On this day in history….21st June 1919

On this day in history : 21st June 1919 – In the biggest act of self-destruction in military history German sailors scuttle 74 of their own warships at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands….

SMS Derfflinger capsizes – C.W.Burrows – Public domain

One of the terms of the November 1918 armistice, which brought World War 1 to an end, was the handing over of the German naval fleet to the Allies…. The details of the surrender of the fleet were worked out between Admiral Sir David Beatty on behalf of the Allies and German Rear-Admiral Hugo Meurer – along with other senior naval officers….

On the 21st of November 1918 seventy German battleships, cruisers and destroyers, under the command of Rear-Admiral Ludwig Von Reuter, arrived at the Firth of Forth, off the Scottish coast…. They were escorted to Rosyth, to the north-west of Edinburgh, where they anchored…. The order was given for all German flags to be lowered….

HMS Cardiff leading German fleet into Firth of Forth – Royal Navy official photographer – from the collections of the Imperial War Museums – Public domain

At this point the Allies had not yet decided what to do with the German fleet…. The French and Italians were hoping to get their hands on a few to replenish their own depleted fleets – whereas the British and Americans favoured destroying the lot…. In the meantime the fleet was moved to Scapa Flow where it would be held until a decision had been made…. Over the following few weeks four more ships arrived, now making a totally of seventy-four, along with 20,000 German sailors…. Gradually these were returned to Germany – leaving just skeleton crews to man the vessels…. The Germans were forbidden to leave their ships – food and provisions were sent from Germany on a fortnightly basis…. For months the men were kept like this whilst the negotiations continued – they were bored, restless and undoubtedly mutinous….

German sailors fishing over the side of a destroyer – Royal Navy official photographer – from the collections of the Imperial War Museums – Public domain
Scapa Flow, November 1918 – Royal Navy – Public domain

Eventually the talks in Versailles broke down…. Britain began to make plans to destroy the fleet, with a date being set for the 23rd of June 1919…. Somehow Von Reuter learned of this and began to put his own plan into action….

Emden, Frankfurt and Bremse entering the Scapa Flow – Royal Navy official photographer – from the collections of the Imperial War Museums – Public domain

The 21st of June dawned a perfect Summer’s day – and the British fleet had decided to take advantage of the good weather and had left the harbour early to go out on exercise – leaving just a minimal guard behind to oversee the German fleet…. Technically the ships still legally belonged to the Germans, as they had not officially surrendered them – this explains why there was no physical Ally presence onboard….

At 10.30am Von Reuter set the wheels in motion to prevent the British from seizing the ships…. He had already managed to get messages to the commanding officers of all the other ships and as his flagship ‘Emden’ sent out the obscure message “Paragraph eleven, confirm”, using searchlights and semaphore, they knew it was their signal to scuttle….

SMS Bayern sinking – Royal Navy official photographer – from the collections of the Imperial War Museums – Public domain

The crews hoisted their German flags, opened water tight doors, the seacocks, portholes, hatches and torpedo tubes – and smashed pipes, deliberately flooding the ships…. It was done so that each vessel flooded from one side, causing it to capsize – it took the British a couple of hours to realise what was happening….

Hindenburg – Royal Navy official photographer – from the collections of the Imperial War Museums – Public domain
Seydlitz on her side – Copyright free use

The Germans left the sinking ships in their lifeboats – while at the same time the British boarded some of them to try and prevent the scuttling…. They towed some to shallow water to beach them – skirmishes broke out between the opposing sides….9 Germans were killed and a further 16 wounded….

In all 52 of the 74 ships sank….the rest stayed afloat or were beached…. The islanders helped themselves to anything worth having…. Any surviving ships were then divided up among the Allies….

Salvage work on Baden – Royal Navy official photographer – from the collections of the Imperial War Museums – Public domain

As for the sunk ships, some of them still remain there…. In the 1920s salvage attempts were made…. British scrap metal dealer Ernest Cox had managed to salvage over 30 by the early 1930s – he became known as ‘the man who bought a navy’….

On this day in history….7th May 1915

On this day in history : 7th May 1915 – A German U-boat sinks RMS Lusitania killing 1,198 people – 128 of which are US citizens and turns the American public against the German Empire….

Lusitania in 1907 – Public domain

The Lusitania had been launched on the 7th of June 1906 and was designed to carry passengers transatlantic…. At the time she was the largest ship in the world, measuring 787 feet (240m) and weighing approximately 31,550 tons…. She was especially noted for her speed…. A month after her maiden voyage, which began on the 7th of September 1907, she was awarded the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing, averaging at 24 knots….

Lusitania was coming to the end of her 202nd Atlantic crossing and was headed to Liverpool from New York…. On board the British ocean liner, which was part of the Cunard Shipping Line, were 1,959 passengers and crew….

