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HMS "Jervis Bay" Armed Merchant Cruiser.

Convoy HX.84. 5th November 1940

 

CAPTAIN Krancke of the German Navy was not a happy man. A traditionalist, his hour of greatest pride had come on that fateful day in November 1919 when, to avoid the disgrace of surrendering to the British, the commander of the

interned German Imperial Fleet had scuttled his great ships in the cold waters of Scapa Flow.

But 20 years had passed, a new regime was in power in Berlin, a new leader - an upstart, sprung from the baser depths of the army -- now called the tune, a tune that favoured puny submarines over great battleships; and Hitler's Germany was at war with Britain.

It was October 27, 1940, and Captain Krancke was steering his command, the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, away from its berth at the naval base of

Kiel, on towards Stavanger in Norway, and from there out into the lonely waters of the Atlantic Ocean. His mission was simple: to sink as much British merchant shipping as possible, and so prove the worth of surface warships over their U-boat rivals. Krancke knew that the hopes of every traditional-minded German naval officer travelled with him; he knew, too, that failure on his part would award supremacy to the submarine division of the German Navy.

The day after the Scheer slipped away from Kiel, a convoy of 38 merchant ships formed into nine columns at the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia. This convoy, code-named HX84, was under the protection of HMS Jervis Bay, an armed 14,000-ton merchant cruiser which had been converted from a 1922 vintage passenger liner, used to ferry immigrants out to Australia, into a fighting ship with seven out-of-date six inch guns and an obsolete fire control system. Her captain, E.S.F. Fegan, RN, commanded a crew of 254 seamen drawn from the ranks of the Royal and Merchant navies and the Royal Naval Reserve. Among the sailors of the RNR were 18 men from a remote corner of Britain called Caithness, These were desperate times. The sea carried the economic lifeblood of Britain; without its ocean supply lines the country could not maintain its social fabric, let alone fight a war. Germany had the vast resources of occupied Europe to draw upon, resources now denied to its British antagonists, who were forced to rely on supplies from overseas, particularly from North America. The Jervis Bay was no stranger to

the life-or-death struggle being waged along the 2000 miles of cold Atlantic seaway across which the vital supplies flowed from North America to Britain. Only a month before HX84 left Halifax, the Jervis Bay had escorted 41 ships of convoy HX72 to the middle of the Atlantic, where they were met by a protection force of a destroyer, three frigates and a sloop, whose task it was to take them on to Britain.

The mid-Atlantic was the favourite hunting ground of the so-called wolf packs, small groups of U-boats whose mission it was to sink each and every Britain-bound merchant ship that came within range of their torpedoes. They preferred lone vessels, but convoys coming from North America with single warship escorts were also prime targets, Once the convoys reached the mid-way stage and, secured greater warship protection, the U-boats were not so keen. However, the four U-boats that attacked convoy MZL72 just after the Jervis Bay had handed it over managed to sink l1 of its 41 ships.

Incidentally, the submarine that spotted the convoy was U47, the commander of which was one of the greatest names in German submarine service history -- Gunter Prein, the man who had sunk the battle-ship Royal Oak in the anchorage of Scapa Flow.

But U-boats were not the sole hazard facing convoy HX.84 as it began its voyage across the Atlantic; winter weather, randomly sown mines and, as British Naval Intelligence had recently discovered, the threat of the battleship Admiral Scheer were additional menaces to the convoy's well-being. How remote their cosy firesides must have seemed to those 18 Caithness seamen as they helped save the Jervis Bay out into the unknown dangers of the winter Atlantic.

The Admiral Scheer had passed out into the wide ocean when, during the night of October 30/31, Captain Krancke received intelligence that convoy HX.84 had left Halifax and was sailing on a virtual collision course with his ship. This was splendid news; 38 merchant ships would soon be at the mercy of the Scheer's 11-inch guns. The sinking of such an important convoy would be a powerful advocate for the building of more battleships at the expense of the hated U-boats.

No mention had been made of the Jervis Bay in the intelligence report. One problem only served to cloud Krancke's optimism; he must not, under any circumstances, allow the Scheer's presence to become known to his target convoy which, assuredly, would scatter to the four winds the moment it heard of his ships presence. He therefore issued strict orders that any single vessel detected by his ships radar was to be avoided at all costs.

The morning of November 5 broke fine and clear, as indeed the previous seven mornings had done - remarkably good weather for the time of the year. Aboard the Jervis Bay, Captain Fegan and his crew had reason to be well pleased with their steady nine knots per hour progress, which had taken them almost to the mid-point of their journey.

