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Caithness Archives

HMS "Jervis Bay" Armed Merchant Cruiser.

Convoy HX.84. 5th November 1940

The Research

 

On 28th Oct 1940 the convoy HX.84 (84th convoy from Halifax to the UK) left Halifax, Nova Scotia with 38 merchant ships and the HMS Jervis Bay an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC), which was formed into nine columns. The HX.84 was escorted to the edge of the Atlantic and its close escort turned back to Canada, at this time the only convoys that were permitted a close escort from Canada to the UK were convoys with troop ship in transit. The HX.84's only escort was the Jervis Bay, which was armed with seven old 6" guns and an out of date fire control system, the guns were adequate for submarines, other armed merchant cruisers or maybe a destroyer but nothing larger. The Jervis Bay was an old 14,164 ton passenger liner, built in 1922 and used to carry immigrants to Australia and food back to Britain, but in 1939 with another 56 passenger liners she was converted into an AMC. She was crewed by a mixture of Royal Navy, Royal Naval Reserve and Merchant Navy 254 seamen, and Captain E. S. F. Fegen. RN. Her 2,000 mile journey would take her over one of the most dangerous oceans during the war, not only would she have to contend with the weather but she also had the U-boats from about mid Atlantic to the British waters, then when she was inside home waters their was still the U-boats and now the randomly sewn mines scattered around the British coast and if that was not enough the Admiralty had found out that three main German warships were roaming the seas, they were the Lutzow, the Graf Spee and the Admiral Scheer, each capable of sinking a whole convoy within hours.

It was a dangerous time for the convoys and a happy time for the U-boats. As convoy HX.72 proved when the Jervis Bay escorted them until just over mid way to Britain and handed over the convoy to one destroyer, three frigates and one sloop. This was where the 41 merchant ships entered the U-boat killing zone. Unknown to anyone the U-47 spotted the convoy just after the Jervis Bay handed over to the now escorts on the 20th Sept 1940. The commander of the U-47 was Gunter Prein the man who sunk the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow, as he had only one torpedo left he was stationed as a weather boat and by luck he spotted the HX.72, he called for assistance and U-48, U-99 (Otto Kretschmer) and U-100 (Joachim Schepke) came to join the hunt, the three top U-boat aces. Between the 21st and 22nd Sept U-48 sank one ship, U-99 three ships and U-100 seven ships before withdrawing for easier kills.

On the 27th Oct 1940 the German Pocket Battleship the Admiral Scheer commanded by Captain Krancke left Kiel, Germany and with a quick stop at Stavanger, Norway, her mission was to break out into the South Atlantic and attack and destroy as many Allied merchant ships as possible, she would ultimately go on to sink a total of 17 ships before returning to Germany in Apr 1941. Her journey would take her through the Denmark Straits between Greenland and Iceland, on a collision course with the HX.84. About the 30th/31st Krancke was informed by German Intelligence that a convoy had left Halifax (HX.84) and was ordered to intercept and destroy the convoy. Krancke went full speed ahead to fulfil his orders, as this was the opportunity he was waiting for a large convoy with probably little protection and if he could get in close before they tried to scatter he could sink them all and justify to Hitler the need for more surface ships in the German armoury and less of the puny U-boats. He was that keen not to miss his chance that between the 31st Oct and 5th Nov any ships he spotted on radar, rather than try to sink them he gave them a wide berth, he was frightened that they might have time to send a signal of his position and alter the HX.84. He realised that if they found out his position and heading they would scattered to the wind and his chances of destroying them all would be very slim. On the morning of the 5th he ordered the launch of one of his Arado 196 floatplane with the orders that if they spotted the HX.84 they were to maintain radio silence and return to the "Scheer" and report, by mid-day the aircraft had spotted the convoy and took a note of its speed, heading and position. Once the aircraft was safely back on board the report was given of its position, heading, speed and that there was no escort. Krancke went to full speed to intercept the convoy, he realised that he would be able to make contact just before dusk. He did not want to leave the convoy until the 6th as a strong escort might be joining the convoy and fighting a escort would take time and he would lose the Merchant ships, so he pushed on.

