AskDefine | Define scuttling

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  1. present participle of scuttle

Extensive Definition

Scuttling is the act of deliberately sinking a ship by allowing water to flow into the hull. This can be achieved in several ways - valves or hatches can be opened to the sea, or holes may be ripped into the hull with brute force or with explosives. Scuttling may be performed to dispose of an old or captured vessel, as an act of self-destruction to prevent the ship from being captured by an enemy force, as a blockship to restrict navigation through a channel or within a harbor, or to provide an artificial reef for divers and marine life.

Notable historical examples

Hernán Cortés (1519)

The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who overthrew the Aztec empire, ordered his men to strip and scuttle their ships in order to eliminate any means of desertion.

HMS Sapphire (1696)

The HMS Sapphire was a 32-gun, fifth-rate sailing frigate of the Royal Navy in Newfoundland to protect the English migratory fishery. The vessel was trapped in Bay Bulls harbour by four French naval vessels led by Jacques-François de Brouillan. In order to avoid capture, the English scuttled the vessel on 11 September 1696.

Zeebrugge Raid (1918)

The Zeebrugge Raid involved three outdated British cruisers chosen to serve as blockships in the German-held Belgian port of Bruges-Zeebrugge from which German U-boat operations threatened British shipping. Thetis, Intrepid and Iphigenia were filled with concrete then sent to block a critical canal. Heavy defensive fire caused the Thetis to scuttle prematurely; the other two cruisers sank themselves successfully in the narrowest part of the canal. Within three days, however, the Germans had broken through the western bank of the canal to create a shallow detour for their submarines to move past the blockships at high tide.

German fleet at Scapa Flow (1919)

In 1919, over 50 warships of the German High Seas Fleet were scuttled by their crews at Scapa Flow following the deliverance of the fleet as part of the terms of the German surrender. Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered the sinkings, denying the majority of the ships to the British. Von Reuter was imprisoned as a war criminal in Britain but his defiant final act of war was celebrated in Germany. The seabed of Scapa Flow is still littered with the warships, making the area very popular amongst undersea diving enthusiasts.

Admiral Graf Spee (1939)

Following the Battle of the River Plate the damaged German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee sought refuge in the port of Montevideo. On 17 December 1939, with the British and Commonwealth cruisers Ajax, Achilles, and Cumberland waiting in international waters outside the mouth of the Río de la Plata, the Graf Spee sailed just outside the harbour and was scuttled by Captain Hans Langsdorff to avoid risking the lives of his crew in what he expected to be a losing battle. Capt. Langsdorff shot himself three days later.

Blockade of Massawa (1941)

As the British advanced toward Eritrea during their East African Campaign in World War II, Mario Bonetti, the Italian commander of the Red Sea Flotilla based at Massawa, realized that his harbor was going to be overrun by the enemy. In the first week of April, 1941, he began to destroy the harbor's facilities and ruin its usefulness to the British. Bonetti ordered the sinking of two large floating dry docks and supervised the calculated scuttling of eighteen large commercial ships in the mouths of the north Naval Harbor, the central Commercial Harbor and the main South Harbor, blocking navigation in and out. Scuttled, too, was a large floating crane. The harbor was rendered useless by April 8 1941 when it was surrendered to the British. Scuttled ships included the German steamers Liebenfels, Frauenfels, Lichtenfels, Crefeld, Gera and Oliva. Also scuttled were the Italian steamers Adua, Brenta, Arabia, Romolo Gessi, Vesuvio, XXIII Marzo, Antonia C., Riva Ligure, Clelia Campenella, Prometeo and the Italian tanker Giove. The largest scuttled vessel was the 11,760 ton Colombo, an Italian steamer. The most dangerous problems for salvage were the Brenta which contained a booby trap made of an armed naval mine sitting on three torpedo warheads and Regia Marina minelayer Ostia which had been sunk by the RAF with all mines still racked. Thirteen additional coastal steamers and small naval vessels were scuttled as well.
Though a civilian contractor was retained to clear a navigable passage through the wrecks, it wasn't until a year later that headway was made in the effort to return Massawa to military duties. U.S. Navy Commander Edward Ellsberg arrived in April, 1942 with a salvage crew and a small collection of specialized tools and began methodically correcting the damage. His salvage efforts were to yield significant results in just 5½ weeks. On May 8 1942, the SS Koritza, an armed Greek steamer, was drydocked for cleaning and minor hull repairs. Massawa's first major surface fleet 'customer' was the HMS Dido (37) which needed repairs to a heavily damaged stern in mid-August, 1942. Many of the harbor's sunken ships were patched by divers, refloated, repaired and taken into service.

