This story of Captain Fogarty Fegan and the crew of the Armed Merchantman Jervis Bay typifies the fighting spirit and courage of our Royal and Merchant navies, without whose sacrifices wartime Britain would have been starved into submission.
On the 28th of November 1940, a convoy of 38 merchant ships, codenamed HX84, left Halifax Nova Scotia, laden with food, fuel and other vital supplies bound for Britain. It was planned for the convoy to meet up with a British escort force half way across the Atlantic, but until then its only protection was the Armed Merchant Cruiser Jervis Bay, a 14,000 ton converted liner armed with seven obsolete 6 inch guns bolted to her unarmoured decks and commanded by Captain Edward Fogarty Fegan RN. A day earlier, the German Pocket Battleship Admiral Scheer had sailed from Kiel with orders to attack and destroy enemy shipping as part of the plan to starve Britain into surrender. The Admiral Scheer, nominally 10,000 tons to comply with regulations laid down at the Treaty of Versailles, but actually weighing more than 15,000 tons when fully loaded, carried 6 eleven inch guns, eight six inch guns, plus a battery of torpedoes and had a top speed of over 28 knots. Her commander, Captain Krancke received intelligence of the convoy and launched the ship’s Arado seaplane to locate it.
On the 5th of November the convoy was sighted and Krancke raced to intercept. Suddenly his lookouts sighted a lone ship on a course directly between Krancke and the convoy. This vessel was the SS Mopan, a banana boat of 8,000 tons. To steer a course around it and thus avoid detection would cost the battleship valuable time. He was also aware that somewhere nearby was a British escort force waiting to meet the convoy and the longer he delayed his attack the greater the chance of meeting the enemy warships.
Krancke took a bold decision, he signalled the Mopan to halt and under no circumstances to use it’s radio. To his surprise they immediately complied, clearly not relishing the prospect of either being blown out of the water or being left to freeze to death in open boats. The crew were taken off and the ship sunk, this being the Scheer’s first kill.
It was now late afternoon and daylight was fading as Krancke ordered full speed ahead to catch up with the convoy. It was growing dark when a Jervis Bay lookout reported a ship on the horizon. Fegan signalled “What ship?” When no reply was received, he ordered the signal to be repeated and again, no answer was received. With the unknown ship less than 10 miles distant and bearing down on them, Fegan became worried and when the stranger was some eight miles from the convoy it was seen to turn broadside on.
All doubt was removed when at 17.30 hours, a salvo of eleven inch shells were fired and with a speed of 2,000 feet per second and a sound like an express train, the salvo crashed around his ship, Fegan immediately ordered the convoy to scatter and for Jervis Bay to make full speed ahead towards the enemy, dropping a trail of smoke floats as it went. Captain Fegan must have known that his ship stood little chance of even getting into shooting range against such a mighty opponent. He would also have known that in the likely event of his ship being sunk, the enemy would not and the convoy could not, stop to pick up survivors, leaving them to starve or freeze. He knew his duty and, win or lose, he could perhaps delay the Scheer long enough for the convoy to disperse. He ordered his puny six inch guns to open fire knowing that he was not yet in range and seeing his rapid approach, Krancke ordered all his guns to bear on the Jervis Bay. By the third salvo they had found their range and the huge 670 pound shells tore through the thin skin of the old liner. The next salvo destroyed the foredeck, the bridge was next and with its destruction, the total loss of the gunnery control system.
Fegan’s ship ploughed on, but a shell then struck one of the forward guns killing the crew, then the bridge took another direct hit killing those stationed there and ripping off Fegan’s left arm. Despite his wounds he remained at his post restoring morale and inspiring his crew. The next shell hit the bridge and Fegan was killed. The ship was now a mass of flames from bow to stern, but ploughed on, her remaining guns still firing. The closer the two ships came, the greater the damage caused by the German guns until a shell struck on the waterline and the ship shuddered to a stop, rolled on her side and began to sink. The order to abandon ship was given and the remaining sailors leapt into the water as the ship sank bow first into the cold Atlantic, taking 187 of her gallant crew with her.
Fegan’s gallant action, even though causing no damage to the raider, gained vital time for the convoy to disperse in the darkness. The German ship had also expended 335 valuable shells in the attack, thus reducing her attack capability.
After the sinking, Scheer went on in the darkness to catch up with the convoy and began shelling. She set the tanker San Demetrio on fire and then turned on the merchant freighter Beaverford which was armed with a single four inch gun. The freighter, knowing that she was as good as dead, her commander, Captain Pettigrew bravely resolved to delay the enemy as long as was possible and moved about in the darkness, firing at the warship. Captain Krancke was unsure what force he was facing and held back from the pursuit for the next five hours, before roaring in and sinking Beaverford with the loss of all hands. The raider then overhauled the convoy and sank seven of the ships, damaging others and causing the loss of 253 lives. Without doubt, Fegan’s and Pettigrew’s actions saved the convoy from annihilation as witnessed by a previous convoy attacked by a sister ship of Scheer’s that had sunk eleven merchant ships in an hour.
The action had a profound effect on the survivors of the convoy and one, the Swedish ship Stureholm, knowing that some of Fegan’s crew were adrift in the freezing water, elected to go back and search for survivors, a brave act considering the proximity of the raider. They managed to rescue 65 of Fegan’s crew and some others were picked up over the next few days.
Meanwhile, the San Demetrio had been hit with several shells, destroying her poop and setting fire to the upper deck and bridge. Fortunately her cargo of 12,000 tons of aviation fuel did not explode immediately, but her commander, Captain Waite fearing that the ship would go up any minute, gave the order to abandon ship. Seeing this, the Scheer presumed the ship was going down and turned it’s attentions to the convoy.
The tankers crew had managed to launch two lifeboats; one contained the captain and twenty four crewmen and the other with Second Officer Hawkins, Chief Engineer Pollard and fourteen others. Both boats drifted in the night and Captain Waite’s was fortunate to be picked up and he and his men were eventually landed in Newfoundland. After drifting for twenty four hours, the second boat sighted a burning ship and as they drew closer, realised it was their own tanker. They attempted to board the blazing vessel, but the heat was too fierce and the weather too rough so they remained in the boat for another night.
The next day, after another freezing night in the boat, they again attempted boarding and this time were successful. They managed to put out the fires and rig up a rudimentary steering system and, with no workable navigation system, calculated their position by the stars, they headed east.
It took them seven days, braving weather and U Boats and finally arrived off Ireland from where they were escorted to the mouth of the Clyde, docking on the 16th of November with all but 200 tons of her cargo intact and with just one fatality, John Boyle, a seaman who had been injured while abandoning ship during the initial shelling and although in great pain, insisted on helping his shipmates by propping himself up in the engine room to monitor the gauges. He died before reaching home. Seaman Boyle was awarded the Kings Commendation for Brave Conduct and Second Officer Hawkins was awarded the OBE. Captain Fogarty Fegan was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallant action.
Interestingly the crew of the San Demetrio were able to claim salvage money from the ship’s insurers. Hawkins was also presented with the ship’s tattered Red Ensign as a memento.