Captain Fegen wins the V.C. on the Jervis Bay

Jervis Bay merchant ship

The Jervis Bay was armed with only six antiquated guns and was hopelessly outranged and outgunned by the Admiral Scheer.

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.

The 'pocket battleship' Admiral Scheer which roamed the Atlantic seeking out merchantmen. Many in the German navy wanted to prove that warships were as capable as U-Boats in this role.

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.

Captain Pettigrew and the other 76 crew members of the SS Beaverford all perished. They were not recognised for their part in the delaying action.

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.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

F Wilson September 19, 2014 at 2:11 am

I had a very good friend now deceased, who served as a rescue medic/swimmer on armed merchant cruisers. He made the run from Great Britain to Murmansk, Russia 24 times finally being invalided with a broken vertebra. He joined the merchant marine as he was a orphan and to young for the military. While he would not talk much about his experiences, the few stories he did tell me were hair-raising. There were many unsung heroes on that run.

Robert Prior. August 10, 2014 at 4:01 pm

– As the British authorities have proved to be all too dilatory in awarding any marks of their appreciation and approbation to the Captain and crew of the Canadian SS. Beaverford perhaps British representations should be made to the Canadian High Commissioner for due recognition?
— Or Canadians could press their government directly – hopefully with desirable – even if belated – results.
— Their gallantry deserves and merits rembrance!

Toby Druce May 6, 2014 at 3:28 am

I had a relative who sailed on the SS Jervis Bay in 1931. She was returning to England from a business trip. Amazing to hear the story of how the ship met its end.

Mike Taylor February 4, 2014 at 3:52 pm

I was born in Malta in 1937. My mother went to Malta to join my father, who was in the Navy and was stationed there, on the S.S. Jervis Bay. I became motivated to learn more and came across an excellent book titled “If the Gods are Good”. It is an inspiring story of both the action that led to her sinking, including from the Admiral Scheer’s viewpoint, and of the survival tales of individual crew members. I recommend it as an uplifting journal of the human spirit.

Adrian Jones January 20, 2014 at 11:10 am

Some of you maybe interested in the book ‘Convoy Will Scatter – The Full Story of Jervis Bay and Convoy HX84′, available for purchase on Amazon. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book.

Craig Ellis December 31, 2013 at 12:00 am

Thank you for including the efforts of Cpt Pettigrew and the crew of the Beaverford to this entry. My Grandfather was an engineer on the Beaverford and our family knew nothing of the level of the Beaverford’s involvement in dealing with Admiral Sheer until a family member recently read Richard Woodman’s excellent history of the Merchant Navy in WWII – “The Cruel Sea”.

This made us all reevaluate our understanding of the event and think over the manner in which he died.

Paul Witherington May 23, 2013 at 8:17 pm

My father served in the Merchant Navy during World War 11.He was sunk 3times and wounded on the last occasion.He didn’t talk about it very much but I know he was full of admiration for the Jervis Bay and her officers and crew.I’ve just been to Liverpool to celebrate the role of the Merchant Service during the war and saw the monument to all our seafarers including those of the Jervis Bay.I must admit I found it very moving.

Mark Orr August 12, 2012 at 5:27 am

It is sad that the men of the SS Beaverford were overlooked. I have not heard of this story and I am awed by their courage in the face of such overwhelming firepower. I am glad at least some of their story was told.

Keith McLennan November 3, 2011 at 9:32 am

“One feels sure that Captain Kennedy was gallant to the last but there is 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.”

Shouldn’t this read “but there is no evidence to show”?

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