Allan Kerr was on the 8pm to midnight watch on HMS Forfar, an armed merchant cruiser as it made its way to join a convoy in the North West approaches. He later wrote a detailed account of the events in the early hours of the morning of the 2nd December 1940:
It was a black night, with no moon, and the fitful starlight occasionally obscured by cloud. I undressed, said my prayers and turned in quite happily. My sound sleep was soon broken by a terrific crash! Immediately I was awake. “Torpedoed” flashed through my mind and just as quickly I prayed and switched on my light. Never will I forget the eerie silence that prevailed. The engines had stopped and the lights were dimming rapidly. “Action Stations” was sounded on the klaxons, but this seemed to drain the last few dregs from the dynamo for it petered out and all went black.
HMS Forfar had become a victim of the U Boat ace Otto Kretscher, commanding U-99. The order was given to abandon ship and Kerr managed to make his way into one of the lifeboats. However Kreschmer did not want to wait as HMS Forfar slowly sank. He sent a further four torpedoes into the ship to finish her off:
Men now came down the rope ladders and as she settled some even jumped from the Prom. deck right into the boat. There would be nearly 20 men in the boat now and I was trying to slip the painter when someone in the water screamed my name. I was dripping with oil fuel even now, as the painter was thickly covered in it, however I got a good grip of the young fellow who I think was Radio Cadet Fraser. Another chap and myself were endeavouring to haul him inboard when with a shattering roar we went sailing into the air. The fourth torpedo had struck directly below my boat blowing us right out of the water.
I thought this was [the] finish. I can remember being down under and striking out mechanically for the surface. Just previously I had seen a Carley float for’ard of the boat. I swam to this to find the Postie, P.O. Lazenby and L/S Frank Mayo already “on board”. There were many others inside and all round so I just hung on for a while. Even in these circumstances the lads had to laugh at my appearance. Now capless, with hair and face coated thickly in that treacle-like oil I am sure I was an odd sight. While hanging there, Ken Fisher, a coder, came along and he was in a similar state. The time of the 4th torpedo striking us was approx. 0353 (Zone Time).
Two minutes later the 5th and last torpedo struck, again on the Port side. This was the final blow as the ship broke in two owing to the after magazine blowing sky-high. She was well down by the stern now and I remember the ghastly cracklings as the after end bent inwards crushing the decks like matchwood. She heeled quickly over on her Sta’b’d side, the after end disappeared, and as she settled, she turned right over and sank slowly and steadily by the stern.
We had paddled like mad to get well away, but as there were twelve of us and only 2 paddles we did not get very far. However, as she turned over on her Sta’b’d side, she went away from us and there was little suction owing to the slow speed at which she finally settled. As the bows slid away for the last time I said, “Well boys, there goes the last of the old Forfar.” I don’t know why I should make such a melodramatic statement, but it didn’t seem right to me that she should make her last exit unannounced.
Kerr was to spend a long time in the water clinging to the raft. After several disappointments when other boats failed to pick them up, he was eventually rescued by HMS Viscount. He was one of 21 survivors. 176 had died. Read his account on BBC Peoples War.
It was Kretschmers last successful patrol. He returned to Germany to a heroes welcome, he now had sunk over 200,000 tons of shipping, placing him comfortably at the head of the league of tonnage sunk.
HMS Hood, known within the Royal Navy as “The Mighty Hood” was a 860 foot long, 46,000 ton battlecruiser launched in 1918. In late 1940 she was the flagship for the Home Fleet that stood in reserve for a possible invasion and assisted with convoy protection.
The Home Fleet was based in the Orkney Islands anchorage of Scapa Flow in the far north of Great Britain, ready to intercept German ships seeking to make their way into the Atlantic. On board was a United States Naval officer, Joseph Wellings, who recorded the day in his diary:
Last day of 1940 – up at usual time 0745 – breakfast, a good mile and a quarter walk on quarterdeck, more snow last night – Hills are really very pretty – wish I were home. On bridge watching ship shift berths – Not a very good job – cut mooring buoy. Watched the crew get their ration of rum – quite a ritual.
Called on the Warrant Officers – had a gin(s) (2). Lunch, read, nap – First Lieut. In for a cup of coffee at 1730. Dressed for dinner – at 1830 called on the midshipmen in the gunroom and the Warrant Officers before dinner. Had a very fine turkey dinner.
