Armistice Day

Armistice Day is remembered as the day World War One ended, but for naval historians Britain's greatest victory came 10 days later. Operation ZZ was the code name for the surrender of Germany's mighty navy. 


For those who witnessed "Der Tag" or "The Day" it was a sight they would never forget - the greatest gathering of warships the world had ever witnessed. 


It was still dark in the Firth of Forth when the mighty dreadnoughts of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet began to raise steam and one by one let slip their moorings.


The huge shapes of more than 40 battleships and battlecruisers began to ease out, course set due east. As the procession of steel headed for the open water of the North Sea, more than 150 cruisers and destroyers joined them. The mightiest fleet ever to sail from Britain's shores was heading for a final rendezvous with its mortal enemy - the German High Seas Fleet.


Victory would be total. But there was to be no battle. After four years of naval stalemate, this was the day when Germany would deliver her warships into British hands, without a shot being fired.


The date was 21 November 1918. 

World War One had ended on land 10 days earlier, but this was to be the decisive day of victory at sea.


Prior to armistice, German crews were in turmoil and their reluctance to fight boiled into a mutiny in early November. 


The German High Seas Fleet was ordered to fight the American and British ships that blockaded the harbor where the German fleet was moored, but the crews refused to weigh anchor, asking “why go out and die when peace is at hand?”  The mutiny spread, and the destabilization flashed into a revolution that deposed the German Monarchy and ended the German Empire.


It became clear to those inspecting the German ships after they were deposited at Scapa Flow that the total surrender was very difficult for some of the German crew members. The inspections revealed dirty ships and officers that were “…broken hearted and a complete wreck.”  The ship crews were more or less imprisoned aboard their ships, and had to see to procuring their own food and supplies. Boredom, despair, and the remnants of mutinous behaviour abounded aboard the German ships. In fact, some German officers remarked that they were happy to be in British hands as they feared some of the mutinous crews were plotting to murder the officers.

Scuttling the Fleet


On June 21, 1919, German Admiral Von Reuter sent out a secret signal to the German ships imprisoned at Scapa Flow. This signal ordered the crews of the ships to begin opening valves and breaking pipes to flood the ships. To prevent Britain, France, and the United States from using the German ships after treaty terms went into effect, the Germans decided to sink their ships.


Edward Hugh David, a British officer aboard HMS Revenge, was among the crew who witnessed the German Fleet scuttling. In a letter he wrote to his mother, David describes the event as “…perhaps the grimmest and certainly the most pathetic incident of the whole war.”   He reported that “out of the seemed biggest and finest fleet in the world, one ship remained afloat.”


Early in the day, HMS Revenge, along with a number of other ships, left the harbor for drills. When crews noticed that German ships were sinking, they called the ships back to help. When HMS Revenge arrived at Scapa Flow, some of the German ships were already sinking. David describes the scene: 


“The water was one mass of wreckage of every description, boats, … floats, chairs, tables, and human beings, and the ‘Bayern,’ the largest German battleship, her bow reared vertically out of the water was in the act of crashing finally bottomwards….”


British crews worked frantically to beach some of the German ships that were still afloat, or to force German crews to turn off valves or repair the water leaks they had caused. In some instances, British crews forced the issue at gunpoint. In the end, 52 German ships sank or capsized, and 21 were beached.


In the 1920s, the fate of the German fleet was finalized, and all the beached ships were transferred to American, British, Japanese or French control. These parties used the transferred ships for target practice or scrapping. Most of the ships that sank were slowly salvaged in the 1920s and 1930s, but some of the ships remain un-salvaged in their watery graves to this day, one of the few remaining testaments to the surrender and dramatic end of the German High Seas Fleet.


SMS Bayern

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