War in the Forth

‘… The British Grand Fleet was based at Scapa Flow at the beginning of WW1. The battle-cruisers moved to Rosyth in December 1915, but it took until April 1918 to make the estuary safe enough for the rest of the Fleet to join them.’

The British Grand Fleet was based at Scapa Flow at the beginning of WW1. The battle-cruisers moved to Rosyth in December 1915, but it took until April 1918 to make the estuary safe enough for the rest of the Fleet to join them. Andrew Kerr, Naval Historian, tells the story.

Warships of the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow ©

The British Grand Fleet, comprising some 200 ships, was based at Scapa Flow at the beginning of WW1. The battle-cruisers moved to Rosyth in December 1914, but it took until April 1918 to make the estuary safe enough for the rest of the Fleet to join them, by which time every significant harbour had been taken over for naval use. This illustrated article, by Andrew Kerr, describes the challenges of protecting and operating this immense armada of ships, and explains its part in the Great War.

Andrew Kerr is a retired lawyer with a lifelong interest in ships and the Royal Navy. He was the Consultant Naval Historian for the recent BBC Television programme ‘Scotland’s War at Sea’, and is a member of the Scottish Government’s Battle of Jutland Commemorations Working Group.

Introduction and background

Countless books have been written about the Great War at sea, but this short summary may be useful background before we turn to the part played by Queensferry and the Forth estuary in the conflict.

It is a remarkable fact that the course of naval events in WW1 was mainly governed by some sixty capital ships all completed in the short space of eight years (1908-1916), following the Dreadnought of 1906. After 1916 the importance of surface ships declined as submarines and aircraft became increasingly important rivals.

The completion of HMS Dreadnought with ten 12 inch guns rendered all previous battleships ineffective, just as our first three battle-cruisers of 1908 rendered all earlier heavy cruisers obsolete. All the major naval powers had to scrap their building programmes and re-plan for bigger ships with enlarged dock facilities. For Germany it also meant enlarging the Kiel Canal.

As long ago as 1909 it was estimated that Germany would reach the most favourable ratio of strength in the autumn of 1914 (Britain: 22 battleships plus 10 battle-cruisers, Germany: 16 battleships plus 6 battle-cruisers). The enlargement of the Kiel Canal was due for completion at the same time and therefore from the naval perspective this was the most probable date for the outbreak of war. The enemy also anticipated further advantage later on from the addition of two battleships building in Britain for Turkey, which would draw off at least two of our ships to the Mediterranean to hold them. However, delivery was purposely delayed and the ships were taken over by Britain as HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin.

HMS Erin in Scapa Flow ©
HMS Agincourt ©
HMS Dreadnought below the Forth Bridge ©
Admiral Sir John Rushworth Jellicoe in supreme command of Britain’s Grand Fleet ©

The Grand Fleet, so named at the beginning of the war, and initially commanded by Sir John Jellicoe, eventually comprised thirty five battleships, fifteen battle-cruisers, five or six squadrons of cruisers (each of four or five ships), six or eight flotillas of destroyers (each of a leader plus twenty ships if at full strength) and two seaplane carriers, supported by three repair ships, a multitude of armed yachts, minesweeping gunboats, trawlers, drifters, colliers, oilers, ammunition ships, store ships, a post office and depot ship, auxiliary vessels of all sorts, old battleships as guard ships and old destroyers for local defence. The whole fleet was based initially at Scapa Flow, Orkney, but the battle-cruisers, commanded by Sir David Beatty, moved to Rosyth in December 1914, with their attendant cruisers and destroyers.

The principal events involving battleships and battle-cruisers may be summarised as follows:
August 1914. Heligoland Bight. Successful battle-cruiser support of light forces based at Harwich resulted in the sinking of three German light cruisers.

December 1914. Falklands. In November the armoured cruisers Good Hopeand Monmouth had been sunk at Coronel, off the coast of Chile, by the German ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau of the same category but later design. The battle-cruisers Invincible and Inflexible were secretly dispatched and overwhelmed the German ships off the Falkland Islands.