After dinner remained in wardroom – talked with Warrand, the navigator, and Owens. Just before midnight the officers returned from the C.P.O. party. Browne (Lt. Paymaster) rigged up ships bell in Anteroom of wardroom. At 2400 bell was struck 16 times, an old custom. Captain, Admiral, his staff, exec, and practically all officers returned to Wardroom.
We all drank a toast to 1941 – Peace and Victory. One of the midshipmen from the gunroom came in with a bagpipe and played Scotch tunes. Everyone started to dance the various Scotch dances from the Admiral down to the lowest midshipman. The Wardroom tables were cleared away and a regular party was in full swing. It was a very unusual sight to see the Admiral, Captain, staff, Wardroom, gunroom, and Warrant officers dancing.
Included in the party but not dancing was the Chief Master-at-Arms and Sergeant Major of the Marines. Such a comradeship one would never suspect from the English who are supposed to be so conservative. I was impressed very much. Such spirit is one of the British best assets. This spirit will go far to bring about victory in the end. At 0145 I left the party in full swing and turned in but not before thanking God for his many blessings in 1940 and saying goodnight to my two sweethearts.
Joseph Wellings was later to become an Admiral. The remainder of those at the party were less fortunate – all of HMS Hood’s officers would be lost when she was sunk by the Bismarck on 24th May 1941. Midshipman William Dundas was one of just three survivors out of the total crew of 1,418 – he would have been at the party – but he did not join the ship until 6th January 1941.
The HMS Hood Association has a tremendously comprehensive record of the ship, her crew and their final action. They currently (2015) have an appeal to find photographs of all 1415 men lost on HMS Hood – so far they have collected pictures of 889 men.
Londoners woke up on the 30th December to begin to assess the damage in the bombed out City of London. Many fires were still burning and everywhere fine historic buildings lay in ruins. The scale of devastation, extending three miles from St Paul’s Cathedral, was hard to comprehend. Much of the heritage of the world’s prime mercantile centre, stretching back centuries, had been destroyed,
The image of the surviving cathedral complemented the government’s message that ‘Britain can take it’ – there was little incentive to dwell on what had been lost. The public mood does genuinely seem to have that it was necessary to try to carry on as normal. This was not easy – and there was no sign of when the misery might end.
John Wadsworth describes life in one of the branches of the Midland Bank that had been saved from the fire:
On the morning of December 30 the manager and staff arrived to find the banking hall running with water from fire hoses, basement strongrooms flooded to a depth of six inches, fire still smouldering in the upper floors and many records in indescribable confusion.
No electricity or gas was available, and, as daylight was excluded by the boarded-up windows and light dome, the interior gloom could be relieved only by candles. . . . No fires could be lighted, and the central heating was not operating, for although water swilled around floors and safes, none came through the taps.
Accounting machines were out of operation in the absence of electricity; and even had power been available, three out of a battery of five were water-damaged, and several typewriters were no longer serviceable. Just then the bank was particularly busy making up accounts for the half-yearly balance, and the loss of mechanical aids was a severe blow.
In a night the branch had moved back to working conditions worse than those of a century earlier. All entries were made by hand in candlelight, the branch counter with flickering wicks reflected in the pools of water scattered over the banking hall presenting a sorry spectacle. Letters were handwritten, and as far as possible, hand delivered; no telephones were working, essential messages being sent in the form of brief notes, while the office itself was damp and cold and wretchedly unhealthy.
The lull in the blitz over the Christmas period came to an abrupt end on the evening of the 29th. It was not an exceptionally heavy raid compared with several earlier raids, when more bombs had fallen. That so many fires took hold was largely because the raid was on a Sunday evening when the commercial area of the City of London was mostly unoccupied, without the usual fire-watchers on every building.
[permalink id=8305 text=”If incendiary bombs”] were tackled as soon as they fell they caused little damage. This required sufficient people to be in the immediate vicinity and able to get to the burning bomb in the first few minutes. With most of City buildings locked up and vacant, numerous fires soon started in the roof space of adjacent buildings and then merged into enormous conflagrations. The problems faced by the fire Brigade were exacerbated by a low ebb tide on the Thames, making it difficult to draw water to fight the fires.
By contrast there was a vigilant team of fire-watchers at work from the start in St Paul’s Cathedral. They were on hand to deal with the 28 incendiary bombs that fell on the building. But it was only luck that prevented the one incendiary bomb that just penetrated the dome from setting the whole building alight. The dome of St Paul’s is mainly a wooden structure covered with lead, so is highly combustible. Fortunately the bomb, having lodged in the roof, then fell outwards rather than inwards, and was swiftly dealt with.
