The thread about the last voyage of the Battlecruiser “Moltke”; or how a German warship almost destroyed the Forth Bridge after 8 years on the seabed

This thread was originally written and published in July 2022. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

On our trip to Orkney we visited the excellent and newly refurbished Scapa Flow museum and I bought a book on the subject of the internment, scuttling and salvage of the German Hocheseeflotte after WW1. So naturally I’ve managed to find an exciting local history angle to this.

The Grand Scuttle, Dan Van der Vat
The Grand Scuttle, Dan Van der Vat

The Moltke was a 25,000 tonne battlecruiser of the Imperial German Navy, 612 feet long, 96.5 feet wide, she could make 25.5 knots on 51,000 horsepower and was armed with 10 x 11 inch guns in 5 turrets. She was more than an equal to her Royal Navy equivalents.

Moltke in New York, 1912
Moltke in New York, 1912

At the end of the war, the German fleet (Hocheseeflotte) was still largely intact and was forced by the Allies into a humiliating internment under the watchful eye of the Royal Navy. It had been hoped by the Germans that the fleet would be dispersed to neutral ports, but they ended up imprisoned in the bleak confines of Scapa Flow, which had been the principal anchorage of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet during the war. They arrived at Scapa after a rendezvous with the Grand Fleet via the Firth of Forth, who escorted them into their miserable internment.

The German Fleet at Anchor off Inchkeith, Firth of Forth: After the Surrender, IWM ART 1926
The German Fleet at Anchor off Inchkeith, Firth of Forth: After the Surrender, IWM ART 1926

The ships were fundamentally disarmed and incapable of war, incapable even of trying to move, but they remained German property, they were supplied by German ships sent by the German government, their crews were not officially prisoners and there were no British personnel on the ships (or Germans off of them), except small official visiting delegations pertaining to the administrative niceties. As the signing of the Treaty of Versailles approached the German Admiral in charge at Scapa, Ludwig Von Reuter, found himself in an impossible position. He was caught between the national honour of the Prussian officer class, mutinous and non-compliant crews, British belligerence and Allied political pressure. Von Reuter’s fear, not without unreasonable grounds, was that the British would try and seize the German fleet on the signing of the armistice. So somehow, he and his loyal officers managed to scuttle nearly the entire fleet on 21st June 1919 from right under the nose of the watchful Royal Navy.

The battleship Bayern sinking in Scapa Flow
The battleship Bayern sinking in Scapa Flow

Von Reuter and his men managed to scuttle 15 of the 16 battleships and battlecruisers, 5 of the 8 fleet cruisers and 32 of the 50 destroyers, the cream of the German navy turned into the best part of half a million tons of scrap metal on the sea bed in a matter of hours.

Publicly, the British were furious (the Royal Navy doubly so as it had been humiliated), but Von Reuter had probably actually done everyone a favour and simplified negotiations over the fate of his fleet – If the German Navy lay at the bottom of Scapa Flow then nobody could have it. Not the British, the Germans, the French or even the Italians who somehow felt they deserved a portion.

Seydlitz on her side in Scapa Flow
Seydlitz on her side in Scapa Flow

The German wrecks were something of a navigation hazard – as demonstrated ably by the whaler Ramna stuck fast on top of the capsized hull of the Moltke, but they were soon quietly forgotten about, and the world moved on.

Enterprising locals (often unofficially) salvaged what they could access above water until an enterprising Shetland councillor – J. W. Roberston – proved that you could salvage wrecks from underwater and brought a number of torpedo boats ashore for their scrap value.

Enter stage left the enterprising, irrepressible and energetic figure of Ernest Frank Guelph Cox. Cox was a self made engineer and metal dealer from the Midlands who had the vision to believe he could access and salvage the near half million tons of German steel at the bottom of Scapa Flow now that the rising price of scrap metal made it financially worthwhile.

Ernest F. Cox, from the book Cox’s Navy by Tony Booth

Cox’s company – Cox & Danks (Danks was his cousin, a silent partner and the capital behind the operation) – bought the rights to salvage the Hocheseeflotte from the Admiralty and set to work at Scapa in the mid 1920s. Cox had the foresight to hire Tom McKenzie, a Glaswegian naval salvage diver who would pretty much write the book on naval salvage diving.

