SURRENDER OF THE GERMAN HIGH SEAS FLEET
Thursday, November 21st 1918
Three Old Dragons had the good fortune to witness the events of this historic day: Commander Geoffrey Freyberg (RN) on HMS Valiant, Lieut.-Commander Moray Wallace (RN) on HMS Relentless and Assistant Paymaster Percival Chapman (RN) on HMS Royal Sovereign.
Geoffrey Freyberg (HMS Valiant) weighed anchor at 3.15am on November 21st to make their way to the rendez-vous with the German High Seas Fleet:
“We glide past the heavily-fortified island of Inchcolm, the Oxcars, and Black Rock booms… past Burntisland Roads… and then out into the night towards May Island, that bleak and barren outpost of the Forth, some 30 miles from Rosyth.
Clear of the outer gate we get out our Para-vanes, one of the three great inventions of the war at sea (the depth-charge and the hydrophone being the other two). The Para-vane looks like a short torpedo with wings, it is towed from the stern and cuts moored mines adrift as neatly as a slicing machine cuts rashers of bacon.
We pass May Island at 6.02am… and steer east (true) to meet the advancing ‘enemy,’ with whom we have been in touch by W/T since midnight…
On meeting up with the German fleet, Moray Wallace (HMS Relentless), like many others no doubt, had his suspicions as to what would happen:
“They still flew their flag, and we had a feeling of possible treachery, for the men seemed scarce on deck, and they had their binoculars on us frequently from the bridge…
At last we passed May Island and dropped anchor in the Firth of Forth near the destroyer we were to examine for general sea-worthiness and hidden explosives…
As we climbed up the ladder and under the life-lines, the hands slouched round and peered at us, smoking cigars and cigarettes; all with their hands in their pockets and clustered together for’d as we reached the upper deck…
I saw no signs of mutiny; the hands seemed zealous to bring lamps and show off anything, and volunteered explanations. Nothing was as nice as in our own ships, and paint was everywhere instead of polished brass.”
Percival Chapman (HMS Royal Sovereign) describes the moment that marked the German surrender:
“Orders were given by the C-in-C that the German ensigns were to be hauled down at sunset this evening and were not to be hoisted again – in other words, sunset marked the virtual chucking up of the sponge.
Everyone became a trifle excited as sunset approached, some people having an idea that the Boches might attempt something dramatic when the critical moment arrived, such as a little diversion in the way of explosions etc. Nothing , however, happened except that the Hun battle cruiser ‘Derfflinger’ and one of their battleships were rather late on it. This was probably due to the almost complete lack of discipline which is now supposed to reign in the Hun Navy – anyway, whatever the cause, their slackness evoked derisive cheers from the crew of the ‘Royal Oak.’
This was the only sign of jubilation anyone gave, cheers being against orders.”
As I recall, the ‘Derfflinger’ fought at the Battle of Jutland and was responsible for the demise of HMS Invincible and Charles Fisher.
No sooner had the German fleet been captured than they became something of a tourist attraction, although Geoffrey Freyberg was still slightly wary:
“Two days later I took a party of ladies, including my own family… round the German ships at anchor. One looked at these great ships at a range of only 5 or 10 yards with a queer feeling, almost expecting that a mad German would sweep the crowded stern sheets of our steam barge with a machine-gun. The sailors looked sullen and defiant, the officers, for the most part, looked dejected and ignored our close visit of inspection…”