From the 28th Oct to the 5th Nov 1940 the convoy had fair weather which meant a speedy journey (9 kts) The convoy had not seen any U-boats and now they were half way home, their hopes were running high, the time for the Wolf packs would be soon, but not just now. There was no threat of German aircraft this far out the lookouts were to busy keeping convoy station and looking for periscopes to notice the Arado 196 miles away using the clouds for cover and ultimately did not know their position was now known. The fate of the Jervis Bay was now sealed and she was to go down in a blaze of glory, in the finest tradition of the Royal and Merchant Navy, their luck had just run out.

The "Scheer" shortly ran into a problem, a small vessel was in her way. Krancke was faced with a problem. If he ignored it and speed on past the vessel would report his position and heading and HX.84 would know he was heading for them and scatter, If he decided to attack the vessel they might be able to send a signal and report his position and heading and again the convoy would scatter. If he took a wide detour he would not be able to attack until the 6th and then an escort from Britain might join the convoy. He took a gamble which paid off, he went full speed ahead to wards the vessel and his weapon was the signal lamp, he ordered the vessel to stop and not to use its radio. To his amazement the vessel did just that, he skipper of what turned out to be the ss "Mopan" (7,908 tons), a banana boat, immediately stopped. The skipper not knowing the "Scheer" was heading for a convoy and also the prospect of either being killed or left with or without a lifeboat in mid Atlantic in November, he probably thought this was the most sensible thing to do. No doubt that if the crew or the skipper knew about the convoy a signal would have been sent, but that is hindsight. But what it did do was hold the "Scheer" up for over an hour until the crew was removed and the vessel was sunk. It was Krancke's first kill but he was not happy about it as it had wasted valuable time and daylight was running out, it was going to be close but he could still do it. So again he ordered full speed ahead.

With the convoys hopes still running high and as twilight was setting in, the Jervis Bay spotted a ship on the horizon. Capt Fegen flashed "What ship ?" but he received no reply, it was possible that it could be an escort for the convoy. When the vessel was about 10 miles away and the signals still being sent and no reply given, the convoy began to worry, but they still could not recognise the ship as darkness was beginning to set. By 1700 hours (5.30 pm) the ship was at about 8 miles range and closing, when the ship turned broadside on, allowing all of her six 11" guns to bear down on the convoy.

Any confusion the convoy had about the ship ended when six flashes of light was seen coming from her and within seconds the sound of express trains were heard, as the shell travelled overhead. Immediately the convoy was ordered to scatter. Capt Fegen immediately ordered the Jervis Bay to full ahead and turned towards the enemy, dropping smoke floats as they went. He realised that the only thing to prevent the "Scheer" from destroying the convoy was his ship and he also realised that he was signing the death warrants for his crew. Even when the his ship was sunk and if anyone was lucky enough to be able to take to a lifeboat, the chances of surviving was nil, the enemy would not stop and the convoy could not stop to pick them up and by the time help arrived, they would a be killed by exposure or by the sea. He gave the order to open fire on the "Scheer" even though he was still out of range, with only four old 6" guns and an out of date fire control system against six 11" modern guns with a modern radar fire control system he attacked the ship. Krancke seeing the Jervis Bay attacking, realising that the convoy did have an armed escort, ordered all guns to concentrate on the Jervis Bay. After the second or third salvo the "Scheer" had the range and 11" shell started to rip the Jervis Bay apart bit by bit. First it was the foredeck that was hit and some of the gun crew, with little protection from the blast and splinters, were blinded and wounded, but still they managed to keep firing, then it was below the bridge a shell exploded and part of the bridge was ripped apart and her only gunnery control centre, it was left in a mess with men lying bleeding, with broken bones, bust eardrums, in shock and gasping for air through the smoke, still the Jervis Bay headed on a collision course for the "Scheer" if she could just manage to ram her she could still save the convoy. The next shell was a direct hit on a forward gun and the crew was killed immediately, with the other gunner being wounded and killed. The bow now was a mess with flames everywhere and metal sheets twisted and bent. Again the bridge was hit but this time it was a direct hit, in which Capt Fegen's arm was blown off, even though he managed to stand up and return to what was left of the bridge and restore some resemblance of order in what was left of the bridge crew, he remained at the bridge until he died moments later when another shell ripped the bridge apart. Throughout all this time what was left of the forward guns continued to fire, though they were still out of range. As they got closer and closer more and more shells hit the Jervis Bay. Now the ship was ablaze from stem to stern and men dead or dying everywhere, but still at full speed to destruction. At last a shell must have caused serious damage to the ships structure, as she stopped and started to topple on she side. The order to abandon ship was given, then she started to sink bow first with her propeller sticking out of the water she headed to her final resting place with 187 of her crew. For his actions Captain Fegen received the Victoria Cross (posthumously). I would like to believe, that the V.C. Was awarded as much to the crew as to Capt Fegen, for their part in the short battle.

