By Chuck Lyons
Able Seaman John Jeffcott, 27, of the HMS Jervis Bay was apprehensive in October 1940 as his ship sailed from Hailfax, Nova Scotia. She was escorting the convoy HX-84 as it headed toward the British Isles. A former London policeman, before the war Jeffcott had arrested a woman in London who claimed to be a fortune teller. Angry at the arrest, she had told him he would never live to see his 28th birthday.
In a week—on November 6, if he made it—he would turn 28.
As the convoy worked its way east across the frigid North Atlantic, Jeffcott’s feelings of dread increased, and with good reason. Between June and October 1940, more than 270 Allied ships had been sunk in the North Atlantic. Between May 1940 and July 1941 alone British ships went down at a rate of 66 a month, and German U-boats and surface raiders were hunting almost without opposition. Before the war was over, the British would lose 2,426 merchant ships and 19,180 seamen in the North Atlantic.
Jeffcott couldn’t know it then but in the six years of the war only one Victoria Cross was awarded for convoy duty. That VC was initiated by King George VI and awarded to Captain Edward Fegen, an Irishman whom Prime Minister Winston Churchill praised in the House of Commons, saying, “The spirit of the Royal Navy is exemplified in [his] forlorn and heroic action.”
In October 1940 Captain Fegen was in command of the HMS Jervis Bay. The ship had been built by Vickers Unlimited, launched in 1922 as a steamer of the Aberdeen and Commonwealth Line, and taken over by the Royal Navy in August 1939, when it was converted to an armed merchant cruiser (AMC) and armed with seven 19th-century 6-inch guns and two 3-inch guns that were even older.
Lightly armed and riding high in the water, the ship became, as AMC crews called many of these ships, an “Admiralty-made coffin.” Fegen, who had been in the Royal Navy since early in World War I, was promoted to captain in March 1940 and assigned to command her.
Edward Fegen was born in 1891 in England of Irish parents, received a Silver Sea Gallantry Medal during World War I, and served in Australia between the wars, part of the time, ironically, at Jervis Bay on the south coast of New South Wales. In 1940, he was 49 years old.
If confronted by the enemy, Fegen told his officers when he came aboard, “I shall take you in as close as I possibly can.”
It was to prove a prophetic statement.
On October 28, 1940, Convoy HX-84 left Halifax under the watchful eye of the Jervis Bay. The following day the convoy was joined by nine ships from Nova Scotia and Bermuda, and the 38 merchantmen settled into formation—nine columns of four ranks each—to begin the crossing. Jervis Bay was positioned between the fourth and fifth ranks. As was routine, two Canadian destroyers accompanied the convoy briefly before turning back. When it approached Britain, the convoy would again be met by escort ships and planes, but for the 10 days of the passage the Jervis Bay and its antique guns would be its only protection.
Meanwhile, the Admiral Scheer was hunting in the North Atlantic.
The Deutschland-class Admiral Scheer was a heavy cruiser—often called a pocket battleship—that had been launched in Wilhelmshaven in 1934. She had a top speed of 28 knots and was armed with six 11-inch guns in two triple-gun turrets, eight 6-inch guns, eight torpedoes, and antiaircraft guns. She had been deployed to Spain during the Spanish Civil War and then to the Atlantic when World War II broke out. By the end of the war in 1945, she had sunk 113,223 tons of shipping and would be considered the most successful surface raider of the war. She was feared by the men of the Atlantic convoys at least a much as—if not more than—the U-boat wolf packs.
Admiral Scheer was commanded by Captain Theodor Krancke who, like Fegen, had served in World War I and reamined in the German navy after that conflict. By the end of World War II, he had attained the rank of admiral and commanded all German naval forces in Western Europe.
Admiral Scheer had also sailed in October 1940. On that, her first combat sortie of the war, she slipped through the Denmark Strait and into the open Atlantic on the night of October 31. Once in the open sea, her radio intercept equipment quickly identified HX-84 in the area. Her seaplane then located the convoy on the morning of November 5 some 88 miles from the Scheer’s position.
The German ship headed in the convoy’s direction.
About 4 pm a lookout aboard the SS Rangitiki, the tallest of the convoy’s ships, noticed a mast on the horizon.
It was the Admiral Scheer. At 13,660 tons and 610 feet in length, she was nearly the same size as the 14,164-ton, 549-foot-long Jervis Bay.
Aboard Jervis Bay, Seaman Jeffcott, whose apprehension had continued to grow as his ship moved east, was only seven hours away from his 28th birthday.
Made aware of the Rangtiki’s sighting, at about 4:45 Captain Fegen sounded action stations and began accelerating his ship out of her convoy position and toward the Admiral Scheer.
Fegen immediately began firing his 6-inch guns even though he was well out of range of the Scheer. He also ordered smoke canisters deployed to hide the convoy, which made a quick turn away from the German ship and scattered. At a distance of about 10 miles, Captain Krancke swung the Scheer to port, bringing both his triple turrets to bear on the convoy and Jervis Bay. He began firing at the oncoming armed merchantman, the second salvo splashing 50 yards off Jervis Bay’s bow with 150-foot spouts of sea water, soaking the Bay’s forward gun crews.
Sam Patience, a quartermaster aboard Jervis Bay, heard what he later described as a “thunk” and turned to see a member of his gun crew slump to the deck, his head severed from his body. Admiral Scheer’s third salvo hit Jervis Bay’s bridge, knocking out her rangefinder, wireless, and fire-control equipment. Several officers and crewmen were killed by the blast, and Captain Fegen’s left arm was mangled.
