HMS Rawalpindi encounters the Scharnhorst

‘After a short while the German ships opened fire – one on each side of us. Their aim was good. They first hit the wireless cabin, then two hits demolished the bridge. Our guns opened up in retaliation, and we hit one of the ships several times causing some casualties. I had gone to the ammunition hoist to get some Star Shells, but when I returned my gun and fellow gun crew had all been blown over the side.’

HMS Rawalpindi was an “armed merchantman”, a merchant ship equipped with outdated six inch guns just before the war so that she could perform a military role. In November 1939 she was under the command of Captain Edward Coverley Kennedy (father of Ludovic Kennedy) in the north Atlantic. Her role was to enforce the British blockade of Germany, intercepting German and other merchant ships heading for Germany and commandeering them. If she sighted German battleships it was intended that she would report their position so that the Royal Navy could attack then in strength. In particular the British believed the German pocket battleship Deutschland was in the area. When Captain Kennedy sighted a battleship in the late afternoon of 23 November he believed it was the Deutschland. In fact it was the Scharnhorst, probably the most powerful ship that the German navy then possessed.

The Scharnhorst
The Scharnhorst

Kennedy managed to radio the position to the British Admiralty, who began to direct Royal Navy ships in the area to join him. The Rawalpindi ignored calls to “heave to” and, hopelessly outgunned, proceeded to attack. Unfortunately Scharnhorst was now joined by her sister ship Gneisenau, making a desperate situation even worse. 
On board the Rawalpindi was steward Royston Leadbetter and his brother Jack:

Our guns, eight six inch made around 1900, were standard for Armed Merchant Cruisers. My gun was one of two 3 inch dual purpose guns of 1917 issue, as was the ammunition. Stewards were given the job of ammunition supply. On our second patrol we sank a German ship called the Gonsenheim, after having taken off her crew.

Half way into our third patrol at 3 pm on November 23rd 1939, the alarm bells sounded and I made my way to the boat deck. It was almost dark and it was freezing cold. In the poor light it was possible to see two grey shapes approximately five miles away. Suddenly a spout of water rose up a few yards away. It was quiet and at first we thought it was one of our own ships mistaking us for the enemy. Captain Kennedy and a midshipman came by and we were informed that there was a German ship near by, and that we were going to lay a smoke screen. Thick black smoke came from the funnel, but the smoke floats failed to work as it was too cold!

After a short while the German ships opened fire – one on each side of us. Their aim was good. They first hit the wireless cabin, then two hits demolished the bridge. Our guns opened up in retaliation, and we hit one of the ships several times causing some casualties. I had gone to the ammunition hoist to get some Star Shells, but when I returned my gun and fellow gun crew had all been blown over the side. Our position was hopeless and the order was given to abandon ship. One boat got away but was picked up by one of the German ships.

I went in search of my brother whose gun was on the fore well deck, but his gun was lying on its side with the remains of the Bridge on it, and no sign of life. Eventually I found Jack and a friend in the paint locker in the forecastle. I took them on to the boat deck to see if any lifeboats were left, but they all appeared to be damaged or on fire. The Germans at this stage were still firing, but at irregular intervals as they were giving the smaller guns an opportunity for fire practice. I eventually managed to find two life jackets, I put one on, the other I took back to Jack. He was waiting for me with a friend who said he wanted one, so off I went in search of an extra life jacket. However when I returned there was no sign of Jack or his friend, and I never saw either of them again.

It was by now getting extremely dangerous on the open deck and fires had broken out everywhere. At one time I went down a rope ladder and hung there above the water. Suddenly a few feet away there was a shower of sparks where an armour-piercing shell went through the hull. I returned to the deck. Fire was enveloping the ship and a few of us who remained alive were gathered at the stern sitting on depth charges in their racks! The ship was gradually turning over and a lifeboat fell over the side into the sea. By the time I saw it, it was about 100 yards away but as I decided it was our last chance into the sea I dropped. I didn’t notice how cold the water was. I was also a non-swimmer, but with my life belt on I somehow managed to reach the lifeboat before anyone else. The lifeboat was full of water and I don’t know how I managed to climb into it. I was panic stricken and breathless.

Eventually ten of us got to the lifeboat, there would have been more but we were unable to row the boat, as all the oars except the steering oar, had fallen out as the lifeboat had fallen overboard. We gradually drifted away and watched as the Rawalpindi blew up and finally sank. One of the German ships saw us and stopped while we drifted towards it. The remarks shouted down to us, in English, were about the cold, hot tea, and their “ancestry” from us. Suddenly the Germans called down and said, “Sorry we cannot stop, one of your ships is near. Good night and good luck”. They then went off, nearly drowning us in their wash.

By now it was about 6pm and completely dark. The sea was rough and getting worse. Gradually we got some of the water out of the lifeboat, found the plughole, screwed it up with bits of rag and plugged up the holes in the sides. The buoyancy tanks that had holes in them were put on the seats to break the strong wind. In this fashion we passed a night with an occasional spell at bailing out. During the night it snowed, but that saved us from getting thirsty. The only food in the lifeboat lockers was sweetened condensed milk tins and ships biscuits. These had to be chewed by those with good teeth, and then passed to those who could not chew these very hard biscuits. By daylight we were past caring, all frozen and sleepy, feet and hands badly swollen after being in the freezing water. At about 2pm we sighted a ship, but it took over an hour before we were seen. The steering oar with an oil skin tied to it was all we had to attract their attention, and it was getting dark. Luckily a look out spotted us and we were saved.

The ship was the Chitral another P and O liner converted to an armed cruiser, and there were a few old friends among the crew. A week later we landed in Glasgow, from there we were sent to London for questioning and then sent home with a rail warrant and £5. My mother came home from chapel to find two telegrams on the mat. One to say she had lost a son, the other to say another son was among the survivors. She never said which telegram she opened first!

Royston Leadbetter’s full account can be read at  BBC WW2 People’s War , where there is also an account by the son of Lieutenant Harold Cholerton, who did not survive the action, describing the impact his death had on his family.

238 men died on HMS Rawalpindi. There were 38 survivors.  Although a number of British warships converged on the scene, bad weather enabled Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to escape. Captain Kennedy was Mentioned in Despatches. 

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke in the House of Commons afterwards:

These men might have known, as soon as they sighted the enemy, that there was no chance, but they had no thought of surrender. They fired their guns until they could be fired no more, and many went to their deaths in the great tradition of the Royal Navy. Their example will be an inspiration to those that come after them

See also November 24th 1939: Ludovic Kennedy on learning of the death of his father.