Shipping Wonders of the World

 © Shipping Wonders of the World 2012-23  | Contents  |  Site Map  |  Contact Us  |  Cookie Policy

Surrender of the German Fleet

On November 21, 1918, the mighty German High Seas Fleet was handed over to the British Fleet for internment at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands. Before peace negotiations had been concluded, however, the German sailors scuttled their ships

The German battle cruiser Seydlitz

THE IMPERIAL WHITE ENSIGN of the German battle cruiser Seydlitz was still flying as she steamed across the North Sea under the orders of Admiral Sir David Beatty, who was in charge of the arrangements for taking over the German Fleet. Built in 1912, of 25,000 tons displacement, the Seydlitz was 656 feet long, with a beam of 93 ft. 4 in.

AT 5 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the Armistice terms were signed in the saloon of a special train that had been drawn up in a siding in the Forest of Compiegne in Northern France. Marshal Foch and Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss were the principal signatories on behalf of the Allies, and the German Secretary of State, Herr Erzberger, on behalf of the new Government of Germany.

Two clauses of the Armistice Agreement contained the following provisions: that Germany was to surrender to the Allies and the U.S.A. 160 submarines, complete with armament and equipment, in specified ports, and that German surface warships designated by the Allies and the U.S.A. were to be disarmed, interned in neutral or Allied ports and placed under the surveillance of the Allies and the U.S.A., with only caretakers left on board. The ships designated were six battle cruisers, ten battleships, eight light cruisers (including two minelayers), and fifty destroyers of the most modern type. All other surface warships were to be completely disarmed and placed under the supervision of the Allies and the U.S.A.

Thus Germany was to be deprived of all naval power. The terms were severe, but the original Admiralty proposals were even more severe. They proposed the complete surrender of the Fleet; but the Allied Premiers decided that only the submarines were to be surrendered and that internment of the remaining German naval forces to be handed over was the most that could be demanded.

The Allied Naval Council left the enforcement of the terms of the Armistice in the hands of Admiral Sir David Beatty, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, whose flag was flying in the Queen Elizabeth at Rosyth, in the Firth of Forth. Germany was in a state of political upheaval. The Government in Berlin was under the control of Herr Ebert, but no one knew who was in control of the Navy. Admiral Beatty decided to get in communication by wireless with Admiral von Hipper, who had been Commander-in-Chief of the German High Seas Fleet.

On October 21, 1918, the German Chancellor decided that all attacks on passenger vessels by U-boats should cease, to facilitate the armistice for which Germany was asking. Admiral von Scheer, the Chief of the German Navy, was opposed to this plan, but he was overruled, and sent orders to all the submarines to return home. At the same time he ordered Admiral von Hipper to take the whole High Seas Fleet to sea for action against the British Navy in the North Sea.

ThInternment of the German High Seas Fleet 1918e German Fleet had been through a wearying war. The lack of unity between officers and men, as well as the inferior quality of the food, had affected the spirit of the restless crews. Discontent, which had first appeared in 1917, had been slowly spreading. When the prospects of an armistice and peace were followed by orders to go to sea and engage the British Fleet, this discontent was again brought to a head. On October 25 a number of German submarines put to sea to take up positions south of the Firth of Forth in readiness for the naval attack on the British Fleet. On October 27 and 28 the German Fleet began to assemble in Schillig Road, the outer anchorage off the River Elbe, ready for the sortie. News leaked out that a “death or glory attack” was to be made, and this was used as propaganda among the men of the Fleet, who carried out their orders for preparation, but murmured to each other: “Why go out and die when peace is at hand?”

Admiral von Hipper issued orders on October 29 to raise steam so that the fleet could sail that night; but when the time for sailing arrived the stokers in two of the battleships drew fires and refused to sail. Admiral von Hipper decided to wait until the next day, but the odds were against him. Bad weather added to his difficulties. He ordered the Fleet to disperse to their harbours. The mutiny spread from ship to shore, and from shore to ship. By November 7 the Red Flag was flying from all ships, except submarines, in the German harbours. Kiel and Wilhelmshaven were under the rule of the President of the Soviet of Workers, Soldiers and Sailors, an ex-stoker, who had a council of twenty-one, with an inner council of five. The German naval officers were removed and the ships placed in charge of Soviet delegates. Armistice Day, November 11, was celebrated by the firing of every rocket in the fleet, but this display did not conceal the shock that the terms of the Armistice had given to the Soviets in the German fleet.

