~ ITEM: The heroism of Captain Fegen and the crew of the Jervis Bay
~ ITEM: Captain Pettigrew and the men of the S.S. Beaverford
~ ITEM: CBC– The fearless, near-forgotten story of HMS Jervis Bay; and Caithness Archives– HMS “Jervis Bay” Armed Merchant Cruiser
~ ITEM: If the Gods Are Good: The Epic Sacrifice of the HMS Jervis Bay (Book Review)
~ ITEM: The church can and will survive persecution. It will not survive faithlessness. This is both a theological and historical truth
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~ SO WHAT EXACTLY DOES victory look like? Giant Roman triumph, with floats and captives, plunder, and conquering troops? Or an undignified mocking of the defeated, bared butts, raspberries, and ‘Neener! Neener!’? Dignity, and proper respect for the conquered?
Two World War 2 sea captains make me think that in some cases, there’s another way.
Binky’s Departed Loved Ones
My maternal Grandparents are interred in a cemetery overlooking the beautiful Grand Bay in West St. John, New Brunswick. Only a gravestone or two away from them is another stone, recording that the deceased was part of the crew of the HMS Jervis Bay.
That what-now, you say? How very last millennium!
A British Bulldog
The HMS Jervis Bay was a converted British liner off the England-to-Australia circuit, loaded up with some surplus turn of the century 6″ naval popguns and a few machine guns for convoy duty, and called– almost ironically– an ‘Armed Merchant Cruiser’. She was refitted for military service in the port of Saint John, New Brunswick.
The year 1940 had been a tsunami of defeats and disasters: Belgium, Holland, and France had fallen, followed by the miracle of Dunkirk; Norway & Denmark conquered, and Sweden left ‘free’ if she continued to supply steel and other war matériels to Germany.
All that late Summer, the shattered and almost weaponless British armies rescued from Dunkirk along with civilian militias and the tireless RAF had guarded Britain from a seaborne German invasion– Operation Sealion— which very nearly happened. Britain stood alone. Some counselled surrender to the obvious new order of things: but Winston Churchill, the new Prime Minister, just wouldn’t hear of it.
In fact, Herr Hitler had jumped the German war-plans by 3 years (thank heavens), but still had enough u-boats and commerce-raiding pocket battleships to seriously threaten the survival of Britain. Merchant convoys were the only remaining life-line.
Our Story Begins
The chilly but ice-free wartime port of Halifax, late October 1940– 37 merchant ships gather in Bedford Basin, and set sail with their single escort, the HMS Jervis Bay, out into the stormy & U-Boat haunted North Atlantic. Bound for Liverpool, England, Convoy HX-84 sails into history.
The whole convoy had to go the speed of the slowest ship, and to stay together despite wind, fogs, night, storms, and sometimes the questionable seaworthiness or antiquity of the merchant vessels, some of which had served likewise in World War One. The HMS Jervis Bay had to herd these cats for the whole 2700+ mile trans-Atlantic voyage.
Worst Possible Day
One late November afternoon, 8 days later later and south-southwest of Iceland, the deep-laden ships of HX-84 struggled eastwards against cold and heavy seas.
Convoy commander Captain Edward Fegen of the Jervis hears from the lookouts: they’ve spotted something even worse than the u-boats: a foreboding silhouette– incoming fire reveals the German pocket-battleship Admiral Scheer, angling in for a leisurely turkey-shoot on Convoy HX-84.
Doom. A very nasty wolf chasing down a parcel of sheep and one semi-sheep-dog. The Admiral Scheer was a fast heavy cruiser with 6 powerful 11-inch guns, each able to fire every 17 seconds effectively out to 20 000 yards, or 11 miles. 38 juicy targets just ahead.
White flag? Run away?
Captain Fegen of the Jervis Bay had a decision to make, and little time to make them.
“Here’s our convoy to protect, and we’re it, lads– All hands to battle stations! Signal ‘Scatter the convoy, maximum speed’!”; and then came the surprising orders: “Turn hard to port, and full speed towards that enemy cruiser! Make smoke! All guns, fire as you bear! Let’s see if we can’t draw her fire.”
With her retro-fitted guns roaring more as defiance than damage-dealing weapons, Captain Fegen steered the Jervis between the enemy and the fleeing convoy. The eager German Captain Theodor Krancke needed to hit the convoy before nightfall. A collision or lucky shot could harm the Admiral Scheer: best sink the Jervis right away.