As Scheer continued to fire, Jervis Bay was hit repeatedly on her superstructure, and her hull was holed in several places. The port bulkhead of the radio shack was gone and a radio operator and two coders were dead.
The remaining radioman climbed to the remnants of the bridge where he saw Captain Fegen“clutching his arm, blood spilling off his sleeve.”
Fires burned uncontrolled.
Wanting to neutralize the escort ship so he was free to attack the convoy, Scheer’s commander continued to train his big guns on Jervis Bay. Darkness was falling, and he knew he needed to sink Jervis Bay quickly so that he would have time to attack the convoy. Each salvo from the Scheer launched two and a half tons of ordnance at the stricken ship. The forward port side of Jervis caught the brunt of the fire and became a mass of twisted girders, bent and jagged plate, dead and wounded sailors, and flames. A shell somehow loosed Jervis’s anchor, and another knocked the white ensign of the Royal Navy off the top of the main mast. Midshipman Ronald Butler later recalled helping an unnamed seaman climb the mast to nail up a replacement ensign.
Jervis Bay continued steaming at Admiral Scheer and firing her guns until her steering gear was knocked out. The petty officer manning the wheel called into the voice tube that the ship’s steering gear was out of action and heard the captain’s pained voice come back ordering him to “man the aft steering position.”
With his ship aflame and sinking, Captain Fegen continued to maintain the unequal fight and stayed in command despite his shattered arm, consciously buying time for the ships of the convoy to escape.
Up to now, Captain Fegen had stayed on the collapsing bridge, which was under continuous hits from Admiral Scheer’s big guns. Shortly after giving the order to man the aft gear, however, he struggled down the starboard side of the bridge and, aided by a signalman, headed aft, stopping to encourage a gunner along the way and ordering more smoke deployed.
After a blast destroyed the after-control compartment just as he arrived there, the captain headed forward again, with “blood running over the four gold stripes on his sleeve,” Midshipman Butler later said.
Captain Fegen never made it. His body and the body of the signalman who was helping him were later seen on the deck. “[Jervis Bay] did not have a chance, and we all knew it,” said Captain Sven Olander, commander of the Swedish freighter Stureholm, one of the convoy ships. “But she rode like a hero and stayed to the last.”
Meanwhile, exploding cordite bags on Jervis Bay’s poop deck had convinced Captain Krancke that the smaller ship was still firing despite the severe damage she had suffered. He didn’t dare concentrate on the convoy until the threat posed by Jervis Bay was eliminated. Any damage to his ship from a lucky hit could seriously affect her ability to escape any hunt for her launched by the Royal Navy.
Krancke continued focusing his big guns on Jervis Bay, but turned some of his smaller ones against ships in the convoy that were still within his range.
After an hour of the unrelenting German fire and with Captain Fegen dead, Lt. Cmdr. George Roe, now in command, ordered the remaining crew of Jervis Bay to abandon ship. All of Jervis Bay’s life boats had been destroyed but rafts, some of which were damaged, and the ship’s 18-foot “jolly boat” had survived the bombardment and were launched. Most of Jervis Bay’s men simply jumped into the icy, sub-Arctic sea, some making it to the rafts and jolly boat. Others made do with what they could find floating in the water.
Shortly after the order was given to abandon ship, Jervis Bay went down. The white ensign Midshipman Butler had helped raise was the last thing to settle beneath the Atlantic waves.
Standard convoy orders were to keep going if attacked; it was too dangerous to stop for survivors. But Captain Olander of the Stureholm, impressed by the courage shown by Captain Fegen and Jervis Bay, called his ship’s crew together and proposed they return to the scene and pick up survivors.
“She … gave us a chance to run for it,” he said. “Now I would like to go back and see if there is anyone still in the water.”
The men of the Swedish ship agreed, and the freighter returned back to the battle scene where it was able to pull 68 men of Jervis Bay’s crew of 266 from the sea, three of whom died after being rescued and were committed to the deep that night. Stureholm then returned to Halifax, which she considered the safer of her options, arriving there on November 12.
With Jervis Bay taken care of, Admiral Scheer turned her attention to the ships of the convoy, which had taken advantage of the time Jervis Bay had bought for them to scatter. Scheer continued searching for the scattered convoy ships and was able to sink six.
Five quickly assembled Royal Navy battle groups consisting of two battleships, three battle cruisers, an aircraft carrier, five cruisers, and 15 destroyers hastened to the area. The battle groups spent two weeks unsuccessfully searching for the Admiral Scheer. In addition to her kills in the convoy, Admiral Scheer had been able to pull a number of British ships from regular operations—another of her objectives. She continued into the South Atlantic and then the Indian Ocean, sinking or capturing an additional 10 cargo ships before her cruise ended in the spring of 1941.
The war ended for Admiral Scheer in April 1945 when she capsized in about 50 feet of water during a 300-plane air raid at Kiel on the southwestern coast of the Baltic Sea. After the war she was stripped by the British, covered with rubble, and turned into the foundation of a new quay.
Fegen was recommended for the Victoria Cross by Britain’s King George VI, who was said to be “stirred deeply” by Fegen’s sacrifice. The medal was awarded to Fegen’s sister at Buckingham Palace in June 1941.
“When [Captain Fegen] attacked the Admiral Scheer,” the King wrote in his diary, “he knew he was going to certain death.”
Seaman Jeffcott, who was haunted by the fortune teller’s prediction, also died that night, the eve of his 28th birthday. He was killed either in the bombardment of HMS Jervis Bay or in the frigid North Atlantic water that claimed her. Jeffcott was listed as “lost at sea,” one of thousands of British sailors whose only grave is the ocean.