Some steps had already been taken towards dismantling the ships, for the rioters had made free with everything they could lay hands on from the vessels. At Wilhelmshaven there was a scene of chaos. People were singing the Internationale, and the Soviet police could not prevent them from trafficking with naval stores. Anything and everything was purloined - valuable instruments, ammunition, and food stores.

Then came a message that rather baffled the Soviet Council of the North Sea Station: “The Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet requests that a Flag-Officer be sent to Rosyth to make arrangements for executing the Naval Armistice terms.” Unable to deal with this request themselves, the Council summoned Admiral von Hipper and other officers as “technical advisers”.

Meeting the German Delegate

A statement was issued by the President of the Wilhelmshaven Soviet: “The Plenipotentiaries have been given full powers to take part in the discussion regarding the execution of the Armistice conditions, and to conclude treaties. The authorization has been signed by the President of Oldenburg and Ostfriesland, Bernard Kuhnt. It also bears the signature of Admiral von Hipper, who takes part in the minor capacity of technical adviser, the Executive Organ being the Workers’ and Sailors’ Soviet.” Admiral von Hipper at once sent for Rear-Admiral Hugo von Meurer and asked him to go to Rosyth as the German delegate. A signal was sent to Admiral Beatty that Rear-Admiral von Meurer would start at once in the cruiser Konigsberg. Detailed instructions were sent by Admiral Beatty as to the course to be steered and the position of the rendezvous.

As soon as the Konigsberg sailed on her unique errand, Admiral von Meurer insisted that the old Imperial Naval Ensign should be hoisted, ignoring the fact that the Sailors’ Soviet was on board in command of the ship. In addition to the Naval Ensign, Admiral von Meurer’s flag as Rear-Admiral was hoisted at one masthead and a large white flag of truce at the other. The course ordered by Admiral Beatty could not be followed exactly, because of the minefields laid by the Germans. Admiral von Meurer reported his movements by wireless to Admiral Beatty.

Admiral Beatty supervised the surrender of the German fleet from HMS Queen Elizabeth

ADMIRAL SIR DAVID BEATTY, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, watching the German High Seas Fleet heading for the Firth of Forth. Admiral Beatty supervised the surrender from the Fleet Flagship H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth.

In the meantime Rear-Admiral Sir Alexander Sinclair, in the cruiser Cardiff, accompanied by three other light cruisers and ten destroyers, left Rosyth to meet the Konigsberg. The weather was foggy but the Cardiff towed a look-out kite balloon and the squadron was spread out on either side so that there was little chance of their separating. At 2 p.m. on November 15 the Konigsberg was sighted. The Cardiff hoisted the signal “Follow me” and in thick weather the delegate ship of the German Fleet was led to a British anchorage. It was after dark when the Konigsberg dropped anchor off Inchkeith, an island in the Firth of Forth. The escorting cruisers and destroyers anchored round her, and small craft patrolled to prevent any communication by the Germans with the shore. H.M.S. Oak, the destroyer attached to the Fleet Flagship soon embarked Admiral von Meurer and his staff of four officers and conveyed them to the Queen Elizabeth.

History records many instances of the surrender of ships during an action, with the Commanding Officer handing up his sword. This was the first instance of a fleet being handed over, submarines in surrender and surface craft for internment. Admiral Beatty reminded his officers and men that a state of war existed during the Armistice, and that no international compliments would be paid. Relations with the German officers and men were to be strictly formal, and no conversation was to take place except on duty.

Soon after 7 p.m. Admiral von Meurer stepped on board the Flagship. He was received correctly. The quartermaster piped the side and the officer of the watch saluted. Admiral von Meurer clicked his heels, saluted, and was then conducted by the Captain of the Fleet, Commodore H. Brand, with the Captain of the Queen Elizabeth and other officers, to Admiral Beatty’s cabin. Royal Marines with fixed bayonets lined the deck.

