Able Seaman Wilson Avery of Long Beach was just 22 years old when his ship Jervis Bay was sunk Nov. 5, 1940, by the German battleship Admiral Scheer in the mid-Atlantic.
It was 55 years ago but Emma Drodge can still vividly remember the day she learned her older brother, Wilson, wouldn’t be coming home.
She was sitting at her desk in the one-room school house in Long Beach. The teacher was in the middle of a lesson when there was a knock at the door.
It was the local minister. They spoke briefly, quietly, and then the teacher came in to tell the class they were dismissed for the day.
Eleven-year-old Emma, like the rest of the class, was thrilled to have the rest of the day off. She headed for home, thinking of all the things she might like to do with a bit of free time on this late October day.
The teacher and the minister were walking, slowly, behind her, talking, and for a fleeting moment she wondered about their destination.
Emma walked up the lane to her family’s home. Her father, Alfred John Avery, was applying a fresh coat of paint to the wooden clapboard. The fishing season had ended and he was catching up on some household chores.
“I remember looking behind and the teacher and minister were coming up the lane behind me. I thought it a bit strange.”
Her mother, Sarah Jane, was cooking supper.
“I remember her saying, ‘My, there’s the minister coming’.”
Then, quickly, the realization, ‘He’s coming with bad news’.
The shock and grief of loss blurred the events of the rest of that day, and the ones that followed.
Emma recalls how the Union Jack flew at half-mast in Long Beach for a few days. She vaguely recalls a memorial service for her sentimental, older brother who, just a few months ago, has sent her a birthday card from England with a photo of his new girlfriend and a lapel pin with “forget me not” engraved on its front.
Her thoughts were filled with the memories of the 22 year old’s last visit home, just a few weeks before, on leave. It was a wonderful few days with his family, and lots of attention for his little sister who was in awe of her brother in his smart Navy uniform.
Wilson had left the woods of Corner Brook to join the Royal Navy in December, 1939.
His family never knew which ships he was assigned to during his year with the Navy but, tragically, they know his last.
After he left Long Beach during his leave in the fall of 1940, Wilson left for Halifax, where he was posted to the Jervis Bay.
The former Australian passenger ship had been refitted for war duty.
Manned by 255 sailors, mostly Naval Reservists from England, Canada and Newfoundland, and under the command of Irishman Fogarty Fegen, the Jervis Bay sailed out of Halifax Harbour on Oct. 28, 1940, providing escort for 37 merchant vessels heading to England.
In his book Under the White Ensign author Herb Wells notes the ship was ill equipped for the job she was about to do.
“Her armament consisted of seven ancient, six-inch guns — four forward and three aft. Some were brought into action between 1895 and 1899, their longest range was 12,000 yards and their hits from their worn barrels was more a matter of chance than accuracy.”
Five days from port, midway across the Atlantic, convoy HX84 encountered the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer.
At 10,000 tonnes, the Admiral Scheer was the pride of the German Navy. With a speed of 28 knots — 11 more than the Jervis Bay — six 11-inch guns, eight 5.9-inch guns and rapid-fire anti-aircraft guns, the German ship was specifically built for battle.
The encounter between the German ship and the merchant convoy was no accidental meeting. The Scheer’s commander, Thedor Krancke, knew the convoy had left Halifax on Oct. 28. He set a course for the mid-Atlantic, with a goal to demolish, or disable, as much of the convoy as he could, preventing their supplies from reaching Britain.
The Scheer sailed from the Baltic on Oct. 22 and slipped past the British blockade of the Denmark Strait. Commander Krancke sailed past several lone British tankers and freighters on his way to meet convoy HX84, not wanting to alert the Allied Forces to his ship’s location by blowing up a lone ship. He was after the herd.
It was late afternoon on Nov. 5, 1940, when the Jervis Bay sighted the Scheer.
Captain Fegen’s immediate thought was to save the convoy. He ordered “full speed ahead” towards the German battleship, putting the Jervis Bay between the convoy and the Scheer.
As the Jervis Bay sped toward her destiny, her crew dropped smoke canisters over the side, setting up a white-grey cloud of smoke to hide the merchant ships, giving them time to scatter and elude the German battleship.
It was a deliberate sacrifice to save the merchant fleet.
The Jervis Bay’s final battle was a David and Goliath match-up and this time Goliath won out. The old Australian passenger ship was no match for the German vessel.
After 22 minutes and 22 seconds of steady fire from the Scheer the merchant cruiser was dead in the water, fires burning throughout her decks.
Still, it took two hours for the Jervis Bay to sink. Until she did, the German raider continued to maintain fire on her. It gave the rest of the convoy precious more time to slip away.
Out of the 225 men on the Jervis Bay, remarkably 65 survived. They owe their lives to the captain of the Sturehold, one of the many ships in the convoy. The captain of that ship returned to the location after the firestorm died down, and after the Scheer had departed, to rescue what was left of the crew and bring them back to Halifax.
After the Jervis Bay went to the bottom, the German ship turned its attention to the convoy. It chased down and sank five of the ships. The others managed to make it safely to port, but two of them were badly wounded.
In the aftermath, there were questions about Captain Fegen’s decision to charge into a battle in which his ship was doomed to fail. Yet most historians agree that in sacrificing his own ship and crew, acting as the decoy while the others escaped, Fegen prevented a tremendous blow to the Allies in the North Atlantic.
Captain Fegen was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross for “valour in challenging hopeless odds and giving his life to save the many ships it was his duty to protect.”
Alfred John and Sarah Jane Avery learned of the death of their son just a few days after the battle.
For his sister, Emma, the memories are still painful; the loss still deeply felt.
She went on to become a teacher.
And one of her duties was to teach poetry. One of the poems included in the English course during her early teaching career was a poem about the loss of the Jervis Bay.
“I couldn’t teach that poem. I always had to get another teacher to come in and do that class for me because I know I would never be able to read it without breaking down,” she says, in a voice that still chokes with tears as she remembers the brother she lost on that ill-fated ship.
Soon after the sinking of the Jervis Bay Sarah Jane Avery received the Silver Cross, the award given to mothers who lost sons in battle.
The small, silver medallion is a simple reminder of a 22-minute battle that claimed the life of the Jervis Bay and ended the life of a small-town boy who felt it was his duty to serve his country when the world went to war.
This story was originally published in The Packet, November, 2005.