This week in the War, 4–10 November 1940: HMS Jervis Bay goes down fighting

One of the enduring myths of the Royal Navy centres on the idea of a small British force—perhaps even a single ship—holding off a vastly superior enemy. Think Francis Drake versus the Spanish Armada. Think Nelson and any number of ship-against-ship or flotilla-against-flotilla actions during the Napoleonic era. Nautical David-versus-Goliath events occur repeatedly in the Captain Horatio Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester.

Such an event occurred this week in the war when, on 5 November 1940, HMS Jervis Bay took on the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer.

The Jervis Bay was an armed merchant cruiser, much like the AMC Aurania shown to the left. She was a merchant ship with a few 6-inch guns added on to allow her to serve as a convoy escort. (No armoured plate, of course). The Jervis Bay could drive off a U-boat on the surface, but would be hopelessly outclassed by even the most modest warship, such as a frigate.

On 5 November 1940, the Jervis Bay was escorting a convoy of 37 merchant ships bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, when the convoy was attacked by the Admiral Scheer.

The German surface raider Admiral Scheer was a so-called pocket battleship: heavily armoured and heavily armed—namely two turrets, each with three 11-inch guns. (See photo to the right).

She was one of a class of warships built by Germany to work around the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty essentially forbade Germany to built battleships. Battleships typically had 15-inch guns (plus or minus an inch).

Pocket battleships were fast. They could outgun any Royal Navy ship that could catch  them. (Remember the Battle of the River Plate, when the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee had fought off a flotilla of three British cruisers!).

When the Admiral Scheer was sighted, Captain Fogarty Fegen of the Jervis Bay took the decision to sacrifice his ship in order to save the convoy. He signalled the convoy to scatter and turned his ship to head, full speed, directly at the German. It is possible that, at first, the captain of the Admiral Scheer believed he was being attacked by a substantial warship, perhaps a heavy cruiser. He ignored the convoy and attacked the Jervis Bay. The latter was blown to pieces and sunk, before she was even close enough for her own guns to open fire.

As a result of Fegen’s delaying tactics, almost the entire convoy was saved.  The Admiral Scheer managed to catch and sink only six of the 37 merchantmen.

Captain Fegen was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. The memorial plaque to the right honours some of the Scottish sailors who perished on the Jervis Bay.

Details of the Jervis Bay incident are given in Battle of the Atlantic by University of New Brunswick historian Marc Milner (Vanwell Publishing Limited, St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada, 2003).


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