An Historic Conference

Even the most hard-hearted man must have felt sympathy for Admiral von Meurer as he went through this ordeal. Who can imagine his sentiments as he stood on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth? Officers received him without a handshake, marines with rifles did not present arms, and in the background the silent crew strained their necks to get a glimpse of the German Admiral who they had scarcely believed would come. Around the ship, myriads of twinkling lights in the Forth revealed the presence of the most powerful fleet the world had ever seen. In addition, when he had handed up his credentials, Admiral von Meurer had to report that the Plenipotentiaries of the Sailors’ and Workers’ Soviet of the North Sea Command were on board the Konigsberg, authorized to attend all conferences; he Was merely a “technical adviser”.

Admiral Beatty sat at one side of a long table in the cabin. Opposite him sat Admiral von Meurer, with three officers and his personal aide-de-camp. Admiral Beatty had with him Admiral Sir Charles Madden and Vice-Admiral Sir O. de B. Brock, with Commander Roger Bellairs and Paymaster-Commander F. T. Spickernell as assistants. Lieut.-Commander W. T. Bagot acted as interpreter. Vice-Admiral Sir Montague Browning was also present most of the time, and Rear-Admiral Sir Reginald Tyrwhitt when concerned in the arrangements for the surrender of the U-boats.

Many details had to be discussed. Admiral Beatty prescribed exactly which ships were to be sent over, how much coal and stores they were to carry, and what course they were to steer. Procedure was necessarily slow, for everything had to be repeated by the interpreter. Frequently Admiral von Meurer had to communicate by wireless with Germany to obtain the information required. It was not until late the following night that final arrangements were made. Admiral von Meurer left the Queen Elizabeth in the unostentatious manner in which he had embarked. He was taken back to the Konigsberg, and sailed at once for Germany.

On either side of the North Sea preparations were being made for the last act of this great drama. Admiral Tyrwhitt was to receive the surrender of the U-boats at Harwich, and the main Fleet was to come to Rosyth. The operation orders for the reception of the German Fleet were labelled Z.Z., perhaps to emphasize that they marked the end. Subdued excitement prevailed among the crews at Rosyth and at Harwich, but, apart from the arrangements for sailing, the inspection of the disarmament and the transference of the crews, there was little to be done.

AFTER THE SURRENDER British officers were sent aboard the German U-boats

AFTER THE SURRENDER British officers were sent aboard the German U-boats to see that orders had been carried out in detail and that all ammunition and stores had been removed. The Armistice terms provided for the surrender of 150 German submarines.

On the German side the arrangements were not so simple. Many difficulties arose. The Workers’ Council at first called on the Government to resist the “uncalled-for presumption” on the part of the Allies. They realized, however, that resistance would mean the occupation of Heligoland and other islands still in Germany’s hands, so they decided to carry out the plans at once.

The surface ships were depleted of ammunition, instruments and stores as rapidly as possible, but it was no easy task after the upheaval that had taken place a few days before. False rumours and propaganda were in circulation, intimating that all the other Navies were flying the Red flag. The submarine crews were told that they would be shot or imprisoned when they reached England. All these things naturally stimulated the people to unrest and disorder. Bonuses, insurances and other considerations overcame some of the submarine crews’ difficulties, and by November 18 the first batch of twenty U-boats was on its way to Harwich for surrender.

Of the 150 U-boats to be given up, nearly one hundred were ready. These were sent over in batches of between twenty and thirty. Some of the U-boat commanders, refused to strike the Ensign and interned their vessels in Baltic ports rather than surrender. This lead was followed by most of the U-boats that were on their way home from the Mediterranean when the Armistice was signed.

At 7 a.m. on November 20, Admiral Tyrwhitt in the light cruiser Curacao, with four other cruisers and a number of destroyers, was waiting at the rendezvous about thirty-five miles off the east coast of England. The ships were at action stations as the possibility of a last defiant attack by the U-boats could not be overlooked. The progress of the incoming submarines was reported by wireless from time to time and at the appointed hour two transports were sighted escorting the first batch of twenty German submarines.

These were followed soon after by the twenty U-boats. Only one flew the German Ensign and all of them had removed their numbers. The British ships formed round them and led them towards Harwich.