The journalist Ernie Pyle described the evening for an American audience:
You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires – scores of them, perhaps hundreds.
There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it.
The closest fires were near enough for us to hear the crackling flames and the yells of firemen. Little fires grew into big ones even as we watched. Big ones died down under the firemen’s valor, only to break out again later.
About every two minutes a new wave of planes would be over. The motors seemed to grind rather than roar, and to have an angry pulsation, like a bee buzzing in blind fury.
The guns did not make a constant overwhelming din as in those terrible days of September. They were intermittent – sometimes a few seconds apart, sometimes a minute or more. Their sound was sharp, near by; and soft and muffled, far away. They were everywhere over London.
Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously. These white pin points would go out one by one, as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand. But also, while we watched, other pin points would burn on, and soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white center. They had done their work – another building was on fire.
The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape – so faintly at first that we weren’t sure we saw correctly – the gigantic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
St. Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions – growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.
The streets below us were semi-illuminated from the glow. Immediately above the fires the sky was red and angry, and overhead, making a ceiling in the vast heavens, there was a cloud of smoke all in pink. Up in that pink shrouding there were tiny, brilliant specks of flashing light – anti-aircraft shells bursting. After the flash you could hear the sound.
Casualties were relatively light with 163 killed including 16 firemen, with over 250 firemen needing hospital treatment. The destruction of a huge swathe of the oldest part of London and the loss off many historic buildings had to go unmourned. Instead the image of St Pauls almost immediately became emblematic of the message that “Britain can take it” and brought worldwide attention to London’s situation in the front line.
Wars Greatest Picture – St Pauls stands Unharmed in the Middle of the Burning City
… a picture that all Britain will cherish – for it symbolises the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy: the firmness of Right against Wrong.
The Cabinet Office’s Home Security Situation Report for the week recorded the damage, which encompassed an area much larger than the City itself:
By night the most important attack was that delivered against London, mainly in the City, on the night 29th/30th December when a very large number of incendiary bombs were dropped, and serious and extensive fires—numbering in all nearly 1,500—were started in the City and the Docks area. In the City the fire at one period extended over half a square mile and in the Minories area over quarter of a square mile.
London. (29th/30th December.)
54. (a) Docks.—The actual working of the docks was interfered with in three cases—Surrey Commercial, Millwall and London Docks. The most considerable damage was, however, to warehouses and sheds, with their inflammable contents.
(b) Railways.—Services were suspended at Waterloo, Charing Cross, Fenchurch Street, Broad Street and Cannon Street and sixteen underground stations were closed. By 0800 on the 31st December 40 per cent services were restored at all termini with the exception of Fenchurch Street. Though the position has greatly improved, working is still retarded, and considerable congestion remains.
(c) Factories.—Four important food-factories in the Dock area were hit, but fortunately damage was unimportant. Buck and Hickman, Ltd. (machinetools) was burnt out; otherwise Key Point factories escaped serious damage.
(d) Public Utilities.—The South Metropolitan Gas Works and the Bankside Electricity Power Station both suffered minor damage and, generally, only local and temporary damage was done to main services.
(e) Telecommunications.—Post Office property suffered severely, the Central Telegraph Office, with three Telephone Exchanges housed in the same building, were completely gutted : fires also occurred in three other Exchanges. Considerable dislocation of communications resulted, especially between London and the South-East of England.
(f) Public Buildings and Hospitals:—the most serious loss is that of the Guildhall, which was destroyed, while eight Wren Churches in the City were more or less severely damaged. St. Stephen’s, Westminster, Westminster Cathedral and Bryanston- Square Church were also affected. Trinity House was almost entirely destroyed. Damage was also done to the Royal Courts of Justice, the Tower, the British Museum and Public Record Office, County Hall, Westminster City Hall. Guy’s Hospital had to be evacuated and other hospitals and nursing homes were damaged in Hoiborn (3), Lambeth, Waltham Cross, Bermondsey, Stepney and Camberwell.
(g) Service Property.—R.A.F. stores were damaged at the. White City Stadium and three Army Huts burnt in Hyde Park. In Stepney and Southwark various A.R.P. establishments were damaged.
