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The heroism of Captain Fegen and the crew of the Jervis Bay

Posted in Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 2 on Tuesday, 30 April 2013

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This edited article about the Second World War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 237 published on 30 July 1966.

Jervis Bay, picture, image, illustration

The merchant cruiser Jervis Bay fought to the death when a British convoy was ambushed in the North Atlantic by Graham Coton

By the autumn of 1940, the RAF had won the Battle of Britain and saved the country from invasion by the enemy. But the Royal Navy was only beginning the long-drawn-out Battle of the Atlantic. Already losses in merchant shipping had reached the appalling figure of over one million tons lost in three months, with only five U-boats sunk in the same period. The convoy system, so successful in World War I, had been introduced, but as yet protection for the convoys was hopelessly inadequate.

On the evening of Monday, 28th October, 1940, Convoy H.X.84 left Halifax, Nova Scotia escorted by the armed merchant cruiser Jervis Bay. For ten days or more they would face the dangers of the North Atlantic, not only from the enemy, but from the gales and icy winds which took their own toll of ships and men.

On board Jervis Bay there was a mixed ship’s company. Some, like Captain Fogarty Fegen, were regular naval men. The majority were in the Royal Naval Reserve or came from a motley assortment of civilian occupations.

Captain Fegen controlled his crew of 256 officers and men with a sure touch which knitted them together into one of the most efficient and keen ship’s companies in the Navy. They had learned how to fire their seven guns as well as could be expected of them, considering that the majority of these guns were stamped with dates around the 1900 mark!

Of the 37 ships in the convoy, 11 were tankers, and a few were from foreign countries – from Norway, Holland, Greece and Sweden.

Six days earlier, Captain Krancke, commander of the German pocket battleship Scheer, had manoeuvred his ship from alongside the quay at Kiel and sailed for northern waters. Like the Jervis Bay, Captain Krancke had a mixed crew, and among the 1,300 men on board there was a fair sprinkling of reservists.

At 3.45 on the afternoon of 5th November, a lookout in the Rangitiki, one of the biggest ships in Convoy H.X.84, reported smoke on the horizon to the north-east. This news was passed to Jervis Bay. Captain Fegen went to the port side of the bridge and scanned the horizon with his glasses.

Below decks, Chief Petty Officer Wallis, the Chief Quartermaster, was checking the ship’s clocks. In the engine-room and boiler rooms the watch were preparing to turn over to their reliefs.

Captain Fegen never let his eyes move from the strange ship he had picked up with his binoculars, and which was now getting clearer every minute. He pressed the alarm bell for action stations. In a moment the whole ship was alive with men running to their guns, manning the ammunition hoists, connecting up the emergency lighting system and preparing fire hoses.

“Make the challenge,” the captain ordered.

The Chief Yeoman signalled the secret letters of the day. “No reply,” he told the captain.

Chief Quartermaster Wallis had now taken over the steering of the ship. Down the voice pipe came the order, “Port 25. Full ahead.” Wallis put the wheel over and the engine-room telegraphs to full speed.

On the horizon there were three yellow flashes.

“Gunfire, sir!” the Chief Yeoman said.

“Make smoke,” Captain Fegen ordered, and steadied Jervis Bay on a course direct for the flashes.

The Jervis Bay was about to do her duty. If she could keep the enemy engaged for only ten or 15 minutes, this would give the 37 merchantmen a precious chance to open their distance. Already the convoy had begun to scatter.

At that moment three huge columns of water leaped out of the sea close on the Jervis Bay’s port side. The shells burst on impact and killed one of the crew of the gun on the forecastle.

Jervis Bay now opened fire, but with her ancient six-inch guns there was no hope of the shells reaching the target at the present range.

Three more columns of water leapt into the air, this time on the starboard side. With his gunnery experience, Chief Petty Officer Jervis the Gunner’s Mate knew that the third salvo would almost certainly hit. Captain Fegen also knew this, and so did Dennis Moore and most of the men at the guns.

