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Aboard the Northern Lighthouse vessel Pharos, sailors from Britain and Germany salute men who committed the greatest mass act of suicide in naval history.

Here, between the islands of Cava and Barrel of Butter, in the country’s largest natural harbour lies the wreck of the cruiser Dresden, deliberately sunk by her crew to prevent her falling into the hands of an enemy power.

One hundred years after the kernel of the German High Seas Fleet – the second most powerful navy in the world in 1914 – was scuttled, British and German sailors joined Orkney Island leaders and local schoolchildren in the same waters to remember one of the most remarkable naval incidents of all time.

Beneath them British and German divers placed wreaths on the wreck of the Dresden, one of fewer than ten ships which remain from the ‘grand scuttle’; most were salvaged between the wars.

Commemorating what happened here 100 years ago also brings to mind how far we have come since those dark days.

Rear Admiral Stephen Haisch

Dresden was one of five cruisers scuttled on June 21 1919. Fifteen out of 16 battleships and battle-cruisers and three in every five of the 50 German destroyers interned at Scapa were sunk. Nine Germans were killed and 16 were wounded, shot at by British sailors as they rowed ashore having sabotaged their ships.

The scuttling prevented the German fleet from being distributed among the victorious Allied powers one week later when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, officially ending the war with Germany.

The act provoked widespread scorn at the time – although privately senior Royal Navy figures were delighted that their fleet’s superiority would not be eroded.

And in Germany, the man who led the illegal act, Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter was hailed a hero.

During the centenary service, the bell from one of the scuttled Germanships, the Von der Tann, was rung by Yorck-Ludwig von Reuter, the admiral’s grandson.

Wreaths were laid by the two most senior naval officers present, Rear Admiral Stephen Haisch, from the German Navy, and Captain Chris Smith, Royal Navy Regional Commander for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

“Commemorating what happened here 100 years ago also brings to mind how far we have come since those dark days. How from enemies we, the United Kingdom and Germany, have become true friends,” said Rear Admiral Haisch.

“Today, our nations stand side by side on the world stage, upholding the joint values we believe in.”

Captain Chris Smith added: “I am honoured to stand alongside Rear Admiral Haisch in friendship on this day, looking back to a time when our countries were not as close as we have since become – and to represent the Royal Navy as we complete the task of commemorating the sacrifice made by so many during the course of what we now call the First World War.

“Today has seen sailors of both the Royal Navy and the German Navy jointly recognising a part of our collective history and doing so as allies, demonstrating that out of the adversity which once divided us we have forged a lasting friendship, which I think is the best tribute we can pay to those whose memory we honour on this day."

The sinking of the fleet was witnessed by 160 children from Stromness who were on a school outing in Scapa Flow aboard a local pleasure steamer. Their descendants filled a ferry for the memorial service 100 years later.

The flotilla then continued to Hoy and a service at Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery where the German dead are buried.

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