Tom McKenzie
Tom McKenzie

Although everyone involved were practical, skilled and experienced men, they were starting from almost nothing and basically had to invent all the techniques for naval salvage on this scale. They had to improvise, make things up as they went and make incremental improvements. Overcoming setback, driven by Cox’s indefatigable determination and Danks’ deep pockets. Cox made rapid progress and his first torpedo boat – V70 – was raised after less than 2 months work in 1924. Moving on to the next boat and the next one after that, they honed the techniques and were soon raising ships at a rapid rate. Within 2 years all 26 torpedo boats that Cox had the rights to were raised.

Salvaging a destroyer

Cox now turned his attention to the big ships of the fleet, the Battleships and Battlecruisers. In May 1926 they started on the Hindenburg, but the even though she reached the surface, the operation was a disaster and she had to be resunk. Things were saved by the discovery of huge stocks of coal in the Seydlitz that could be accessed from the surface. The free fuel tided the operations over and Cox now set his sights on the Moltke. The technique was relatively simple. You sent divers down to plug the holes in the hull and pumped in compressed air. You plugged any more holes where the air leaked out, and eventually it would float. I say relatively – it was tremendously difficult, verging on the impossible, and at the limits of diving skills and technology at the time. Conditions were harsh and the environment of Scapa Flow was unforgiving. But Cox’ determination and McKenzie’s skill drove them forwards.

The Germans had wrecked the watertight integrity of the inner bulkheads of the ships, so before they could be raised in a controlled manner, divers had to go in and restore it by welding and plugging any gaps they could find. To make this possible, airlocks – like huge submarine chimneys – were built down into each compartment. From these divers could access the innards and get to work under intense air pressure, working upside down on ships encased in marine slime, often in complete darkness.

These jaunty cylinders breaching the surface of Scapa Flow are the air lock towers, reaching down to the sunken ship below
These jaunty cylinders breaching the surface of Scapa Flow are the air lock towers, reaching down to the sunken ship below

Cox was a bit of a showman, and was always on site, always hands on. The men respected him and the press loved him, and he made sure the latter were around whenever anything interesting was happening. The Scotsman filed almost weekly progress reports on the salvage of the Moltke.

  • October 21, 1926. Compressed air pumping operations commence on the hull of the Moltke.
  • December 10, 1926. Moltke is rising unevenly and the divers are forced to sink her in case she is caught by the winter gales.
  • Feb. 15, 1927. Work restarts after winter storms, the first airlock is fitted and almost 100 men are at work on the Moltke.
  • Feb. 24, 1927. The difficulties are described of working in a 15PSI atmosphere where cutting torches burn up the oxygen as fast as it can be pumped in
  • May 30, 1927. Work resumes again after 2 months of gales. A disaster is narrowly avoided when the wrong valve is closed and compressed air rushes through the ship from stern to bow, blowing the 16 divers at work inside through the ship with it.
  • June 13, 1927. Cox has the Pathé newsreel men on site to witness the triumph of the Moltke breaching the surface in a controlled manner and refloating after 8 years on the seabed.

But don’t just look at those grainy thumbnails, watch the whole clip on the Pathe website!

Over the next 4 months, the refloated Moltke was painstakingly winched towards Cox & Danks’ salvage base at Lyness on the island of Hoy, narrowly avoiding grounding on the island of Cava when one of here 11 inch guns fouled the seabed and had to be cut free. They begin cutting the Moltke up, but it soon becomes obvious that the shores of Scapa Flow are the wrong place to do this, and it makes no economic sense. Cox agrees to lease the No. 3 Dry Dock at Rosyth from the Admiralty, the largest and most modern in Scotland.

Cox also sells the scrapping rights on to the Alloa Shipbreaking Company, who will undertake the actual dismantling work at Rosyth and leave him to concentrate on the dark arts of salvage. But the problem is how to get the beached and upside-down hulk of Moltke 250 miles south to Rosyth. The only solution is to refloat it and tow it there – a hard enough task if it didn’t include having to transit the Pentland Firth, which has infamous tidal currents, some of the fastest in the world. Undaunted, Cox sets to work. The Moltke was lightened of thousands of tons of steel such as propellors, shafts, armour plate etc., patched up with concrete where they had started to demolish the hull, and was refloated.

