bulmer4with me, and proceeded by automobile to Houton Bay, the nearest point on the mainland from which the German Fleet could be seen. On coming within sight of the anchorage of the German Fleet it was evident that most of them had disappeared. It was then 3:00 p.m., and at about 3:10 p.m., upon arrival at Houton, I gave orders by telephone for all minesweeping tugs of our Force at Kirkwall to proceed at once to Scapa Flow and report to Admiral Prendergrast for duty. I thought it possible that some of the sinking vessels might survive long enough to be towed into shoal water. It is about forty miles from Kirkwall Bay to the German Fleet’s anchorage. I notified Admiral Prendergrast by telephone that these vessels would be under his orders. At a few minutes after three o’clock four of the minesweeping tugs were underway for Scapa.

     2.   At three o’clock the Fifth Battle Squadron had returned from sea but two of the ships were still underway at 3:30. The others had anchored, apparently, in their regular berths. Shortly afterwards all of the squadron had been anchored. At 3:30 there were but three German battleships afloat, one North of and close to Cava Island. This ship was being towed along in a Westerly direction by a British destroyer with the evident intention of beaching her on the Calf of Cava. She was deep in the water with a slight list to port. Another battleship was anchored North of the land joining Scad Head and Green Head. This vessel was also deep in the water and listed slightly. A little later her moorings had evidently been slipped and she was drifting with the ebb tide to the Southward and Eastward. The battleship BADEN was anchored about half a mile North of Scad Head apparently uninjured. Two light cruisers, one of the EMDEN class, were under tow by a destroyer each, North of the Barrel of Butter. They were being towed toward Smoogro Bay. A light cruiser of the new EMDEN class was at anchor between Green Head and Cava, and was evidently filling rapidly by the stern. This last ship sank in a few minutes while at anchor. She submerged slowly by the stern until her forefoot was well out of the water when she keeled over on her starboard side and sank. The next ship to sink was the battleship which was drifting between Scad Head and Green Head. She was well down by the stern when she turned with head Southwest, righted herself and sank on an even keel with the top of her turrets just awash. At about 4:20 the destroyer towing the battleship, Northeast of Cava, parted her tow line. Her tow was then deep in the water but upright. In a few minutes she listed heavily to port then turned completely over on her port side and sank. At about 4:30 one of the light cruisers had been beached in Smoogro Bay. She is in an upright position with the water just below her upper air ports. She can be salvaged. At this time they were still attempting to tow the light cruiser of the EMDEN class into the same water. As this vessel still had nearly all of her freeboard they have probably succeeded.

     3.   The BADEN is the only heavy ship afloat at this writing. As far as could be seen from our point of observation at Houton all of the large number of destroyers in Gutter Sound were sunk. One light cruiser had been beached on the Western side of Cava Island.

     4.   At 5:30 I received a message from Admiral Prendergrast to recall the four tugs as they were no longer needed.

     5.   I was told by an officer of the British Air Force at Houton, that he had seen sixteen of the German vessels sink. The first one, Admiral Van Reuter’s|5| flagship the EMDEN, having sunk almost exactly at noon. He stated that all of the vessels had the German colors flying when they sank. None that I saw sink had them hoisted. He stated that the colors on the remaining vessels had been hauled down on the approach of British destroyers. I was also informed that Admiral Van Reuter came ashore in a British drifter before his flagship sank. He was carefully dressed, and the enlisted men with him, seen by my informant, were in clean dress blue. He had his baggage with him but at once requested of the British officer in command at Houton Bay that he send off vessels to save the crews, exclaiming that his men were sinking the ships. Admiral Van Reuter was not permitted to land but was sent off in the drifter to the British station-ship IMPERIEUSE. The crews of the various vessels were rescued by British trawlers and torpedo vessels. I have no information as to casualties.|6|

J. Strauss.

Source Note: Cy, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B.

Footnote 1: VAdm. Harry S. Knapp, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters.

Footnote 2: Cmdr. Richard H. White, Admiralty Port Officer, Kirkwall.

Footnote 3: VAdm. Sir Robert J. Prendergrast, Admiral Commanding, Orkneys and Shetlands.

Footnote 4: Cmdr. Roscoe C. Bulmer, Commander, Minesweeping Detachment, Mine Force One, Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 5: RAdm. Hans Hermann Ludwig von Reuter. After German signed the armistice ending the war, von Reuter was placed in command of the German fleet that was interned at Scapa Flow. It was on his orders that the 74 ships under his command were scuttled on 21 June, preventing the vessels from being handed over to the victorious allied powers. Of these vessels, only four destroyers remained afloat, while the battleship Baden, four light cruisers (Emden, Nürnberg, Frankfurt, and Bremse), and 14 torpedo boats were beached before they sank. For additional details on the scuttling of the German fleet, see, Knapp to Opnav, 22 June 1919, DNA, RG 45, Entry 517B.

Footnote 6: In all, nine German sailors lost their lives in the scuttling of the fleet, all as a result of scuffles with British sailors either aboard some of the ships, or in some of their lifeboats.

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