As the autumn sun lowered towards the Atlantic Ocean horizon on November 5, 1940, the Royal Navy ship, HMS Jervis Bay, spotted an approaching vessel only 12 miles away. It was Admiral Scheer, a German pocket battleship with a mission to sink as many Allied freighters as possible. Leading a convoy of 37 freighter ships, the Jervis Bay was an inevitable target of the oncoming attacker.
Originally built to be an Australian passenger liner, the 14,000 tonne Jervis Bay was converted into an armed merchant cruiser at the dawn of WWII. She was the sole escort of Convoy HX.84 (the 84th convoy to leave Halifax, on route for the UK). Jervis Bay left the Halifax port on October 28th, 1940, crewed by a mixture of Royal Navy, Royal Naval Reserve and Merchant Navy 254 seamen, and Captain E. S. F. Fegen.
Jervis Bay was 750 nautical miles in the mid-North Atlantic when she ran into trouble. Outfitted with seven, archaic, 6-inch guns and an out-of-date fire control system, Captain Fegen knew the German battleship was no match for Jervis Bay. In an effort to protect the convoy, Captain Fegen commanded the 37 freighters to scatter, as Jervis Bay dropped smoke canisters into the frigid Atlantic waves, offering some protection for the convoy. Captain Fegen heroically directed the AMC towards Adrmial Scheer, in an effort to get the enemy ship within firing distance, but also to distract its fires from the nearby two-funnelled passenger vessel, the most valuable freighter in the fleet.
Shots began to fly from Jervis Bay, but each one fell short of hitting the target. Admiral Scheer retaliated with its 11-inch shells and quickly destroyed Jervis Bay’s forward gun and steering gear. Fire started aboard the armed merchant cruiser, but she continued to fire port guns at the German vessel. Not long into the battle, Captain Fegen was hit and his arm was shattered. While shells tore into his ship, he continued to give orders until he was hit again and killed. At this point, Jervis Bay was ablaze.
The battle lasted 24 minutes, until the command was given to abandon ship. Admiral Scheer, which was capable of sinking an entire convoy in a matter of hours, went on to sink only 5 other freighters in HX.84. Thirty-two freighters escaped safely to port.
It was three hours after the attack when Jervis Bay slipped into the ocean. The lives of 190 men were taken in the battle. Miraculously, 65 men survived. Captain Fegen was posthumously given the Victoria Cross for his bravery.