The surrender of the German Fleet took place in the Firth of Forth on 21st November 1918, but the first moves took place two days earlier when the German ships set sail from Wilhelmshaven. Admiral Hipper, the Commander in Chief of the High Sea Fleet, refused to lead his ships into internment and chose Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter to take his place.
Admiral von Reuter left Wilhelmshaven on the 19th November and steamed to the rendezvous point specified by Beatty, some 50 miles east of May Island at the mouth of the Firth of Forth.
Commodore Hugh Tweedie (Commodore F) was given the task of taking his destroyer flotillas from Port Edgar on the 20th November to meet the German fleet. Approaching the rendezvous point early in the morning of the 21st, he deployed his destroyers in a formation some 5 miles wide and made contact with the Germans at 0715, as this signal shows.
Having confirmed that these “suspicious vessels” were the expected German ships, HMS Cardiff, a light cruiser flying the flag of Rear Admiral Alexander-Sinclair and a Blue Ensign, turned 180° and led the German warships into the Forth. The required speed was 12 knots, but some of the German ships were unable to maintain this speed, so Cardiff had to reduce it to 10 knots.The German ships had been poorly maintained during their long period in harbour. This postcard from 1917/18 overstates the situation, but it gives some idea of the popular view at the time.
The ships of the Grand Fleet set out to meet the German ships early in the morning, well before dawn. They formed two long lines 6 miles apart, those on the northern side of the Forth designated “Red Fleet”, those on the south side “Blue Fleet”.
Admiral Beatty had told Meurer that the German ships would be met by “sufficient force”, but the Germans were astonished when they found themselves confronted with almost the entire Grand Fleet. He did not trust the Germans, his orders for the day made this plain. Although the guns of the Grand Fleet were not loaded, shells and propellant were at hand and could be rammed home in seconds if the need arose. From the moment that the German ships were sighted ranges and deflections were continually updated.
RMS King Orry leading the German light cruisers.
The Grand Fleet (steaming east) met the German ships (steaming west) at 0930 and continued eastwards until they reached the end of the German line which was some 19 miles long. At this point the two lines of the Grand Fleet turned 180° in unison and moved closer together to escort the German ships to the designated anchorage to the east of Inchkeith.
At precisely 1457, with the German ships at anchor under the guns of the Grand Fleet, Beatty issued his humiliating order to von Reuter aboard his flagship the Friedrich der Grosse:-
“The German flag is to be hauled down at 1557 today Thursday and is not to be hoisted again without permission.”
The signal is timed at 1450, but was not sent until 1457 and gave von Reuter exactly one hour’s notice. This was clearly Beatty’s way of showing who was in charge of the situation.
The German ships were quickly searched that evening to check that they were unarmed, and a more thorough search was carried out on the Friday. The German destroyers left the Forth under escort for Scapa Flow on the 22nd, 23rd and 24th November. The larger ships were similarly transferred on the 24th, 25th and 26th November.
After more than four years, the Forth was at peace.