RAISING the German Fleet (Dec, 1936)

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RAISING the German Fleet


TOILING in the icy depths of Scapa Flow, the broad landlocked harbor in the Orkney Isles, north of Scotland, British engineers and divers today are enacting what probably will be hailed some day as the greatest salvaging epic in the history of the sea.

Though the world at large hears but little of their feats, they are dragging to the surface one by one of the giants of Germany’s once proud High Seas Fleet, now battered rusted hulks, which have lain for 17 years fathoms-deep beneath the swirling waters of Scapa. The iron from some of those very ships is being used today by the modern Germany of Adolf Hitler in the great European armaments race.

To recall the first act of the drama of Scapa means going back to a sunny June morning in 1919 when line upon line of iron-gray German warships—some 74 all told—were swinging lazily at anchor in the harbor which had been Britain’s chief naval base throughout the Great War. Kaiser Wilhelm’s High Seas Fleet had been interned there since it was surrendered by Germany at the Armistice. Allied jealousy prevented the British receiving the ships and the German crews remained aboard.

That morning of June 21, the bulk of the British fleet was out at torpedo practice in the North Sea. Only a few drifters steamed up and down the German lines. Suddenly the crew of the Kaiser Friedrich der Grosse were seen leaping into small boats. Then before the astonished eyes of the British sea- men the great German flagship heeled over and sank. Ship after ship followed her. An urgent radio message brought the British fleet scurrying back two hours later. All the British could do, however, was to beach a few of the German destroyers. The Germans had opened the valves and scuttled their fleet.

Out of 74 ships the great majority sank to the bottom of Scapa Flow that day. For 12 years now salvagers have ventured their lives to float them again. As one corroded giant after another is laboriously pumped and hauled from the ocean-bed, its bulky carcase is towed 250 miles to the ship-breaking yards at Rosyth or Rothesay, both in Scotland, for breaking up and sales as scrap-iron. Hundreds of tons of that iron have been bought by Germany in the past two years, to be melted down and recast into big guns, shells, tanks and new battleships. Hundreds of tons more are going into armor-plating for British warships and into building Britain’s merchant fleet. Some of the same salvaged iron is fulfilling the more prosaic role of girders in palatial new movie-houses, blocks of new apartment-houses and hotels in London.

With ten of the largest ships still to be recovered the world’s biggest salvaging job already has cost more than $3,000,000. The value of the ships so ruthlessly scuttled is estimated at close on a hundred times that figure. Yet the salvagers have barely, if at all, recouped themselves for the expenditure involved.

For more than five years the German High Seas Fleet lay rusting at the bottom of Scapa Flow. None even of the recognized salvaging experts was willing to risk the cost of trying to bring the warships to the surface again. Then one day early in 1924 a virtually unknown Londoner named E.F. Cox took a trip up to Scapa. At that time he was in his late thirties and managing director of the iron and steel merchanting firm of “Cox and Danks,” of London. He had had no previous salvaging experience, but a friend had suggested to him that there was a mine of scrap iron rusting away beneath the waters of Scapa Flow, waiting for whoever was prepared to bring it up. Cox’s imagination was fired and he spent several days surveying the wreckage. A few weeks later he had an Admiralty contract in his pocket for salvaging 25 German destroyers.

Cox immediately got together the best engineers and divers in Britain. His equipment alone including sections of a German floating dock cost him a round $200,000 at the outset. In April, 1924, the greatest salvaging job ever undertaken was begun. On August 1 Cox watched triumphantly as the first destroyer, caked in muck and green sea slime, was hauled to the surface. By April 30, 1926, all 25 destroyers had been raised, several of them in less than a fortnight.

The salvaged destroyers ranged between 750 and 1,300 tons each. In one case three were located in a heap with two lying crosswise over the third. Most, however, were lying alone. The technique employed by the salvagers was to sink sections of the floating dock and place them along each side of the wreck in i a kind of hamsandwich fashion. Wire hawsers were secured under the keels of the ships which were then hauled up gradually to the surface. In some instances they were actually dragged up by sheer manual labor with winches and tackle.

As a rule, however, the rise of the tide was put to work to supply the requisite lifting power. At low water the tough wire hawsers would be hove taut under the vessels and the rise of the tide was sufficient to lift them off the bottom. Gradually they were dragged towards the shore, with each rising tide lifting them a little further from the ocean bed, until they were beached and patched up for refloating. Each hulk was then put to sea again and towed something like 250 miles for breaking up.

