The Jervis Bay

The Jervis Bay, a passenger liner plying between Australia and Britain, was converted to an armed merchant cruiser on the outbreak of war, and was the sole escort of Convoy HX 84 when it was attacked in mid-Atlantic by the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer on 5 November 1940. Sunk with three-quarters of her company, including her captain, Fogarty Fegen, she enabled thirty-two of the thirty-seven ships in her charge to escape under cover of darkness.

    This is the plain imperious story
    Of an old ship that plied her trade
    Obscure, and came to Hell Mouth unafraid,
    And fought, and perished in a burning glory.

The fifth day of November, Fifty North and Forty West,
Was edging to its departure, like an undecided guest,
When under the tented edge of cloud slanted a golden ray
That tippled the wave tops, and lighted on the convoy as it lay.
The convoy lay rolling in the steep Atlantic swell
Like a becalmed Armada. You would scarcely tell
They had a port or purpose or power or moved at all
Over the vast ocean. Ships great and small,
Huge pot-bellied tankers, trim, with yellow funnels aft,
Class-conscious liners stepping by with cynical smutty craft,
All shapes and shades of merchant-ship, with multifarious
freights,
Their holds laden to the hatches, their decks piled high with crates,
And the sun on their yellow upperworks gleamed, and on the grey
Hull and bridge of the escort, HMS Jervis Bay.
The Jervis Bay was a liner in the proper days of peace
When ocean roads were wide and free and needed no police.
Of good but modest station, she had pride but no false airs,
Not built to win Blue Ribands, or inveigle millionaires.
With passengers above decks and cargo down below
And fourteen thousand tons of her, and fourteen knots or so,
From Sydney home to London Port, by Aden, Suez, Malta,
She plied her trade and did a job she had no mind to alter.
Many the dusty afternoon she cleared Port Melbourne pier
With streamers fluttering down the wind like the maypole of the year,
And friends on shore grew smaller as the gap began to grow
And shouted farewells were lost, and the tugs let go,
And the choicer spirits mused a space, and the thirsty went below.
And soon by Queenscliff and the Point her lifting bow was seen,
Her funnels buff, her cabins white, her hull a sober green,
And officers passed importantly, and flappers looked around them,
And troubled mothers sought their young and scolded when they found them.
Here slouched a careless student; here, discreetly prosperous, strolled
The established man of business, who’d found his land of gold,
And there the embittered immigrant, who’d sowed his oats too old.
Many the steely morning she nosed the Channel fog,
Three days without a sight of the sun, off Eddystone by the log,
And the siren moaned its drear despair, and the passengers joked and swore,
And thought of people in England, and strained for the fabulous shore,
And a hundred different hopes were kindled, and dreams thought dead awoke,
And the slowest pulse quickened a beat, and another morning broke.
But nothing of this for the Jervis Bay; she worked with an eye on the clock,
With a job to do and a tide to catch to make her berth and dock,
Until at last the tugs were fast and laid her along the quay,
And that was the run, and her duty done to the public and the Company.
Such was the sober decent life of the S.S. Jervis Bay
To end at last in the breaker’s yard. But War had another way.

In the fields of the air the eagles battle,
Over Europe spreads the devouring pestilence,
In the ocean steppes the packs are out
Keen-fanged, stealthy for the stumbling sheep,
For the leap, for the kill, for the bloodstained fleece
That shall not come to fold in England.
But still through the trudging days and seasons
In the squally night, in the high blue weather,
Their fleeces heavy with a nation’s life,
The flocks of sheep unceasing move –
The slow soft huddling helpless sheep.
The sheepdog has his flock to keep.

In London in Whitehall sat the Lords of the Admiralty
Whose solemn office and trust is the dominion of the sea.
They measured the foe, and the ocean miles, and gaping wants of war,
They counted their ships, and knew they had need of thousands on thousands more.
The dockyards hummed with new construction; and straightway into the slip
After the launching, the keel went down of another fighting ship.
Week after week they took the water, grey and trim and tough,
Corvettes, destroyers, trawlers, sloops – and still it was not enough.
So many a ship of peaceful purpose was called to the tasks of war,
Was manned and armed and made anew for work unguessed before,
Came quietly into the dockyard and, converted, slipped away,
Yacht, trawler, ferry, liner, tramp. So came the Jervis Bay.