The U-Boats Surrender

As soon as the outer buoys of the harbour were reached, British officers and men boarded the vessels to take them over. Orders had been issued by Admiral Tyrwhitt, and the “taking over” was done in an orderly and rigid manner. The British officers saluted on stepping aboard, and asked for papers. Each German officer then handed over a written statement concerning his vessel. The German crew was moved forward while the British officers went to the conning-tower and took command of the submarine. In batches of five the vessels moved into Harwich, the Germans operating the machinery under the orders of the British. When they arrived off Parkestone Quay, the German crews were transferred by motor-launch to the waiting transports, while their ships remained with the White Ensign flying.

Day after day the same procedure was followed, varied at times on account of bad weather, which caused delay in mooring and in the transferring of crews. Many famous U-boats came, including the Deutschland and the enormous and newly-built U 139, which had never seen service. Many were camouflaged and painted in red and green, striking a gay note in the harbour. Throughout the surrender Admiral Tyrwhitt’s orders were strictly carried out. Silence and discipline were rigidly maintained.

THE MOST POWERFUL BATTLESHIP in the German Navy the Bayern

THE MOST POWERFUL BATTLESHIP in the German Navy, the Bayern, is shown steaming between the two lines of the Allied Fleet on her way to the Firth of Forth. The Bayern was completed on October 30, 1915, and had a displacement of 28,000 tons. Her overall length was 626 ft. 8 in., and her beam 99 ft. 9 in. Her Imperial White Ensign was not lowered until sunset on November 21, 1918.

On November 17 Admiral von Hipper had to decide who was to accompany the Sailors’ Soviet and help them take the fleet to Rosyth. It was doubtful whether Admiral von Meurer would be back in time, for he had reported foggy weather. Admiral Ludwig von Reuter was asked to take over the difficult and unwanted “command”, a position officially described as “technical adviser” to the Soviet. Seldom, if ever, has a man been offered such a thankless and heart-breaking appointment. To his everlasting credit, Admiral von Reuter placed his services at the disposal of his country.

The battleship Friedrich der Grosse acted as his Flagship. He proceeded on board and hoisted his Vice-Admiral’s flag. The other senior officers appointed to go with him were Commodore Taegart, who flew his broad pendant in the battle cruiser Seydlitz, and Commodore Harder, who sailed in the light cruiser Karlsruhe. The ships finally prepared for the voyage to Rosyth were nine battleships, five battle cruisers, eight light cruisers and fifty destroyers.

The Sailors’ Soviet intended that these ships should fly the Red flag, but it was pointed out that if they did so they were liable to be treated as pirates and sunk. At the last moment, therefore, the Red flag was hauled down and all ships flew the Imperial Naval Ensign. The Admiral and Commodore flew their personal flags as well. Some of the ships met with difficulties in their engine-room departments, but eventually all ships sailed at noon on November 19, a sunny autumn day.

The speed of the fleet was restricted to eleven knots. For various reasons no higher speed could be obtained. The difficulties of handling ships with a mixed command and a mixed crew can easily be imagined. There was also the danger of mine fields, although special vessels were employed to mark these.

Intricate Operation Orders

Slowly steaming in cruiser formation past the island of Heligoland, past Jutland, a scene reminiscent of May 31, 1916, the second Naval-power of the world sailed not in defence of its country and people, but to internment. Two mishaps occurred. The light cruiser Coln reported off the Dogger Bank: “Condenser leak - impossible maintain speed.”

Later, in the silence of the night, there was a deafening explosion. It was reported that the destroyer V 20 had struck a mine. She sank with the loss of two men killed and three wounded. As soon as Admiral Beatty received this report, he ordered another ship to be prepared in place of the destroyer.

By midnight on November 20, Admiral von Reuter, with his ships at intervals of about four hundred yards, was about one hundred miles from May Island, at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. Two hours later, at 2 a.m. on November 21, the Grand Fleet began to stir. Operation orders Z.Z. gave every instruction in detail. Every vessel knew the exact time to move, the exact position to take up in the great armada and the exact courses to be steered.

