On 5 November 1940, Chatham manned armed merchant cruiser Jervis Bay was sunk by the German surface raider Admiral Scheer.
Her Captain, E S Fegen, was awarded the highest and most prestigious award of the British honours system, the Victoria Cross posthumously.
Sadly, all of the Jervis Bay officers in this photograph (taken on Commissioning Day, 11 September 1939) were lost.
The Jervis Bay was built as a merchant ship by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow in Furness, Cumbria, and launched in 1922. Before the Second World War started the Royal Navy identified that in a future conflict there would be a shortfall in the number of cruisers available to meet requirements, so a number of commercial merchant ships were identified for conversion to armed merchant cruisers; Jervis Bay was included on the list.
The Jervis Bay was a 14,164 gross registered tonnage cargo-liner built for the Commonwealth Government Shipping Line and on 24 August 1939 the company received a telegram stating: “Your vessel Jervis Bay is hereby requisitioned for Government Service”. The ship was recommissioned as His Majesty’s Ship Jervis Bay on the 30 August 1939.
Jervis Bay was converted to an armed merchant cruiser by Harland and Wolff on the Thames. The conversion, completed on 1 October 1939, included fitting 8 x 6-inch guns, 2 x 3-inch HA (High Angle) guns and associated gunnery control systems.
The ships company was 254 and included a number of Chatham Ratings to provide gun crews and operate control systems; these men were drawn from Royal Navy Reservists called back into service as “Hostilities Only” ratings.
On 28 October 1940 HMS Jervis Bay and two Canadian destroyers formed the escort to convoy HX84 bound for England from Halifax, Nova Scotia. The convoy consisted of 37 ships which included 11 tankers. At the mid-Atlantic point, the two destroyers detached from the convoy leaving the Jervis Bay as the sole escort.
The Admiral Scheer sailed from the Baltic Sea tasked to “hit-and-run” allied merchant ships and by transiting the Denmark Straits entered the Atlantic on 1 November. Classed as a Pocket Battleship and armed with 6 x 11-inch guns, 8 x 5.9-inch guns and 6 x 4.1-inch guns; the Admiral Scheer outclassed the Jervis Bay both in armament and speed.
On 5 November at 4:45pm the Rangitiki, one of the ships in the convoy, reported a warship approaching from the north. The Admiral Scheer was soon identified and the Convoy Commodore, retired Rear Admiral Maltby, ordered the convoy to scatter.
Captain E S Fegen, commanding the Jervis Bay, knew his ship was outclassed by the Admiral Scheer and decided that the only way to buy time for the merchant ships to scatter and dusk to fall was to engage the Admiral Scheer.
Jervis Bay turned to port, increased speed and steered directly toward the Admiral Scheer, sending a signal to the Admiralty:
“Jervis Bay to Whitehall W/T. One enemy Battleship bearing 328, distance 12 miles, course 208. Position 52degrees 45minutes North, 32degrees 13minutes West”
The third salvo from Admiral Scheer hit the Jervis Bay. Striking the foredeck, hitting behind the bridge and above the wheelhouse. This destroyed the bridge, knocked out the gun director, the range finder and all primary control gear. The gunnery transmitting station was made useless as all the cables carrying telephone wires and electric power to the guns were severed. The guns of Jervis Bay could now only fire independently, but the range of the guns was only 2/3rds of the distance between ships. Jervis Bay continued towards the enemy with guns firing; she still posed a threat to the Admiral Scheer.
The Admiral Scheer now brought all her heavy, medium and light guns to bear and every salvo which hit the Jervis Bay delivered 4700 pounds of high explosives.
The Jervis Bay was in action for nearly 2 hours drawing fire which allowed 32 ships to escape; she rolled over and sank taking Captain Fegen, 33 officers and 156 members of the ships company with her.
In July 1940 the Jervis Bay had 24000 empty and sealed 45 gallon steel drums packed into her holds and these had kept her afloat, without the drums she would have sunk within 30 minutes.
On your next visit to The Historic Dockyard Chatham, visit the No.1 Smithery gallery and see our large-scale model of the Jervis Bay.
Thank you to former shipwright, Visitor Experience team member and Reading Room volunteer, Tony Peacock, for researching and writing this blog.