The attack on London on the night of the 29th/30th December produced a critical fire situation, and the fire services were fully extended; it was not until the morning of the 1st January that all fires could be reported under control
Our fighters have continued to maintain their ascendancy over the Italian Air Force. On the 26th Gladiators of the Royal Australian Air Force shot down without loss two, and probably six, of a number of C.R. 42 fighters which were escorting a bomber formation, and on the 28th Hurricanes shot down three bombers and a fighter, again without loss.
The little single-bay, all metal biplane was robust and highly manoeuvrable and therefore ideal for aerobatics which meant, in war time, good at dodging the enemy in a dog-fight.
More importantly, it didn’t have any bad faults once it had been correctly rigged. It was armed with four .303 machine guns … two in the fuselage firing between the propeller blades by means of an interrupter gear and two in blisters under the wings. Its 840 horse power Mercury 8A engine propelled it at a maximum speed of 250 miles per hour at 15,500 feet and it could climb to this height in 6 minutes before reaching its ceiling at 32,800 feet. It cruised at 210 miles per hour and could land at 59 miles per hour. In all, an aeroplane that, whilst lacking some of the performance qualities of the sleek, fast enemy aircraft being introduced into the Western Desert, was still a regular little terrier which had quite a lethal bite.
RAF Coastal Command was very much overshadowed by RAF Fighter Command during 1940, and later by RAF Bomber Command. Yet from an early stage in the war it had been engaged in offensive operations against Germans shipping. Many of its attacks were intended to disrupt a potential invasion force, which many people assumed would be attempted some time in 1941. Low level attacks on armed shipping were inherently dangerous and the Command was never immune from significant losses.
Aircraft of Coastal Command flew 144 patrols involving 441 sorties (including 193 convoy escorts), in addition to the bombing operations already referred to. No fewer than six attacks were made on enemy merchant vessels on the 27th December; a Hudson bombed a ship of about 4,000 tons at anchor in Egersund Harbour and secured at least three direct hits; another ship in convoy North of Ameland was possibly hit, and near misses were reported on two merchant vessels off Dieppe and another off Fecamp.
Chaim Kaplan had been recording the trials of the Jewish population in Warsaw from the beginning of the war. Since they had become isolated on the [permalink id=9127 text=”15th November”] there had been severe food shortages. Cold, malnutrition and disease were starting to kill many and most knew that they faced a very bleak future. Yet there was a brief celebration for Hanukkah and some grim humour:
December 26, 1940
Hanukkah in the ghetto. Never before in Jewish Warsaw were there as many Hanukkah celebrations as in this year of the wall. But because of the sword that hovers over our heads, they are not conducted among festive crowds, publicly displaying their joy.
Polish Jews are stubborn: the enemy makes laws but they don’t obey them. That is the secret of our survival. We behaved in this manner even in the days when we were not imprisoned within the ghetto walls, when the cursed Nazis filled our streets and watched our every move. Since the ghetto was created we have had some respite from overt and covert spies, and so Hanukkah parties were held in nearly every courtyard, even in rooms which face the street; the blinds were drawn, and that was sufficient.
This year’s Hanukkah celebration was very well attended. We almost forgot that we are only allowed to go as far as the corner of Nalewki and Swietojerska streets. Dr. Lajfuner gave a speech full of jokes and we all laughed heartily. There was one truth in his speech which should be stressed: ‘In all the countries where they want to bury us alive, we pull the gravediggers in with us.’ Witness Czarist Russia, Poland, and Rumania. Nazi Germany will have the same fate — and in our own time.
The second Christmas of the war was very different from the first for people in Britain. A year earlier only Poland and Czechoslovakia had been occupied by the Nazis – and the ‘phoney war’ had yet to make much of an impact on peoples’ lives. The dramatic events of 1940 had seen the occupation of most of Europe – and the threat to Britain had become very real indeed.
Britain had survived the threat of invasion and beaten off the attacks on her air defences. But British towns and cities were being laid waste on a daily basis. Thousands of families up and down the country had had violent and sudden death visited upon them. Tens of thousands of people were recovering from serious injuries.