Battleships, battle cruisers, cruisers, light cruisers, flotilla leaders, destroyers, aircraft-carriers, airships and kite balloons all had their parts to play. The Fleet included the Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Six United States’ battleships, under the command of Admiral Rodman, in the New York, were present, and Admiral Sims, the Chief of the United States’ Navy in European waters, was also on board. The French Navy was represented by Admiral Grasset, who flew his flag in the cruiser Amiral Aube and was escorted by two French destroyers. The whole of this great armada was under the orders of Admiral Beatty, in the Queen Elizabeth. In addition to the two British Admirals already mentioned, there were seventeen other Flag-Officers. Rear-Admiral Sir Alexander Sinclair, in the Cardiff, with a kite “sausage” balloon again in tow, had the honour of leading the van to meet the oncoming fleet. A spread of destroyers and the constant use of wireless made a sure and true meeting possible. The rendezvous was for 9 a.m., in a position latitude 56° 11' N., longitude 10° 20' W. As the historic moment approached, the Grand Fleet went to action stations. Guns were loaded and every preparation was made to destroy the enemy if necessary. It seemed almost incredible that the second greatest Navy in the world should give itself up without firing a shot; but not a shot was fired.

A GERMAN BATTLESHIP of the Konig class passing through the lines of the Grand Fleet in the North Sea on her last voyage under the Imperial White Ensign. The ships of the Konig class had a displacement of 25,800 tons, and were built between April 1913 and February 1914.

The Grand Fleet approached in two lines fifteen miles in length. In the northern line were thirty-nine ships; in the southern line, six miles away and steering a parallel course, were thirty-three ships. Between and ahead were seven cruisers and eight flotillas of destroyers. The German ships, except for the destroyers, were in single line. The battleships were followed by the battle cruisers, and then by the light cruisers. The destroyers brought up the rear.

The morning was misty, but the sun penetrated the clouds and at about 8 a.m. visibility extended about four miles. The curtain of fog gradually lifted and all eyes were strained to catch a sight of the enemy. The destroyers were the first to report the German Fleet, which was led by the Cardiff between the two lines of the Grand Fleet. At an order from Admiral Beatty the lines turned sixteen points so that the German ships were sandwiched. The Soviet officials and supporters peered through the mist, but could not see any Red flags on the British ships. They had been deceived. The British Navy did not fly the Red flag.

German Flag Hauled Down

Thus the procession of more than two hundred vessels, including fifty-six dreadnoughts, headed for Rosyth. Slowly it moved towards the anchorage, and by noon the German main fleet was anchored in six lines between Kirkcaldy Bay and Aberlady Bay. The destroyers were taken farther up the Firth.

The crews of the Grand Fleet had scrupulously carried out their orders not to cheer or show any sign of rejoicing at the arrival of the enemy, but there were no orders to prevent them from cheering their own Commander-in-Chief. As the Queen Elizabeth hauled out of the line great cheers rang out for Admiral Beatty.

Soon after the ships had all been anchored, Admiral Beatty signalled to Admiral von Reuter that the German Flag was to be hauled down at sunset and not hoisted again without permission. The German Admiral protested and stated that the ships were only being interned, but it was pointed out that during a “state of war” it was impossible to have an enemy flag flying in British ports. At sunset (3.57 p.m.) that evening, in the mist and twilight, the German Flag was hauled down, to be hoisted only once more for a brief period. At 6 p.m. a service was held in all ships. Admiral Beatty had set the example in a signal issued earlier in the day. “It is my intention to hold a service this evening at 18.00 (6 o’clock) to-day, Thursday, for the victory which Almighty God has vouchsafed to His Majesty’s ships.”


THE SHELTERED WATERS of Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, where the German High Seas Fleet was sunk by its own crews to prevent the vessels from falling into the hands of the Allied Powers if peace negotiations broke down. This photograph shows ships of the 4th Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet exercising in Scapa Flow during the war of 1914-18.

Meanwhile, Commodore H. M. Hodges went on board the German flagship with an interpreter to convey orders concerning the inspection of the ships and the instructions to be followed while in British ports. He refused to deal with the Soviet emissaries and asked to be conducted to the Admiral. Among the orders issued to the German ships were instructions that no boats were to be lowered and no visits to be made between ships. There was no leave ashore, and a strict censorship of letters was instituted. All food required was to be obtained from Germany. After Commodore Hodges’ visit, officers and men from the fleet were sent aboard the German vessels to see that orders as to the removal of ammunition, breech-blocks and stores had been carried out.