“Our captain knew just what we were going to get, but it didn’t matter”, one crew member later recalled. The Armed Merchant Cruiser drew heavy enemy fire as towering fountains of water exploded around the Jervis Bay, whose own shells mostly fell short of the enemy.
Behind the ocean-liner turned Armed Merchant Cruiser, her convoy scattered to starboard at various speeds; every minute of distraction and delay meant lives and ships and supplies saved. The Scheer’s 11-inch shells pounded into the Jervis, which was soon crippled, aflame, unable to steer or communicate– but for almost half-an-hour the outgunned 15-thousand ton ship had preoccupied the guns of the German pocket-battleship, as the daylight faded away, and had even managed to damage the German radar & ranging with a very lucky hit.
While the surviving crew abandoned the drifting liner for lifeboats, flotsam, and the bitter North Atlantic water, the pocket-battleship finally sailed past, and began to destroy 5 of the 37 ships of HX-84 in the twilight. But Captain Krancke’s frustration was far from over.
A little-known or remembered chapter of this story is the other convoy ship which fought the Germans. Following Fegen’s example, Captain Pettigrew and the men of the S.S. Beaverford, a Canadian freighter, likewise sailed interference against the Admiral Scheer, and bought even more valuable time for the convoy, allowing the other ships to scatter in the darkness. For over four-and-a-half hours, the Beaverford fired her two small guns, until she was sent to the bottom with torpedoes from the Scheer around 10:30pm. All hands were lost.
Sadly enough, there’s no movie, medals, novels, or memorials for the valiant S.S. Beaverford & her lost captain & crew.
Captain Fegen himself was killed at his station, but received a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions. Sixty-eight survivors of Jervis Bay ’s crew of 254 were picked up by the neutral Swedish ship Stureholm (three later died of their wounds). One survivor went on to live his life in St. John New Brunswick, and to be buried near my Grandparents (I believe it may have been “MORROW. Everett. R.C.N.R. Scullion. Saint John, New Brunswick)”.
The Jervis Bay inspired many books, including Alistair MacLean’s novel H.M.S. Ulysses, and a short story in his book “The Lonely Sea”; the poem “The Ballad of Convoy HX84“, amongst others; and the final action of the Jervis Bay was portrayed in the movie San Demetrio London (1943, entire movie online here); and various standing memorials in Bermuda, Wick, London, and Saint John, New Brunswick.
Any Point, At All, Binks?
What does victory, or defeat, look like? Not always how we expect.
The seemingly captive and defeated Lord Jesus went down to a dreadful and criminal death, surrounded by mockery and the apparent victory of power over goodness. But in truth, it was a universe & heaven-changing sacrifice. God’s spotless Lamb for His flock; the one for the many; the Lord for his people.
It didn’t look like that, on Good Friday, or Holy Saturday, of course. ‘Another rebel rabble-rouser crushed‘, thought Rome; ‘Blasphemer dealt with‘, thought his enemies in the religious establishment. ‘So much for all that‘, thought the fickle crowds. ‘We thought he really was The One, the promised Messiah‘ thought most of the disciples. The came the bright morning after the Sabbath rest.
For surpassing all we could ask or imagine, God has the last word about Good Friday on Easter Morning when the Lord Jesus rose again bodily from death, and then came Pentecost day, and all the days from those days to this. One sacrifice, once, for all mankind forever. Jesus The Lord wins us eternal victory, through– not despite– his own suffering, death, and resurrection.
Victory In Defeat: There’s More Than One Way To Win
Sacrifice, courage, fighting on come death or defeat, not counting the cost– the HMS Jervis Bay and the S.S. Beaverford & their crews did not surrender, and did what seemed to be impossible: they put themselves in the way, at the right place & time to do the maximum good. As Christians, our prayers and plans and efforts neither arise from, nor go forth into emptiness. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done”– ultimately, it’s all God’s business, and if we strive to be faithful, to speak up and act and pray and not despair in the face of evil’s apparent victories, He will bless and bring forth– even from our weak and wavering and unworthy faith– wonderfully good things.
Those incoming blessings may be elsewhere, and for others, or for future generations; they may be for us, and such a time as this. That’s His business, not ours.
As for me, I sail in the spirit of the HMS Jervis Bay and the S.S. Beaverford; with the angels and archangels, martyrs, saints, apostles, and all the company of heaven, following Jesus, the author and completer of our faith, under the victory-banner of the blessed and glorious Trinity– even the Father, and the Son, and The Holy Ghost, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen. ~