At the end of the first World War, German ships and U boats were ordered to report and surrender to the British forces. The U boats went to the south of England, the ships were escorted to the northern bay of Scapa Flow, in the Firth of Forth, while peace agreements were worked out.
The initial surrender happened in November 1918, and the movement of the ships had been completed by the end of January 1919.
The peace talks however, dragged on for months.
An agreement was eventually agreed to be signed in mid June, which would hand over the ships to the British finally, to be re-distributed among the Allied forces.
The German commander in Scapa Flow, Von Reuter, had different ideas.
Around the beginning of June, he had started to talk of possibly scuttluing the fleet and avoiding their surrender to the Allies.
The British fleet who were stationed in Scapa to watch over the Germans, got wind of the suggestions, but with 72 German ships, it was impossible to check every single one for signs of sabotage.
These were not small ships, some were battle destroyers.
Around 11 on the morning of the 21st June 1919, a signal was sent from ship to ship, on the order of Von Reuter, to begin the scuttling. It was done subtly, leaving portholes and watertight doors open, cracking open the internal water pipes, opening the flood valves. Outside the ships, there was no sign of the scuttling for around an hour, by which time it was too late to save them.
Three British destroyers were stationed in Scapa Flow and they began towing some of the smaller ships to sand banks to beach them as soon as the scuttling was reported, managing to beach 21 of them before the rest of the fleet had sunk.
The last ship went underwater around 5pm, the Hindenburg.
The crews had abandoned their ships once the sinking had started and over 1700 men were picked up by the Navy and sent to prisoner of war camps on the mainland. A few were killed or died in Scapa Flow, but their bodies were collected and returned to Germany.
The actions of Von Reuter and his men were classed as a breach of an armistice and were villified in Britain, though Germany called him a hero!
Some of the ships were salvaged years later, the beached ships being divided between the Allied countries.
Scapa Flow still holds half a dozen wrecks, which are able to be dived on (with a licence). If you are visiting Orkney, I would also recommend a walk alongside the Churchill Barriers ( a causeway built between mainland Orkney and some of the southern isles, giving access via a road instead of boat), particularly the ones onto and off Burray, as you can see parts of the ships in the bay and in the sand, if the wind is in the right direction. It gives hours of fun, letting the children run among the dunes and see if they can guess what parts of the ship they have found (mine found part of a cannon beneath the sand once, the boys loved that!).