Many will know the celebrated legacy of the Royal Navy’s armed merchant cruiser HMS JERVIS BAY and her final moments as she battled the German pocket battleship ADMIRAL SCHEER protecting her North Atlantic convoy, HX-84 on 5 November 1940.
The battle for the convoy did not end with the loss of JERVIS BAY. The Canadian Pacific Railways merchant ship SS Beaverford turned and engaged the German goliath single handily, fighting until her ultimate destruction. Sadly the historic legacy of this ship and her gallant sailors has been all but lost to history.
Beaverford was the first of five Beaver class cargo liners in service with the Canadian Pacific Railway’s fleet. The 10,042 ton twin screw, steam turbine merchant ship had her maiden voyage in 1928 following construction in Glasgow. Most of her career was spent sailing from Montreal, Halifax and Saint John to the UK. The Beaver ships were designed to carry 10,000 tons of cargo and twelve passengers at 15 knots. Her pre-war service was not without incident, on 2 July 1938, Beaverford rescued 400 passengers from the Cunard Liner Ascania after she had run aground near Bic Island in the St. Lawrence River.
Although a Canadian Pacific ship, the company chose to register her in the UK, as was the practice at the time. She carried a crew of seventy-seven sailors and ably mastered by 60-year-old Captain Hugh Pettigrew from Coatbridge, Glasgow. He had been sailing with CP since 1910. Most of her crew came from the UK, except for two Canadians.
At the beginning of the Second World War, Beaverford immediately went into war service. She was one of 18 ships that sailed in HX-1, the first convoy of the war from Halifax to the UK on 16 September 1939; just six days after Canada declared war on Germany. In early 1940, Beaverford had a 4 inch gun installed on her stern and a three inch gun on her bow, for defense against surfaced U-boats.
By the time HX-84 left Halifax on 28 October 1940, Beaverford had already crossed the Atlantic sixteen times in convoy. On several of the convoys, Captain Pettigrew was the Vice-Commodore of the convoy, responsible to command the convoy if the Commodores ship was lost. She had seen action too; Convoy HX-55 had lost two merchant ships to German U-Boats during its crossing to the UK in July 1940.
Convoy HX-84 consisted of thirty-eight merchant ships with the Royal Navy’s armed merchant cruiser HMS JERVIS BAY with her commanding officer, Captain Edward Stephen Fogarty Fegen, RN as Senior Officer of the escort. The convoy Commodore was Rear Admiral H. B. Maltby, RN in the British merchant ship Cornish City.
Beaverford took up her position as third ship in the seventh column in the convoy. Her holds were filled with refined aluminum, copper, maize, meat and cheese, a large shipment of ammunition was stored in her forward hold. On deck was an assortment of timber and crated aircraft. Two DEMS gunners had joined her crew.
When the convoy left Halifax, the Royal Canadian Navy Town class destroyers, HMCShips ST. FRANCIS and COLUMBIA provided escort for the first 350 miles into the vast Atlantic Ocean. The first 24 hours of sailing was uneventful and the RCN destroyers returned to Halifax, leaving JERVIS BAY as the sole escort for the mid-Atlantic portion of the crossing, a group of RN destroyers were to join the convoy as it approached the UK later.
At 1711 on 5 November in mid-Atlantic a large warship appeared on the horizon sailing towards the convoy. JERVIS BAY was anticipating the RN escort might arrive early and sent a challenge to the warship in the distance. A garbled reply was returned.
Any doubts of the identity of the warship was resolved when four minutes later it turned broadside to JERVIS BAY and bright flashes erupted from the German pocket battleship ADMIRAL SCHEER’s six 11 inch guns on her bow and stern. Captain Fegen sent up rockets, signalling the convoy to disperse and turned his ship towards SCHEER, racing into battle, dropping smoke floats to obscure the convoy from the German gun layers.
JERVIS BAY returned fire with her limited range guns as several 600 pound shells from SCHEER slammed into her. In a very one sided battle, JERVIS BAY lasted 22 minutes before being sunk, never having closed the distance to score a hit on the German pocket battleship. Capt. Fegen and 197 of his ship’s company were killed.
SCHEER then steamed past the sinking JERVIS BAY, now free to engage the merchant ships of the convoy. With only 22 minutes the convoy was still a smorgasbord of targets for the pocket battleships 11 inch guns with a range of over 19 miles; she could pick and choose her targets unimpeded.
In quick succession she sank the freighter Maiden carrying a mixed cargo and military vehicles, all ninety-one sailors killed, then damaged and set on fire the tanker San Demetrio, followed by sinking the freighters Trewellard, carrying steel and 12 aircraft, killing 16 sailors and Kenbane Head, general cargo, with 23 killed.