December 1914. Bombardment of Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough by four German battle-cruisers which escaped in squalls and mist.

The remains of a house in Scarborough where five members of the Bennett family were killed as a result of the raid ©
The sinking of the Scharnhorst, Our Wonderful Navy, Cassell & Co, artist Charles deLacy ©
Heligoland Bight action, Our Wonderful Navy, Cassell & Co, artist Charles deLacy ©

January 1915. Dogger Bank. Our battle-cruisers intercepted three German battle-cruisers and the heavy armoured cruiser Blücher. The enemy made off at high speed and in the ensuing running fight the Blücher was sunk and the Seydlitzbadly damaged, as was Beatty’s flagship Lion.

February-March 1915. Dardanelles. In addition to pre-Dreadnoughts, the new Queen Elizabeth with 15 inch guns, and the battle-cruisers Indefatigable and Inflexible, joined in the bombardments.
April 1916. Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth were subjected to a twenty minute bombardment by German battle-cruisers.

Windsor Road, Lowestoft, Suffolk after the bombardment by German battlecruisers LUTZON, DERFLINGER, MOLTKE and VON DER TANN ©
HMS Queen Elizabeth ©
The German heavy cruiser SMS Blücher capsizing during the Battle of Dogger Bank ©
Map of the Battle of Jutland, North Sea, 1916 ©

31st May to 1st June, 1916. Jutland. A battle-cruiser action led to full engagement of both fleets (the only great naval gun battle between ships of the Dreadnought era), but the enemy escaped behind our main force during the night. Many factors conspired to deny the navy and the public the Trafalgar-style victory which they had hoped for and expected, including poor visibility, inadequate communications, unsafe cordite-handling procedures and ineffective armour-piercing shells. Although our ship losses were the greater (three battle-cruisers, three armoured cruisers and eight destroyers against one battle-cruiser, one pre-Dreadnought, four light cruisers and eight destroyers) damage throughout the German fleet was widespread, whereas on our side it was more or less confined to the battle-cruiser force, which had borne most of the fighting, and the German fleet never again put to sea with the serious intention of engaging the Grand Fleet.

November 1918. Under the terms of the Armistice, the German fleet rendezvoused with the Grand Fleet 40 miles east of the Isle of May and was escorted into the Forth, anchoring under guard off Inchkeith, thereafter being interned at Scapa Flow.

June 1919. German ships were scuttled by their crews at Scapa.

German Battle-cruiser Derfflinger sinking at Scapa Flow ©
German Battleship at the surrender ©
German ships at the Battle of Jutland, Our Wonderful Navy, Cassell & Co, artist Charles deLacy ©

Arguably, however, of much greater significance to Britain than the activity (or lack of activity) of its capital ships was the submarine war, especially unrestricted German U-boat warfare against merchant ships, which took place in 1915, and again in 1917, resulting in devastating losses of ships and lives. Depth charges were introduced in 1916, but Asdic (later renamed Sonar) did not appear effectively until the 1920s. The real answer was to introduce a convoy system but the idea was resisted, especially by Jellicoe. Eventually, however, in April 1917, the convoy principle was accepted and losses fell dramatically almost immediately. Out of 800 vessels convoyed in July and August 1917, only five were lost, and in September the destruction of U-boats exceeded new construction figures for the first time.

No summary of the war at sea, however short, could fail to mention the British blockade of Germany, principally by armed merchant cruisers (requisitioned liners commissioned under the white ensign and armed with a mixture of 6 inch and 4.7 inch guns), which patrolled the stormy seas between Britain and Norway, stopping and searching ships bound for Germany or her neutral neighbours. The resulting shortages of food and raw materials for industry were immensely important factors in the defeat of Germany.

Shamefully, no British battleship or battle-cruiser has been preserved, and indeed the only surviving relic of any consequence is the pair of 15 inch guns outside the Imperial War Museum in London. One was originally mounted in HMS Ramillies (built on the Clyde by William Beardmore, 1916) and the other in HMS Resolution (built on the Tyne by Palmers, 1915). Each gun weighs 100 tons and took two years to make.

