WINIFRED Thorpe and her brother Leslie were looking forward to a rare weekend treat – a boat trip with their school classmates.

They were due to see the fleet of ships that had gathered at Scapa Flow, the naval base in the Orkneys off the north coast of Scotland.

What they didn’t know as they set out was that they were to witness what became a key event in British history.

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It was Midsummer’s Day 1919 when, in the absence of the British Navy, the defeated Germans scuttled their own fleet.

The scenes that Winifred, aged nine, and her older brother witnessed that day are described in a new book by Winifred’s son, David Meara, a member of the clergy team at St Mary’s Church, Kidlington.

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Leslie and Winifred Thorpe with their mother Elizabeth in 1919

With the First World War over, the victorious allies escorted what remained of the German Navy across the North Sea to Scapa Flow in November 1918.

For seven months, the ships, with 5,000 German crew still aboard, remained there, slowly rusting as peace negotiations continued in Versailles.

German commander Admiral Ludwig Von Reuter was determined not to see his fleet fall into Allied hands and realised he had one chance to salvage something from defeat.

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His chance came on Saturday, June 21, 1919, after British ships had moved out of Scapa Flow.

With only the British flagship Victorious on guard, Von Reuter gave the order to his sailors to open the seacocks of the 74 German ships. More than 50 were scuttled and sank.

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German battleship Bayern sinking by the stern

It was a scene witnessed by 200-300 children, including Winifred and Leslie, from Stromness School which overlooked the vast waters of Scapa Flow.

They had arrived at school at 9.45am that day full of excitement and boarded The Flying Kestrel, a tug from Liverpool used to provide water and general stores to British ships at the base.

The boat passed close to the German ships, but headmaster Colonel Hepburn had given strict instructions to the children not to signal or wave to the German sailors.

Instead, they were told to record the names of all the interned ships.

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Surrender of the German fleet, with HMS Cardiff leading the German battlecruisers, centre, flanked by HMS Lion and HMS Elizabeth and other Allied ships

Suddenly, the calm sea became a hotbed of activity, with German sailors boarding boats and rafts as their ships slowly sank in the water.

The children were in potential danger and held on grimly as the captain zig-zagged The Flying Kestrel through turbulent waters rapidly back to Stromness.

Anxious parents were crowding the shoreline as the children arrived.

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Author David Meara with a brass candlestick salvaged from the German battleship Hindenburg.

Young Leslie wrote a diary and a letter about the day to his father, recording many of the ship names and describing what he and his school friends had witnessed.

He wrote: “We were ordered back to Stromness. We saw one ship bottom up, others turning turtle and a battle cruiser sinking by the stern, turning over and rapidly going down.”

Some of the children were thrilled with what they saw, thinking the scenes had been laid on for their benefit, while others were frightened, anxious and reduced to tears.

Winifred was one of the tearful ones, but Leslie put his arms around her to reassure her. “We are witnessing history,” he said.

The Great Scuttle – The End of the German High Seas Fleet is published by Amberley Books, price £14.99.

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