Scapa Flow, Operation ZZ and a final act of defiance


A British tug alongside the sinking German destroyer G102 at Scapa Flow. Image © IWM (SP 1631)

JUNE 21 1919 and another day breaks over the huge natural harbour – 120 square miles – of Scapa Flow in the Orkneys but before it is over the greatest recorded loss of shipping in a single day will have occurred there. 

Scapa Flow use as a safe haven for ships dates back to Viking times but it was first used by the Royal Navy in 1812 as an anchorage for trading ships to the Baltic coast. Recognising the importance of the harbour and that of the cargo ships, two Martello towers were built to protect the waiting ships until their Royal Navy escort arrived to take them across the North Sea.

Time and conflicts passed and regular use of Scapa by the Royal Navy waned.

In the early 20 century the Admiralty decided that its base at Rosyth near Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth could be disabled by mines sown across the estuary – effectively confining Royal Naval ships to harbour and so Scapa, with its rapid access to open waters, was to become the home of the Grand Fleet.

All the facilities needed for the effective use and protection of the harbour – artillery batteries, anti-submarine defences (including hydrophones), a mine field, blockships and later a Royal Naval Air Station – were built and by the outbreak of the First World War the base was ready to face the German threat.

In May 1916 Grand Fleet units sailed to meet the Imperial German Navy’s High Seas Fleet off the coast of Denmark. The encounter would be the greatest sea battle of the First World War – the Battle of Jutland.

The battle would involve some 100,000 sailors and around 250 ships; around 8,500 men and 25 ships would never see their home ports again.

On 5 June 1916 – for days after the battle had concluded Lord Kitchener the British Minister of War arrived at Scapa Flow to board HMS Hampshire for talks with Britain’s Russian allies.

The cruiser would never complete her voyage.

Having left harbour and trying to avoid a storm, she sank in around 20 minutes, almost certainly having hit a German submarine-laid mine off the Orkneys.

A dozen men survived from the 735 crew.

Kitchener and his thirteen staff all perished.

Just over a year later on 9 July 1917, HMS Vanguard having returned from a naval exercise would explode just before midnight killing 843 men. An explosion in the cordite room is believed to have been responsible for the ship’s loss.

On 21 November 1918, with the Armistice in force talks between all sides proceeding and disagreement over what should happen to the German Navy, Operation ZZ came into effect.

Seventy German warships sailed to an agreed point to be met by the 193 Royal Navy ships and then escorted in internment at Scapa Flow, to be held until their fate was decided. The flotilla stretch for 19 miles and was six miles wide with the German ships surrounded on all side.

Having arrived and isolated from with little news about what was happening at the talks and from their homes in Germany, time dragged and rumours flourished amongst the German crews.

Rear Admiral Ludwig Van Reuter, disgruntled by what he saw as the discreditable way his government were behaving both at the talks and in Germany but determined to act with honour sent a note to his captains which read:

‘It is my intention to sink the ships only if the enemy should attempt to obtain possession of them without the assent of our government. Should our government agree in the peace terms to the surrender of the ships, then the ships will be handed over, to the lasting disgrace of those who have placed us in this position.’

At 10:00 on 21 June 1919, with the majority of the Royal Naval ships out of harbour exercising and believing that the peace talks had failed and the Royal Navy was going to seize the German ships, he ordered that all the ships should hoist their ensigns for one last time and then scuttle themselves.

SCUTTLING OF THE GERMAN FLEET AT .SCAPA FLOW, JUNE 1919 . The battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg half sunk at Scapa Flow. Copyright: © IWM (Q 70580). Original Source:

As night fell that day 52 ships – including 15 of the 16 battleships – had settled on the floor of Scapa Flow.

Nine German sailors were killed when British sentries, believing they were under attack, fired on life boats approaching the shore.

More information (all sources retrieved 26 May 2017)

Scapa Flow:

Battle of Jutland:

Lord Kitchener:

Operation ZZ:



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