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High Seas Drama: The Surrender of the German Navy

This World War I commemorative blog series continues with a brief look at the fate of the German Navy after surrender in November 1918. Battleship Texas and her crew were among the United States war ships present to escort the Germany Navy to its internment at Scapa Flow, Scotland. Texas crew member accounts serve as a window to this momentous event, and a starting point for the dramatic and unhappy saga of the German Navy after Germany’s fall.

 


 

On Nov. 21, 1918, the German High Seas Fleet surrendered in the misty, foul seas off the coast of Scotland. Although general armistice went into effect on Nov. 11, 1918, the terms of the armistice related to the German Navy took some time to come to pass.

Surrender

Ship crew lined up along the rail of a ship watching ships of the German Navy sail by in a line.
Painting by Bernard F. Gribble depicting the surrender of the German Fleet. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, 28-003-B.

From the per­spec­tive of sailors aboard Battleship Texas, who had spent a relatively quiet 10 months patrolling the North Sea, the German High Seas Fleet sur­ren­der was a memorable ex­pe­ri­ence. Battleship Texas was among the com­bined fleet tasked with ren­dez­vousing with the German Fleet and escorting the ships to Scapa Flow.

Joseph Kunesh, a crewmember aboard Texas at the time, was a witness to what he describes as, “[t]he most ignominious day in Naval history” and “the worst single Naval victory in the history of the world.” 1 As more than 70 German ships emerged out of the mist to meet their captors, Texas’s crew was ready for anything, including a last-ditch effort by the Germans to go down fighting:

“[W]e lined up in battle formation to await the coming of the enemy fleet, our decks cleared for action and all gun crews at their posts. Our officers seemed convinced the Germans would attempt some last-minute trickery, and all hands were cautioned to be alert, and gun crews were instructed to be prepared to blaze away at a moment’s notice. There was a possibility the German officers would abrogate the tradition, choose to go down with their ships as fighting men rather than suffer the ignominy of a pusillanimous surrender.” 2

Old photo of German ship with handwritten text: "With Ships Like This - still Germany Wouldn't Fight - Photo by Denson - "
A surrendered German ship captured by a photographer aboard Battleship Texas. TPWD-Battleship Texas Archives.

Sepia postcard showing German sailors standing along a ship's rail. Handwritten text says: "German Sailors on Board German Ship after surrender"
One of a series of photo postcards that shows German ships and crews after surrender. This caption reads: German Sailors on Board German Ship after surrender. TPWD-Battleship Texas Archives.

The sur­ren­der, how­ever, went as planned. The crews of the com­bined battle fleet knew that the German navy was a dan­ger­ous adversary, and the Germans’ “failure to accept [the] challenge” offered during war completely baffled the crews, who “cursed [the Germans] for their timidity all the way back to the base” after the sur­ren­der. 3 This was the first time in the whole war Texas’ crew­mem­bers had a chance to get a good look at the enemy, and the experience was captured by a photographer aboard Battleship Texas. The pho­tog­rapher produced a series of real photo post­cards with pictures of the German ships and the German sailors at the ship rails. These postcards, along with their captions, speak to the general disappointment and pity sailors felt for the German High Seas Fleet:

 “One of the all-time highlights of naval history had unfolded before our eyes, and all we could think of was the shamefulness of such an abject surrender of might and power without the exchange of a single shot.” 4

Mutiny!

At the time of the surrender, many of the sailors aboard Texas did not have the entire story about the German Fleet. Prior to ar­mi­stice, German crews were in turmoil and their reluctance to fight boiled into a mutiny in early November. The German High Seas Fleet was ordered to fight the American and British ships that blockaded the harbor where the German fleet was moored, but the crews refused to weigh anchor, asking “why go out and die when peace is at hand?” 5 The mutiny spread, and the de­sta­bi­li­zation flashed into a revolution that deposed the German Monarchy and ended the German Empire.

