Highland Archives


By Stephen Cashmore and David Bews

It was the season of long nights and short, gloomy days blighted with cold rain and bone-freezing winds. A new decade was rapping on the door with an icy fist. The old one was ending in a flurry of military activity seemingly designed to convert Caithness into a vast armed camp, studded with pill boxes, anti-tank traps, airstrips, radio stations and off-limits areas accessible 'by pass only'. Twenty miles or so across the grey Pentland Firth the bodies of 786 sailors, Caithnessians among them, lay entombed inside the sunken grave that was once HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed by an unseen enemy submarine on the night of 14th October. A month earlier another of these underwater wolves had sent the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous to the sea bed together with 515 human beings, and Germany had embarked on a 'gloves off' campaign of destruction against all merchant shipping sailing to or from Britain. The sea-lanes were infested with U-boats; German warships prowled the wide oceans searching for unarmed merchantmen to blow out of the water. Where would it all end, folk asked themselves?

One December morning, at their John's Haven home, near Montrose, Mr and Mrs McBay received an official telegram. It was brief and to the point - their son, Robert, a gunner serving with His Majesty's Royal Naval Reserve, had been posted missing, presumed killed in action. The McBays were not alone in their grief. Similar telegrams had been delivered at 15 Ackergill Crescent, Wick, where lived Margaret McLeod and her family; at 3 Murryfield, Castletown, the home of James and Christina Sutherland; and over on Stroma where Peter and Margaret Sinclair lived at The Cairn. Husband, sons - lost at sea, victims of a cruel war that was scarcely three months old.

This story begins in 1925 at the great Harland & Wolf shipbuilding yard in Belfast, with the launch of a 16,000 ton passenger ship christened Rawalpindi, one of a family of four built for the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company. Under the famous P&O flag the Rawalpindi settled down to a mundane career on the company's Britain to India route, via the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. And had it not been for the advent of National Socialism in Germany, the Rawalpindi would no doubt have ploughed the same sea furrows until, worn beyond economic maintenance, she would have been superseded by a newer model, decommissioned and scrapped, remembered only as a minor footnote in the annals of maritime history. But on August 24th 1939, the Admiralty requisitioned Rawalpindi and began fitting her with eight 6-inch guns of World War 1 vintage. A week later, as the Wehmacht's panzers beat a swift and violent path into Poland, Britain declared war on Germany.

Born in a landlocked country with no maritime tradition, Adolf Hitler had little natural affinity with matters naval. In addition, the new Chancellor's prejudices had been soured by events of October 1918, when a mutiny by the German High Seas Fleet had sparked disorders, riots and public disorder throughout the Reich, leading to the formation of a Socialist government and the deposition of the Kaiser. In the eyes of an infantryman who had fought loyally for his country, such disobedience was nothing less than treason. The submarine service however, had remained steadfast, scorning to join their rebellious surface ship cousins, choosing instead to fight on to the bitter end. This historical prejudice explains to some degree the imbalance in Hitler's navy, the Kriegsmarine, between submarines and surface ships. In September 1939, the Kriegsmarine had 43 warships of destroyer size and above, against the Royal Navy's 310. However, the Germans 98 U-boats were thirty more than the number of British submarines in service at that date. From this it becomes plain that Germany could pursue only one type of naval strategy: the destruction of Britain's sea-born commerce, a policy intended to bring the island to its economic knees. Grand battles between opposing fleets, like that fought at Jutland in 1916, were to be avoided at all costs. After all, to a country like Britain, dependent as it was on maritime supply, the loss of a shipping convoy was infinitely more damaging than the sinking of a battleship or two.

When war broke the Kriegsmarine had at least a score of U-boats at sea, together with the pocket battleships Deutschland and Graf Spee. The presence of these two modern warships with their great speed and six 11-inch guns, was enough to paralyse merchant shipping throughout the Atlantic. The Royal Navy knew its mission was to seek out these raiders and destroy them. The Graf Spee's brief career was to terminate in the epic struggle at the mouth of the River Plate on December 17th 1939, an action which we hope will feature in a future article, but in the meantime the Deutschland pursued its destructive ways in the North Atlantic until mid-November, when it developed engine trouble. Without support, it had no choice but to return to home for repairs. To cover the Deutschland's withdrawal the German naval command sent out the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, then the most powerful warships possessed by the Kreigsmarine.