15 inch guns at Imperial War Museum London ©
Armed merchant cruiser torpedoed and sunk on 14th June 1917 by German submarine SM U-69 while patrolling off the Shetland Islands ©
A Convoy in the North Sea off the coast of Norway from airship NS 7, artist John Lavery ©

The Royal Navy in the Forth

Destroyer HMS Vampire G50 in dry dock, Rosyth Dockyard ©

Although the Forth had been defended since 1881, and by 1903 was a heavily defended naval anchorage, the most important phase of the story begins with the decision to construct Rosyth Dockyard. The naval dockyards situated on the south coast of England to deal with France, Britain’s historic enemy, were too far from the North Sea, which was the most likely area of conflict with the new enemy, Germany. Consequently, the Government decided to build a new dockyard on the east coast and various locations were considered, including the Humber, the Forth and Cromarty.

St Margaret’s Hope, Naval Base ©

In March 1903, it was announced that the new naval port and base was to be built at St Margaret’s Hope, on the north side of the Forth. Some preliminary work was undertaken in the following years, the defences of the river were strengthened, and the Forth became a more important naval anchorage, but it was not until 1909 that the main works began. The principal contract was awarded to Messrs Easton Gibb and Sons and they started work in March of that year, with the works due for completion in March 1916. When WW1 began in August 1914 the dockyard was still under construction but the tidal basin intended for submarines could be brought into use.

HMS Crescent before she was converted to a depot ship ©

Shortly afterwards the repair ship HMS Aquarius was berthed alongside one of the jetties. The formal opening ceremony was performed by King George V on 8th June 1915 and the dockyard finally became operational in March 1916 when the main basin was flooded. The depot ship HMS Crescent was the first to enter the main basin and shortly afterwards the pre-Dreadnought HMS Zealandia was docked in No 1 dock for repairs following a mishap in the Forth. So began a process which led to every significant harbour in the Forth estuary being taken over for naval use, and eventually to the whole of the Grand Fleet being based in the Forth.

A Wireless Telegraph Station was erected on Castlandhill and Ordnance Depots (one of which still exists) were built at Crombie and upriver at Bandeath, three miles east of Stirling. An experimental Seaplane Station operated from Port Laing near North Queensferry (later transferring to Dundee). Also established at North Queensferry was a Kite Balloon Station. Kite balloons, towed by ships in the fleet, were fitted from 1916, to spot for mines and submarines, and 180 ships had been equipped with them by the end of the war, including eighteen battleships and three battle-cruisers. Sea (or air?) sickness was a major problem for the observers, who were carried in a basket below the balloon, communicating with the ship below by telephone. A Royal Naval Air Station was established at Donibristle at the end of 1917, becoming part of the newly formed Royal Air Force in 1918.

North Queensferry Kite Balloon Station staff ©
North Queensferry Kite Balloon Station ©
HMS Onslow, pennant number F09, towing a kite balloon off Kirkcaldy ©

It was never intended that the dockyard would accommodate ships not requiring attention such as repair or refit. It was not nearly large enough, and ships had to lock in or out at most states of the tide. Consequently, battleships, battle-cruisers and cruisers would normally moor above and, later, below the bridge, either at buoys or at anchor (one advantage of a buoy being that it could provide a telegraph and telephone connection). It was recognised that destroyers were too small to lie at moorings except for short periods, especially in winter, and accordingly a base had to be provided for them.

On the south side of the river, by far the most significant development was the development of the Destroyer Base at Port Edgar. The existing harbour, requisitioned from the North British Railway Company in 1916, was dredged and enlarged and berthing jetties were provided. Shore facilities included barracks, workshops, storehouses, a power generating station, a distilling plant (to produce boiler feedwater) and recreation and sporting facilities. An oil fuel depot was built nearby. The new base was commissioned as HMS Columbine in December 1917, with space for 66 destroyers.