Getting Moltke ready for sea at Scapa

For the journey, two shelters were built on board, one with bunking and a galley for the 8 crew who will make the journey (including Cox himself), the other with enough pumps to keep her full of compressed air. Lifeboats are thoughtfully included too. By May 18th, Moltke is ready to go. Controversially (at the time, both in Britain and in Germany), the 3 tugs who will take her on her last voyage are German, from Hamburg, including the Seefalke – the most powerful in the world – and the Simsun.

The unlikely shape of the upside down Moltke, with Simsun and Seefalke lashed to her sides. The third tug could pull her stern around to provide better control.
The unlikely shape of the upside down Moltke, with Simsun and Seefalke lashed to her sides. The third tug could pull from the front or stern to provide better directional control.

For good measure, on board is William Mowat, the coxswain of the Longhope Lifeboat, to pilot the wallowing hulk out of Scapa and past Duncansby Head.

William Mowat and the crew of the Longhope lifeboat. "Bill" Mowat is middle row, 2nd from left. © Orkney Image Library, 10060
William Mowat and the crew of the Longhope lifeboat. “Bill” Mowat is middle row, 2nd from left. © Orkney Image Library, 10060

Despite Mowat’s presence as pilot, disaster almost strikes when the weather gets up. The 3 tugs cannot make headway against the wind and current and Moltke started going backwards though the Pentland Firth, and rolling up to 13.5 degrees. She lost 6 feet of precious draught as the compressed air bubbles keeping her afloat are lost through the rocking and pitching motions; beyond what the pumps can keep up with. Fortunately the turning tides come to her rescue and she is ejected out of the Firth by the changing current.

After this rocky (literally) start, things calm down and the pumps are able to refill the air bubbles and she began to rise out of the sea again. This meant that the tugs could start making headway. Indeed the close call was soon forgotten about, and Cox the showman had the crew play a makeshift game of cricket on the deck for the press. I think he may be umpiring at the back, in the pullover with his hands behind his back.

All calm on the deck of the Moltke © Orkney Library
All calm on the deck of the Moltke © Orkney Library

The rest of the journey to the Firth of Forth proceeded calmly and according to plan and by May 21st she was off Granton. The last manoeuvre required of the tugs was to get her safely under the Forth Bridge and into the Rosyth basin.

And this is where things start to go wrong. Again. And this time it’s down to petty officialdom. The Forth Pilot arrived from Granton and tried to take command of operations. He was joined shortly afterwards by the Admiralty pilot from Rosyth. The two now get down to a jurisdictional standoff worthy of a Hollywood cop movie over who has the rights to pilot the Moltke down the Firth. Neither was willing to back down and the set to just kept on going. All so to did the currents of the Firth, and gradually so to did Moltke, easing her way slowly but inevitably west. Before they knew it, they were upon Inchgarvie island; the very rock on the Forth on which a pier of the bridge is built. And the newsmen from Pathé were there to film it all!

One of tug grounded on Inchgarvie…

Moltke approaches Inchgarvie
Moltke approaches Inchgarvie

The Seefalke, attached to a line at the back and in charge of providing steerage for the hulk, had drifted around the other side of the island while the pilots argued amongst themselves, and had to cut the tow. The direction of Moltke is now at the mercy of the currents, with 2 tugs lashed to her who cannot hope to steer her.

Seefalke stands off

Moltke, out of control, turned through 90 degrees and drifted sideways down the Firth towards the bridge, dragging the helpless tugs with her. She was heading straight towards the central pier of the Forth Bridge, all 23,000 tons or so of her, while trains rattled to and fro overhead.

Moltke floats down the Firth towards the bridge

If you watch the remarkable clip, you can see her drifting beam-on towards the bridge, as a train goes by overhead. Somebody must have been saying their prayers onboard as somehow the two tugs lashed to Moltke‘s hull managed to position the 612 feet wide, floating wrecking ball perfectly between the piers of the bridge and avoid disaster.

Safely under the bridge and back under control.
Safely under the bridge and back under control.

The Seefalke was able to get a line across and they brought Moltke under control and steered her towards the safety of Rosyth. The watching press were blissfully unaware how close disaster was, the Scotsman reports “a wonderful piece of navigation and most successfully performed“, however if you look closely, Moltke approached the bridge stern first (with her 4 propeller shafts leading) but passed through it bow-first, with the big notch cut out where they had initially started breaking her up at Scapa at the front; the battlecruiser had done a 180 degree pirouette while passing under the bridge!