To Messrs Jones & Jubb she came, on the beating banks of Clyde,
And there in the dockyard’s whelming din the civil liner died.
Down came the managers and draughtsmen, and the Admiralty Overseer,
With coats and plans and bowler hats and a brisk to-business air,
With “Yes, quite so . . .” and “What about . . .?” and “Here’s what I suggest,
The guns go here – the drawing’s clear – we’ll soon decide the rest.”
Down came the dockyard mateys like locusts on the land,
The welders, fitters, joiners, a shambling happy band,
The plumbers and the shipwrights, the electricians came,
The rivetters, the painters, and the host no man can name.
They came in caps and oily coats with bags of tools and gear,
With drills and lamps and files and clamps and newspapers and beer,
They shuffled up the gangplanks, they lolled along the rails,
They stewed their tea on the galley stoves, they sat on upturned pails,
They joked and ate and smoked and met, and jostled each his neighbour,
Almost as though they did not know the dignity of labour.
They diced and dozed and took their ease, and viewed the job before them,
And found their way to nooks obscure before the charge hand saw them.
And yet, by some organic change, she sprouted here a gun
And there a bridge or rangefinder, till Presto! it was done.
A dockyard matey working was a sight you rarely saw;
Yet when they left the Jervis Bay, she was a ship of war.
Her green and white and buff were blended all to an ocean grey
And to her country’s enemies she’d several things to say.
She’d six-inch guns on the foredeck, and aft, and in between
The promenade- and the boat-decks, where the trippers used to lean.
She’d A.A. guns and other things specifically designed
To cause the crews of Focke-Wulfes unhappiness of mind.
She’d never lead a battle line, or shatter ships of war
Beyond the remote horizon with a triple turret’s roar,
But she and others like her were ships of war, no less
Than Nelson, Rodney, Warspite – White Ensign, H.M.S.
And out in the enormous oceans where the convoys go
Were the armed raiders of the predatory foe.
The Jervis Bay was meant for these, to work them woe.

Their Lordships sent for the Overseer. They listened gravely. Then
“Good,” they said, “we’ve got the ship. Now what about the men?”
The men of the Royal Navy are skilled and brave, but few,
They’ve ships enough to man and fight in the work they have to do.
An Active Service Captain shall command the Jervis Bay,

But for all other ranks and rates we need another way.
So the Jervis Bay was manned with a composite company,
With Officers of the R.N.R., whose business is the sea,
With Gunners and Petty Officers of the Royal Fleet Reserve,
From cosy civilian niches called out again to serve
Under the White Ensign; with seamen of every sort
Who’d sailed with fifty ships and flags, or never left a port.
And on a day she slipped away, commissioned, stored and manned,
And Captain Fogarty Fegen, R.N., was in command,
And a fresh breeze blew and the Ensign flew like a white bird on the wing,
And every man was proud to serve in the Navy of the King.
But the works of war are other than the poet’s song presents:
For an Iliad of noble deeds, ten years of life in tents.
Seldom and little pondered comes the fiery minute’s ordeal,
But the drudging hour and the day’s routine are endless and real.
The Jervis Bay crossed oceans, in sun and storm and breeze,
The sea and the sky were always by, and then the skies and the seas,
But where the stirring challenge, the thunderous battle roar,
Alarms, command and action? In short, where was the war?

But Captain Fogarty Fegen knew what he had to do,
And day and night spared nor himself nor officers nor crew
That ship and officers and men should work and fight as one
To keep the seas His Majesty’s till the long watch was done.
So night and day they scrubbed and cleaned and doubled to Action Stations,
The cynical salts and the mothers’ boys, with zest and imprecations,
They shook together in every weather and grumbled all unheeded,
Till each man knew that ship and crew were ready, were they needed.
But the days and the weeks and the months ran on, with little to see or show
But the endless empty Atlantic, with the convoys to and fro,
And it was the fifth of November, and the sun was getting low.