Death could come unexpectedly in any theatre of the war, even on Christmas morning. Off the coast of France an enemy cruiser suddenly appeared out of the mist and threatened a convoy. The escort ships quickly engaged – and only minutes later men were dead, with probably more dead on the German ship as well:
On the morning of the 25th December H.M. Corvette Clematis, forming part of the escort of a south-bound convoy, reported that she was engaging an enemy raider 700 miles west of Cape Finisterre. Shortly afterwards H.M.S. Berwick reported that she had sighted an enemy 8-inch cruiser, which she engaged and drove off. Owing to low visibility the enemy was lost sight of, steering to the westward and Berwick rejoined the convoy. Berwick scored one certain hit on the raider and possibly more and received several herself, having four marines killed and one seriously wounded.
HMS Berwick had had a brief encounter with the German cruiser Admiral Hipper. The dead were later named as:
In London [permalink id=8054 text=”George Beardmore”] recorded a ‘dismal’ Christmas:
in the absence of home, friends, and relations, with only a few cards and parcels sent to us. But we were in God’s own heaven compared with many, as for instance Jones, the arthritic ex-Stock Exchange clerk who is living with his wife and two small children in freezing rooms with no cooking apparatus. Or the unknown untold thousands celebrating Christmas in shelters, the firemen, the soldiers, Stan Lock in Iceland, the conscientious objectors in farms, the lonely mothers and ruined shopkeepers, the city children living in farmhouses.
In the Libyan Desert Captain Rea Leakey had been in action since the [permalink id=7811 text=”Italian invasion of Egypt in September”]. He was now part of the force besieging the Italian garrison of Bardia:
Christmas Day 1940, was the same as any other day, except that each man received a tin of bully-beef to himself, and there was a double rum ration that night. Wavell sent us his greetings, but there was insufficient transport to send us turkeys and Christmas puddings. It would be wrong to say that we did not miss the usual luxuries and celebrations, yet nobody complained or grumbled. It would have taken much more than a few trifles like these to shake the high morale of this small desert force.
The Battle of the Atlantic was causing [permalink id=9323 text=”Churchill more concern”] than any other issue but the week before Christmas proved to be a good one, somehow the U-boats which had caused such [permalink id=8537 text=”devastation only weeks before”] had been eluded.
During the week ending noon Wednesday, the 25th December, 785 ships, including 145 allied and 16 neutral, were convoyed, but no ships were reported lost. Two battleships, two aircraft carriers, three cruisers, ten armed merchant cruisers, 55 destroyers, 13 sloops and 29 corvettes were employed in escort duties.
Since the beginning of the war 207 ships including 23 allied and 16 neutral, have been lost out of 48,066, including 5,255 allied and 4,237 neutral, which have been convoyed, or one in 232.
On the 23rd December 1940 Churchill broadcast a speech directed at the Italian people. Various sources, not least interrogation of prisoners of war, made it clear that many Italians were ambivalent about the war and the direction that the dictatorship was taking them. This was all part of a longer campaign to turn the loyalties of the country:
We have never been your foes till now. In the last war against the barbarous Huns we were your comrades. For fifteen years after that war, we were your friends. Although the institutions which you adopted after that war were not akin to ours and diverged, as we think, from the sovereign impulses which had commanded the unity of Italy, we could still walk together in peace and good-will. Many thousands of your people dwelt with ours in England; many of our people dwelt with you in Italy.
We liked each other. We got on well together. There were reciprocal services, there was amity, there was esteem. And now we are at war – now we are condemned to work each other’s ruin.
Your aviators have tried to cast their bombs upon London. Our armies are tearing – and will tear – your African empire to shreds and tatters. We are now only at the beginning of this sombre tale. Who can say where it will end? Presently, we shall be forced to come to much closer grips. How has all this come about, and what is it all for?
Italians, I will tell you the truth.
It is all because of one man – one man and one man alone has ranged the Italian people in deadly struggle against the British Empire and has deprived Italy of the sympathy and intimacy of the United States of America.
That he is a great man I do not deny. But that after eighteen years of unbridled power he has led your country to the horrid verge of ruin – that can be denied by none.
It is all one man – one man, who, against the crown and royal family of Italy, against the Pope and all the authority of the Vatican and of the Roman Catholic Church, against the wishes of the Italian people who had no lust for this war; one man has arrayed the trustees and inheritors of ancient Rome upon the side of the ferocious pagan barbarians.
On the very same day in Italy Mussolini is despondent about the quality of Italian troops, who have been forced out of both Greece and Egypt within the last month. He tells his Foreign Minister, Count Ciano:
I must nevertheless recognise that the Italians of 1914 were better than these. It is not very flattering for the regime, but that’s the way it is.