With 22 valuable minutes and 335 shell spent on the destruction of the Jervis Bay, the "Scheer" gave chase to the now scattered convoy that were disappearing in the dark. Krancke must have cursed his luck and the crew of the Jervis Bay, but the Germans on board could not hide their admiration for the brave crew of the Jervis Bay. The slowest ships were the first caught and sunk, the ss "Beaverford" (10,042 tons) sunk with a loss of 77 lives, then the ss "Kenbane Head" (5,225 tons) with a loss of 24 lives. By now the darkness was set and the "Scheer" had to rely on starshells and search lights for the guns to kill the ships, though this also told other ships where the "Scheer" was and could try to evade being sunk. ss "Maidean" (7,908 tons) was the next victim with a loss of all hands, all 91 of them, then the ss"Trewelland" (5,201 tons) with the loss of 16 crew. The final one of the convoy to be sunk was the "Vigaland" which was sunk later with the loss of 12 of her crew. The HX.84 had lost seven ships and 440 lives of which 189 were from the Jervis Bay, but 32 ships had escaped and countless lives were saved, all because of one ship and the crew the HMS "Jervis Bay" (AMC).

During this battle Caithness and mainly Wick suffered its biggest naval loss for a single engagement of the 18 Caithness crew aboard the Jervis Bay, nine were killed and one wounded. Some of the Caithness crew were related to one another, all were in the Royal Naval Reserve and were called up in Sept 1939 on the out-break of the war.

Killed 5th Nov 1940.

James Anderson

Smn. RNR.

Old Schoolhouse, Thrumster.

Married.

James Bain

Smn. RNR.

18 Wellington St, Wick.

Married. Age 27 yrs.

John M Bain

Smn. RNR.

24 Kinnaird St, Wick.

Age 27 yrs.

David R Bremner

Smn. RNR.

31 Smith Ter, Wick.

Married. Age 29 yrs.
(in-law, W Miller).

William Bremner

Smn. RNR.

5 Macarther St, Wick.

Age 32 yrs.

John Innes

Smn. RNR.

Burnside, Oldwick, Wick.

Married. Age 33 yrs.

William B Miller

Smn. RNR.

31 Smith Ter, Wick.

Age 27 yrs.
(in-law, D Bremner)

John C Munro

Smn. RNR

New House, Keiss.

Age 28 yrs.

Alex Webster

Smn/Gnr. RNR.

41 Argyle Sq, Wick. Married.

Age 32 yrs.

       
Survived      
       
Donald Bain

Awarded the D.S.M. "He was wounded and burned at his gun post on the "Jervis Bay", but he and another gunner continued in action, even after seven of the gun crew had been killed". He was the first Caithnessian to be awarded for bravery during the 2nd World War.

Smn. RNR.

136 Willowbank, Wick.

Married.
(Wounded 5th Nov 1940).

George Doull

Smn. RNR.

23 a Girnigoe St, Wick.

 
David Dunbar

Smn. RNR.

Kyleburn Cottage, Lybster.

 

Jack Durrand.

Smn. RNR

86 Willowbank, Wick.

(Brother of Robert).

Robert Durrand

Smn. RNR.

10 Bridge St, Wick.

(Brother of Jack).

Robert Gunn Smn. RNR. Ackergill Crescent, Wick.  
Alex Moonie Smn. RNR. 9 Macarthur St, Wick.  
William Oag Smn. RNR. New Houses, Thrumster.  
James Reid Smn. RNR. 17 Vansittart St, Wick.  
       