The ship was running parallel to Ireland’s south coast when at 2.10pm she crossed in front of a German U-boat…. Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, had been warned by the British Admiralty to avoid the south coast of Ireland because of submarine activity – but he chose to ignore the warnings…. Commanding Officer of the U-boat, Walter Schweitzer, gave the order to fire a torpedo – which at 2.12pm struck the Lusitania on the starboard bow…. The initial impact explosion was quickly followed by a second much larger explosion, quite possibly the ship’s boilers….

English drawing of Lusitania being torpedoed – Public domain

The crew rushed to launch the lifeboats but because of the ship’s list it was all but impossible – only 6 out of the 48 lifeboats were successfully launched…. Within 20 minutes the Lusitania had sunk….

Illustration of the sinking by Norman Wilkinson – Public domain

News of the Lusitania’s sinking soon reached around the world, causing an international outcry – especially in Britain and across the British Empire…. Most of the casualties onboard were British or Canadian but included were 128 Americans…. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson had declared US neutrality – it took another two years before the States entered the War but the sinking of the Lusitania played a significant part in turning American public opinion against Germany….

U-20 (second from left) – the submarine responsible for the sinking of Lusitania – Public domain

The Germans justified the attack as necessary as the Lusitania had been carrying 173 tons of rifle ammunition and shells…. Nevertheless Germany apologised to the US and said there would be no more unrestricted submarine warfare…. However, just a few months later, in November 1915, an Italian liner was sunk by a U-boat, killing over 270 people, including more than 25 Americans….

On this day in history….30th December 1887

On this day in history : 30th December 1887 – A petition, signed by more than a million women, is sent to Queen Victoria, calling for public houses to close on Sundays….

Women would have had a variety of valid reasons for putting their name to such a petition…. Many were fed up with their menfolk spending much of their free time in the pub – an establishment that generally did not welcome women – and since the 1830s alcohol consumption had been linked with many social issues….

Public domain

Then there were those who supported the Temperance Movement…. A fierce movement against the consumption of alcohol which had begun in America during the late 1700s and in time was to spread to Britain and Ireland…. A great British global expansion had taken place during the 19th century and in the latter part of the 1800s there was a fear that this ‘greatness’ would drown in a sea of alcohol…. Of course, even with the signatures of over one million women, the petition was never going to get far…. In fact it got no further than Henry Mathews – the then Home Secretary….

Henry Mathews – Public domain

The Beer House Act of 1840 required public houses to close at midnight….generally opening at 5 or 6am it was pretty much possible to get a drink at any time of the day…. It was the advent of World War 1 that eventually brought changes to the licensing laws – restrictions were put in place limiting the hours publicans could serve alcohol…. Ironically many of these restrictions were aimed at women….

The Government became concerned about the amount of alcohol being consumed by female munition workers…. With their menfolk away fighting and combined with increased spending power – the girls were out to have a good time…. With unrestricted opening it meant more drinking hours in the day….and productivity in the munitions factories was not as high as the government desired…. David Lloyd George, the then Minister for Munitions (but also to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister during the war years) said at a speech in Bangor – “drink is doing us more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together”…. In another speech, given to the Shipbuilding Employers Federation he is known to have said Britain was “fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest foe is Drink”….

Women workers in the New Gun Factory, Woolwich – Photo from the collections of the Imperial War Museums

Lloyd George initiated a campaign for complete abstinence for the duration of the war…. He had support in the highest of places – having managed to persuade King George V to promise that no alcohol would be consumed in the Royal Household until the war was over…. A statement was put out….“no wines, spirits or beer will be consumed in any of His Majesty’s houses after today; Tuesday April 6th 1915″….img_5176

Others who lent their support and followed the King’s example were Lord Kitchener – the Secretary of State and Richard Haldane – the Lord Chancellor…. However, Herbert H Asquith, Prime Minister at the time and a some what heavy drinker, refused…. Asquith was regularly under the influence when he addressed the House of Commons – his reaction to Lloyd George was that he had “completely lost his head on drink”….

Lloyd George was tempted to outlaw alcohol entirely – but knew there would be a backlash…. So a range of laws and restrictions was introduced instead….

In cities, towns and industrial areas a change in the law meant public houses could only serve between 12 noon and 2.30pm and in the evenings from 6.30pm to 9.30pm…. Most rural areas were unaffected and could still open throughout the day….

Laws were introduced reducing the strength of alcohol and taxes were increased, making it less affordable…. In 1918 a bottle of whisky typically cost £1 – five times more than it had before the outbreak of the war…. Other measures were put into place, such as to where alcohol could no longer be consumed – for example drinking on trains was banned….

One of the more unpopular laws was the ban on buying a round of drinks…. The ‘No Treating Order’, introduced in October 1915, meant it became illegal to buy an alcoholic drink for another person – the maximum penalty for breaking this law was six months imprisonment…. Licensing authorities had the power to close pubs who allowed treating….