Preparations had also been made for the permanent internment of the ships. The terms of the Armistice had provided for the use of an Allied port if necessary. It was decided that the ships should be sent to Scapa Flow, a small, bleak harbour in the Orkney Islands. To Scapa Flow, therefore, were sent the destroyers, followed by the larger ships as they became ready.

The allowance of personnel was 200 men for a battle cruiser, 150 for a battleship, sixty for a cruiser and twenty for a destroyer. The total German force consisted of 200 officers and 4,300 men. Admiral von Reuter went back to Germany on account of ill-health, and his place was taken by Captain Oldekop, his-chief-of-staff.

In January 1919 Admiral von Reuter was persuaded to return to Scapa by the new Government in Berlin. On his arrival he found that many of the German crews had become Bolshevist in the bleak monotony of Scapa routine. He transferred to the cruiser Emden, which was fitted up with flagship accommodation; but his life was dull and undignified, and such news as he obtained came to him several days late from the British newspapers.

It was from these newspapers that Admiral von Reuter learned how the peace negotiations were progressing. He came to the conclusion that if the negotiations failed, it was his duty to prevent the ships under his orders from falling into the hands of the enemy. He could not raise steam and sail away, or attack, and the only alternative was to destroy the Fleet. He wrote to Germany a letter, which was duly censored, asking for a transport for 2,500 of his men, as he no longer required them for the safety of the ships.

Guard Squadron Outwitted

Early in June 1919, transports were sent and Admiral von Reuter got rid of many men, including those on whom he could not depend. A secret letter was addressed to all commanders and a secret signal arranged:- “Paragraph 09-11 — confirm.” The first two numbers of this signal indicated the date, and the last two numbers the time suggested for sinking the fleet. A signal was to be returned in the same form: “ Paragraph 09 — confirmed, signed, Commander Emden.” When the signal was hoisted from the flagship every ship was to be sunk by opening as many sea-cocks and apertures as possible. Everything was prepared to ensure the rapid flooding of the ships. Officers and crews were to escape in boats, if possible.

On June 21, a fine sunny day, Admiral von Reuter received his newspapers dated June 16. The news he read gave him the impression that the Armistice would come to an end without the agreement of any peace terms. He was debating the advisability of acting at once when one of his officers reported that Admiral Sydney Fremantle, in command of the guard squadron, was proceeding to sea with his battleships and destroyers. Admiral Fremantle had decided to take advantage of favourable weather and carry out long-overdue torpedo exercises at sea.

As soon as the main body of the British Fleet was out of the harbour, Admiral von Reuter hoisted the secret signal. It was quickly seen and obeyed. The German Imperial Flag was hoisted by all the German ships, and their crews went below to open the sea-cocks. By the time the patrol-craft had realized what had happened, it was too late. Ship after ship could be seen listing as the water gained. Frantic efforts were made to compel the German crews to close the sea-cocks or to tow the ships ashore and prevent their sinking. Escaping crews were taken prisoner.

When Admiral Fremantle received the news he sent all his destroyers back at full speed and followed close after with his battleships; but it was too late. All the battleships sank, except the Baden, which was beached with the light cruisers Emden, Frankfurt, Nurnberg and eighteen destroyers.

Admiral von Reuter was made a prisoner of war on board the British flagship, but, in spite of the tremendous loss of ships, his action solved the difficult task of dividing them up amongst the Allies. On January 21, 1920, Admiral von Reuter and 1,800 officers and men were released from internment and sent back to Germany. Thus ended a series of the most remarkable incidents ever recorded in naval history.


LEADING THE GERMAN FLEET to internment, H.M.S. Cardiff was followed by the German battle cruisers Seydlitz, Moltke and Hindenburg. As they passed between the lines of the Grand Fleet, they brought to a conclusion an important chapter of naval history.

You can read more on “The Battle of the Falklands”, “German Shipping” and

“Raising the German Fleet” on this website.