Launched in 1936 and completed by the end of 1938, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau represented a new phase in battle-cruiser development. Displacing 32,000 tons, their maximum speed of 31 knots was remarkable for heavily armoured vessels. But such swiftness came with a price: armament was restricted to nine 11-inch guns, powerful enough ordnance, certainly; but clearly inadequate in any long range shooting duel with British capital ships. Avoiding such formidable opponents was the best strategy and, if met, using their superior speed to outdistance the enemy was the order given to Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. With these instructions in mind, the two great warships set sail from Kiel to rendezvous with the ailing Deutschland. By November 22nd, having evaded the British patrols east of Scotland, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were headed out into the wild winter waters of the North Sea, steering a course that would take them between Iceland and the Faeroes.

On the morning of November 23rd, His Majesty's Armed Merchant Cruiser Rawalpindi was patrolling the endless grey ocean wastes to the north of Faeroe. Among her 276 crew, most of who were members of the Royal Naval Reserve, were four men from Caithness. Seaman P/X6816C Hugh McLeod, RNR, had been a carter in civilian life. Born in 1907, the son of Hugh and Andrewina McLeod of Helmsdale, young Hugh had a wife and family back home in Wick. One of Hugh McLeod's fellow seamen was D/SS9484 David Simpson Sinclair, a 39-year-old Stroma man who had served in the Royal Navy during World War 1. David's parents, Peter and Margaret, stayed at a place called The Cairn, on Stroma, an island with a long and honourable seafaring tradition. Much younger than his Far North companions was Radio Officer 193856, Douglas Swanson Sutherland, who stayed with his parents James William and Christina at Murryfield, Castletown. Young Douglas was one of the Auxiliary Personnel conscripted from the Merchant Navy. Finally, there was gunner Robert McBay from Angus, whose last shore address was Castletown. Although they did not know it on that cold, November morning, three of these Far North sailors were destined never to see another sunrise.

The day's routine had been enlivened by the commandeering of a Swedish freighter that had crossed the Rawalpindi's path earlier that morning. Leaving a boarding party in charge of the Swedish vessel, the Armed Merchant Cruiser resumed her patrol. Intelligence had been received that the German pocket battleship Deutschland was at large somewhere in the North Atlantic, and indeed the German warship's seizure of the neutral American merchantman City of Flint had caused a temporary diplomatic crisis in relations between Germany and the US. Be as this may, Rawalpindi's orders were to avoid combat with the Deutschland should she happen to come across her - such a course of action would clearly be suicidal. Instead, she was to radio the German ship's position back to Home Fleet HQ so that a battle squadron could be despatched to intercept her.

At 1530 hrs, with the winter sun about to sink below the horizon, Rawalpindi was steering an eastward course mid-way between Iceland and the Faeroes. It was a cold, calm afternoon. To port a fog bank was beginning to form; now and then the ship passed a solitary iceberg, white and eerie in the northern twilight. On the bridge Rawalpindi's Captain, Edward Coverley Kennedy, father of future media figure Ludovic Kennedy, stood watching the world sail past. A veteran Royal Navy officer, recently recalled to duty, 60-year-old Captain Kennedy's vast experience of sea life made him an ideal candidate for a command like Rawalpindi. Three months before, when he was languishing on the Reserve list, Kennedy could have had no inkling of what the future had in store for him and his charge. His awakening began with a message from the crow's nest that a ship had been sighted on the starboard horizon.

Peering through the gathering gloom, Captain Kennedy thought he recognised the silhouette of an enemy battle-cruiser in his binocular lenses. On the other hand, could it be the Deutschland after all? Whatever, this was no time for games of I-spy. The Captain ordered "Action Stations!" followed swiftly by a command to change course to port. The duty Radio Operator was told to send an enemy sighting report without delay. Next moment, her alarm bells going like the hammers of Hell, Rawalpindi steered full speed towards the fog bank's enveloping shelter. Smoke floats were lit and flung into the water. They failed to ignite. In an instant, Captain Kennedy ordered a course change to starboard where a large iceberg about 4 miles away, held out a better promise of protection. But it was too late. The German warship was fast approaching, cutting off Rawalpindi's escape route. From her bridge the enemy flashed a signal 'Heave to!' backed up with a warning shell that sent up a fountain of spray some two hundred yards in front of Rawalpindi's bows. The Captain scorned these hostile gestures. A man cast in the mould of Nelson and Richard Grenville, Edward Kennedy had an inflexible sense of duty.