Nothing to see here!

Moltke was edged towards No. 3 Dry Dock, and Cox is about was probably about to breathe a sigh of relief; but first he just has to get her into the dock, as he won’t get paid by the Alloa Shipbreaking Co. until she is in and the dock is drained.

Moltke approaches the gate of No. 3 Dry Dock

But this last step will be no small feat – there is just a 1 day window on the highest spring tide to get the upside down hulk in (ships usually go in the right way up, of course!). Moltke is drawing 41 feet of water at her deepest, and there is a lip on the dock gate that reduces its depth to only 38 feet… But this was Cox and he was undaunted – by an incredibly skilful act of pumping compressed air in at one end and letting it out at another, and then repeating it in reverse, they are able to “hop” the deepest part of the superstructure over the lip and get her safely into the dock and the gate shut.

And then, just as he is about to triumph, once again the Admiralty almost screw everything up for Cox. With Moltke sitting in the still flooded dock, the supervisor stepped in and starts an argument about how to support the upside down ship on the dock floor. The supervisor had a point – ships normally go into a dock the right way up, and settle on their keel. Moltke was upside down and there were all sorts of projections underneath. The supervisor was there to look after the dock and can’t see it being damaged.

But the Admiralty should have worked this all out with Cox before they signed over the use of the dock to him. Frantic calls were placed to Whitehall, and Cox jumped straight on the train south to thrash it out in person, ironically passing over the bridge he very nearly demolished only a few hours earlier. In London, an agreement is made about how to support the hull, and Cox was back the next day, the 28th May, and his men got to work shoring it up with baulks of timber. Then the dock can slowly be drained and the ship can come to rest on them.

On June 5th the last of the water is pumped out and Cox had finally triumphed. He had raised a 23,000 tonne ship from the seabed that had spent 8 years submerged (indeed he did it twice!), he beached it, refloated it, sailed it 250 miles through the treacherous Pentland Firth and squeezed it upside down into a dry dock, without demolishing one of the most important structures in the western world!

Moltke high and dry in the dock
Moltke high and dry in the dock

The Alloa men could now get to work and on September 13th 1928 set about cutting up the pride of the Hocheseeflotte into thousands of tons of valuable scrap metal.

Moltke being cut up
Moltke being cut up

Cox would go on to salvage every ship he could from the bottom of Scapa Flow, giving up after 8 more years and £10,000 worse off than when he started. For all his drive and determination his financial skills were somewhat lacking and his inefficient, pioneering methods just never paid back. Other Scottish businessmen, including those of Alloa Shipbreakers and salvage diver Tom Mckenzie formed Metal Industries Ltd, who carried on were Cox left off, with more efficient, refined techniques and more sensible business practices that saw things pay off in a big way.

The salvage of the Kaiserin by Metal Industries in 1936. Sealed and pumped full of compressed air, the ship breaches the surface, air locks and all. From the Illustrated London News.
The salvage of the Kaiserin by Metal Industries in 1936. Sealed and pumped full of compressed air, the ship breaches the surface, air locks and all. From the Illustrated London News.

The last Scapa ship raised by Metal Industries was the Derfflinger, which spent WW2 beached upside down alongside the disarmed old battleship HMS Iron Duke – which during WW1 had faced off against the Hocheseeflotte at the Battle of Jutland – the Scapa HQ ship. The salvage men aboard Derfflinger saved the Iron Duke after she was nearly sunk in an air raid early in the war. Derfflinger was floated into a submersible dry dock and towed to Faslane after the war for scrapping.

Derfflinger enters Faslane, the last of the German battleships from Scapa to be scrapped
Derfflinger enters Faslane, the last of the German battleships from Scapa to be scrapped

One of Metal Industries’ many improvements on the salvage process was to rapidly sink the ship as soon as they had raised it, to crush and concertina the protruding superstructure up inside the hull, removing most of the underwater obstructions that plagued Cox. It is praiseworthy that the basic salvage techniques pioneered by Cox and McKenzie, and refined by Metal Industries, are still those that are in use today.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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