In the dusk of the evening the wolf is abroad,
He crouches in the valley at the lonely ford
Where the sheep come down. What help have the sheep?
They must all be slaughtered when the wolf shall leap.
The sheep have the sheepdog. But what can he do,
With his slow old legs and his teeth so few?
He could meet the jackal and never fear,
Or the slinking fox, but the wolf is here –
That steely strength, that merciless art.
He has few old teeth, but a lion’s heart.

On either side the Jervis Bay the convoy was dipping,
And the Captain as he paced the bridge paused, one hand gripping
A stanchion, to study them against the amber rim
Of sky – the ships whose safety was entrusted to him.
They spread, a broad battalion, massed in columns nine abreast,
There Trewellard, Cornish City, San Demetrio – north-by-west
Was it smoke or cloud? – Castillian, Rangitiki, and the rest.
Satisfied, he turned to go below; when a sudden gleam
Flickered in the north, and a shout from the lookout, ‘Ship on
the port beam.’
Two seconds, and Captain Fegen’s glasses rake the horizon to norrard,
Two more, and the bells ring Action Stations. Aft, amidships, forrard,
The guns are manned, loaded and trained – the crews were standing by –
And the men below are running to their stations, and every pulse beats high,
And Fegen’s pulse is racing hard, but his eye is steady and clear,
And the smudge on the horizon shimmers into shape, and is
the Admiral Scheer.

The telegraph clangs to ‘Full Ahead’. Her great heart pounding
The Jervis Bay trembles and surges forward, sounding
The alarm on her siren. From her bridge the Aldis chatters
To an answering flicker from where the Commodore scatters
The foaming seas, awaiting his orders for the convoy.
‘Warship, thought hostile, my port beam.’ An envoy
Of wrath, a white column spouts sudden and high
Topping the mast. A detonation shakes the sea and sky.
‘Scatter under smoke’ – Fluttering flags and sirens blowing
Down the columns of the convoy. – But the Jervis Bay is going
Steady onward as they turn. From the smoke floats are flowing
Streams of velvet solid smoke drifting over the ocean swell,
But the enemy gunners know their job. A salvo of shell
Roars in the sea – one, two, three – by the Rangitiki’s bow
As she twists in flight. Already they have found for line. And
now
A salvo spouts alongside – the iron jaws closing
On the vulnerable spine. Now the convoy are nosing
East, south, west, away fanwise are scattering,
But the shells fall like drops in thunder ominously pattering,
And Captain Fegen had that day a second, or maybe two,
As he stood on the bridge of the Jervis Bay, to choose what he would do.
Astern of him the convoy, labouring heavily in flight,
And one long hour till they could win to cover of the night.
To port the Nazi battleship, with six eleven-inch guns
Secure in triple turrets ranged to hurl their angry tons
Of blasting steel across the miles his guns could never span,
With twice his speed, with a Naval crew, trained, expert to a
man,
With armour-plated sides and deck, a warship through and through,
The pride of the German builders’ craft. All this Fegen knew,
Knew his foeman as he came in overmastering might,
Knew well there was no hope at all in such unequal fight,
Knew his own unarmoured sides, his few old six-inch guns,
His fourteen meagre knots, his men, their country’s sturdy sons,
But hasty-trained and still untried in the shock and din of
action.
To starboard were the merchantmen, and he was their protection.

Rarely it comes, and unforeseen,
In the life of a man, a community, a nation,
The moment that knits up struggling diversity
In one, the changing transverse lights
Focused to a pinpoint’s burning intensity
Rarely and unforeseen.
But in the minute is the timeless and absolute
Fulfilment of centuries and civilisations,
When the temporal skin lays bare the eternal bone,
And this mortal puts on immortality.
In that stark flash the unregarding universe
Is a hushed agony. The suns and planets
Stay: the dewdrop dares not tremble:
The dead leaf in the electric air
Waits: and the waterfall still as a photograph
Hangs in that intolerable minute.
And the dead and the living, all are there
With those that shall be, all creation
Pausing poised in the ticking of eternity,
Held at one white point of crisis.