With a sickening crash, the eleven-inch shells of the next salvo tore into the Jervis Bay. Flames and sulphur enveloped half the ship. One shell wrecked the gunnery control. A second tore into the forecastle, bringing down the mast, and a third turned the bridge into a twisted burning mass of metal. Chief Quartermaster Wallis, at the wheel, could not understand how he had escaped. He called to the Captain, “Steering gone, sir.”

“Man the after steering,” Fegen replied.

Wallis made his way aft. As he clambered along the deck, he spoke to one of the ‘midships gun crew and then realised they were all dead. He noticed a vast hole in the funnel.

At P1 gun, Able-seaman Patience looked up to the bridge. He could see the Captain there, clutching his left side and saw that his left arm had gone. The bridge was a mass of flames. But the Jervis Bay went on, straight for the enemy.

Wallis reached the after steering position and called the after control. There was no reply. Chief Petty Officer Clark, the Captain’s Coxswain, also got there with the Navigator, Lt.-Commander Roe.

“It looks like you are in command, sir,” Clark said.

But the captain had struggled aft with Dennis Moore. Captain Fegen was badly wounded. He tried to climb to the after control, but he was too weak. He and Moore began to make their way forward again.

Down in the engine-room and boiler rooms the machinery was still working, but water was rising in the engine-room. In the shell rooms some men began to wonder what was happening, as no one took the shells or cordite they passed up on the hoists. Four of these men went up to the upper deck and were horror-struck to see what had happened. Everywhere was twisted metal, the ship was on fire, and dead and wounded lay about the decks.

As these men came up from below they were followed by others, including some from the flooded engine-room, who were killed or wounded instantly as the next salvo crashed down on the ship.

But one gun was still firing.

Captain Krancke, in the Scheer, also saw this one gun firing. While it did so and the Jervis Bay came closer, there was always the danger of his ship receiving a hit which could jeopardise the whole of the mission.

He became impatient. The light would not last much longer, and at night it would be more difficult to mop up the convoy.

“Put the secondary armament on the cruiser,” he ordered.

Jervis Bay had already taken more punishment than most ships could endure, but now, with the full fury of the whole armament concentrated on her, the fight became a massacre. Captain Fegen and Dennis Moore never got forward again. Men wandered about the stricken ship, powerless to do anything except comfort the wounded and dying, and then to be blown to pieces themselves as shells rained down on them.

Yet for seven more minutes that one gun kept firing, until, with the steering broken, the machinery spaces flooded and two-thirds of the ship’s company either killed or wounded, and all guns silenced, resistance in the Jervis Bay faded out.

Krancke now turned his guns on the convoy. But the 37 ships had had 22 and a half minutes in which to make good their escape. By early dawn, Krancke estimated that he had sunk 80,000 tons of shipping, but in fact the count was only five ships, totalling 47,000 tons.

That 32 of the ships in the convoy escaped destruction was entirely due to Captain Fogarty Fegen and his magnificent crew.

At 6.45, Lt.-Commander Roe, still in command of the Jervis Bay, gave the order “Abandon Ship”. He had seen all he could of the state of affairs before giving the order. The doctor was still doing his best in the sick bay, and he feared for the men still trapped below. The wounded on deck were a separate problem. But there was nothing else he could do; it was every man for himself. Anyway, the ship would not float much longer.

But in Jervis Bay no man would leave a comrade behind. Some went to the boats and rafts taking wounded with them. Others just remained with dying friends, preferring to go down with them.

By 7.45, all who wished to leave and were able to do so had gone. At 8 p.m. the ship slowly sank, stern-first.

Captain Sven Olander, of the Swedish Stureholm, which had been in the convoy, could not get the fate of the Jervis Bay out of his mind. He sent for his principal Officers and Petty Officers.

“I’m going back,” he told them. “Any objections?”

“We are all with you, sir,” came the reply.

Twenty-four hours later, Captain Olander had 65 survivors on board his ship.

The Scheer steered south towards a secret rendezvous. Some days later, listening on his radio to the BBC, Captain Krancke heard the announcement of the award of the Victoria Cross to Captain Fegen.

Turning to the Commander, he said, “God knows the men of the Jervis Bay put themselves in their country’s debt that day.”

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