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The salvage sites of the German High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow

As the centenary of the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet approaches, Kevin Heath, Malcolm Thomson, Sandra Henry, Mark Littlewood and Paul Sharman take a look at how the underwater wrecks have been explored and salvaged over the decades
SMS Kaiser primary salvage site splinter proof spotting top from forward mast

Scapa Flow in Orkney is the largest natural harbour and anchorage in Europe at 325 square kilometres in size, with sheltered waters that are mostly 20-60m deep. The Admiralty adopted it as the main base for the British Grand Fleet at the start of the First World War, to control the northern access to the North Sea and the Atlantic.

The Scuttling of the German High Seas fleet

In late November 1918, much of the German High Seas fleet was interned at Scapa Flow under the terms of the armistice of 11 November. The 74 German vessels were at anchor around the island of Cava and in Gutter Sound when, on 21 June 1919, believing the armistice was about to end with either a resumption of hostilities or Germany accepting the harsh terms of the peace treaty, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter gave the order to scuttle the fleet. This was in order to prevent the British from seizing the ships for their own use, and was a manoeuvre that had been planned in advance, for example by crews secretly welding doors open, laying charges and dropping tools overboard so that hatches and valves could not be shut.

In the largest recorded single loss of ships in history, 52 vessels were successfully scuttled in three hours. The other 22 interned vessels, consisting of one battleship, three light cruisers and eighteen destroyers, were beached by a small contingent of the British Royal Navy, much of which was out at sea conducting fleet exercises during this extraordinary incident. Nine German sailors died during the event, shot by British forces, and were reputedly the last casualties of the First World War (excluding all those who lost their lives through wartime injury and illness in the ensuing months and years).

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About History Scotland

After the Great War: Rebuilding a nation Five great reasons to read History Scotland this month * New research on what life was like between the World Wars * Exploring the link between crime and military service * Special report on underwater archaeology at the German High Seas fleet scuttle site in Orkney * The women registrars who broke into an all-male profession * A new study of the controverial marriage of Queen Victoria's daughter Louise BONUS DIGITAL-ONLY CONTENT: Video report on a forgotten treasure trove of Victorian photos Exhibition preview: Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs Video: living history food & drink experience