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Inter-War Period 1918-1939


COX'S NAVY by Tony Booth
Salvaging the German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow 1924-1931


Published by Pen & Sword, Maritime, 2005

 Part of the Book's front cover (click to enlarge)

return to inter-war, 1918-193 


Tony Booth sent me a review copy of his new book in 2005. It was a fascinating story with equally interesting photographs, I asked if I could use some of the material, and publishers Pen & Sword kindly agreed.


All the photographs for which permission was given are shown here. Unless otherwise stated, they are courtesy of the Orkney Library & Archive.


There are a number of accounts of the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet and its subsequent salvage - some of which can be found on the internet. Tony's book also includes a useful bibliography.



Detail of an Admiralty chart, showing Scapa Flow and the surrounding Orkney islands. This chart was updated in 1924 when Cox began salvage operations and shows the positions of the many wrecks he raised. Lyness, on the island of Hoy, where Cox based his salvage operations is far left. (Courtesy - UK Hydrographic Office)



Ernest Cox poses for a London photographer,  immaculately dressed as always, even when at work in  the filth and squalor of a  sunken warship. He later said, "Without boasting, I do not think there is another man in the world who could have tackled the same job. Before I undertook this formidable task, I had never raised a ship in my life. Quite frankly, experts thought me crazy, but to me these vessels represented nothing more than so much scrap of brass, gunmetal, bronze, steel etc., and I was determined to recover this at all costs." (Courtesy - the Cox Family)






The German Imperial High Seas Fleet interned in Scapa after the armistice in November 1918. Vice Admiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered their crews to scuttle all seventy-four vessels rather than hand them over to the Royal Navy. Here a Royal Navy guard threatens a destroyer captain at gunpoint to stop him from sinking his vessel. Altogether nine unarmed German sailors were killed and fourteen injured when the Royal Navy shot them, making these victims the last casualties of the First World War.



The fast minelayer Bremse was one of the ships that the Royal Navy tried to save when the fleet was scuttled; to no avail. She ended up like this, capsized and partially beached in Swanbister Bay on the main Orkney island of Pomona.









Looking down a line of winches aboard one of Cox's floating docks. The winches can be seen clearly in the foreground where teams of men literally heaved a sunken warship to the surface. The technique became known as 'heaving twenties' because the men could only turn their handles twenty times before needing a rest.



A raised destroyer between the floating docks during the 1920s, having just been dropped in Mill Bay. Smit Salvage of Rotterdam used a similar method nearly eighty years later to raise the Russian nuclear submarine, Kursk, in 2001.






Two beached destroyers waiting to be broken up in Mill Bay. It took about one month to reduce them to scrap metal. Each ship was methodically stripped down to allow the vessel to float further up the beach on the next high tide to be further broken up until nothing was left.



Lyness Pier as it was in the 1920s when the salvage operations were well under way. Mill Bay where the vessels were broken up, is on the right and Ore Bay is to the left. The large crane that killed Donald Henderson (a salvage labourer) is in the centre.






'Lyness Pier 24/6/25.' This picture is dated four days after Henderson was killed when a 100ft jib collapsed on top of him. The crowds of men on the pier are preparing to attend his funeral. Loose wires can still be seen hanging down from where the jib once stood. Cox's white pinnace is moored alongside. She was named Bunts, after his daughter, and no doubt conveyed him to Lyness Pier for the funeral.



Sandy Robertson (right) working as a diver's assistant to Sinclair (Sinc) Mackenzie, standing on the ladder. Sandy helped save Sinc's life after an accident on the Von der Tann as well as that of Thomas McKenzie. Sinc Mackenzie was the last diver to detect life aboard the doomed submarine HMS Thetis in 1939. (Courtesy - Sandy Robertson)






The Hindenburg heeling over to starboard on the first attempt at raising her in 1926. Jenny Jack, Cox's wife, is standing centre, facing the camera. A storm is beginning to blow up that eventually led to Cox losing the fight to raise her - this time.



