The deliberate sinking of a fleet of warships was remembered in Orkney today (Friday 21 June), 100 years since one of the most extraordinary events in naval history.
It was on 21 June 1919 that Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter issued the order to scuttle the vessels under his command - 74 vessels from the German High Seas Fleet interned in Scapa Flow after the Armistice which ended the First World War.
Fifty of the warships went to the seabed and today services of commemoration were held in memory of the 15 German sailors who lost their lives during the internment and on the day of the scuttling.
The sinking of the fleet was witnessed by 160 children from Stromness who, by chance, were on a school outing in Scapa Flow aboard a local vessel, the Flying Kestrel.
Descendants of the school children were aboard the local ferry Thorsvoe today to take part in the commemorations.
Flanked by the Northern Lighthouse Board tenders Pharos and Pole Star, the ferry set out from Stromness and, like the Flying Kestrel a century ago, set a course for the Flow.
The ships paused above one of seabed wrecks, the German light cruiser SMS Dresden, for a service of reflection and minute’s silence.
During the service, the bell from one of the scuttled German warships, the von derr Tann, was rung by Yorck-Ludwig von Reuter, grandson of Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter. The bell had been brought to Orkney from Germany for the occasion.
Wreaths were laid by the two most senior naval officers present, Rear Admiral Stephen Haisch, from the German Navy, and Captain Chris Smith, Royal Navy Regional Commander for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Navy divers from Britain and Germany then made a commemorative dive to lay the wreaths on the hull of the Dresden.
Rear Admiral Stephen Haisch said: “I am deeply honoured that today, 100 years after Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter issued the order to sink Germany’s fleet, I have been invited as a representative of Germany by Orkney Islands Council to commemorate the German sailors who lost their lives in Scapa Flow 100 years ago.
“I am deeply touched by the heartfelt commemoration service that was organised by the people of Orkney.
“Commemorating what happened here 100 years ago also brings to mind how far we have come since those dark days. How from enemies we, the United Kingdom and Germany, have become true friends.
“Today, our nations stand side by side on the world stage, upholding the joint values we believe in.”
Captain Chris Smith said: “The Royal Navy has a long history with Orkney and Scapa Flow and has supported many of the First World War commemorations of the past four years“It is quite fitting that we are completing that series of events here in Orkney, recognising the importance of the scuttling of the High Seas Fleet and just as significantly paying our respects to the memory of the 15 German sailors who lost their lives.
“I am honoured to stand alongside Rear Admiral Haisch in friendship on this day, looking back to a time when our countries were not as close as we have since become - and to represent the Royal Navy as we complete the task of commemorating the sacrifice made by so many during the course of what we now call the First World War.”
He added: “We have carried out that task and that period in our history is now far better understood and more widely known as a result, and those who gave their lives have indeed been remembered, which is the duty we have and will continue to perform.
“Today has seen sailors of both the Royal Navy and the German Navy jointly recognising a part of our collective history and doing so as allies, demonstrating that out of the adversity which once divided us we have forged a lasting friendship, which I think is the best tribute we can pay to those whose memory we honour on this day."
The flotilla then continued to Hoy where a service of commemoration was held at the Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery alongside the graves of the German sailors.
The service was led by German Military Pastor Christoph Sommer, the Venerable Martyn Gough, Chaplain of the Fleet and Archdeacon for the Royal Navy, and the Rev. David Dawson, Chaplain to the local Sea Cadet Corps, the Royal British Legion Kirkwall Branch and Royal Naval Association Orkney Branch.
Among the wreaths laid were those placed at the graves by Rear Admiral Haisch, the Lord Lieutenant of Orkney Bill Spence, and Orkney Islands Council Convener Harvey Johnston.
Councillor Johnston said: “Today’s commemorations are fitting conclusion to five years of events in Orkney marking the outbreak of the First World War, the Battle of Jutland, the loss in local waters of four Royal Navy warships, and the Armistice that led to the internment of the German High Seas fleet in Scapa Flow.
“Many of these events, including the scuttling of Germany’s High Seas Fleet, were world changing in terms of their strategic and military significance and will long be remembered as such, but more importantly all involved the loss of human life.
“Today the focus of our commemoration was on the 15 German sailors who died. The loss of each one of these young men here in Orkney, far from their homes and their families, is something that we still feel a great sadness for, even a hundred years later.
“Today within an atmosphere of peace and a spirit of reconciliation we commemorated their lives and mourned their loss.”
A century ago, Rear Admiral von Reuter was acting under the mistaken belief that peace talks had failed, when he gave the command to scuttle his fleet, to prevent the warships from falling into the hands of the British and Allied forces.
In later years, many were later brought to the surface again during one of the most remarkable salvage operations ever attempted at sea. Those that remain – seven vessels in all - attract divers from worldwide and make Scapa Flow the premier wreck diving site in Europe.