November 26th 1918

SURRENDER OF THE GERMAN HIGH SEAS FLEET

Thursday, November 21st 1918

HMS Queen Elizabeth overlooking the German surrender.

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.

The picture above, kindly sent to us by Geoffrey Freyberg, shows Admiral Beatty’s ship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, watching over a German Konig class battleship (in the distance).

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.” 

The battle cruiser ‘Derfflinger’

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…”

June 13th 1916

We have certainly had a very high opinion of our naval supremacy over recent years and some may be wondering why it was that the German High Seas Fleet was not obliterated at Jutland in the true Nelsonic style of the past. Commander Geoffrey Freyberg (HMS Valiant) suggests that maybe we have under-estimated the abilities of our enemy:

9/6/16. “Their shooting was marvellously accurate at the long ranges and their rapid fire astounding both by day and night. People at home talk of the High Canal Fleet covered with barnacles. My aunt! I should have liked to have had a few armchair critics by the side of the Captain and myself in the conning-tower that afternoon in May. They are foes worthy of our steel, but Von Sheer made one grave error.

Instead of breaking off the action when he had sunk the ‘Indefatigable,’  ‘Queen Mary’ and two new destroyers, he evidently thought he was going to smash the whole of Beatty’s Squadron and became intoxicated with success. He even finished off the ‘Defence’, ‘Black Prince’,  ‘Warrior’ and ‘Invincible’… only to find himself a few minutes later fairly landed in the arms of the great Sir John and the Grand Fleet, who gave him simple hell till 7.30, when the Huns turned and fled.”

It has been most interesting hearing Geoffrey’s account of the battle and no doubt it was of great service to the official account as submitted by the Captain of the ship.

History will decide the importance of the events of these past days. For us, whilst we mourn the loss of Charles Fisher, we are relieved that amongst the long list of those killed and wounded, there are no other Dragon names.

June 11th 1916

Commander Geoffrey Freyberg (HMS Valiant) continues his account of the battle, revealing how he has been able to recall the events so well:

7/6/16. “It is just a week today since our little picnic at the Little Fisher Bank took place, and there has been a tremendous amount of work since. We, so the Captain tells me, were almost the only ship to keep any real record of the show at the time, as I dictated notes throughout to a Midshipman with a note-book squatting down at my feet…

There were some weird happenings: we picked up a W.T. signal from one of our destroyers from the Sub-Lieut., worded as follows:- ‘My Captain is dying, the 1st Lieut., Surgeon and gunners are all dead, my bridge has been shot away so I do not know my position as I am isolated. Request instructions.’

That boy got his ship back safely as I saw her here two days later, and if any boy deserves a D.S.C., he does.”

I think this must be HMS Onslaught, about which we read in the Daily Telegraph on June 7th.

June 10th 1916

Commander Geoffrey Freyberg (HMS Valiant) continues in his correspondence to fill in further detail of the events of the battle off Jutland, including a story of British pluck in an unlikely quarter:

6/6/16. “The Admiral addressed us on deck this morning and said this ship was worthy of her name throughout the long day of May 31st

One can only liken it all to some of the pictures of Hell by Gustav Doré. No artist could ever reproduce the scene on canvas, and no pen except that of a master of prose could help people to realise what it was like. I was not afraid (nobody was), but at the same time I confess quite candidly I did not enjoy all these little night picnics off the Danish coast…

The Germans claim today that at 7.30 p.m. they made (it was launched to cover their retreat) a successful destroyer attack (in daylight of course). Well, I saw it – eight huge modern boats – and a fiasco it was. We hit and stopped two; some other ship knocked out a third; two more were cut off by our light cruisers and presumably sunk; the remaining three bolted. Successful? I don’t think.

Our living crest, a very fine cock, was walking round our decks throughout the action quite unconcerned, and he went to inspect his nest towards the end of the party only to find it blown to blazes, and to get his tail feathers blown off at the same time by the discharge of our own guns. But he is quite happy now and very much alive.”

 

June 9th 1916

We have a further information from Commander Geoffrey Freyberg, who is being kept busy writing up the events as experienced by HMS Valiant at the Battle of Jutland.

5/6/16. I’ve been at work on a plan of the scrap all day…

I must have seen as much of the fight as any man in the fleet. Beatty got hell to start with, as, to his surprise, the Huns accepted action with the utmost alacrity at 5.30 p.m. on the 31st. At 4.01 we came into action; at 4.02 ‘Indefatigable’ blew up; at 4.15 ‘Queen Mary’ ditto. Not an encouraging start, as I saw both go.

At 4.30 our Battle Cruisers legged it at 28 knots, and we were left to fight a rear-guard action; our four against eleven Huns, with the light in their favour. From 4.30-6.15 p.m. we drew them on towards Sir John Jellicoe…

‘Defence’ and ‘Black Prince’ were sunk at 6.15 as they came up and Sir John Jellicoe arrived. Then the Huns got hell till 7.25, when they broke off the action and fled.”

June 8th 1916

HMS Valiant 1918

HMS Valiant

Further news of the Battle of Jutland comes from Commander Geoffrey Freyberg (HMS Valiant). His ship is part of the 5th Battle Squadron under Admiral Beatty.

Unfortunately I cannot include all of his letter here. Some of it has to be censored to meet the requirements of paragraph 453, King’s Regulations.

 4/6/16. “And now you know why I’ve not been able to write for so long.

By all the laws of the game I ought to be dead at the bottom of the North Sea, but some Divine Providence watched over us throughout the fury of the long battle. I really thought at the time that death was on the threshold.

Well, I was not touched in any way throughout the long day and following night. Many friends are dead, but it was a fine finish as we drove the Huns after the arrival of Sir John Jellicoe, but it was Admiral Beatty and his friends who bore the heat and burden of the day until he came.

One was far too excited to be afraid, as the panorama was simply stupendous; the dead and dying in the water; ships vanishing close by; the lame ducks on both sides being polished off.

It was hell, but an intensely interesting hell.

************** (Censored) ***************

I reckon we killed 1500.

I had to make out a 16 page (foolscap) report with two diagrams from my rough diary of the action, and I am tired out after three nights in succession without sleep.”

Geoffrey is the older brother of Lieut-Commander Lance Freyberg (who was killed in May when HMS Russell was mined).

June 4th 1916

Following the news of the sinking of HMS Invincible, our deep concern for the well-being of Lieut. Charles Fisher continues. As always, whilst we fear the worst, we must hope for the best.

We are also aware of others who may well have been involved in this battle off Jutland. Charles’s brother, Captain William Fisher (HMS St. Vincent) is known to be part of Jellicoe’s 1st Battle Squadron.

HMS St Vincent

HMS St Vincent

Mr & Mrs CRL Fletcher have already lost two sons to the war: Regie Fletcher was killed at Ypres on October 31st 1914 (a day that claimed three OPS victims), followed in March 1915 by his brother George Fletcher. Their oldest (and only remaining son) Lieut. Leslie Fletcher is known to be serving on HMS Colossus (also part of the 1st Battle Squadron). Surely fate cannot be so cruel as to take from the Fletcher family their only remaining child.

Attached to the 5th Battle Squadron are HMS Valiant and HMS Malaya. Both have Old Dragons aboard: Commander Geoffrey Freyberg in the former and Midshipman Percy Trevelyan in the latter.

Midshipman Francis Studdy is believed to be on HMS Temeraire in the 4th Battle Squadron, Lieut-Commander John Bywater-Ward is on HMS Ajax and, lastly, we think Lieut. Desmond Stride is on HMS Conqueror.

We await news of all of them.