W H E N T W O N A V I E S G O T O W A R
The final years of the 19th and first decade-and-a-bit of the 20th centuries saw a naval arms race between Britain and Germany that markedly increased the European tensions that led ultimately to World War One.
The Bayern sinking by the stern in 1919.
It saw that war start with the two largest, most modern and most powerful fleets the world had ever seen eyeing one another belligerently across the cold, grey waters of the North Sea.
The British Fleet was sent to its wartime base of Scapa Flow just before hostilities began. For the next five years it was the centre of British naval power – and universally hated by the men who crewed the ships and bases, just as it would be by their sons in World War Two.
With nothing to do and no girls to do it with, Scapa Flow was far less congenial than the German base of Wilhelmshaven. But both sides were focused on Der Tag, the day when they would meet in battle for a cataclysmic trial of strength.
Not that there was ever a realistic chance of a direct fight. For every two German ships the British had three, and no German admiral would be daft enough to get into a fight knowing he was so outnumbered. Instead, the Germans came up with a cunning plan, and used it with variations several times through the war.
The idea was simple. A small German force would cross the North Sea and open fire on Whitby or Hartlepool or Yarmouth, hoping to be chased away by a small part of the British fleet, which they could lure under the guns of the main German fleet just over the horizon.
Do that enough times, sink a couple of British ships each time, and suddenly the British might no longer outnumber the Germans. They could then have a proper battle and sort it out once and for all.
The idea never worked. The British, annoyingly, always insisted on sending their vessels to sea in force. The only major naval action of the war was the deeply unsatisfactory Battle of Jutland.
The opposing fleets were at sea on 31 May, 1916, both of them with the main force of battleships some way behind their battlecruisers.
Battleships were massive vessels with huge guns and thick armour, and battlecruisers were even bigger, with massive guns but only light armour, to reduce weight and increase speed.
The battlecruisers met first, late in the afternoon. The British battlecruisers were commanded by David Beatty, poster boy of the Navy. His hobbies included fox-hunting and the wives of other officers, and his command style seems to have boiled down to shouting: “Charge!”, which he now did, throwing away the advantages he’d taken into the action.
Longer gun ranges, higher speed and the support of the four largest, fastest, most heavily gunned battleships in the world were ignored as Beatty took his battlecruisers surging forward.
His German opposite number, Franz Hipper, was a consummate naval professional. He emerges from the chaos of Jutland as the only senior officer on either side with a proper grasp of his job.
His battlecruisers waited until the British ships were in range and calmly opened fire, sinking two in minutes, and at the same time heading south to the support of their own fleet.
If Hipper could lure the British under the guns of the German battleships, they could finally destroy that isolated portion of the fleet they had been hoping for.
When Beatty’s battlecruisers came in sight of the main German fleet, he reversed course and headed north. The combined gunfire of the German High Seas Fleet was no place for the remaining battlecruisers, even supported by the four battleships that had finally, almost, caught up.
Besides, as Beatty realised, it was now his turn to lure the German ships under the guns of the British fleet.
The German fleet commander, Scheer, saw his chance and gave chase, unaware that a few miles north lay the main strength of the British fleet, with almost twice as many battleships as the Germans. A fleet action at last seemed imminent.
Senior British Admiral Afloat was John Jellicoe. Idolised by the men of the fleet, he was small, hard-working and comes down the years as a micro-manager, intent on maintaining absolute control in all circumstances.
Knowing that if the RN was beaten it would be only a matter of time before Britain lost the war he was, as Churchill later wrote, the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.
Predictably, the German admiral took one look at the British fleet and legged it. True, after his initial turn away Scheer almost at once turned back to attack the British line, but that probably had more to do with how German press reports would describe the action, and his fleet quickly turned away again, this time in disarray.
In the poor visibility the British fleet seems to have been largely unaware that the Germans had withdrawn until it was too late to give chase.
Jellicoe’s fleet was between the Germans and their home base, so he expected to restart the battle next day, but during the night the German fleet crossed the wake of the British, gifting the British battleships a series of golden opportunities that were missed in embarrassing fashion.