Captain Pettigrew had heeded the order to disperse, bringing Beaverford to full speed and turning away from the mighty German warship, as he and his crew watched JERVIS BAY engage ADMIRAL SCHEER. Beaverford’s radio operator sent out a continuous update of the action on the ships wireless.
They watched as the ship closest to them, Kenbane Head, suddenly exploded and sink as the massive German rounds found their mark. Pittigrew gave the order to turn Beaverford about and he raced his ship through the smoke towards the mighty ADMIRAL SHEER.
Beaverford’s radio operator sent one last message on the wireless, “It is our turn now. So long. The captain and crew of SS Beaverford.”
Pettigrew ordered the stokers, manning the boilers to make smoke, laying a dense smoke screen to hide the fleeing ships of the convoy.
At 15 knots the Canadian Pacific ship suddenly broke through the smoke close enough for her 4 and 3 inch guns to register a near miss on SCHEER. The pocket battleship checked her fire and concentrated on the new threat, turning her full might on Beaverford.
With the skill of a master mariner and the courage of his crew, Captain Pittigrew battled ADMIRAL SCHEER, playing a deadly game of “cat and mouse” as she ducked in and out of the smoke screen, harassing the enemy warship.
Beaverford’s superior steam turbines allowed the merchant ship to utilize a burst of speed and with Pettigrew’s skill and exceptional seamanship he would wait for SCHEER’s 11 inch guns to fire and then order an increase in speed and change of course, making his ship a difficult target to hit.
Beaverford’s delaying action allowed the Swedish freighter Stureholm to return and pick up the sixty-five survivors from HMS JERVIS BAY.
The battle between Beaverford and ADMIRAL SCHEER continued into the dead of night. The fleeing ships of HX-84 could see the star shells and illumination rockets lighting the night sky, as SCHEER attempted to find her antagonizer. The merchant ship had many opportunities to turn away and escape in the darkness and the smoke, but she continued on with the fight.
Whenever SCHEER would turn towards the direction of the fleeing merchant ships, Beaverford would break through the smoke and darkness and engage the pocket battleship, then disappear again. Beaverford suffered for her actions, SCHEER fired 83 rounds from her 11 inch guns and 71 rounds from her 5.9 inch guns at the Canadian Pacific ship.
The battle had now lasted over five incredible hours, Beaverford was in trouble, and fires were raging in the ship, making her an easier target for the German gunners. She had by now been struck with twelve 11 inch shells and sixteen 5.9 inch shells. We can only imagine the hardship, destruction and carnage faced by her sailors as they attempted to continue the fight.
With her speed slowing as the steam turbines were damaged, SCHEER fired a torpedo. It found its target in Beaverford’s bow at 2245. With a sudden, fierce explosion, Beaverford disappeared in a mass of flames as the ammunition stowed in her bow detonated.
We do not know how many of Beaverford’s brave crew died during the battle or if anyone survived that final devastating moment as their ship erupted into a massive ball of fire. By the time Beaverford was lost, there were no allied ships in the area to search for survivors. All seventy-seven sailors sacrificed their lives so convoy HX-84 could escape.
ADMIRAL SCHEER immediately went on to hunt the convoy that had slipped away, she found only one more ship from HX-84, the small British freighter Fresno City carrying a cargo of maize, one sailor was killed in the final attack.
History has celebrated the actions of HMS JERVIS BAY. Captain Fegen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in command of the ship. Eleven others were awarded medals or Mentioned-In-Dispatches. The exploits of the ship were recounted around the commonwealth.
Sadly the heroic sacrifice of Beaverford has been relegated to a small side note in the overall record of this great battle. No medals or awards bestowed on her crew. I find it interesting that four ships were sunk by ADMIRAL SCHEER in quick succession in the opening minutes of the battle and once Beaverford came about and engaged the pocket battleship only one other ship in the convoy was lost. Saving Convoy HX-84 had also cost Beaverford and her crew dearly.
There are very few memorials to this great ship, the names of her British sailors are engraved in the Merchant Sailors Memorial in London and her Canadian sailor’s names engraved on the memorial in Halifax. The Downhills Central School in the UK, having adopted the ship and crew raised a plaque on the school walls after her loss.
Perhaps, because Beaverford was a Canadian ship, registered and operated under the British Merchant Marine, neither country has ever taken ownership of the ship and therefor pride in the actions and ultimate sacrifice of her brave crew.
It is never too late to honour the sacrifice made by the seventy-seven British and Canadian sailors in Beaverford, the Canadian Pacific Ship who fought ADMIRAL SCHEER and saved Convoy HX-84.