Monday, 19 June 2017
The Grand Scuttle - Dan van der Vat
Author: Dan van der Vat
Photos/ Maps: 9/1
Following the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, many assumed that the First World War was concluded; however, in reality, the war was only on hold pending German ratification of the final peace treaty. As a condition of the Armistice, the Allied powers demanded that the German High Seas Fleet be interned in either an Allied or neutral port. The legal challenges of maintaining such a huge concentration of ships in one location precluded most neutral powers from agreeing resulting in the fleet being ordered to Scapa Flow until the cessation of negotiations. Seventy-four capital ships, stripped of their armaments, made their way to the English port to await the results of the Paris negotiations, the crews knowing that they and their ships were at the centre of intense debate and dissention between not only Germany and the Allied countries, but also between the Allies themselves.
Adding to the complexity of this situation was the fact that, because the ships were only interned but not surrendered, the Allies were not allowed under international law to place troops on board. Thus the ships continued to be crewed by German officers and men who were not allowed ashore during the period of internment. Additionally, the German Navy was beset by internal unrest and the massive spread of communism amongst the crews resulting in widespread insubordination and the abuse of officers (especially on the larger ships). These were the conditions under which the German Admiral Reuter (the German internment Commander) and his officers had to manage the fleet and prevent the British from having an excuse to board and seize the ships.
Van der Vat’s book is a study of the international environment leading up to the internment, the conditions under which the German fleet was held and, most importantly, how Reuter used his superior leadership skills to not only re-establish a degree of control over the sailors but also to guide the fleet to an honourable and noteworthy end despite the best efforts of the British. Concurrent to his description of the environment, van der Vat undertakes a detailed evaluation of the complexity of Reuter as a Commander and his sense of honour and duty. Given the paucity of information available to him and the limitations on external contact imposed by the British, it was he alone that made the decisions surrounding the conduct and ultimate fate of the fleet. Very few commanders have been given a more daunting task under more stressful conditions than Reuter.
While this book is older it nevertheless contains some extremely valuable lessons and insights applicable to the commanders of today. Issues of morale, acceptance of risk, decision making, maintenance of aim, duty and honour are displayed in bas relief as being central to retaining a degree of effectiveness under conditions of extreme adversity. A fascinating and engaging read.