The Bismarck (1941)

In 1941, the Bismarck, heavily damaged by the Royal Navy, leaking fuel, listing, rendered mostly unmaneuverable and with no effective weapons but still afloat, was reported to have been scuttled by her crew to avoid capture. This was supported by survivors' reports in Pursuit: the Sinking of the Bismarck, by Ludovic Kennedy, 1974 and by a later examination of the wreck itself by Dr. Robert Ballard in 1989.

The French fleet in Toulon (1942)

In November 1942, in an operation codenamed Case Anton, Nazi German forces occupied the so-called "Free Zone" in response to the Allied landing in North Africa. On 27 November they reached Toulon, where the majority of the French Navy was anchored. To avoid capture by the Nazis (Operation Lila), the French admirals-in-command (Laborde and Marquis) decided to scuttle the 230,000 tonne fleet, including some of the most advanced units of the time (most notably, the battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg). 80% of the fleet was utterly destroyed, all of the capital ships proving impossible to repair. Legally, the scuttling of the fleet was allowed under the terms of the 1940 Armistice with Germany.

The Danish fleet in Copenhagen (1943)

Anticipating a German attack on the Copenhagen Docks, the Danish navy had instructed its captains to resist any German attempts to assume control over their vessels, by scuttling if necessary. Of the fifty-two vessels in the Danish Navy on August 29, two were in Greenland, thirty-two were scuttled, four reached Sweden and fourteen were taken undamaged by the Germans. Nine Danish sailors lost their lives and ten were wounded. Subsequently major parts of the Naval personnel were interned for a period. Just after, on the evening of August 29, the Supreme Commander of the German Naval Forces in Denmark addressed Vice Admiral Vedel, the Commander in Chief of the Royal Danish Navy, as follows "Wir haben beide unsere Pflicht getan" (We have both done our duty).

Allied Landing in Normandy (1944)

Old ships code-named "Corn cobs" were sunk to form a protective reef for the Mulberry harbours at Arromanches and Omaha Beach for the Normandy landings. The sheltered waters created by these scuttled ships were called "Gooseberries" and protected the harbors so transport ships could unload without being hampered by waves.

Modern times

Instead of scuttling, many vessels are sold for scrap today. However, ships (and other objects of similar size) are sometimes sunk in order to help the formation of artificial reefs, as was done with the former USS Oriskany in 2006. It is also common for military organizations to use old ships for target practice and in war games, or for various other experiments. As an example, the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS America was subjected to surface and underwater explosions in 2005 as part of classified research to help design the next generation of carriers (the CVN-21 class), before being sunk with demolition charges.
Scuttled ships have been used as conveyance for dangerous materials. In the late 1960s, the United States Army scuttled the SS Corporal Eric G. Gibson and SS Mormactern with VX nerve gas rockets aboard as part of Operation CHASE — "CHASE" being Pentagon shorthand for "Cut Holes and Sink 'Em." Other ships have been "chased" containing mustard agents, bombs, land mines, and radioactive waste.
During the Falklands War, the Argentinian submarine ARA Santa Fe was attacked and damaged by British helicopters on 23 April 1982. The crew abandoned the submarine on South Georgia and were captured by British forces. The submarine was later scuttled by the British.
The Iranian converted minelayer Iran Ajr was caught laying naval mines in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war on 21 September 1987, in an effort to sink or damage U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti oil tankers in international waters. The ship was attacked by U.S. Army helicopter gunships flying from a U.S. Navy frigate, then boarded by U.S. Navy SEALs, who captured the surviving crew, confirmed the presence of mines, and then scuttled the ship five days later.


  • Jutland to Junkyard Describes the salvaging of the scuttled High Seas Fleet.
scuttling in German: Selbstversenkung
scuttling in French: Sabordage
scuttling in Japanese: 自沈
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