Wednesday, June 22, 2011

This Day in History - June 21

1919 - The Scuttling of the Imperial German High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow

SMS Bayern

World War I ended on November 11, 1918, but as things tend to do, not everything was quite tidied up yet. Under the terms of the Armistice, the German U-boat fleet was surrendered and no one was under any illusions that the Germans would be allowed to wreak havoc on international shipping with their U-boats again. The High Seas Fleet was another matter however. Under Article XXXI of the Armistice the Germans were not permitted to destroy their ships. Germany of course, wanted them back, the opinions of the British Royal Navy seemed to lean towards breaking the ships up for scrap, so that they could never again threaten them. The French and Italians contingents wanted a quarter of the ships each for themselves. They could at no cost, greatly increase their Naval power and at the same time, decrease their neighbors and punish Germany. (Which was of course, the point of the Treaty of Versailles, which may have helped to cause WWII, but that is another matter)

Admiral von Reuter, commanding the crew of the interred Navy, waited until most of the Royal Navy ships in the vicinity went out for a training exercise and gave the order to scuttle all vessels at 10:00am. By 12:00, when the began to list, the crews hoisted the Imperial German Ensign to their mainmasts (which they had been expressly forbidden from doing) and began to abandon ship. The Royal Navy picked up 1,774 Germans by the evening and transported them to Invergodon by battleships of the First Battle Squadron. Vice-Admiral Fremantle had sent out a general order declaring that the Germans were to be treated as prisoners-of-war for having broken the armistice and they were destined for the prisoner-of-war camps at Nigg Island.

Ultimately, 52 of the 74 ships sank including 15 of the 16 capital ships, 5 of the 8 cruisers, and 32 of the 50 destroyers. The rest were towed to shore by the British Guard boats that attempted to stop the scuttling. Nine German soldiers were shot and killed by the guards during those actions. In the inter war period, some were raised and scrapped or sunk as targets, but some remain today, many at considerable depth, and can be visited by divers.

SMS Hinderberg

217 BC - Battle of Lake Trasimene

The battle of Lake Trasimene has been recorded not only as one of the most important battles of the First Punic War, but also one of the most successful ambushes in the history of war.

The Punic Wars were a series of conflicts between the north African empire of Carthage and the Republic of Rome. Due to the daring, intelligence and and burning hatred of Carthage's general Hannibal, the Romans had been having a rough time. They elected Gaius Flaminius and Gnaeus Servilus Geminus to the position of Consul and gave them control of two armies and orders to destroy Hannibal's invading army which had been pillaging and burning its way through southern Europe.

Hannibal was an expert tactician and showed a clear understanding of the need to fight on ground that is favorable to your forces. After failing to goad the army under Flaminius to a fight, Hannibal started to move towards Rome. Hearing that the Roman army had finally broken camp and was following them, Hannibal chose his ground and arrayed his forces.

He chose a heavily forested hill region on the shores of the lake. Below the camp, on a small hill, he set up his heavy infantry forces, made up of Iberians, Celts and Africans. They would be position to attack downhill toward the Roman column's left flank when it appeared. His light infantry from Gaul was concealed in the wooded hills along with the the cavalry. They were to stay hidden until the attack began and then quickly block the Romans' line of retreat. His lightest armed troops were kept along the hills in hiding, ready to hit the Roman column in the flanks after the attack began. Hannibal had also ordered his men to light campfires on the Tuoro, to convince the Romans that they were further away than they thought. Having set up his men, Hannibal then merely had to wait for Flaminius to come blundering along into the trap. Flaminius could have waited to be reinforced by Servilius, and in fact was urged to do so. But he is remembered as a being impetuous and lacking self-control. He would live just long enough to regret those traits.

The next morning, Flaminius led his troops eastward along the road along the edge of the lake. A thick morning fog was present. Hannibal dispatched a small force of skirmishers to draw out the Roman vanguard. This had the effect of splitting the Roman force into two groups. As soon as the main body of the legions entered the kill zone, the trumpets were sounded, giving the signal for the attack.

The attack went exactly as planned and the Carthaginian cavalry blocked off the retreat route of the Romans. The Romans were taken by surprise and were being attacked on three sides, with water on the fourth. The Romans did not have time to form up their standard ranks and had to fight in a way they did not prefer. Romans armies usually did not march in their armor although this may not have been the case in this battle. The Romans were divided into three groups and the vanguard seeing the slaughter behind them, broke through the skirmishers and escaped through the forest. The rear of the column, furthest to the west was hit by a cavalry charge and forced into the lake, where many drowned. The center, with the most of the forces, fought for more than three hours with Hannibal's elite Gaulish heavy infantry before being wiped out. Flaminius was killed by the Gaul Ducarius. The Romans suffered about 15,000 dead and 5,000 captured, a total and complete defeat. The Carthaginians lost 2,500 killed and reports state that many later died of their wounds.


  • Livy states that so terrible was the massacre at Lake Trasimene, that neither army was aware of the occurrence of an earthquake, which at the very moment of the battle "overthrew large portions of many of the cities of Italy, turned rivers, and levelled mountains with an awful crash."
  • An ancient tradition says that because of the blood, which for over three days filled the water, that the name of a small stream feeding the lake was renamed Sanguineto, the "Blood River".
  • In the surroundings of Lake Trasimene, there are further areas which retain a particular meaning, including Ossaia ("Charnel House, Place of Bones"), Sepoltaglia ("Place of Burial"), Caporosso ("Cape red"), Piegaro ("Subdued Place), Preggio (from "Peggio", "Worse"), Pugnano ("Place of battles"), and Pian di Marte ("Field of Mars").

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