As disappointed as Texas’s crew was by the total surrender, it became clear to those inspecting the German ships after they were deposited at Scapa Flow that the surrender was equally as difficult for some of the German crewmembers. The inspections revealed dirty ships and officers that were “…brokenhearted and a complete wreck.” 6 The ship crews were more or less imprisoned aboard their ships, and had to see to procuring their own food and supplies. Boredom, despair, and the remnants of mutinous be­hav­ior abounded aboard the German ships. In fact, some German officers remarked that they were happy to be in British hands as they feared some of the mutinous crews were plotting to murder the officers. 7

Scuttling the Fleet

On June 21, 1919, German Admiral Von Reuter sent out a secret signal to the German ships imprisoned at Scapa Flow. This signal ordered the crews of the ships to begin opening valves and breaking pipes to flood the ships. To prevent Britain, France, and the United States from using the German ships after treaty terms went into effect, the Germans decided to sink their ships.

Edward Hugh David, a British officer aboard HMS Revenge, was among the crew who witnessed the German Fleet scuttling. In a letter he wrote to his mother, David describes the event as “…per­haps the grimmest and certainly the most pathetic incident of the whole war.” 8 He reported that “out of the seemed biggest and finest fleet in the world, one ship remain[ed] afloat.”

Black & white photo of the hull of a ship floating upside down. Text says: "German battle cruiser "Seydlitz" as she now lies on her starboard side"
Capsized German ship, Seydlitz after scuttling. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph, NH 42090.

Early in the day, HMS Revenge, along with a number of other ships, left the harbor for drills. When crews noticed that German ships were sinking, they called the ships back to help. When HMS Revenge arrived at Scapa Flow, some of the German ships were already sinking. David describes the scene:      

“The water was one mass of wreckage of every description, boats, … floats, chairs, tables, and human beings, and the ‘Bayern,’ the largest German battleship, her bow reared vertically out of the water was in the act of crashing finally bottomwards….” 9

British crews worked frantically to beach some of the German ships that were still afloat, or to force German crews to turn off valves or repair the water leaks they had caused. In some instances, British crews forced the issue at gunpoint.10 In the end, 52 German ships sank or capsized, and 21 were beached. 11

In the 1920s, the fate of the German fleet was finalized, and all the beached ships were transferred to American, British, Japanese or French control. These parties used the transferred ships for target practice or scrapping. Most of the ships that sank were slowly salvaged in the 1920s and 1930s, but some of the ships remain un-salvaged in their watery graves to this day, one of the few remaining testaments to the surrender and dramatic end of the German High Seas Fleet.

WWI Armistice Centennial Event Aboard Battleship Texas

Battleship Texas will host a family-friendly WWI Armistice event on Nov. 10, 2018 that includes crafts, hands-on activities, special exhibits and programs, and a presentation by Jonathan R. Rayner, a WWI scholar from the University of Sheffield. That evening, a free screening of “The Battle of the Somme” will take place in the San Jacinto Monument Theater. Stay tuned for more information!

 

WW! Centennial logo. Text: WWI 100 YearsThis blog series is a collaboration among Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Historic Sites and Structures Program, Interpretive Services Program, and Battleship Texas State Historic Site. Stay tuned for our next post!

 


 

Joseph P. Kunesh, Diary of Joseph P. Kunesh, 1917-1918, Battleship Texas Museum, entry for November 21, 1918.

2 Mark Murnane, Ground Swells: Of Sailors, Ships, and Shellac (New York: Exposition Press, 1949), 435.

3 Murnane, Ground Swells, 254.

4 Murnane, Ground Swells, 436.

5 S.C. George, From Jutland to Junkyard: The Raising of the Scuttled German High Seas Fleet from Scapa Flow” (Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited, 1999), np.

6Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8  BBC News, “WWI: The Letter that Reveals a Brutal Day at Scapa Flow,” accessed online May 16, 2018, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/hughdavidletterall2.pdf, 1.

9 BBC News, “Brutal Day,” 2.

10 Ibid.

11 George, Jutland to Junkyard, np.