As the German warship drew closer, Kennedy took another look at her. This time he felt certain she was indeed the Deutschland. Accordingly, he ordered an amended message be sent at once to the Home Fleet HQ. Again the German bridge flashed 'Heave to!' and again the message was ignored, not least because at that very moment a second ship had been sighted to starboard. At first Captain Kennedy thought this must be a fellow member of the Northern Patrol, a British heavy cruiser, perhaps. But he was very much mistaken: the Rawalpindi, a hastily converted passenger liner with outdated guns and eggshell armour was about to take on the mightiest warships in the Kriegsmarine.

Caught between two superior enemies Kennedy realised that his last hour was at hand. While the Rawalpindi's Signal Officer was correctly identifying the newcomer as a German battle-cruiser, the Chief Engineer appeared on the bridge to hear the Captain declare; "We'll fight them both, they'll sink us - and that will be that. Goodbye" He shook the Chief's hand, turned on his heel and cleared the decks for action.

From his vantage point on the Scharnhorst's foretop, Captain Hoffmann ordered the signal 'Abandon your ship!' to be sent. To his astonishment, the Rawalpindi failed to respond to this message. Was the captain mad? Surely no sane person would pit eight obsolete 6-inch guns against the combined weight of eighteen modern 11-inch monsters, firing at a point-blank range of only 4 miles? Filled with a mixture of bewilderment and silent admiration, Hoffmann commanded the 'Abandon ship!' signal be repeated. It was - twice, and twice it went unheeded. With a heavy heart, Hoffmann prepared to give the signal for the Scharnhorst to open fire. He was a moment too late: a salvo of 6-inch shells from Rawalpindi's four port guns burst harmlessly against the second German battle-cruiser, Gneisenau, commanded by Admiral Marshall and twin sister of the Scharnhorst. At the same moment a similar salvo was on its way to Hoffmann's ship. It was 1545. Barely a quarter of an hour had gone by since Rawalpindi's first sight of the hostile vessels. Another 15 minutes and it would all be over.

The first salvo from Scharnhorst slammed into the Boat Deck, directly under the Rawalpindi's bridge, killing almost everyone on it and demolishing the radio room. Was Radio Officer Douglas Sutherland on duty there? We do not know; but from now on Rawalpindi was unable to transmit any further radio messages. She didn't have to. At his base on the Clyde, the Home Fleet's Commander-in-Chief was actioning Rawalpindi's first signal. A veritable armada of British warships had been ordered to intercept the German battle-cruisers, among them HMS Newcastle, HMS Dehli; and the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk, were hurrying full steam ahead to the scene of action. Would they arrive too late? It seemed so. A cluster of 11-inch shells from Gneisenau struck Rawalpindi's main gun control station, killing everyone there and immobilising one of her starboard guns. Caught in a murderous crossfire, Rawalpindi had no hope of survival.

By some miracle, Captain Kennedy had lived through the direct hit on Rawalpindi's bridge. Undaunted he sent for Chief Petty Officer Humphries. As he did so a shell burst in the ship's engine room, knocking out the dynamos that supplied vital electric power to the shell hoists in the magazines. Kennedy ordered Humphries to go round all seven surviving gun turrets and tell their commanders to continue firing independently now that the central control system was out of action. Chief PO Humphries was also to enlist all spare hands in the thankless task of manhandling 6-inch shells from magazine to gun turrets. And still the storm of German shells continued to burst against the gallant little ship.

It was hopeless. Ablaze from stem to stern, her guns being picked off one by one, Rawalpindi was doomed. In extremities such as these strange things happen. Men talk with angels, see Jesus in the sky, or imagine themselves back safe within their mother's arms. On Rawalpindi a more prosaic vision occurred. A badly wounded loader crawling on his hands and knees, a 6-inch projectile clasped to his weary body, recalled an episode from his training time at shore-based HMS Ganges when, for the crime of 'producing unsuitable noises during a gunnery class,' he was sentenced to carry similar shells up and down Laundry Hill. Meanwhile, beside another 6-inch gun, its firing mechanism jammed solid, a man gone out of his mind with shock and terror, was roaring at his companions to help him get it freed oblivious to the fact that the he was shouting at dead men. Below decks, in the ship's magazine the lights had gone out. A sailor groped his way above to find the Rawalpindi on fire. At once he shouted to his companions to flood the magazine and join him immediately on the upper deck. Arriving there they found things were perilous indeed. Cordite sticks and live shells were rolling about, surrounded by flames. The newcomers lost no time in throwing these dangerous munitions overboard.