By morning the German ships were safely back in port and the British were recovering casualties and realising what might have been.
A US newspaper later summed up Jutland in a sentence: the German fleet, it reported, had assaulted its jailer, but was still in prison.
The aftermath saw feuds start in the RN that dragged on for years. Jellicoe was blamed for not having delivered a new Trafalgar, while Beatty claimed it would all have been different had he been in charge, going so far as to falsify action reports from his ships to underline his case.
It was ugly and unnecessary. Jellicoe’s ships had done what they needed to do and the German Navy, built at such huge pre-war cost, remained an irrelevance to the war. Instead, its U-boat arm took up the flight and very nearly achieved what the surface forces had been unable to deliver, by targeting merchant shipping.
The next time the British saw the German fleet was in 1918, after the Armistice that ended the fighting. The Germans steamed across the North Sea to the Clyde and then on to Scapa Flow to be interned under the eyes of the RN, the only navy in the world strong enough to contain them, now imprisoned in fact as well as metaphor.
For eight months the German ships, manned by skeleton crews, swung at anchor in Scapa, rotting away as the Armistice negotiations dragged on at Versailles. Admiral von Reuter, commanding the interned fleet, was denied access to news. In June 1919 he believed that the war was about to begin again and that the RN was about to seize his vessels, an action he couldn’t allow.
On 21 June, a century ago, he ordered his own ships scuttled at anchor where they lay in Scapa Flow. He sank more ships in a day than any other naval man ever has or will.
The British were not amused, trying at gunpoint to stop crews sinking their ships, attempting to beach vessels ashore and even opening fire on German sailors.
Later there were impassioned speeches and newspaper articles about dishonour and piracy, but by then many millions of pounds’ worth of the world’s best fighting ships in the world were resting on the clear seabed of Scapa Flow.
But the question of what to do with the world’s second-largest fleet had been solved very neatly, and the politicians quickly forgot about the ships.
The wrecks lay in peace for a while, and then Ernest Cox bought them. It doesn’t seem an obvious move for an electrical engineer, but he set about raising the ships to sell for scrap.
The battlecruiser Derfflinger on floating dry dock en route for breaking.
His method was simple but brutal. Divers would patch every hole they could find in the wreck before it was filled with air pumped down from above until it bobbed to the surface.
The divers’ decompression knowledge was sketchy at best. One of them recalled a standard 15 minutes’ deco at the end of each shift, regardless of depth or time of the dive. Yet there were astonishingly few serious accidents.
The first ships raised took time, but as experience, techniques and skills improved they could be brought up relatively quickly.
The wrecks mostly lay inverted, the bigger ones especially, and no attempt was made to right them. A small hut would be built on the hull to house a transit crew and the compressor keeping enough air in the hulk for it to float as it was towed south to Rosyth and the breaker’s yard.
The work was costly, and over the life of his company a best estimate suggests that Cox made about as much money from selling the vessels as he spent raising them.
He left behind three battleships and four cruisers, along with any amount of other material, such as the turrets of the battleship Bayern.
That’s only the story of the German fleet. Scapa was home to the RN in two world wars so of course there are also navy wrecks in the Flow.
The battleship HMS Vanguard simply blew up in 1917, and as a war grave diving on the wreck is not permitted. In 1939 Gunther Prien conned his U-boat into the Flow and sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak under the noses of the British fleet, exposing the mediocre defences of the Flow.
A lucky few get to dive this war grave from time to time, and the Navy visits annually to raise a flag.
There are also blockships sunk in WW1 to guard the Scapa Flow entrances, U-boats, other warships, trawlers, small vessels and aircraft, plus the left-over structures from salvaged vessels.
More wreckage is found each year, and that’s without looking outside the Flow, where HMS Hampshire can be found. There will be others.
But it’s the ships of the ill-fated German High Seas Fleet and their history that continues to draw divers to Scapa Flow, many making an annual pilgrimage to what is arguably the most historic dive location in the world.