The Surrender of the German High Seas Fleet

It was perhaps appropriate that it was on a very misty day when the full fleet lines could not be seen from end to end that the last scene in this naval drama was played out in these very waters [the Firth of Forth]. Now it is not for me to give you a historian’s tale of what happened, but I would like to turn back fifty years tonight to Aberlady Bay … I said to you just now that we were about twenty-four boats in the flotilla all of the most – then the most modern destroyers … They were manned by the usual mixture of ‘hostilities only’ ratings and ‘active service’ but there were very very few RNVR[1] officers serving in fleet destroyers.

We carried a snottie, myself; a surgeon probationer who was a makey-do doctor, a medical student dished up as a doctor, and a very nice chap, but he was not yet a frightfully good doctor. The rest were all ‘active service’ … Our divisional leader in Wolfhound was Commander John Cronyn Tovey, DSO … the weather was very thick but it had been much thicker in the early parts of November and the fleet was decimated with Spanish flu … luckily the day itself, the 21st, although it was misty, was not a day of thick fog, but it was by no means clear and the surrender exercise came at the end of a month of increasing flaps. Even in the fleet, even amongst the most junior people, it was know that there was a large size chance that the High Seas Fleet would come out for a last fling and we expected something to happen in October.

Action stations

Well, to come back to the surrender, we weighed [anchor] at two in the morning and went to action stations, at about six in the morning. We were leading flotilla, we weren’t screening the battle cruisers, we were spread out, on the operation orders, as a look out screen and we were due to pick up the big ships – German big ships – fifty miles due east of May island at 8 o clock in the morning.

I can still remember standing on the bridge munching a large fat sandwich and drinking some very sweet tea … and then, just through the mist came this amazing spectacle. First of all you got the loom of some smoke and then the first of these big ships. One of the most wonderful things in the world because you realised that whatever was going to happen, this was one of the greatest naval occasions that ever occurred. Either because of the size of the forces … employed or for the quality of the event itself … There they were Seydlitz, Derfflinger, Von Der Tann, Moltke, the whole lot of them, whose silhouettes one knew like the back of one’s hand, magnificent looking ships, real warships, very low silhouette, turrets very well arranged, perfect engines of war, but they were dirty.

A magnificent array of battleships

But then after them came the battleships, a magnificent array of battleships … a really fine lot, headed by the Baden … and then we counted the light cruisers, there were seven of them but only forty-nine destroyers. There should have been fifty …One had struck a mine on the way across and got itself sunk, which was very silly of it. That was the pageant that passed by so you can imagine what it looked like … We swung around sixteen points, took up station, and in effect a rearguard, rather like taking this little lot into custody.

I think that in every ship for this – in the Cromwellian phrase – “this crowning mercy”. In a sense it was an anticlimax, because the expectation had been that before the end came, there would be a final and ultimate naval clash in the North Sea, the result of which was certain, given anything like decent visibility

[1] Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

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