Mindful of the submarine menace, the Jervis Bays lookouts were all engaged in scanning the waters for the telltale signs of a U-boats periscope. They saw none; neither did they notice a German Arado float plane, 196 miles away and hidden behind a bank of cloud. The German aircraft, however, saw convoy HX.84 and hastened back to the Admiral Scheer, from whose flight deck it had been launched earlier in the day. The fates appeared to have delivered the lambs into the waiting jaws of the sea wolf.

Krancke knew that time was now almost his only enemy. Fearful that any delay on his part might result in the convoy rendezvousing with some strong protection force sent out from Britain to meet it, he ordered full speed ahead. Suddenly, his plans threatened to go seriously awry. A lone vessel stood between the Admiral Scheer and convoy HX.84. This vessel was the s.s. Mopan, a banana boat of 8000 tons. Steering a wide berth to avoid the Mopan would cost valuable time, time he may not have, and the thought of a running fight with a force of British warships was a poor substitute to the certainty of watching defenceless merchantmen sinking in a sea of flames.

Krancke took a bold decision; using a signal lamp, he ordered the Mopan to stop immediately, and under no circumstances to use its radio. To the German captain's amazement, the banana boat did exactly as instructed. No doubt the thought of being blown out of the water, or being left to face the rigours of the cold Atlantic without a lifeboat, acted as a powerful source of persuasion to the skipper of the Mopan. In the event, his ship was sunk, but not before himself and his crew had been taken of it. The Scheer had made its first kill. Krancke, however, was more relieved than pleased; by now it was late afternoon, daylight was fading. He ordered that full speed ahead be resumed at once.

It was growing dark when one of the Jervis Bays lookouts spied the outline of an unknown ship on the twilight horizon. Suspecting it to be the leading warship of their expected protection squadron, Captain Fegan flashed the signal "What ship?". No reply being forthcoming, Fegan ordered his signal to be repeated. Again, no answer was received and, with the unknown ship less than 10 miles distant and getting closer by the minute, the Captain of the Jervis Bay began to feel doubtful as to the intentions of the strange vessel. By 1730 hours, and with darkness fast closing in, the unidentified ship was seen to turn broadside on. It was then about eight miles away from the Jervis Bay and its convoy.

SUDDENLY, all doubt as to the intentions of the unknown ships were removed, as six flashes lit up the horizon and a sound like an express train out of control filled the evening sky. As the first salvo from the Admiral Scheer fell around his ship, Captain Fegan sprang to action, ordering the convoy to scatter at once, and for the Jervis Bay to make full ahead towards its antagonist, dropping a trail of smoke floats as it went.

An experienced Navy man, Fegan knew without a doubt that his obsolete guns with their antiquated control system were hopelessly outmatched by those of the powerful German warship that was now beginning to find the Jervis Bay's range; he knew too, that the chances of his even getting within shooting distance of his enemy were slim to say the least; he also knew that the consequences for his crew in the likely event of the Jervis Bay being sunk (for the enemy would not, and the convoy could not stop to pick up any survivors fortunate enough to make it into a lifeboat) was almost certain death from starvation.

But Captain Fegan also knew his duty. Whatever the outcome, the actions of the Jervis Bay would buy valuable time for convoy HX.84. Out of range though they were, the four forward six-inch guns of the Jervis Bay opened fire on the German warship.

Aware now of the rapid approach of the British warship, Captain Krancke ordered all his guns to bear on the Jervis Bay. By the third salvo, the German gunners had found their range. An 11-inch armour-piercing shell weighs over 600 pounds. It is a fearful thing to consider when it is lying inert in its rack; imagine, then, how frightful it becomes when six of them are approaching at velocity of 2000 feet per second. A man must needs have a firm control over his bowels in such a situation.

When the first of these projectiles struck the Jervis Bay it met next to no resistance from such puny armour that the ship possessed, less still from the unfortunate crew. Lucky those who were killed outright by the force of the exploding shells, for they were spared the horrors which suddenly burst out around them. The choking fumes from burning paint, showers of red-hot metal splinters flying everywhere, the agony of burst eardrums, the smell of human flesh on fire, and the sight and sound of screaming men with shattered bones, sliced limbs, and heat-seared eyes.

The foredeck was the first place to receive the full brunt of the Scheer's broadside; the bridge was next, part of it being ripped to bits with total loss of the gunnery control system.