A small Naval Hospital was also built a short distance to the west, at Butlaw, and the larger (220 bed) Royal Naval Hospital, Granton, serving the whole of Scotland, was established in the buildings of the Leith Public Health Hospital (later the Northern General Hospital) in Ferry Road. A further (1,200 bed) Naval Hospital was established briefly in 1918, when the Stirling District Asylum at Larbert was taken over by the Admiralty.

Staff at Queen Mary and Princess Christian Naval Hospital, Butlaw, South Queensferry ©
Destroyers in Pens, Port Edgar, South Queensferry ©
HMS Columbine stationed at Port Edgar, South Queensferry, July 1913 ©
How Paravanes could protect a ship from mines – Seaman’s Pocket-Book, 1943 ©

Further afield, Grangemouth became very important, for various reasons. The docks were requisitioned by the Admiralty in November 1914. All merchant shipping was banned for the duration of hostilities, and Grangemouth became known as HMS Rameses, with many buildings requisitioned for administration and accommodation. A mine manufacturing and training school was established and minelayers were loaded in the docks. Britain, having regarded the mine as an underhand weapon of little value to a power having command of the sea, was unprepared for mine warfare, but the loss by mine of the new Dreadnought HMS Audacious off the coast of Donegal in October 1914 brought about an immediate change of policy. Old converted cruisers were used as minelayers initially, but in 1915 several suitable merchant ships were requisitioned and converted. Submarines and trawlers were also used as minelayers. Minesweeping gunboats and trawlers were able to maintain swept channels and clear enemy minefields in coastal waters, but could not accompany the Fleet, leading to the development of the paravane, which was fitted universally during 1917. Thereafter, more naval vessels were converted, and extensive fields were laid in the Channel, off the Belgian coast, and especially (with very substantial help from the USA) between Orkney and Norway, a distance of some 240 miles. Britain laid over 128,000 mines during the war and the US Navy a further 57,000.

Warship about to lower two paravanes to protect from mines, artist Charles Pears ©
Royal Navy minelayer HMS PRINCESS MARGARET loading mines at Grangemouth minelaying base ©
Girls at work in the Assembly sheds, Grangemouth minelaying base ©
Drifters carried out duties with the Fleet including, patrolling entrances to harbours, carrying mail, transporting sailors, and carrying messages from flag ships ©

Some of the ships in the Fleet used coal for fuel, but others used oil and many used both. Welsh steaming coal (of high calorific value and producing relatively little smoke) was brought up to Grangemouth by rail and taken down the river to the ships in the anchorage in colliers. The Admiralty also took over the recently-established BP oil installation as an oil-fuelling depot. Most of the oil came from the USA. Barges were converted to transport oil on the Forth and Clyde Canal, and in them large quantities of oil were shipped from Bowling on the Clyde across Central Scotland to Grangemouth, where a large tank farm was built for storage. Grangemouth also became the fleet victualling depot, from which stores of every sort were taken down river, principally in drifters requisitioned (with their crews) from the fishing fleet.

Old sailors making submarine nets in Granton ©

Bo’ness Harbour was also closed to merchant traffic in November 1914 and seems to have been used for bunkering coal burning ships during the war.

Construction of anti-submarine boom defences began in the early months of the war. In November 1914 nets were hung under the Forth Bridge. At the same time, a second line of defences was begun, to run from the Fife shore near Dalgety Bay and then between the islands of Inchcolm, Oxcars and Inchmickery and Cramond. It had a single gate south of Inchcolm. (The causeway to Cramond Island was built, partly for access and partly as an anti-shipping barrier, during WW2).

