The Most Exciting School Trip in History: 21 June 1919 February 19, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
School trips are often fairly maudlin affairs: go to a local zoo, don’t pet the lions; walk through a city park, buddy up as you pass the homeless people; polish the sun-washed floors of the local museum with fifty infant feet… But one school trip that any of us would have wanted to be on was the voyage taken by Orkney schoolchildren to visit the ships at Scapa Flow (Orkney, Scotland): 21 Jun 1919. These children, estimates range from about one hundred and fifty to four hundred, were supposed to view the British fleet at rest in its most secure port; and also as a bonus to enjoy the sight of the surrendered German fleet. The British fleet did not oblige as it was out on manouvers, but the German fleet was also particularly uncooperative as this was the morning that its Admiral Ludwig von Reuter had chosen to scutttle (illegally) every vessel at his disposal: four hundred thousand tons of shipping went to the ocean floor in about an hour, something that makes Pearl Harbor look like small change. These Orkney schoolchildren were, in fact, to be the only civilian witnesses to one of the most incredible scenes in Naval history: and many of the children (aged 6-16) were never to forget the Götterdämmerung of the German navy and the furious sea as capital boat after capital boat was dragged under.
First, though, a little background. The German fleet had been rushed across to Scapa Flow at the close of hostilities: it was inconceivable that negotiations for the new world order should go on with the Germans holding a loaded pistol at their side and remember that at the battle of Jutland the German fleet had, by many estimates, bested the Royal Navy. These ships then became part of the frantic and often unpleasant talks in Paris. Germany naturally wanted to keep its ships, though that was not going to happen. Britain wanted to destroy the enemy navy. France, Italy and other allies wanted the boats to be divided up as spoils. While these negotiations were going on the British navy treated their German guests – internees not prisoners technically – shamefully. Food and water was sent to the boat but the other needs of the German crews were neglected carelessly and rebellion of sailors against German officers and, on the part of the officers, against the British fomented. 20 June the German admiral von Reuter saw a four-day old copy of The Times in which Allied threats against Germany were set out: the Allies were telling Germany to accept their conditions or fight the Great War all over again. At this point von Reuter determined that he would act…
The children arrived on their escort that day, the HMS Flying Kestrel, a large steam tug, at about half past nine. The boat would be out for most of the next three hours and the children would see von Reuter’s decision played out before them. Many remembered their disappointment at learning that their beloved Royal Navy was not in the waters.
I was 10 and I was already beside myself with excitement that morning. We’d been told we’d be able to see the British fleet guarding the German fleet but just after we left the harbour, a message came that the Royal navy were out and we’d only see HMS Victorious, a hospital ship. We were a bit put out but once we went down the Flow and began to see the German destroyers looming up we forgot about all that. They were absolutely massive alongside us. (Peggy Gibson)
Their interest was piqued, then, by the huge German vessels though they were given extremely clear instructions not to make faces or wave at the German crew: ‘we had been warned to make no sign to the men as we went’ (Peggy Mathieson). The German crew, in any case, had other things to worry about. At 10.30 Ludwig von Reuter, got all Prussian. He walked out onto deck in full dress uniform and with the Iron Cross around his neck and sent out an order preparing the fleet for an important instruction and then sent out the fateful words: ‘Paragraphe Elf Bestatigen’ (carry out paragraph eleven).
Many of the children remember unusual activity but it took some time for them and, indeed, for the British guard vessels to realise what was happening. The Germans though had been preparing for days and the next minutes were amazing to behold, oh to have been there: ‘everything was beginning to get very exciting at that time, like a kind of slow motion picture’ said one child (William Groundwater) Here, instead, is one of the most quoted memories from James Taylor.
[The German ships’] decks were lined with German sailors who….did not seem too pleased to see us. Suddenly without any warning and almost simultaneously these huge vessels began to list over to port or starboard; some heeled over and plunged headlong, their sterns lifted high out of the water.Out of the vents rushed steam and oil and air with a dreadful roaring hiss. And as we watched, awestruck and silent, the sea became littered for miles round with boats and hammocks, lifebelts and chests… and among it all hundreds of men struggling for their lives. As we drew away from this nightmare scene we watched the last great battleship slide down with keel upturned like some monstrous whale.
That image of the whale returns. For instance, one witness from the Flying Kestrel later remembered: ‘The light cruisers settled by the stern. As the afterpart of the ship disappeared, the bows and a hundred feet or more of the hull projected sheer from the sea, looking like some huge whale leaping through space.’ The waters raged and the Flying Kestrel may even have been in danger of being pulled under itself. At least some of the school-trippers later asked themselves whether this had not been the case. Others dwelt on the sheer majesty of what they were seeing, this terrible marine Ragnarok.
I counted 12 capital ships going down. Some stood on their bows and turned over, some went over by their side, and some just sank. There was water boiling everywhere and horrible sucking and gurgling sounds. (Peggy Gibson)
The children, despite growing up through the war, often expressed pity for the Germans throwing themselves into the cold Atlantic waters. But there is also the sense that this was a ‘show’ and one witness confessed to wondering whether it had not been put on specially for the school trip!
During that time we watched the marvellous display as the German ships sank all around us. I counted them, 12 capital ships going down. Some went up by the bows, some by the stern and some stood up in the water. It really was a marvellous display. In a way it was a very sad sight to see all these men getting into their boats, you really wondered what would happen to them. They had lost all their possessions. The whole thing was done in such a peaceful way. It was just the air escaping from the ships as they went down that caused the turbulence on the sea.
It goes without saying that the German boats went down in style.
One thing that we saw quite distinctly was that before they left their ships every one had their flag at topmast. (Peggy Mathieson)
When the German fleet had made its way to Scapa there had been some 20,000 German sailors, but that number had been steadily reduced so that there were under 2,000 when the scuttling began. Not all, however, were to make it ashore alive. The British guards went into a frenzy as the scuttling began. There was a perhaps forgiveable panic to save what German boats could be rescued from the sea – though the vast majority went down and had to be salvaged for scrap metal – but there was an unforgivable willingness to shoot defenceless, surrendering, Germans, all too often thrashing about in the water. Nine Germans were killed and sixteen were wounded, among the very last and absolutely unnecessary casualties of the Great War.
One of my friends started crying because she’d seen British sailors shooting at men in the water. She said she saw a man being shot and he fell out of the boat into the sea. (Kitty Tait)
As we got further away we heard machine guns rattling and stopping, rattling and stopping, over and over again — I never forgot that sound. (J.R.T. Robertson)
The Flying Kestrel turned around and headed back for harbour, where the children were met by terrified parents: ‘we were obviously in danger when were were ordered out of the way’; ‘No I don’t think anybody [i.e. any child] was afraid, just wide-eyed wonder that about explains it’ (Rossetta Groundwater). Von Reuter was given, instead, a dressing down by his British opposite number, Fremantle, on the deck of the HMS Revenge to which he simply replied that any British officer in a similar situation would have done the same thing. It is difficult to disagree and most subsequent critics from every nation and of almost every political persuasion have nodded through his actions, not least Fremantle himself who later confessed in private that he was in full sympathy with von Reuter. There is also the enjoyable irony that in destroying the German fleet von Reuter had not only given the German navy back its pride, he had also fulfilled Britain’s war and its post-war aims. The Royal Navy was once more the most powerful force in Atlantic waters.
Then there were the children:
It just seemed to be an adventure story we had been reading – we didn’t understand that it was a piece of history we were seeing enacted. (Rossetta Groundwater)
There is a BBC documentary including the survivors of the school part from 1986 (?). Can anyone help with finding this or with others of the children’s memories: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
There also several interesting administrative documents.