The storm that sank the Hindenburg on the first attempt to raise her in 1926 as the waves lashed the men and vessels trying to keep her afloat. Cox's floating dock was holed, his pumps had failed and his men were exhausted, but still he fought the storm to hold on to his ship.








Ernest Cox, immaculately dressed as always, looking very pleased as he stands on the bottom of a salvaged warship.


Jim Southerland climbs down an airlock on his way to work. The hatch was closed behind him and he climbed down to the bottom hatch, knocking on it to let the men inside her know that he was there. The airlock was then pressurized to equal the air pressure inside the compartment, and Jim would climb through for his eight-hour shift.








The 24,000-ton upturned battleship Kaiser shortly after breaking the surface in March 1929. Men had to gain access to the sunken warships' hulls through airlocks. The four airlocks needed to enter and prepare the Kaiser can be clearly seen here, looking more like ships' funnels. In order to reach a sunken ship, some of Cox's crudely built airlocks were 60ft high.



The capsized Moltke en route to Rosyth, surrounded by tugs. Through a misunderstanding two pilots were appointed to guide her to the dry dock. An argument over who should command her led to the Moltke being cast off as she headed for the Forth Bridge's central pillar, completely unassisted. The temporary housing for men and machines while on the journey was built on the ship's bottom, which was now her top.








Adolph Hitler came to power a few months before the Von der Tann was towed to Rosyth. The Nazi Swastika flies over the tugboat Parnass on the von der Tann's starboard side. Many sightseers were in Rosyth to see Cox deliver his last salvaged German warship. They were also among the first to see this Nazi emblem in British waters, which six years later would be a common symbol of evil throughout the free world.



The Seydlitz weathering the storm that struck while she was being towed to Rosyth. She arrived there despite the loss of both equipment and supplies in the raging seas. (One of the passage or runner crew circled)









A 'runner crew' of eleven to fourteen men took the salvaged vessels the 270 miles from Scapa Flow to Rosyth. In good conditions they could play cricket on board, but they also weathered some terrifying gales.




The runner crew aboard the Prinzregent Luitpold pose for a picture in front of the corrugated iron kitchen named the Hotel Metropole, built on the upturned hull. Their sense of humour could be seen everywhere. The mess and bunkhouse were the Apartments de Luxe. The notice to the left reads 'Honeymoons arranged, spring mattresses fitted with speedometers. First aid equipment in all rooms. Second class rooms no spring mattresses.' The menu on the right reads, 'Boiled Luitpold with knobs on', 'Scapa salvage stew' with 'dock broth', Reporter James Lewthwaite of the Daily Mail is in the centre of the back row.








The Seydlitz in her dry dock, ready for breaking up. A sad end for a battle cruiser that survived the Battle of Jutland and got back safely to Germany in spite of damage from twenty-three direct shell hits and a torpedo strike.



All the German warships salvaged in Scapa Flow met the same fate. Sometimes their armour plate was as much as 12in thick and was a great source of revenue. Here a burner cuts the armour plate into convenient chunks to fit into a furnace. Behind him are propeller blades, which were also a highly prized commodity from the wrecks.








Cutting up Moltke. A burner at work.' With no Health and Safety regulations, the burner, with a cigarette in his mouth, cuts up the battle cruiser with an oxy-acetylene torch. He was breaking no rules in the 1920s as he stripped away metal to lighten her for the voyage to Rosyth.


Thomas McKenzie (Chief Salvage Officer) working at his desk, probably aboard the salvage vessel Bertha, after Cox left Scapa Flow and Metal Industries took over. In June 1939 McKenzie led a team of salvage divers to help rescue ninety-nine submariners trapped aboard the sunken submarine HMS Thetis, which ended in tragedy after his offer of help was accepted too late. When the Second World War began, like many of the Scapa Flow team, McKenzie worked for the Admiralty Salvage Department, which distinguished itself during the Battle of the Atlantic and from D-Day onwards in Northern Europe. He was eventually awarded the CBE and CB for his work.

revised 4/9/11