With 25 of the destroyers salvaged, Cox set himself the tremendous task of stealing from the ocean’s clutches the giant battleships and battlecruisers, once the pride of Germany’s navy. Some of these weighed nearly 30,000 tons and lay mostly bottom-upwards or on their sides in 15 to 18 fathoms of water. No one had ever attempted to raise ships of this size before. Daring freebooters of the Orkneys already had stripped the partly visible Seydlitz of all valuable metal above the water line and had even fished brass fittings from underwater.

Attention had been attracted to the possibilities of compressed air shortly before by Major Gianelli’s raising of the overturned Italian battleship, Leonardo da Vinci. The Italian expert paid a visit to Scapa Flow, presented Cox with a volume describing the raising of the Italian ship and urged him to attempt the technique with the ponderous German wrecks. After spending $165,000 in a futile effort to float the big Hindenburg by old methods, Cox turned with the new to the smaller ships.

The salvagers began with the 23,500-ton battle cruiser Moltke which lay on the ocean floor with a list of 16-1/2 degrees. As a preliminary operation, tall cylindrical airlocks had to be bolted to the sunken hulls. Men worked inside these under air pressure which kept the water from rising to more than a certain level through the various holes in the decks below. For months they toiled with oxy-acetylene apparatus fathoms below the surface of Scapa in a foetid, stinking atmosphere, dripping with slime. All the time they risked explosions from the foul air. Explosions did occur, although fortunately only one man lost his life.

Gradually the Scapa salvagers worked their way through each gigantic hulk, cutting away pipes and ventilating shafts that passed through the bulkheads. As they did so they patched up the holes left and made each compartment watertight. Then, when every hole had been sealed, came the critical moment for attempting to raise the vessel. This was done by pumping air into the interior under tremendous pressure. Either the bow or the stern would be brought up first, then more air would be pumped into other parts of the vessel, until it righted itself and floated.

After feverish months of toiling, Co:: and his band of salvagers one day in June, 1927, watched the great battlecruiser Moltke lurch to the surface just eight years after the swirling currents of Scapa Flow had closed over it. In November, 1928, the 25,000-ton Seydlitz was raised, followed by the battleship Kaiser of 24,500 tons in March, 1929, the cruiser Bremse in November, 1929, the Hindenburg of 28,000 tons in July, 1930, the 20,000-ton battlecruiser Von der Tann in December, 1930, and the 25,400-ton battleship Prinz Regent Luitpold in July, 1931.

Of those seven ships the toughest proposition of all was the 28,000-ton Hindenburg, larger than any vessel ever raised from the ocean bed before. She lay right side up in 70 feet of water with the tops of her masts protruding. Cox tried the first time to bring her up in 1926. For months his men worked on her, with four large floating docks to hold the masses of gear necessary. Finally they raised her to the surface with thousands of cubic feet of compressed air pumped into the enormous hull. But their victory was only temporary. They saw the Hindenburg list more and more dangerously until it was apparent that she must capsize. To prevent disaster they let her sink again.

For nearly four years more the Hindenburg lay on the rocks. Then work on her was resumed in March, 1930. The salvagers made over 800 patches in her hull, one of them measuring 750 square feet placed over the hole where one great rusted funnel had been sawed bodily away. The cost of work on the Hindenburg was so tremendous that Cox decided to remove one of the turrets, weighing 560 tons, to sell for ready cash. He did so, but he said afterward that the price he got for it was only a quarter of what it would have been worth had it been left in position.

Once again, for months, more than two hundred men worked to raise the Hindenburg. Forty pumps continually forced compressed air into her hull. Around one side of her stern was built a 600-ton block of concrete to steady her as she came out of the water and to forestall any danger of her heeling over again as she had done in 1926. She was raised early in June, 1930. Again she listed perilously to starboard and again was allowed to sink. The salvagers swallowed their disappointment and encased her stern in more concrete. Then a few weeks later she rose again and floated steadily on the surface. The biggest salvaging feat in maritime history had been accomplished. But to Cox, the man who carried it out, it meant no financial gain. He barely recovered the money he had spent on her. But it was the greatest adventure of a lifetime for him. This is how he described it: “I had spent £40,000 ($200,000) of my money when she beat me and very nearly broke my heart. I did not give up and went on spending money. Then came a day when I had spent £75,000 ($375,000) and in two minutes I was to know whether I was ever to see it again. My man with a lifebelt around him began to sing out the degrees of her list as she was being raised. ‘2-1/2 degrees’ came the message, ‘3 degrees . . . 4 … 5 … 5-1/2 … 6.’ My heart almost stood still. Then ‘6-1/2.’ Here he stopped. Then came the voice, ‘6-1/4,’ and all was well. I was like a schoolboy, I was so elated.”