The Naval Base, Granton, Twilight, Booms guarding the Forth are seen in the distance, artist John Lavery ©

Jellicoe fully understood the advantage of moving the whole of the Grand Fleet south from Scapa, but it would be several years before the defences in the Forth could be judged adequate. It was agreed in 1916, as part of this work, to rebuild the anti-submarine defences completely. The Dalgety Bay to Cramond Island line was replaced by a double line of anti-boat and anti-submarine nets, slightly to the east, while a line parallel to the shipping lanes between Inchmickery and Hound Point was added. A completely new line was started, to run from Black Rock, west of Burntisland, and Granton Harbour, and a new outer defence line was also started, to run from Elie in Fife to the island of Fidra, north of Dirleton in East Lothian. A gap of two miles – known as the Fidra Gap – would be left in the centre of this third line, heavily patrolled on the surface and partially closed with deep nets to stop submarines and, when the Fleet was exercising to the west, the gap would be closed by nets pulled into position by drifters from Granton Harbour.

The Gate Ship at Granton painted scarlet to indicate the port entrance through one of the barriers across the Firth of Forth, artist Charles Pears ©

Burntisland Harbour was taken over to serve as a base for the work. Very fortunately, we have a photographic record of the construction of these lines, being the contractors’ private album of photographs, purchased by the Naval Historical Branch in Portsmouth in 2007. It shows how the nets were attached to hawsers slung between wooden dolphins (bundles of piles driven into the sea bed) or, in deeper water, supported by floats and secured between anchored trawlers, requisitioned from the fishing fleet. This seems to have been the general method of construction, and the line also appears in a wonderful painting by the war artist Charles Pears in 1918 and entitled “The Gate Ship at Granton Painted Scarlet to Indicate the Port Entrance through One of the Barriers across the Firth of Forth”. We see the gate ship, a merchantman passing through the gate beyond, and the line of dolphins stretching away into the distance, towards the hills of Fife.

Trawlers flanking the South Gate near Gunnel Ledge ©
Models of the dolphins used on the anti-submarine boom ©
Burntisland harbour with piles, some of which were 95 feet long and made of gumwood (eucalyptus) ©
The line of moored trawlers in deep water with the submarine nets supported by floats ©
Granton Gate looking North ©
Granton Gate opening ©

To cover these anti-submarine defences was a comprehensive array of batteries of light, mainly 12 pounder, guns, to the north and south of the Forth Bridge, on the coast at Downing Point and Hound Point, and on the islands of Inchgarvie, Inchcolm (where much interesting evidence survives), Inchmickery and Cramond Island. The buildings on Inchmickery are often said to have been arranged so as to mimic a battleship in silhouette, but this is not the case, as the buildings date from two wars and were arranged purely so as to site the guns to best advantage. Heavier guns to tackle larger ships were mounted on Inchkeith (which mounted three 9.2 inch and six 6 inch guns), Kinghorn (one 9.2-inch and four 6-inch) and at Leith Docks (two 6-inch guns). A pair of 9.2-inch guns was also mounted at Braefoot Point until 1916. Several of the coastal batteries also had extensive landward defences to protect them from being neutralised by attack from the rear.

A 9.2 inch gun at Frenchman’s Point, South Shields, identical to those used on the Forth ©
Inchgarvie 12 pounder gun ©
The Battery, Hound Point ©
A sailor listening on a hydrophone and an officer using binoculars on board a British armed trawler©

Experiments with underwater microphones, to detect enemy submarines, began early in the war. A hydrophone research and training base, HMS Tarlair (named after the drifter in which the first trials had been conducted, from Granton Harbour) was established at Hawkcraig Point, Aberdour, in June 1915. In all, 1,090 officers and 2,731 ratings were trained at Hawkcraig, by parties visiting the naval bases, and by another school along the Fife coast at Elie. By the middle of 1918, ten hydrophone listening stations had been set up in Scotland, seven of them being in the Forth and mainly used to operate controlled minefields, which could be activated electrically if a U-boat was detected.

Dispatch carriers of the WRNS delivering messages to a drifter ©

Granton Harbour also became a naval base, named HMS Gunner, after the largest trawler in its flotilla, and used for minesweeping, decoy vessels (‘Q-ships’), anti-submarine patrols and the maintenance of the outer boom defences. The first members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the WRNS, arrived during 1918. The command at Granton was divided into two parts. The northern area had a large complement of 24 motor launches and eighteen paddle minesweepers, as well as 30 boom defence vessels amongst its flotilla of 103 craft. The southern area was smaller, with a total of 47 yachts and fishing boats.

