A special exhibition at the Orkney Museum is retelling the startling story of the scuttling of the German Fleet in Scapa Flow 100 years ago.
‘1919: The Scuttling of the German Fleet’ draws on unpublished document and eyewitness accounts, to help give a wider picture of what happened on that fateful Midsummer’s Day in 1919.
The exhibition is part of the wider Scapa 100 Commemorations taking place in Orkney marking the centenary of the event – the largest loss of shipping in a single day in world history.
The exhibition covers life on board the ships interned in Scapa Flow, political events which led up to the scuttling, and the aftermath of the scuttling including salvage operations.
Following the end of World War 1, Germany had to surrender most of its Naval fleet as part of the Armistice agreement. A total of 74 ships of the German High Seas Fleet arrived in Scapa Flow for internment. On 21 June 1919, acting under the mistaken belief that peace talks had failed, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter gave the command to scuttle the entire German fleet in the Flow – to prevent them from falling into the hands of the British and Allied forces.
A total of 50 ships went to the seafloor.
The exhibition features eyewitness accounts of the disaster including from school children who witnessed the events from on board local vessel The Flying Kestrel while on a school trip, and from John Tulloch, a small boy on Cava who recalls seeing SMS Derfflinger stand “on her bows” before she “dived to the depths below” while the sea around her “seethed and boiled”.
The exhibition also includes several items from Orkney Islands Council’s extensive wartime collection which have rarely or never been shown before – either because they could not be exhibited in the challenging conditions at Scapa Flow Museum in Lyness currently undergoing refurbishment, or because they have only recently been acquired by the Council.
These include a searchlight reflector from the German fleet; a vanity unit from a German ship with a fold-out wash basin and compartments for toiletries and shaving equipment; and a selection of small objects from HMS Vanguard from the beach at Rinnigill. Also shown are a set of tools from SMS Coln displayed for the first time since undergoing conservation work.
Documents on display for the first time include a 1917 engine log book from SMS Baden, and the programme and guest list for a visit to Orkney by Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the US Navy in April 1919.
Also on display are several items from the Scapa Flow Museum at Lyness, including a table from SMS Hindenburg and chair from SMS Emden, a life belt from SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm, and cut-glass decanter from the officers’ mess onboard SMS König Albert.
The Museum is indebted to Kevin Heath of Sula Diving for sharing the Eversberg documents, and to Nick Jellicoe for providing rarely seen photographs, and to the team at The Orkney Library and Archive.
‘1919: The Scuttling of the German Fleet’ runs until November 2. The Orkney Museum is open Monday-Saturday, 10.30am-5.00pm. Admission is free.