Lest we forget

During the Second World War, the journey across the Atlantic was treacherous. German warships and submarines patrolled the waters. Ships would travel in groups called convoys to offer mutual support and protection. However, if a ship in the convoy got hit, the other ships would have to continue steaming on, leaving the stricken, sinking ship and her crew behind. For many survivors this was the worst aspect — knowing people were out there, floating in the water, clutching debris for dear life — and knowing there was nothing you could do to save them. Convoys, however, had some protection in the form of armed escort ships.

At the beginning of November 1940, a convoy of 38 merchant ships, carrying essential food and supplies, left Bermuda for England. The convoy was a merging of a convoy from Halifax in Canada plus other ships. It was called Convoy BHX84 and its only escort was an old passenger liner converted into an armed merchant ship, the Jervis Bay. The Jervis Bay had eight, small 6-inch guns fitted to it, four of which could fire simultaneously from one side of the ship. It was crewed by merchant sailors and some naval reserves. The captain of this ship was the only experienced naval officer and his name was Commander Edward Fegen.

On the 5th November, in heavy seas, smoke was spotted on the horizon and the German warship, the Admiral Scheer came into view. It was armed with six 11-inch guns mounted on two triple turrets and it was steaming directly for the convoy. The Jervis Bay was hopelessly outgunned and outmanned. What happened next was most extraordinary, and one of the bravest accounts in naval maritime history. Captain Fegen made a decision. He ordered the convoy to scatter, turned his ship, and headed straight for the Admiral Scheer.

It is worth stopping at this point to think; to consider what Captain Fegen did. He knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the only way of offering protection for those 38 ships was to buy them time. He knew that his ship would be sunk and that he and his entire crew would die. The Jervis Bay’s guns could not reach the Admiral Scheer before being within range of its superior guns. It was a suicide mission. Their only option would be to draw the fire and attention of the German battleship for as long as possible, in the hope that it would give time for the other ships in the convoy to make their escape. A crew of 254 people committed to facing their own mortality for the sake of saving others.

There is a wonderful Bible Reading that can be found in John 15:9-17 and in the middle is this line where Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Perhaps the purest form of love, but certainly the kind that most moves us, is sacrificial love. When we hear of stories of people giving themselves for the sake of others it stirs something within us, we recognise that there is something unworldly about it — something Godly. If the highest form of love is sacrificial love, then it should come as no surprise that this is the very kind of love shown to us by God, through Jesus, who gave himself that we might be made pure and holy.

Goodness shines brightest when there is evil, and there is perhaps no greater evil than that of war where atrocities, pain, and suffering take place at a devastating magnitude. The heroic stories of self-sacrifice during times of war move us to reflect on our own mortality, and at this time of remembrance, it is important we remember every life given in the service of freedom. The peace we now enjoy came at an unspeakable cost, yet the very act of remembrance serves to inspire us, and draw us closer to God, as the examples of self-sacrifice shine with the brightness of heaven.

What happened to the Jervis Bay? Well, it was horrific. In heavy seas, the ship steamed for the Admiral Scheer, continuously firing its 6-inch guns, not with the hope of hitting the battleship, but by way of a distraction, as if to say, “Hit me! Kill me!”  As soon as it was within range, the larger, more powerful German shells ripped through the superstructure and hull of the Jervis Bay. Captain Fegen was initially wounded and many crew killed until the ship was ripped to pieces and eventually sunk, its guns firing up until the last minute. The captain and 190 crew lost their lives. During the night, one of the convoy ships returned to the area and managed to pick up the remaining survivors. Captain Fegen and his crew’s sacrifice meant that 34 of the 38 ships made it safely to England.

Thirty eight ships with food for you,
Thirty eight ships that must get through
Atlantic calm and the dusk of day
And a shell screamed over the Jervis Bay

Thirty eight ships full steam ahead
Off with their precious cargoes sped
But over to where the warship lay
Guns ablaze went the Jervis Bay

This was the end, her Captain knew
Fegan knew it and all her crew
Buying minutes with lives to pay
Brave were men on the Jervis Bay

Pounded, shattered, smashed and lame
Fighting on with decks aflame
She sank with the sun at the death of day
And a gun still spoke from the Jervis Bay

Thirty eight ships with food for you
Thirty four ships came safely through
But the finest ship that docked that day
Was the brave and valiant Jervis Bay