In desperation, Captain Kennedy went aft with two ratings to try and lay a covering smoke-screen, while up on deck Chief Petty Officer Humphries was struggling to get wounded men into lifeboats. Suddenly, out of the smoke and flames a rating appeared. "The Captain's been killed, Chief," the smoke-blackened rating announced. By now fires were blazing everywhere, the ship's water supply had failed and its steering gear was out of action. There was nothing for it but to abandon ship. A lifeboat filled with some forty wounded men was prepared for lowering into the sea, but it turned turtle and hit the water upside down, leaving the men to flounder helplessly in the freezing waves. Others were more successful, and for a moment it seemed as though a good number of the Rawalpindi's crew would escape their ship's doom. It was not to be. At 1600 hours a tremendous explosion broke the gallant merchant cruiser in two. A shell from one of Scharnhorst's 11-inch guns had found Rawalpindi's forward magazine. Her spine broken in half, the stricken vessel began to sink, one of its guns still firing crazily into the air. Tragically for those trying to get clear of the sinking ship, the Scharnhorst having closed in for the kill, swung hard about, swamping the Rawalpindi's lifeboats. Then, in keeping with naval chivalry, the German battle-cruiser reduced speed and returned to rescue the survivors struggling in the freezing sea.

Darkness was fast falling on this melancholy drama when the last survivors were plucked from a watery grave. They totalled 38. Their companions, all 238 of them, including the three Caithness boys, Hugh McLeod, Douglas Sutherland and David Sinclair, had gone down with the Rawalpindi. The whole action was over and done in barely quarter of an hour.

By now the first of the British warships had arrived on the scene. HMS Newcastle and HMS Delhi, wary of drifting into range of the superior firepower of the German ships, began shadowing the battle-cruisers as they headed west, all the while sending back messages to the Home Fleet. Alerted by this intelligence a posse of cruisers and destroyers, soon to be joined by the battleship Warspite and the great battle-cruisers Hood and Repulse began converging on the forward track of the fugitive Germans. It looked as though the game was up for Scharnhorst and her sister ship, that Rawalpindi's sacrifice might not be in vain after all. But the northern climate owes no favours to anyone, no matter how mighty they may consider themselves to be. A squall arose; the German ships escaped. Had the British possessed radar at this early stage of the War, it is doubtful whether Scharnhorst and Gneisenau would have made it back to port. As it was, they lived on, a constant threat to British merchant shipping in the North Atlantic.

By one of those quirks, so common in wartime when all normality is suspended, a happy error had occurred: Robert McBay was not dead after all. He was among those rescued by the German ships and was being held in a Prisoner of War camp. It was one ray of light in a dreary winter's afternoon.

But Caithness's association with the Scharnhorst did not end with Rawalpindi. In June 1940, during the German invasion of Norway, the German battle-cruiser surprised and sank the old British aircraft carrier HMS Glorious together with her companions, the destroyers Ardent and Acasta, one of whose torpedoes managed to damage the Scharnhorst. Among those killed on the Acasta was Engine Room Articifer John Fleming, a descendent of John Reid of Wick, whose parents still lived in Papigoe. Later that month, on Midsummer's Day 1940, Beaufort fighter aircraft of 42 Squadron took off from Wick for Norway, where they attacked the Scharnhorst, albeit without success. Ambushed by a pack of Me 109's the Wick Beauforts lost three of their number.

In contrast to her sister ship Gneisenau, which spent most of the war under repair from damage of various sorts, Scharnhorst was regarded as a 'lucky ship' by the Germans. She took a leading role in the famous 'Channel Dash' of February 1942, when, along with Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Pinz Eugen, she sailed unhindered through the English Channel in broad daylight, en route from Brest in France to Norway. Again, in the previous year, damage had prevented Scharnhorst from sailing with the Bismark and sharing that great ship's fate. But all luck, good or bad, has a period. On Boxing Day 1943, in the icy seas off the North Cape of Norway, the Scharnhorst met her doom. As she prepared to intercept the Arctic convoy JW55B on her way from Loch Ewe to Russia, Scharnhorst encountered a superior British force. Pulverised by the 15-inch guns of the battleship Duke of York, her steering shattered, her superstructure on fire from end to end, the proud Scharnhorst finally succumbed to a 21-inch torpedo fired by the cruiser HMS Belfast. The German battle-cruiser's magazines blew up and she rolled over and sank, taking with her 1,968 men. A mere 36 survived. At last the Rawalpindi had been avenged.

We are interested in anyone who can provide further Caithness connections with either the Rawalpindi or the Arctic convoys, especially those involved in actions with U-boats or German warships. Any information would be gratefully received by David Bews on Thurso 895342.


Highland Archives Index


Steven Cashmore 1999

David Bews 1999

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