Today, on the anniversary of America’s entry into the first world war, is a time to reflect on the legacy of the first world war – and the seeds it sowed that assured the Second. For Germany, the First World War was one of humiliation, and the Second, one of revenge. The events of Scapa Flow in 1919 and 1939 are testament to that.
After the German capitulation that ended the first world war, it was agreed by the allies that the entire german fleet would be interred at an allied port until the negotiation of the Paris Peace Conferance had concluded. Each of the Allies wanted to be given a portion of the 74-Ship German surface fleet, known as the Hochseeflotte or the “High Seas Fleet.”
The German sailors, already in a very bad mood and fresh from a previous mutiny, were disembarked until only a skeleton crew remained, and in November of 1918 the entire fleet was escorted by allied fleets to Scapa Flow, a mostly enclosed bay in Scotland and previous home base of Britain’s Grand Fleet.
With their naval guns disabled and their crews forbidden from shore leave, they sat anchored in Scapa Flow for eight months while the Treaty of Versailles was negotiated. During this time the conditions aboard rapidly deteriorated. Communists sailor unions refused orders and staged protests, and basic necessities weren’t carried out. Trash piled up in the passage ways, there was little to no access to medical and dental services, mail service was basically non-existent, and food was of poor and repetitive quality to the point where eating of seagulls was commonplace. Those who decided they had enough and tried to swim to shore were taken as prisoners of war or shot by the British.
When the allies seen the conditions in the German Ships, they began to allow the High Seas Fleet to send a few hundred men home per month. This gave Admiral Von Reuter the ability to clean his ranks of mutineers until he had a reliable crew again.
By June of 1919 word that the british intended immediate seizure of his fleet reached Admiral Von Reuter and he gave his remaining crew the order to scuttle his fleet rather than turn it over to his enemies. Despite attempts by the British to board and save the ships, the High Seas Fleet ended up on the bottom of Scapa Flow.
The German Navy never forgot this humiliation, and in the opening of the month of second world war, a young U-boat captain by the name of Günther Prien navigated the narrow, militarized canals into Scapa Flow. Moored there was the HMS Royal Oak, an outdated WWI battleship that had escorted the High Seas Fleet to it’s captivity twenty years earlier. The Royal Oak’s crew was fast asleep, assured that the bay was impenetrable by u-boat . Günther’s U-47 fired several torpedos at the HMS Royal Oak, and it went down with over 800 sailors, joining whatever remained of the High Seas Fleet at the bottom of Scapa Flow.
The HMS Royal Oak remains the largest war grave in Europe, and a reminder that what goes around, comes around, eventually.