Sunday, 11 November 2012

History is the judge

Scharnhorst                                                                                                     Gneiesnau

                                                                  HMS Rawalpindi

I am not casting judgement on an event I know only from history. I cannot say what the captain thought at the time of the decision-all I can do is give my views on a subject.

A hero/heroine- A person who against the odds triumphs.
A fool- Somebody who takes on a battle they have little chance of winning and in doing so, endangers others.

The incident:-
Three months into the war- HMS Rawalpindi-an armed cruiser ( converted passenger ship) while on a regular coastal sweep spots what they captain thinks is an enemy ship off the Faroes.
Rawalpindi goes to see what is happening and come across the Schanrhorst and Gneisenau. The captain radios their position to the Admiralty- To this point all well and good but then...

Things changed badly :-
Remember the Rawalpindi is lightly armed and not well protected, she is now against two capital ships of the German navy. The only more powerful ship was Bismark.
Capt. Kennedy was ordered to surrender- I agree that surrendering is not a good choice for any serviceman but you have to weigh the odds against getting back.
Here she was a lightly armed merchantman against two of the most powerful and feared ships of the German navy-out gunned so heavily that even if she got a hit on one, it would be only a pinprick to a rhino.
Any of the minor guns of either ship could sink the Rawalpindi. As well as being out gunned, the Germans had her out ranged too.

The captain then is recorded as saying "We'll fight them both, they will sink us, and that will be that-goodbye."
In a battle that lasted less the an hour- 238 men died on the Rawalpindi, damage to the German ships was nothing.

Although a brave man takes a challenge. This to me is fool-hardy, if Rawalpindi had been captured, the Germans would have gained little information from her crew. The main outcome was 238 men died trying to fight a battle they had lost before it had started and the captain got mentioned in despatches.
After signalling the presence of the ships, their role was over. The captain had nothing else to do but surrender.

The Gneisenau was disabled by cruisers in Kiel docks by December 1942 had her turrets turned into ground armaments after Hitler chose not to rebuild her after the failures of the Barents sea expedition.
It wasn't until December, 1943 that Scharnhorst was finally sank. This was after a battle with the battleship Duke of York and 4 cruisers.

I cannot say what the captain was thinking other than he thought he get disgraced for surrendering to the Germans, but it does raise the question. What did he hope to achieve after radioing their position?


  1. Back in the 1960's I served under a skipper equally as looney as Rawalpindi's was.

    In our case he was dishonorably discharged after a spell in a mental hospital. He had to be forcibly restrained when he smashed a signal light on one of the frigates bridge wings with a chipping hammer. Fortunately for us we were still alongside in our home port at the time.

  2. My late father always said he was on the Empress of India (Rawalpindi's sister ship) at the time and saw it happen.
    Back in those days, there was no easy to check the facts. I have since had cause to doubt it-but with his personal background, I can forgive him.

    Recently, there was a story in Vintage Script about a German plane crashing in the Eston hills not far from where I grew up. That has been part of our history for years, my late Uncle John dragged a part of the tail back home LOL