 

 

The heroism does not end there, the skipper of the Swedish ship "Stureholm", witnessed the destruction of the Jervis Bay and decided that he could not leave the surviving crew to the fate of the sea, after what they had done for them. By watching the explosions, starshells and the searchlights from the "Scheer" he decided to skirt around below the horizon and return to the final resting place of the "Jervis Bay". The scene of which was easy to discover, the destruction was everywhere and after a long search he managed to rescue 56 of the crew, who would have probably perished if not for his act of bravery. If the "Scheer" stumbled on them now their chances of escaping was nil, even though they were technically neutral. The rest of the survivors were picked up over the following days.

The other act of survival and heroism came from the ss "San Demetrio", she was hit by the "Scheer". The "San Demetrio" was a tanker carrying 12,000 tons of aviation fuel and had only a top speed of 12 kts. The "Scheer" had caught her and after four salvos from her guns her upper deck was a mass of flames, her bridge was destroyed, her poop-deck, bow plates and funnel torn away. The tanker was now a time bomb waiting to go off, it was a miracle that the explosions and flames had not caused the aviation fuel to explode. The order to abandon ship was given, even while abandoning the ship the "Scheer" still fire on her, two boats managed to launch with the crew of 26 in one and 16 in the other. Even when they had pulled away, the "Scheer" still fired into the ship, but the ship would not explode. Then suddenly the "Scheer" switched off her searchlights and disappeared into the night and carried on chasing the now scattered convoy. All the crew managed to escape, which in itself was a miracle, the two boats were separated during the night and the lifeboat of 26 with the captain were picked up later and taken to Newfoundland.

The other crew of 16 rowed like the devil to get away from the tanker before it exploded. By morning the tanker was nowhere to be seen They drifted until late afternoon, then they spotted a ship, as they came closer they realised it was the "San Demetrio", some how it had not exploded and even now it was still on fire. As darkness came they could not make up their mind whether to risk going on board, try to put out the fire and attempt to sail the ship home, or to risk being drowned or die from exposure in the lifeboat. Once darkness settled they lost sight of the ship and resigned to stay in the boat. After another night out in the freezing cold they regretted not taking the chance to board and try to salvage the ship. When daylight came and the ship was once again nowhere in sight. As the day passed, the more they froze with the elements and regretted their lost chance. About midday the "San Demetrio" once again was sighted bearing down on them, this time they decided to board and try to salvage the ship. At least if she exploded would be a quick death, rather than a long slow lingering death from exposure.

Once aboard they managed to put out the fire and rig up a steering system, though the bridge was more or less totally destroyed. Without any navigational equipment or charts, they managed to sail the tanker 1,500 miles through the U-boat killing grounds to Ireland and then after refusing the assistance of another boat, they then sailed on to the Clyde. They docked there on the 16th Nov, with their battered Red Ensign flying at half-mast, in memory of their only fatality, John Boyle who died on the 10th Nov from his wounds received on the 5th Nov. The rest of the crew shared out the ,14,000 salvage money from the Eagle Oil and Shipping Company. The story was made into a film, the "San Demetrio" in 1947, starring Walter Fitzgerald, Mervyn Johns, Ralph Micheal and Robert Beatty.

The "Admiral Scheer" went on to complete her cruise of the South Atlantic and added another nine ships to her total of 17 (115,000 tons) ships destroyed and returned to Germany in Apr 1941. This was a poor record, as the U-boats had sunk 1,298,102 tons between Nov 1941 and Apr 1941 with an average of 30 U-boats at sea at any one time. This with the fate of the "Bismarck", helped sealed the fate of the German capital ships. The German High Command decided that they could build more U-boats per cost of a capital ship and they could sink more ships than the capital ship. If the "Scheer" had got into the convoy and reaped destruction among it, if only Krancke's luck had lasted. Would the German High Commands outlook have changed and would they have ordered more Battleships built and finished their aircraft carrier program. But that's all if's. Hitler ordered in May 1941 that the battleships would only operate in Norwegian waters. Never again did the "Sheer" venture out into the Atlantic to reap death and destruction. Jervis Bay not only saved the HX.84 but also helped destroy the reputation of the German Battleships. The "Admiral Scheer" survive until the last days of the war and was bombed and sunk by the RAF at Kiel on 9th Apr 1945.

 

HMS'Jervis Bay' Casualty list

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David Bews 1998


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