1919: For the children of Stromness, in the Orkneys, conditions on 21 June were ideal for their school outing – a warm, windless day, a clear sky, a gentle swell on the sea. Once the children had embarked on the Flying Kestrel, the Admiralty tender cast off and steamed out into Scapa Flow, past the long lines of German warships interned there since the armistice.
“We came face to face with the German Fleet, some of them huge battleships that made our own vessel look ridiculous,” recalled James Taylor, one of the schoolchildren. He was 15 years old; 20 years later he wrote a vivid account of what happened next.
“Without any warning and almost simultaneously these huge vessels began to list over to port or to starboard; some heeled over and plunged headlong, their sterns lifted high out of the water and pointing skywards; others were rapidly settling down in the ocean with little more showing than their masts and funnels.”
Anticipating that the fleet would have to be handed over under the terms of the peace treaty being negotiated at Versailles, the German naval commander, Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, had ordered his crews to scuttle their ships. The first one went down just after noon. It was followed, throughout the afternoon, by ship after ship – 74 either sunk or beached.
“Out of the vents rushed steam and oil and air with a dreadful roaring hiss, and vast clouds of white vapour rolled up from the sides of the ships. Sullen rumblings and crashing of chains increase the uproar as the great hulls slant giddily over and slide with horrible sucking and gurgling noises under the water.”
Source: Dan van der Vat, The Grand Scuttle: The Sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919 (1982), pp. 20–1, 171–4