The Man Who Bought a Navy

The Man who bought a Navy

The Man Who Bought a Navy, by Gerald Bowman, tells the amazing story of how in 1919, and under the watchful eyes of their British captors, the Germans managed to scuttle their entire surrendered High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow, Orkney.

It then goes on to tell the even more amazing story of how in 1924 the engineer Ernest Cox gambled his entire personal fortune on buying the sunken navy from the British Admiralty and how he then embarked on the colossal task of raising all of the German ships. In the end, against incredible odds, and in spite of his lack of any previous experience, Cox succeded in raising seven large warships and 26 torpedo-boat destroyers. At the time the 28,000 ton battleship Hindenburg was the largest ship ever salvaged.

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Excerpt from The Man Who Bought a Navy

Chapter One - A Fleet Sinks

The fleet drifter Trust-on, commanded by Skipper William More, R.N.R., went alongside the German light cruiser Emden in Scapa Flow, Orkney, just before noon on June 21st, 1919. The morning was bright under a warm sun. The grey-green, tree-less islands around the Flow were softened in outline by a slight haze. Since the water was at a dead calm, everything befitted the languor to be hoped for even in turbulent Orkney on the longest day in the year.

Map of Scapa Flow, Orkney

Scapa Flow, Orkney, showing the battleships and battle cruisers eventually raised by Ernest Cox in the positions around Cava Island at which they were scuttled by their own officers on June 21st, 1919. The twenty-six torpedo-boat-destroyers he also raised are shown where they were sunk in Gutter Sound.

Trust-on's company, a handful of naval ratings, laid aside their weatherbeaten 303 rifles and became busy transferring stores. For the past seven months the rifles - the drifter's only form of armament - had been carried by the crew solely in obedience to standing orders. During those months Emden and all the other ships of the German High Seas Fleet had been lying, impotent, disarmed, and empty of ammunition, where they had been anchored after being handed over at the Armistice of 1918 as payment for the lifting of the Allied blockade of Germany.

The battleships, battle cruisers, and light cruisers were moored in parallel lines forming a vast horseshoe round the north of the island of Cava. To the south, immediately opposite the little township of Lyness, German torpedo-boat destroyers were moored two and three to a buoy in lines along the whole of Gutter Sound, which lies between Hoy and Fara. At the southern end of the Sound was H.M.S. Victorious, a workshop and dockyard ship without any effective form of armament, but which carried the dignity of flagship for Rear-Admiral R. J. Prendergast, commanding Orkneys and Shetlands. After the immense activity of the war period in the area the Rear-Admiral's responsibility was now little more than that of general maintenance.

Only maintenance crews were allowed on board the German ships, and no ship was permitted to communicate with any other; nor were any German personnel allowed ashore, unless for hospital treatment under British guard.

All stores and supplies for the fleet came from Germany under British supervision. The only German allowed any sort of mobility was Admiral Ludwig von Reuter, who had originally led the fleet into durance, and who remained in command of its maintenance crews. Even he, however, could visit his ships only during daylight hours, having first asked and received permission from the British Senior Naval Officer on hand. Moreover, all German letters were censored, and von Reuter's official dispatches had to be submitted to British authorities for approval and forwarding.

The Hindenburg

The Hindenburg, the last ship to be scuttled, she was to prove the most difficult to raise. Requiring over 800 watertight patches, and several attempts before success was finally achieved, and reportedly costing Cox some £30,000. At the time the 28,000 ton vessel was the largest ship ever salvaged.

These strict measures were in force because no terms of peace had yet been signed, and the position between the war enemies was still that of an armistice which could be ended, and a state of war declared, at any time.

No one in the world, however, regarded such a thing as even remotely possible. Germany, after total defeat on land, had handed over her fleet, and was bankrupt and in the power of a Communist regime. Even the maintenance crews technically under von Reuter had elected leaders from among themselves who could, and did, countermand the orders of any officer. The situation had become so bad that von Reuter had had to endure the added humiliation of asking British permission to move with his staff from the flagship Friedrich der Grosse to the light cruiser Emden, where the political colour was, apparently, not quite so lurid.

Apart from the attitude of the crews to their officers, however, they had given no trouble to their British naval guards, and had made no attempt to get ashore. During the past month their total number had been reduced by 2,000 who had been repatriated by mutual agreement. The crew of Trust-on were therefore expecting no more difficulty than they had before in finishing their work and casting off. They were startled, therefore, when a crowd of German ratings came in a rush from amidships just too late to secure the last rope. The men were yelling, pointing aft, and gesticulating in obvious panic. One of them had enough English to give a reason for the uproar. He cupped his hands round his mouth and bellowed, "Der schiff is sinking! You help, please!"

It was then that those on Trust-on realized for the first time that the Emden was settling down by the stern. As they watched she gave a slight lurch to port, and the movement of her maintop brought attention to the fact that the German ensign had been run up together with a red burgee, the latter being the official flag flown by German ships going into action. A struggle developed among the Germans, and a party of officers headed by Admiral von Reuter himself forced their way through to the rail. All were dressed in what were obviously their best uniforms, and were carrying suitcases and parcels. Von Reuter made an imperious gesture.

"You will take us to your flagship," he shouted. "You will come alongside now and take us aboard."

The reply he got was short and to the point, as might have been expected from an R.N.R. skipper of the period. Trust-on swung away and headed for Victorious at full speed. Before she was beyond earshot one of the German officers imparted the news, in excellent English, that not only was Emden sinking, but all the fleet were sinking. He yelled that a general scuttling had been started and couldn't be stopped, and pleaded that in common humanity the crews should be rescued.

Nobody aboard Trust-on had, in the previous five years, found himself impressed by German interpretations of common humanity. The urgency of the moment was to carry the news to Rear-Admiral Prendergast (the drifter had no wireless) and take his orders for further action. The Admiral, however, at that moment (12.05) was reading a wireless signal from the destroyer Westcott, commanded by Lieutenant Charles R. Peploe, on patrol in the Flow. The signal announced that the German flagship Friedrich der Grosse was sinking, and that all the vessels of the German fleet were wearing their ensigns and battle flags, contrary to standing orders.

Prendergast signalled back orders for the flagship to be boarded, her seacocks closed, her ensign hauled down, and the crew to be fired on if they resisted or refused orders. Then he made a signal for all British small craft to come to Victorious at once, his intention being to divide his available force of men and weapons among them and send them to board the torpedo-boat-destroyers in Gutter Sound, the point being that vessels of trawler size would be ineffective in dealing with battleships.

Finally, from the bridge of Victorious he looked out upon a scene such as no man had witnessed before and none is likely to see again. Every ship of the German High Seas Fleet stretching out into the haze of distance was heeling over and settling. In Gutter Sound, opposite the little town of Lyness, many of the forty German torpedo-boat-destroyers moored there were in the actual throes of going down.

Some capsized before they sank. Some were rearing up by the bows or by the stern. One he watched breathlessly, sliding with an oily motion into the depths, dragging with it the bows of two others to which it was moored. Their sterns rose up, gleaming, and raining water in the sunshine. Then, with a screw motion, they turned turtle towards each other, sinking in an explosive turmoil of foam as trapped air burst its way upward. There was a vague, distant sound of masts and top hamper buckling, breaking, and tangling together in chaos on the bed of the Sound.

Chapter Two - No British Guardships

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The excerpt above is the whole of chapter one. The Man Who Bought a Navy comprises 249 pages with more than 100 photographs and diagrams plus a further 39 exciting chapters!

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