THE LAST DAYS OF THE HIGH SEAS FLEET: FROM MUTINY TO SCAPA FLOW

Reviewed by: Simon Bellamy

Other historians have covered the remarkable story of Germany’s fleet in the Orkney Islands after the 1914-18 war, notably the late Dan van der Vat in The Grand Scuttle. With the centenary of the event being marked in June 2019, Nicholas Jellicoe’s highly readable new account is timely and welcome. As a grandson of the commander of the British Grand Fleet at Jutland, his interest in the topic is understandable. What he offers, however, is much more than the story of the scuttle itself. As the title suggests, the event is placed in its wider context, in a narrative which spans the unrest in the German fleet as the Great War ended, the internment of the ships and the peace negotiations which formed the backdrop to the scuttle.

First the author traces the history of the High Seas Fleet, noting that its role in the lead-up to the war is often forgotten. He describes it as “an adolescent navy”, which threatened the stability of Europe by contributing to an arms race. Shrewd observations are made on the pre-war development of the German navy; for example, the Kaiser failed to realise that, in addition to ships, he needed to build an infrastructure of coaling stations and dockyards if the service was to sustain a global presence to rival that of the British. It is often recorded that discontent in the fleet was a significant factor in the collapse of German resistance at the end of the war. Here, Jellicoe examines the causes and course of the naval munity, including the clumsy efforts of ministers and senior commanders to contain the situation. For instance, the concession of sailors’ ration committees made matters worse, providing a forum for further discontent and action.

With the war over, what to do with the German fleet was the major problem in intra-allied armistice negotiations. Naval power was a yardstick of national power, and Britain was anxious not to cede advantage to its rivals. Further, Beatty wanted the enemy fleet surrendered so that the armistice could be enforced if needed, while Benson, the US Chief of Naval Operations, believed that insistence on surrender might provoke the Germans into refusing to accept the armistice. With agreement reached on internment rather than surrender, the book provides a vivid account of the arrival of the High Seas Fleet in British waters. Beatty stage-managed the event carefully, but the author argues that his determination to humiliate his former enemies was counterproductive, making them less likely to cooperate.

Daily life in the interned fleet is well-described. Eyewitness accounts complement the story and the author provides pen portraits of the protagonists, including Rear Admiral von Reuter, the German commander. His dilemma is explained in a way which reminds us of the pressures of high command. Lacking direction and guidance from home, he had little knowledge of progress with the peace negotiations at Versailles. Fearing that the Allies might impose terms so onerous that his government would refuse them, thus sparking a resumption of hostilities, Reuter believed that he had a duty to prevent his ships falling into enemy hands. The well-planned scuttle, including the British response, is covered in a dramatic account. There was courage on both sides, with nine German sailors being killed and with British boarding parties attempting to save sinking ships. The story concludes with postwar naval treaties and the complex and dangerous salvage operation, an extraordinary exploit in itself. Superbly illustrated, the book combines an engaging narrative with penetrating analysis. By placing this important event in context, the author makes an important contribution to our understanding of the First World War at sea and its aftermath.