King George V and Admiral David Beatty on the quarter deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth of the Grand Fleet ©

By April 1918 the facilities in the Forth were at last judged sufficient. Although Beatty (who had succeeded Jellicoe as Commander of the Grand Fleet in November 1916) had never liked “the horrid Forth like a great ditch full of thick fog”, which was vulnerable to mining and with the further possibility that if the bridge were brought down ships might be trapped above it and the Dockyard made useless, he nevertheless brought the Grand Fleet down from Scapa to join the battle-cruiser force, mooring above and below the bridge. We simply cannot imagine today the difficulty and danger of operating this enormous number of big ships in such congested waters, when communication between them, beyond the reach of a megaphone, was almost entirely by signal flags, semaphore or morse lamp, and before the invention of radar, when poor visibility might require each ship to tow a fog buoy to enable the ship astern to keep station.

Aerial view of the Grand Fleet at anchor in the Firth of Forth, taken from the British Airship R 9 ©
Richard Hough, in his definitive book “The Great War at Sea”, quoted Beatty’s biographer William Chalmers, who was on Beatty’s staff from 1915 to 1919, about operating from the Forth: “Strong nerves were needed to turn 30 battleships ‘at rest’ through 180 degrees on an ebb tide [meaning that all the ships were facing upriver] after the anchors had been weighed. Under Beatty’s leadership it soon became a matter of routine, and at no time did weather conditions prevent him from taking this huge armada of 150 ships to sea at any state of tide by day or night…the superb seamanship of the Captains and Navigators overcame all hazards”. Stephen Roskill, in his biography of Beatty, recorded that the Grand Fleet put to sea in thick fog on 24th April 1918. By early afternoon the whole armada of 193 ships was at sea, and all within 90 minutes of receiving the order to sail. “It was to prove the last time during the war that Beatty sailed in full fighting array”. Within seven months, the war would be over.

The Merchant Navy

Sailors serving at Granton Naval Base ©

Taking over both Grangemouth and Bo’ness meant that the Admiralty had virtually exclusive use of the upper Forth, while still permitting controlled commercial traffic to operate further down the estuary. Leith was not officially closed to merchant shipping, but the Royal Navy’s presence was increasingly felt as it took over larger areas of the docks and quayside buildings, including several warehouses.

The Royal Navy requisitioned around 3,000 trawlers and drifters, with their crews, during the war, most of them from the Scottish east coast fishing communities. While the majority served as minesweepers or mine-hunters they were also used as boom defence vessels, convoy escorts and all-purpose auxiliaries. 675 fishing boats were sunk by enemy action while fishing or flying the colours of the Royal Naval Reserve, many of them in 1917, during the period of unrestricted submarine warfare.
Further afield, Scottish seafarers made up a disproportionately high number of all ships’ crews, and the Merchant Service suffered heavy losses, as already mentioned above. The tonnage lost to U-boats in WW1 was almost 7.8 million tons, and over 14,500 merchant seamen lost their lives.

The Merchant Navy Memorial, Tower Place, Leith ©

As Richard Hough said in “The Great War at Sea”: “Death in a crippled U-boat was a particularly distressing business, and if anything was worse than trench warfare it was the cruel war at sea in which thousands of merchant sailors were roasted or choked to death by oil, went down with their ships, or were left to drown or freeze to death in the North Atlantic”.

The Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Place in Leith is a fitting tribute to those brave men who gave their lives in war. “The memorial is a timeless tribute, for their service to Great Britain and its people, to those Merchant Navy seafarers from Scotland who died, and the many who have no known grave. It honours the fallen, fosters pride in the country and is a focus now and for future generations in Remembrance of those sacrifices – ‘Lest we forget’”.

© Andrew Kerr