On 5th November 1940 seaplanes from the German raider Admiral Scheer spotted convoy HX64 in mid Atlantic, escorted only by the armed merchantman Jervis Bay. This was the opportunity to prove that the 280mm guns of the pocket battleship were as effective as the torpedoes of the U-Boat fleet. Before she could attack the convoy she had to deal with the Jervis Bay. The subsequent citation for Captain Fegen of the Jervis Bay describes the events:
The King has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS to the late Commander (acting Captain) Edward Stephen Fogarty Fegen, Royal Navy, for valour in challenging hopeless odds and giving his life to save the many ships it was his duty to protect. On the 5th of November 1940, Captain Fegen, in His Majesty’s Armed Merchant Cruise Jervis Bay, was escorting thirty-eight Merchantmen. Sighting a powerful German man-of-war he at once drew clear of the convoy, made straight for the Enemy, and brought his ship between the Raider and her prey, so that they might scatter and escape. Crippled, in flames, unable to reply, for nearly an hour Jervis Bay held the Germans fire. So she went down: but of the Merchantmen all but four or five were saved.
It might be thought that the action of the Jervis Bay was very similar to that of another armed merchantman, the Rawalpindi. Almost a year earlier on 23 November 1939 the Rawalpindi had taken on the Scharnhorst in very similar circumstances, although not in protection of a convoy. Captain Kennedy of the Rawalpindi had not won an award for gallantry, even though, as the Prime Minister later acknowledged, he and his men faced “certain death” when they sought to attack a vastly more powerful battleship. When it came to the award of the Victoria Cross very fine distinctions could be made, as the Naval Secretary was later to determine:
The Rawalpindi whilst on patrol was surprised by a superior enemy force which came up on her quarter at dusk. She had not the speed to escape and the end came soon. One feels sure that Captain Kennedy was gallant to the last but there is no evidence to show that any action taken, or order given, by ship or Captain was of such a gallant nature as to merit the Victoria Cross.
In this case of the Jervis Bay there is evidence from a convoy of ships, including that of the Commander of the Convoy, to that Captain Fegen could have, had he wished, turned to Southward with the remainder of the convoy in an endeavour to escape. Had he done so the Jervis Bay might well have got away unscathed but at the expense of more loss in the convoy. Rather than do this Captain Fegen turned boldly towards the enemy, and to certain destruction thereby giving the convoy greatest time in which to sail and escape. This was a brave decision, made without any apparent hesitation and I think fully merits [the] award of the Victoria Cross.
See TNA ADM 1/10496
Nor were there awards recognising the sacrifice of the entire crew of the SS Beaverford. When the Jervis Bay was sunk the Beaverford took over, although she had only two small anti submarine guns. This action also contributed to the the delaying action, some sources suggest for a great deal longer than the Jervis Bay, enabling the other merchantmen to escape.
The bravery of all who volunteered to sail on these convoys, in the face of such known dangers, was deserving of recognition. Ultimately it was only possible for the authorities to recognise the gallantry of some.
For more links on HX-64 see Warsailors.