Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Beaver Attack

In October 1927 a new fast merchant ship was launched from Glasgow. The ship was the first of the Beaver class, and it will come as no surprise that it was ordered by a Canadian company. This ship was called the SS Beaverford. She was soon followed down the slipway by the Beaverdale, Beaverburn, Beaverhill and Beaverbrae. Powered by six Parsons steam turbines which were geared into twin screws, she could manage an impressive (for a merchant) 15.5 knots. The ship was operated by Canadian Pacific.
The mighty warship SS Beaverford
Into this ship we now add the Captain, Master Hugh Pettigrew, son of a Glaswegian family. He had joined Canadian Pacific in 1910 and gone on to serve on their ships at Gallipoli. Late in 1918 he had a ship torpedoed out from under him by a U-Boat. Now approaching his 60's he was commanding the SS Beaverford. Several times during the war he had made successfully journeys between Canada and the UK. For war service the Beaverford was armed with the heady firepower of a single 3" gun on the bow and a single 4" gun on the stern.
The Admiral Scheer
On the 28th of October the Beaverford was part of convoy HX-84 along with another 37 ships. Their destination was Liverpool and the convoy had a pair of destroyers escorting them. After the first day or so these were scheduled to return to port. Royal Navy ships would link up with the convoy around, or just past, the halfway point and escort them into Liverpool. As if by magic, at 1711 on the 5th of November the Royal Navy escort was seen on the horizon. The convoy's only protection up until that point was the HMS Jervis Bay, a cargo ship that had seven 6" guns fitted to it to give it a bit of firepower. Upon seeing the escort arrive the HMS Jervis Bay moved towards the suspected Royal Navy escort transmitting a challenge. As you will most likely guess already, the Royal Navy escort was in fact a German and in this particular case was the Deutschland class Admiral Scheer. She turned broadside on and opened fire on the HMS Jervis Bay.
HMS Jervis Bay
The Jervis Bay charged the Scheer, firing with everything she had. She also fired signal rockets ordering the convoy to scatter. In addition, she began to dump smoke floats, as did several of the fleeing merchants. A merchant ship with light guns against a fully operational warship was only going to end one way. In twenty-two minutes, despite gallant attempts to delay the Scheer longer, the HMS Jervis Bay was ablaze from stern to bow and was sinking. Some reports state that the Jervis Bay never scored a hit, others say that the Scheer's radar was knocked out by one of the few hits HMS Jervis Bay achieved. Either way, with the convoy's only protection dealt with the Scheer began to savage the convoy, sinking three ships in quick order, and setting the tanker San Demetrio on fire. This ship was loaded with 11,200 tons of aviation fuel, and the fires were soon raging out of control, so the captain had no choice but to abandon her to her fate.

The Scheer now turned its attention onto the SS Beaverford. Pettigrew watched and waited for the gun flashes from the Scheer's front guns. When they came, he immediately called for emergency power and threw the ship into a turn as tight as he could manage. The shells whistled past and missed. During this turn the Beaverford had laid smoke. This added to the smoke on the water, with the smoke floats dumped earlier still spewing out clouds and the remains of the other sunk and burning ships adding to the confusion. Finally, night was falling. The Beaverford had now successfully broken contact with the Scheer in the smoke banks. She was also the fastest ship in the convoy and could have disengaged, and slipped away, as the Scheer obliterated the rest of the convoy.

Pettigrew turned the other way, and steamed towards the Scheer. Firing his guns whenever they got an angle, he had no hope of survival as his weapons stood even less chance than the Jervis Bay of hurting the Scheer. All he had on his side was the smoke, darkness and a surprising turn of speed for a merchant ship. The Scheer had classified the Beaverford as Target number 9. Every time they thought they had destroyed it, losing contact in the murk, they would turn to pursue the rest of the convoy, only to find Target 9 emerging from the smoke with its tiny gun blazing. The Scheer would then turn its attention back onto the Beaverford, firing as soon as they could. As the German's fire began to get heavier Pettigrew would use his speed to disappear again. 

The German's fire was not completely ineffective, hits had set fires on board, and soon the Beaverford was burning. It is likely that these hits had caused heavy casualties as well. For five hours the unequal struggle continued. Eventually the damage she had absorbed was just too much for the Beaverford. The Scheer had fired 83 rounds at the Beaverford, hitting with sixteen from its 5.9" guns and three from its 11" guns. By now the Beaverford was crippled and slowing. At 2245 the Scheer sailed past the Beaverford, who was burning fully. The Scheer hit the Beaverford with a single torpedo in the forward hold. This hold was filled with ammunition and blew the Beaverford in two. None of the crew survived. Due to the delay the Scheer was only able to catch one more merchant and sink it, the vast majority of the convoy made it to safety.

For his role the commander of the HMS Jervis Bay received a Victoria Cross. The crew of the Beaverford received no official recognition.

In the grey light of the following morning, one of the lifeboats launched from the San Demetrio saw a burning ship nearby. It was the tanker, still ablaze, and afloat a day later. The sixteen men remained in the lifeboat, due to the dangers of the fire and the bad weather. The next day they found themselves nearby the still burning San Demetrio again, as a fluke of tide and currents pushed them together once again.
The still floating San Demetrio
The crew had a choice to make, re-board the burning tanker, or stay in the lifeboats in the middle of the Atlantic. In the end they re-boarded. They had just sixteen men to fight the fire, but first they had to restart all the engines and generators. Once this was achieved, they tackled the blaze eventually managing to extinguish it. However, nothing remained of the radio, or navigation equipment. Using dead reckoning, and the sun, they managed to sail to the UK. When in home waters they refused the offer of a tug to tow them the final distance. This it turned out was a wise choice. The sixteen men were thus able to claim they had no outside help and were due the cost of salvage of the vessel and her cargo. The Salvage court awarded £14,700 to be split between the crew, with nine of the crew receiving £1,000 or more each. The Chief Engineer and second officer who had led the re-boarding both received £2,000 each.