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The Last Days of the High Seas Fleet: From Mutiny to Scapa Flow

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The Last Days of the High Seas Fleet: From Mutiny to Scapa Flow

 

Nicholas Jellicoe

Barnsley, UK: Seaforth Books, 2019

16 x 24 cm format, hardback, 351 pages

38 Color and B&W illustrations, bibliography, sources, appendices, end notes, index.

MSRP £25.00

ISBN: 978 1 5267 5458 5

 

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Verdict: A great read about a fascinating Great War footnote.

 

Most of us probably know the larger story. Between the launching of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 and the start of World War I, the naval establishments of Britain and Germany had engaged in a high-stakes arms race, each seeking to build the magic number of ever-larger and more powerful warships that would either achieve parity (in the case of Germany) or maintain naval supremacy (in the case of the Royal Navy). Of course, when war finally did break out, the two fleets of battleships met each other in a major engagement only once, and then rather briefly and indecisively. As a consequence, when Germany ultimately surrendered, she still possessed a large and powerful fleet, which dutifully sailed off into internment in Scapa Flow and was later scuttled.

 

But as Paul Harvey used to say, do you know the rest of the story?

 

The rest of that fascinating story is told in beautiful and compelling detail in Nicholas Jellicoe’s The Last Days of the High Seas Fleet (and yes, he is a grandson of that Jellicoe). Jellicoe’s work covers a surprisingly long period of time, beginning with the birth of the German Navy in the late 19th century and continuing right on down to the present day. The book can be roughly divided into three parts: the events leading up to the scuttling of the Hochseeflotte on 21 June 1919, the drama of the scuttling itself, and finally the repercussions that followed.

 

Jellicoe does an exceptional job at melding two fascinating narratives. The first is the broader geopolitical context that lead Germany to first build the High Seas Fleet, then afterwards to wield it as timidly as she did when push finally came to shove, and finally, after the surrender, to entertain the belief that her fleet would eventually be returned to her. Within this larger context, Jellicoe brings to life the various dramatis personae of the story, from the central figure of Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter right on down to the local Orkney Islanders who witnessed the astonishing events of 21 June.

 

After chronicling von Reuter’s plans to scuttle the fleet should he catch wind of any allied effort to seize it, the details of the scuttling are presented in great detail, beginning with von Reuter’s decision to execute the plan, to separate descriptions of the actions aboard each capital ship. The human drama of the clashes that ensued between the Germans as they abandoned their ships and their rather confused (with good reason, obviously) captors adds a heart-wrenching footnote to the closing chapters of the Great War.

 

The final chapters cover the aftermath of the events at Scapa Flow, whose effects were far-reaching, particularly the perceived need to head off another naval arms race that led to the Washington Naval Treaty.  Von Reuter, held until 1920 by the English, was considered a hero at home, and his sailors were said to have contributed to the sense of pride later felt by the High Seas Fleet’s successor, the Kriegsmarine. The waters of Scapa Flow were littered with the wrecks of dozens of warships, and the fascinating tale of their salvage has its own chapter devoted to it. Ironically, the few ships left unsalvaged -- first feared, then neglected and finally sunk – are now protected by British law. Only recreational divers can now gaze on what remains of the High Seas Fleet.

 

Jellicoe’s fine written account is not the only selling point of this book. The text is accompanied by a great selection of photos and paintings, and the appendices include a wealth of information on the interred fleet. Every year we set aside November 11th to remember the conclusion of the Great War, but The Last Days of the High Seas Fleet reminds us that the war didn’t end on that day for everyone – nor did the drama. Highly recommended!

 

CDC

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