Scuttling of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow (June 21, 1919)
The terms of the armistice that ended the fighting required that, besides the entire submarine fleet, 74 warships of the German high seas fleet be handed over to the Entente powers for initial internment at an allied naval base. Since most of the fleet was in the hands of the sailors’ councils after the November Revolution, negotiations for the handover were initially difficult. Beginning on November 18, 1918, the battle fleet left Wilhelmshaven for Great Britain under the command of Rear Admiral Ludwig von Richter. All 74 disarmed ships were interned at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands with skeleton crews. The terms of the peace treaty, made public in May 1919, laid out a radical disarmament of the German navy and a division of its ships among the allies. To prevent the ships from going to the allies permanently, Reuter ordered their crews to sink them on June 21. This photograph shows crew members leaving their ship in a lifeboat after having opened all the ship’s seacocks, hatches, airlocks, and torpedo tubes. A total of 52 ships were sunk this way. The men have their hands raised because the British ships guarding them are firing, not yet recognizing what has happened. Since sinking the ships violated the terms of the armistice, Richter and his crews were interned as prisoners of war until January 1920, after the Versailles treaty was ratified. The victorious powers also demanded considerable compensation for the lost ships.
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