Next after the Hindenburg, the 20,000-ton battle cruiser Von der Tann was pumped up from the floor of Scapa Flow. She was found bottom upwards about a hundred yards from the Hindenburg. In her case, the prow was lifted first, but she developed a heavy list and was allowed to sink back again. More airlocks were inserted and she was finally brought up in December, 1930. Four men were injured in an explosion during the work on this vessel.

Six months later, the 25,390-ton battleship Prinz Regent Luitpold was added to the list of salvaged vessels. She was found in a hundred feet of water. Giant airlocks were made both in bow and stern but when air was pumped into her the stern rose twenty feet into the air, water swirled into her open portholes and again she sank. At the second try the salvagers were successful.

In March, 1933, Cox abandoned the task. In ten years’ work at Scapa Flow he had recovered 32 ships and spent more than $2,500,000. Yet at the end of it all he found that instead of making money he had netted a loss of between $50,000 and $75,000. Since he started work the price of scrap iron and copper had slumped to about half of what it had been. He said afterward that the prices fetched by the Von der Tann and Prinz Regent Luitpold together were less than for a cruiser.

Cox himself kept as souvenirs the bells of most of the ships he had salvaged. All his equipment he sold to the firm of Metal Industries, Ltd., of Glasgow, who took over the contract from him. The man now in charge of the job was a Glasgow Scot named Thomas McKenzie.

In April, 1934, work was resumed on the 28,000-ton battleship Bayern, which lay bottom up in twenty fathoms of water, with a list of nine degrees to starboard. As with the other giants, compressed air was used to float her. Seven tubular airlocks between 70 feet and 100 feet long connected the men working below with the surface. The men themselves worked at an air pressure of 50 pounds to the square inch. Night and day for nine months McKenzie and his men toiled on the Bayern. She was brought up once but, like several of the ships salvaged by Cox, developed such a list that she had to be sunk again. Tragedy marred the work on her when Diver John Bee of Portsmouth collapsed and died shortly after coming up from the ocean floor in July, 1934.

One day in September, 1934, the Bayern swung to the surface and floated there, bottom upwards. She took just thirty seconds to rise. As she appeared above the surface, columns of water shot skyward, forced out by two million cubic feet of surplus compressed air inside her. Later she was towed 250 miles to Rosyth yards to be broken up. In April, 1936, the Koenig Albert was raised, followed only a month later by the 25,000-ton battleship Kaiserin.

Ten giant ships still rest on the floor of Scapa Flow, waiting to be salvaged. They are the Derflinger, Karlsruhe, Koeln, Brummer, Markgraf, Koenig, Dresden, Kronprinz Wilhelm, Kaiser Friedrich der Grosse—the flagship of Admiral von Reuter—and Grosser Kurfurst. So far it is estimated the salvage work has cost approximately $3,000,000. It is not known for certain just how much Germany’s once proud High Seas Fleet has brought in the junk market, but it is probably little if any more than the cost of salvaging, owing to the slump in metal prices. Experts estimate it will take another six years before the last ship is salvaged and the curtain is finally rung down on the drama of Scapa.

  1. MikeH says: September 21, 20119:25 pm

    This was such an interesting article that I had to find out what became of E.F. Cox. Here’s the link to a Wikipedia entry. He was not only as smart as a whip, but apparently a great boss to work for.


    BTW, this is a great site!

  2. Toronto says: September 21, 201110:00 pm

    Mike: Assuming your last name isn’t ‘Hunt’, “Ernest Cox” is so far the funniest name of the week. That said, he seemed quite the guy.

    Ever read Farley Mowatt’s “The Grey Seas Under”? It’s still in print after 50-odd years and is quite the ripping tale of ship rescues and salvages.

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