But the Jervis Bay maintained her course towards the Scheer, guns still firing. A shell now struck one of the forward guns, killing most of the crew instantly; then the bridge took a direct hit. Captain Fegan, one arm torn off, stuck doggedly to his post, restoring morale and inspiring the men around him by his example. The next shell that hit the bridge killed the gallant captain, but his example lived on; a mass of flames and twisted metal from bow to stern, the Jervis Bay kept course towards the German warship, her remaining guns yet firing. The closer the ships came, the greater the havoc wreaked by the Scheer's guns.

At last the inevitable happened - a shell struck a vital part of the Jervis Bay, bringing it to a shuddering halt. A moment more, she turned on her side, orders were given to abandon ship immediately, and the stricken vessel began to sink bow first into the dark Atlantic water.

Once started, the end came swiftly, the Jervis Bay plunging to the bottom along with 187 of her gallant crew. She was still too far away for her guns to have had any effect on the Admiral Scheer.

A useless sacrifice, some might say; 187 men dead and not so much as a scratch on the enemy warship. These figures cannot be disputed, but what is certainly true is that the Jervis Bay's heroic action saved far more sailors than were lost through it. For 22 minutes the brave ship had occupied the full attention of the Admiral Scheer - Which had expended 335 valuable shells in sinking her. These 22 minutes afforded a priceless opportunity for the ships of convoy HX.84, to make good their escape under cover of a welcome darkness.

In the aftermath of the Jervis Bay sinking, the Scheer went on to overhaul and sink seven ships from the convoy, with the loss of 253 lives; but the remaining vessels escaped to bring their much-needed cargoes to Britain. Save for the Jervis Bays gallantry, the likelihood is that the vast majority of the ships in convoy HX.84, along with their crews, would have fallen victim to the Admiral Scheer's guns.

HEROISM begets admiration, and to the skipper of the swedish ship Stureholm, who had witnessed the action, the heroism of the Jervis Bay was impressive to such a degree that, neutral though he was, the skipper could not sail by and leave the survivors to their grim fate. Waiting until the Scheer - whose progress through the night was marked by searchlights, starshells and explosion - moved away from the scene, the Stureholm's skipper sailed his ship to the last resting place of the Jervis Bay and began a search for survivors. He managed to rescue 65 men, among whom were nine from Caithness. The remaining survivors were picked up at intervals over the next few days.

Heroism also begets honours and immortality. Captain Fegan was the posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross, his nations highest reward for gallantry. According to the rules and traditions of military honours, this was all right and proper; he was the captain, and it was his decision to do what he knew to be his duty, even though he fully realised the fatal consequences of his actions.

But he did not act alone; his crew are entitled to a due share of Captain Fegan's coveted reward. They may not have received any medals, but their names deserve to be remembered. How many of us today would have willingly exchanged places with them?

Here is a list of the 18 Caithness men who served on HMS Jervis Bay. All of them held the rank of Seaman in the Royal Naval Reserve, and all were called up in September 1939.

Men Killed on November 5,1940:

James Anderson, Old Schoolhouse, Thrumster, married. James Bain, 18 Wellington Street, wick, married, aged 27. John M. Bain, 24 Kinnaird Street, Wick, aged 27. David R. Bremner, 31 Smith Terrace, Wick, married, aged 29. William Bremner, 5 Macarthur Street, Wick, aged 32. John Innes, Burnside, Oldwick, Wick, married, age 33. William B. Miller, 31 Smith Terrace, Wick, aged 27. John C. Munro, New House, Keiss, aged 28. Alexander Webster, 41 Argyle Square, Wick, married, age 32.

Survivors:

Donald Bain, 136 Willowbank, Wick, Married (wounded, November 5 1940). George Doull, 23a Girnigoe Street, Wick. David Dunbar, Kyleburn Cottage, Lybster. Jackie Durrand, 86 Willowbank,Wick. Bobby Durrand, 10 Bridge Street, Wick (brother of Jackie). Robert Gunn, Ackergill Crescent, Wick. Alexander Moonie, 9 Macarthur Street, Wick. William Oag, New Houses, Thrumster. James Reid, 17 Vansittart Street, Wick.

As usual, I am indebted to David Bews for his tireless efforts in researching the above article, which could not have been written without his industry.

published in the John O' Groat Journal February 20 1998

 

HMS'Jervis Bay' Casualty list

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Stephen Cashmore 1998


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