Nfld. & Labrador

The fearless, near-forgotten story of HMS Jervis Bay

The 1940 shelling of a Royal Navy ship escorting an Atlantic convoy brought the war home to Newfoundland, writes Christine Davies.

'Blood, gallantry and sacrifice' recalled in heroic WWII incident

HMS Jervis Bay

9 years ago
Christine Davies introduces the story of the HMS Jervis Bay, an early casualty in the Battle of the Atlantic. 5:51

The attack came more than a thousand kilometres away in the mid-North Atlantic. But the enemy action — one of the earliest in the six-year Battle of the Atlantic — brutally brought the Second World War home to Newfoundland. 

Four of her sons made the supreme sacrifice. Several survived to come home.

HMS Jervis Bay had been a former Australian passenger liner. When war broke out, the Royal Navy converted the 14,000-ton ship to an armed merchant cruiser, fitted with seven antiquated six-inch guns.

On Nov. 5, 1940, the Jervis Bay was the sole escort for Convoy HX84. The convoy comprised 37 merchant freighters bound from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Britain.

Late that afternoon, the 15,000-ton German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer located the convoy, and attacked.

The captain of the Jervis Bay, Edward S.F. Fegen, knew his ship was badly outgunned and no match for the speed and the firepower of the Admiral Scheer. He ordered the convoy to scatter, and dropped smoke canisters, which created a smokescreen to hide the freighters. 

Then, he set course toward the German raider to draw its fire. By doing so, he put the Jervis Bay directly between the convoy and the enemy.

'It was hell cut loose'

The first of the 11-inch shells from the Admiral Scheer knocked out the forward gun and tore into the bridge, wounding Fegen (one of his arms was shattered). Nonetheless, he stayed in command.

Lewis Tilley: 'I don't think he missed us with anything.' (Courtesy of Eva Murphy )

More shells from the German battleship slammed into the Jervis Bay, ripping her apart and setting her ablaze. Severely disabled, the Jervis Bay continued to fire back, her shells falling short of the target.

"I don't think he missed us with anything," survivor Lewis Tilley told CBC Radio in 1959. "It was hell cut loose...I imagine it was then that Capt. Fegen was hit. Actually, we couldn't see much of it by then because I'd been hit myself." [Click here to hear Lewis Tilley's account.]

The order was given to abandon ship.

The attack lasted about 24 minutes. It was enough time, though, to give the merchant ships a chance to escape. The Admiral Scheer pursued, sinking five freighters. Thirty-two ships in the convoy eventually made it safely back to port.

About three hours after the battle had begun, the Jervis Bay slipped beneath the waves. Some 190 men lost their lives, including the captain. Fegen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross "for valour in challenging hopeless odds and giving his life to save the many ships it was his duty to protect."  [Click here to see the citation.]

The dead were from Britain, Canada and four seamen from Newfoundland: Cecil Stansbury, James Stamp, and Gordon Sheppard of St. John's, and Wilson Avery of Long Beach, Trinity Bay.

Sixty-five men survived the attack.

'Nothing else to do but jump'

One of the merchant ships in the convoy — the Swedish freighter Stureholm — risked returning to the scene several hours later to pick up any survivors. 

This image depicts survivors of HMS Jervis Bay aboard the Stureholm. (HMS Jervis Bay Association)

Tilley, a St. John's resident, was 21 years old at the time. He had joined the Royal Navy a month after the declaration of war, and as an ordinary seaman had already seen action in the evacuation of British forces at the Battle of Dunkirk. Tilley was a gunner on the Jervis Bay. 

"When we were told to abandon ship, the raft was some 100, probably more, 150, 200 feet away, so there was nothing else to do but jump," Tilley said in 1959.  

"I did, and I was more than lucky because I think there was three or four that jumped with me that I didn't see afterwards."

He was hit in the hip by shrapnel. He managed to swim to a life raft where he, along with number of others, drifted for more than 10 hours.

Ordinary Seamen Arthur W. Taylor of St. John's and George M. Squires of Topsail also survived the attack.

The Stureholm steamed back to Halifax where the wounded were admitted to hospital. [Click here to hear a CBC Radio special from Nov. 13, 1940.]

This Movietone newsreel captures some of the emotion of the arrival in Halifax.

Within a week, Tilley and Squires were well enough to travel to Newfoundland on leave. Taylor remained in Halifax for several more weeks, recuperating from his injuries.

'Gallant sons of the sea'

News of the fate of the Jervis Bay, her captain, and her crew had begun to trickle in within days of the attack. 

In St. John's, plans were quickly put in place to welcome home the local heroes on Nov.  21, 1940. [Click here to read Newfoundland Quarterly coverage of the event, starting on page 13 of that edition.] 

Survivors Lewis Tilley, left, and George Squires wave to spectators as they headed to Government House. (Courtesy Eva Murphy)

Stores on Water and Duckworth Streets closed. Schoolchildren were given a half-day holiday. Bunting draped buildings and flags flew atop poles.

Hundreds of people gathered at the railway station that morning to meet the train carrying Tilley and Squires. Thousands lined the streets for the motorcade that followed.

Members of the Commission of Government, military officials, representatives of the Great War Veterans Association, the Newfoundland Patriotic Association, the Women's Patriotic Association, along with Mayor Andrew Carnell, were there to greet them, with the event broadcast on radio station VONF. [Click here to listen to a montage from the welcome home ceremony.]

The Squires and Taylor families, along with Tilley's wife, two-month-old daughter, parents, and siblings were there for the homecoming.

The motorcade wound its way through downtown St. John's to Government House.

'He winked at me'

Tilley's younger sister, Eva Murphy, was excited to see him for the first time in about a year. Her big brother was coming home a hero.

Eva Murphy, now 85, has clear memories of the St. John's ceremony that welcomed home survivors of HMS Jervis Bay. (Christine Davies/CBC)

She was waiting on the side of the road as his open car slowly approached Government House.

"I just put my foot up on the running board, and just to touch him, to touch his hand, and he mine...and I hopped back again," Murphy, now 85, recalled in an interview earlier this week.

"But that was wonderful to me. I had to do that. He was so near...he winked at me." [Click here to hear the full interview with Eva Murphy.]

The Governor of Newfoundland, Sir Humphrey Walwyn, officially greeted the two survivors, commended them, and called for three cheers in their honour.

"I am proud to welcome you home. You have worthily upheld the finest traditions of the British Navy...I am deeply sorry for those who gave their lives so nobly for their king and country," Walwyn said. [Click here to hear Walwyn's address at Government House.]

Tilley returned to active service several weeks later. He remained in the Royal Navy to the end of the war.

Lewis Tilley died in 1972. George Squires died in 1961. The last of the three HMS Jervis Bay survivors from this province, Arthur Taylor, died in 2010.

We remember.

Compiled by Christine Davies with research assistance provided by John Griffin (Newfoundland and Labrador Collection, Provincial Resource Library, Arts & Culture Centre), Colleen Field (Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University), and Sandra Ronayne and Allan Byrne (Provincial Archives, The Rooms).

We are also grateful to the HMS Jervis Bay Association and Eva Murphy for permission to use photographs.