A report in ‘The Morning Post’ on the 14th of March 1916:- “At Southampton yesterday Robert Andrew Smith was fined for treating his wife to a glass of wine in a local public house. He said his wife gave him sixpence to pay for her drink. Mrs Smith was also fined £1 for consuming and Dorothy Brown, the barmaid £5 for selling the intoxicant, contrary to the regulations of the Liquor Control Board”….

Unsurprisingly, this combination of tough measures worked…. By the end of WW1 Britain’s alcohol consumption had dropped by nearly 60%…. Beer consumption in 1914 was 89 million gallons, whereas in 1918 it was just 37 million…. In 1914 London 67,103 people were charged with drunkenness – in 1917 that number had fallen to 16,567….img_5175

On this day in history….13th December 1914

On this day in history : 13th December 1914 – Lieutenant Otto Koehn – known as ‘the German jack-in-a-box’ – is discovered concealed in a packing crate at Tilbury Docks….attempting to escape to Hamburg….

Otto was a German prisoner of war…. He had been captured from a German freight ship travelling from the USA to Germany….and he had been taken to Poundbury Prisoner of War Camp in Dorchester…. Otto began to plan his escape soon after arriving….

His opportunity came when some of the older prisoners were due to be repatriated back to Germany…. When the day came for their departure, there was an extra packing crate amongst their luggage….a crate measuring just 3ft x 2ft x 2ft…. Inside was Otto – which must have been quite a squeeze, as he was over 6ft tall! He had along with him a dozen bananas, some malt extract and three Champagne bottles full of water….

On arrival at Tilbury Docks the SS Batavian was waiting to take the prisoners for repatriation to Hamburg…. Dockers decided the best way to load the crate Otto was secluded in was by rolling it down the ramp to the ship…. So shaken and jolted was Otto inside he could stand it no more…. He burst out of the crate head first….and surrendered….

SS Batavier – unknown photographer – public domain

Otto was returned back to Dorchester….and earned the new name ….’Jack-in-a-box’….

Thomas Nast – Public domain

On this day in history….22nd September 1914

On this day in history : 22nd September 1914 – Three Royal Navy cruisers are sunk after being torpedoed by one single German U-Boat….

Illustration by Hans Bohrdt depicting the sinking of HMS Cressy, HMS Aboukir and HMS Hogue – Public domain

The incident was a wake up call to both the British and Germans; it had not yet been realised the full potential of the new submarines…. Some in authority had been dismissive of their usefulness – but this heralded the dawning of a new era….

U-9 – Public domain

The three Royal Navy cruisers, HMS Hogue, HMS Aboukir and HMS Cressy, were making their way across the North Sea and were a few miles off the coast of the Netherlands…. They had been sailing abreast at a distance of a couple of miles apart – no precautions against submarines, such as ‘zig-zagging’, were undertaken as the sea conditions were rough and considered as to be too unsuitable for the operation of submarines….

HMS Cressy, lead ship of the squadron – UK Government, public domain

The three cruisers had been built in the late 1800s/early 1900s and the general view was that they were unreliable and verging on becoming obsolete…. The crews were inexperienced, mostly recruited reservists and many were young, even including naval college cadets younger than 15-years-old…. They were part of a squadron who’s job was to patrol the North Sea – such was their inadequacy they were known as the ‘Livebait Squadron’…. Some high ranking authorities – admirals, commodores and even the First Lord of the Admiralty himself, Winston Churchill – had raised concerns at such an inexperienced squadron performing this role…. However, those in direct charge insisted the squadron in its current capacity remain in service and continue their duties until the time came that they could be replaced by the new Arethusa Class cruisers – which were awaiting completion…. So the events of the 22nd of September would most likely have caused considerable embarrassment to the immediate senior officers – they had completely underestimated the capabilities of the German U-Boat….

HMS Aboukir – UK Government, public domain

Kapitanleutnan Otto Weddigen was in charge of the Tyne U9 U-Boat that was to first strike at 6.30 am…. He had been patrolling these waters, on the hunt – and the three cruisers were sitting ducks…. The first torpedo struck HMS Aboukir – the captain, John Drummond, thought they had hit a mine and called the other two ships for assistance…. A massive explosion sent the Aboukir down at 6.55am – just as she was disappearing beneath the surface HMS Hogue arrived to pick up any survivors….only to be hit by a torpedo herself…. Next on the scene was HMS Cressy – to meet the same fate….

HMS Hogue – Symonds & Co, public domain

In total 1,459 men lost their lives; Britain was horrified and outraged – but such was the propaganda that the news reported that the squadron had been hit by six German U-Boats – but in truth senior officers faced reprimands…. A valuable lesson was learned….albeit a very expensive one in the respect of the unnecessary loss of lives….

As for Kapitanleutnan Weddigen – he was hailed a national hero and awarded the Iron Cross First Class….and his crew received the Iron Cross Second Class….

Otto Eduard Weddigen – Public domain