If the Gods are Good - The Sacrifice of HMS Jervis Bay
Authors: Gerald L Duskin & Ralph Segman
Publishers: Crécy Maritime
Price £10.95 RRP UK
Publication Date: 2005
Publisher’s information on the book
This is the enthralling and, at times, harrowing account of one of the greatest and most heroic naval battles of World War II. On 28th October 1940 HMS Jervis Bay, an ancient cargo ship armed with a small number of obsolete guns, set out to escort 37 freighters and tankers across the North Sea. Unexpectedly discovered by the Admiral Scheer, one of Germany’s most feared pocket battleships, the Jervis Bay captain immediately dispersed convoy HX84 to hide in the twilight of a rising winter storm. Outgunned and with no hope of survival, Captain Fegen and over 190 of the 256 Jervis Bay crew nevertheless then sacrificed themselves as they took the battle to the enemy in a one-sided duel with the Admiral Scheer, as they fought to secure the safe passage of the ships in their charge. This sacrificial battle is fully placed in both its contemporary naval and political contexts and includes graphic descriptions of battle scenes and action aboard the ships, together with the harrowing aftermath as men struggled to survive in the icy seas. Personal stories are recounted for the first time, depicting courage and resourcefulness beyond the call of duty. For his valour, Captain Fegen was posthumously awarded Britain’s only Victoria Cross for convoy defence. Fully researched and written to enthral, the reader is taken directly to the heart of the action. Graphic battle scenes and tales of heroism will appeal to military historians and avid readers of adventure stories alike.
"If the gods are good and we meet with the enemy, I shall take you in as close as I possibly can", promised Captain Fogarty Fegen to his 256 man crew. With seven old six-inch guns, the Jervis Bay was the only armed protection for a 37-ship North Atlantic convoy.
This book is described on the cover as ‘one of the greatest David & Goliath stories of the history of sea battles’. A very apt way of describing a meeting between a Panzerschiffe (armoured ship) or pocket battleship as we called them and an armed merchant cruiser (AMC) or Admiralty-made coffin as they were nicknamed. This was not a fight it was a massacre.
Like HMS Rawalpindi (sunk by Scharnhorst) before them, the whole crew must have known the outcome of such an encounter; seven 6" mark VII guns against six 11" guns, eight 5.9" and six 3.4". Even Rawalpindi had eight 6" guns, not much, but one more.
The book tells the story in some depth, the ships, the captains and the crews. We start with the build-up to the actual battle, if indeed such a one-sided encounter can be called a battle, with Scheer breaking out above the Arctic Circle into a storm, when two of her crew are washed overboard. At that stage they were fighting the greatest enemy of all seamen, the cruel sea.
The authors then discuss earlier times when the scuttling of the German High Seas fleet took place at that great harbour, Scapa Flow, which was once of such strategic importance.
There is a complete chapter of this scuttling of the German ships in WWI and the subsequent build-up of the German navy as the 1930s progressed.
Scheer’s days nearly ended very early in the war when on the 1st September 1939, she was attacked by the RAF 110 Squadron, only slight damage was sustained.
One chapter covers the career of Scheer’s Captain, albeit the actual ranks are given as that of US naval officers eg Ensign and Lieutenant junior grade.
How Jervis Bay became to be conscripted as an AMC is described in chapter 4 followed by a chapter on Edward Stephen Fogarty Fegen, who became captain of Jervis Bay and eventually was posthumously awarded the VC. Before that we read of his career and rise through the Wardroom. At one time he is described as a man with ‘no side’. Like Nelson he promised, ‘if the Gods are good to us and we meet the enemy I shall take you as close as I possibly can’. He must have known, with such small guns that like Ajax and Achilles you needed to get within range or you had no chance, not with guns manufactured in 1895 with a problematical maximum range of 10,000 yards.
One has to be aware of Americanisms and spellings when reading this book and some of the references are rather amusing eg on page 69 the author states that Hong Kong was one of the two ports where British naval officers were permitted to carry umbrellas in uniform. I suspect these may have been Wanchai Burberrys, which in the monsoon season we all carried, not just officers. (These were oiled paper umbrellas made in Hong-Kong, which possessed a highly pungent smell when used for the first time. So called because the naval blue raincoats were called Burberrys. They cost $1 Singapore ($2 Hong Kong, 2s4d or 24p each when I last purchased one). It could of course be my memory; perhaps officers carried smart black ones.
Captain Fegen joined the ship on 1 April 1940 and remarked that perhaps it was an April Fool: is that a term Americans understand?
The convoy HX84 may have had a chance if the escorts from Canada could have stayed longer and if the escorts that came out to meet it could have come further out, but as it was, convoys had a 10-day gap in the Atlantic. Imagine that, ten days at 9 knots with just one AMC escorting 37 ships.
There is an interesting discussion about SS Mopan a refrigerated banana boat which Scheer encountered before she found the convoy. Should her captain have used his radio to warn others? All he had to do was to order the radio operator to send repeated ‘R’ (Raider) and news would have been out. He knew of the convoy because he had been invited to join it.
It seems that whatever their action, Mopan may have delayed Scheer, thereby causing her to lose some daylight. It is said the crew rode across to the German ship very leisurely. It is now too late to condemn, surely we should give him the benefit of the doubt.