The early November light was already fading in the mid ocean sky when the lookout on the Jervis Bay became suddenly aware of the fighting top of a lone warship, splintering the horizon. As it headed towards them, the Jervis Bay- the sole escort for the thirty seven merchantmen of convoy HX 84- sent out a challenge to the stranger to identify herself.
The reply came in the form of six giant water geysers that erupted all around the converted liner almost at once. Without a second’s hesitation, Captain Edward Fegen gave the order to attack the stranger while the convoy scattered for cover like so many startled chickens.
The intruder was the German pocket battleship, Admiral Scheer. She had sailed from Germany at the end of October, intent on breaking into the Atlantic to savage convoys such as HX 84. Rounding the northern coast of Iceland in sea conditions so severe that it had swept two of her crew overboard, she had used that same foul weather to cover her tracks. When her fighting top was sighted from the Jervis Bay on the afternoon of November 5th, 1940, it was the first indication that this powerful raider was loose on the open ocean.
The Scheer presented an immediate, terrible lhreat to the thirty seven slow, wallowing merchantmen. The raider was much faster than any of them and, armed with a battery of six eleven inch guns, she was a squat, heavily armoured, death dealing menace. Only the Jervis Bay now stood between the pocket battleship and an unspeakable slaughter.
Built for the Aberdeen and Commonwealth Line in 1922, the Jervis Bay was a simple, no nonsense passenger liner of 14,000 tons, designed to sail between England and Australia. With a straight stem and a single funnel, she had none of the glamour or pretension of platinum chip Atlantic legends such as Mauretania or Olympic; instead, she was a stolid, slightly dour workhorse and, for the better part of two decades, she lived a relatively trouble free life.
When war broke out in 1939, the Jervis Bay was requisitioned by the Admiralty to serve as an armed merchant cruiser. Seven old six inch guns- all dating from 1898- were shoe horned into her deck spaces, together with a pair of three inch anti aircraft guns. She was then painted grey, and given over to the command of the navy. In November of 1940 she was under the command of her third captain, Edward Fegen. Under him, a crew of some two hundred and fifty four Royal Navy reservists worked manfully to adapt the liner to her new role.
Desperately short of convoy escorts, the Admiralty converted a number of these smaller, intermediate liners into the role of armed merchant cruisers. It was an almost suicidal role; such ships could never hope to seriously take on a bona fide warship and survive. They had no real protective armour, and their high sides made them almost unmissable targets. With a maximum speed of 17 knots, there was never a chance that the Jervis Bay could escape from her vastly more powerful foe.
But escape was not on Fegen’s mind on that fateful evening of November 5th, 1940. His ship was the convoy’s sole escort. An awful, inescapable obligation now fell on him, but he did not shirk it for one second.
As the convoy attempted to scatter into the slowly encroaching darkness, Fegen knew with awful certainty that neither his ship, or the bulk of her volunteer crew, would survive the events to follow. But, to the amazement of the Germans, the wallowing liner lunged at the pocket battleship, her battle ensign billowing in the icy November wind, like an ageing sheepdog throwing itself across the path of a rabid fox. As acts of sacrificial gallantry go, it was right up there with the charge of the Light Brigade.
What followed was inevitable. The eleven inch guns of the Admiral Scheer found the range almost at once, and began to methodically demolish the flimsy, high sided liner with a hail of deadly, accurate fire. Yet the old six inch guns of the Jervis Bay flared into defiant, if futile response, even as the decks around them collapsed in piles of flaming, charred scrap metal. Salt water spray from numerous near misses drenched the blazing liner as she slowly disintegrated. But still, she came on at the pocket battleship.
On the Scheer, Captain Theodore Krancke understood all too well what his incredibly valiant foe was attempting to do. It was all about buying time for the convoy. Every minute that the Jervis Bay held the line gave the merchant ships more time to scatter like ninepins into the encroaching darkness. The pocket battleship stepped up her assault with almost ruthless desperation.
It was a full hour before the doomed, gallant Jervis Bay finally gave up the ghost. The uncontrollable fires raging aboard her were finally smothered by the cold embrace of the icy winter Atlantic as she sagged under the waves. With her went Fegen and some one hundred and eighty six of her crew.
Sixty eight survivors were rescued by the Stureholm, a neutral Swedish merchant ship, although three of these died later. For Fegen, there was the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross,
It was a magnificent, yet hopelessly inadequate tribute to a man whose actions saved literally thousands of lives on that cold November night. Partially thwarted, the Admiral Scheer managed to sink just five of the thirty seven vessels of the convoy, before the rest escaped under the welcome cloak of darkness.
Over the next five months, the Scheer would roam as far south as the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, in an operation that was, in it’s own way every bit as daring and remarkable as the doomed last stand of her late adversary. She returned to Germany unharmed in March 1941, having sunk or captured some 100,000 tons of shipping.
It was a quite remarkable haul, but the devastation wrought by the Scheer would have been even worse if not for the incredible, selfless gallantry of Fegen, and the crew of the hopelessly outgunned Jervis Bay.
The last, incredible moments of the fire spitting, listing liner, lumbering across the rolling Atlantic swell, ablaze from bow to stern and surrounded by towering shell splashes as she charged unflinchingly at her deadly, death dealing foe, is one of the most immortal and undying images in the history of the entire British merchant marine. For that alone, Fegen, his gallant ship and her brave, fallen band of brothers, deserve to be honoured and remembered. Of such stuff are legends made.