But what does he know, he at the focus,
The man or the nation? Joy and terror knows,
But chiefly a blessed sweet release,
The complex equation at a stroke resolved
To simple terms, a single choice,
Rarely and unforeseen.
So Fegen stood, and Time dissolved,
And Cradock with his ships steamed out
From Coronel, and in the pass
Of Roncesvalles a horn was sounding,
And Oates went stumbling out alone
Into that Antarctic night,
And Socrates the hemlock drank
And paid his debts and laid him down,
And through the fifty-three, Revenge
Ran on as in Thermopylae
The cool-eyed Spartans looked about,
Childe Roland, trembling, took and blew,
The Jervis Bay went hard-a-port.

‘Hard-a-port’ and ‘Hard-a-port, sir.’ The white spray flying,
She heeled and turned and steadied her course for where the foe was lying
‘Salvoes, fire.’ Her guns speak, but they are old and worn,
The shots fall in the water, short. The raider as in scorn
Keeps his fire on the convoy still, now veiled in smoke, now
clear,
But the Jervis Bay is closing fast and her shots are creeping near.
And now he swings on her his turrets, as a thief surprised
might turn.

His anger thunders near, ahead. She trembles from stem to stern.
A flash, and she staggers, as through her eggshell plates
Tear the eleven-inch projectiles, malevolent as the Fates,
And smoke pouring and wreckage flying as the shells fall like
rain,
But she fights, and the convoy are scattering fast, and every
minute is gain.
‘Am closing the enemy,’ Fegen signals. She heaves, and is hit again.

Now the wolf is among the flock,
The sheep are leaping to ledge and rock
Like scattered clouds. To left and right
The wolf is at work and his teeth are white,
His teeth are white and quick is he.
Soon the flock will cease to be
That grazed along so peaceably.

But suddenly the sheepdog comes
With growling as a roll of drums,
Stiff and heavy, eyes a-blear,
But he knows the wolf is near
And within the agèd brain
One thought only may remain,
Headlong as he hurls himself
At the grey throat of the wolf
Where his old teeth sink and stay.

But he, with fury and dismay,
Drops his kill and turns to tear
The creature that affronts him there.
This way and that he rends and claws
But cannot break those ancient jaws
That never while they live relax,
While flanks are torn and sinew cracks
And haunch a mangled tatter lies
And the blood runs in his eyes
And hanging so, he dies.

And it is cold and it is night
Before the finish of the fight
When the panting wolf shakes free
From the bloody corpse, and he
Lies like a sack, defaced and dead,
And the sheep into the hills are fled
And the wolf slinks to his bed.

Now the Jervis Bay is ablaze. The fo’c’sle is blown away.
Splinters rive her decks to ribbons and bury her under spray,
And her burning hull as she plunged on was a bright torch
that day.
She shudders. With the clearing smoke her main bridge is gone,
And Fegen’s arm is a shredded stump, and he fights on.
He staggers aft to the docking bridge. Another blinding blast.
The Ensign down. ‘Another Ensign! Nail it to the mast.’
A seaman climbs and nails it there, where the House Flag used
to fly,
And there it speaks defiance to the shaker of the sky.
He strives to climb to the after bridge, but it is unavailing,
One arm and half the shoulder gone, and strength fast failing.
But there is still the after gun that he can bring to bear.
‘Independent fire!’ he cries, as heaves into the air
The after bridge. He lives, and staggers forrard again, before
The rolling smoke envelops him, and he is seen no more.
Now her engines had ceased to turn, but still the shells came
pouring,
Till with a roar her boilers burst, and the white steam went soaring
Away to the sky. Her back was broken, and she was settling fast,
And the fire blazed, and the smoke-pall brooded like a banyan
vast,
But still the torn Ensign flew from the black stump mast,
And the after gun was firing still and asking no quarter
When the hot barrel hissed into the wild grey water.

So ended the fight of the Scheer and the Jervis Bay
That for twenty vital minutes drew the raider ’s fire that day,
When of the convoy’s thirty-seven, thirty-two went safe away
And home at last to England came, without the Jervis Bay.

But now thick night was over the sea, and a wind from the west blew keen,
And the hopeless waters tossed their heads where the Jervis
Bay had been,
And the raider was lost in the rain and the night, and low clouds hid the seas,
But high above sea and storm and cloud appeared the galaxies,
The Bear, Orion, myriad stars that timeless vigil keep,
A glimmering host the stars came out across the heaving deep,
And they shone bright over the good shepherd of sheep.

Richard’s choice

Poems of War