It’s one of the most astounding acts of heroism of the Second World War and you probably won’t have heard of it.  It happened on 5th November 1940 and it’s fitting to call it to mind for our Remembrance ceremonies this year.

In late 1940, Britain was the only European nation that Hitler had targeted but failed to conquer.  But we depended on vital supplies of food from abroad, along with materials like iron, steel and aviation fuel.  Those were brought by sea in cargo ships travelling together in convoys.  The problem was that the Germans were sinking the ships at a devastating rate.

The convoys were protected by British warships but we didn’t have enough of them to go round.  So we took merchant ships and disguised them to look like warships, usually fitting them with old and very feeble guns.


One of these converted ships was the Jervis Bay.  In theory a protector of convoys, she was in fact a sitting duck for German battleships.

The captain of the Jervis Bay was Edward Fegen.  He was a popular man.  A practising Christian, he had no airs and graces and was informal and good fun to be with.  Children, in particular, loved him.  As a ship’s captain he commanded great respect and instilled confidence in his men.

On October 8th 1940, a convoy of thirty-three ships set off from Nova Scotia heading across the Atlantic to Britain.  The convoy was protected only by the Jervis Bay.  Captain Fegen made his crew do daily defensive exercises and, echoing Nelson, promised that if they met the enemy he would take take the ship in close to attack as that would be the most effective way of engaging them.


At midday on 5th November, the convoy was discovered by a German battleship called the Admiral Scheer.  A fight began around 4.45pm.  Fegen shouted ‘Action stations’ but had no illusions.  This was a David and Goliath conflict.  The Jervis Bay was no match for a battleship.

Nevertheless, Fegen knew that his duty was to protect the convoy.  He ordered the Jervis Bay to accelerate to full speed and turn towards the Admiral Scheer in order to draw its fire.  The Jervis Bay started pouring out black smoke to partially block the battleship’s view of the convoy.  That also had the effect of making the British ship an easy target.

Soon both ships started firing.  The Jervis Bay’s guns were so weak that not one shell ever hit the Admiral Scheer but the latter’s guns were massively powerful.  The first shot killed an English sailor outright.

Meanwhile the ships of the convoy scattered to protect themselves.  The captain of the German warship, Theodor Krancke, knew that before he could go after the convoy he would first have to deal with the Jervis Bay.  He thought that destroying such a vulnerable ship would be easy but he was impressed by the British crew’s disciplined firing.


For all that, German shells were soon consistently pounding the Jervis Bay, doing huge damage to its structure and crew.  Each six-gun broadside delivered two and a half tons of projectiles onto the Jervis Bay every thirteen seconds.  The British ship was soon a mass of twisted metal and flames.

Edward Fegen’s left arm was nearly torn off in an explosion.  Other desperately injured crewmen tried to keep steering the ship but it went out of control.  The ship’s doctor was himself seriously wounded but continued to treat casualties.

A young gunner later reported seeing Captain Fegen go past him saying, ‘Keep at it lad, keep at it’.  All around was a vision of hell as parts of the ship and crew were vaporized in an instant.  Before long a radio officer saw Edward Fegen lying dead on the deck.


The German crew were amazed at the courage of the British seamen.  Captain Krancke thought to himself, ‘That captain must have the authentic Nelson touch.  He must be a commander with such authority over his men that they’re prepared to follow him to certain death in a hopeless fight’.

Why they did it

After half an hour of combat the Jervis Bay was a total wreck and all her guns were silenced.  But Krancke mistook explosions on board for guns still firing so he too kept firing.  But his problem was that the Jervis Bay wouldn’t sink as it was supposed to.  Thousands of empty barrels had been loaded into her to keep her afloat in a situation such as this.  What should have taken Captain Krancke thirty minutes wasted two hours of his precious time that could have been used hunting down the convoy.  And every ship that escaped was urgently needed in Britain’s fight for survival against Hitler.

Around 6.15pm, an hour and a half after the encounter began, those left alive on the Jervis Bay began to abandon ship.  Eventually Captain Krancke gave up trying to sink his opponent and went after the convoy.  He managed to destroy or seriously damage six cargo ships with huge loss of life.  But twenty-seven ships reported that they were safe.   Without the sacrifice of the Jervis Bay Krancke would probably have sunk most of them.

We need another hero

One of the twenty-seven, a Swedish ship called the Stureholm, itself showed huge bravery. Its captain broke the number one rule of convoys that, if another ship is attacked, you must not stop to pick up survivors because you’re making yourself a target.  But Captain Sven Olander was so impressed by what the Jervis Bay had done that he went back to look for survivors from it.

The Jervis Bay had eventually sunk at 8.00pm.  Between 11.00 that night and 5.00 the next morning the Stureholm rescued sixty-five survivors of the Jervis Bay from life rafts in the freezing cold waters.  Two hundred of their shipmates had died.

Churchill and George VI

Back in England, Prime Minister Winston Churchill heard what had happened.  He told the House of Commons, ‘The spirit of the Royal Navy is exemplified in the forlorn and heroic action fought by the captain, officers and ship’s company of the Jervis Bay in giving battle against overwhelming odds in order to protect the merchant convoy which they were escorting’.

King George VI was also deeply moved by the story.  He wrote in his diary, ‘When Captain Fegen attacked the Admiral Scheer he knew he was going to certain death’.  The King posthumously awarded Fegen the highest medal that exists in Britain for wartime bravery – the Victoria Cross.

And today?

Eighty-two years have passed since these events.  And self-sacrifice is not a popular concept in our age where so many are obsessed with themselves.  Narcissism rules, sometimes literally.  But interestingly, psychoanalyst Rachel Blass has looked at what Freud – who really put the word ‘narcissism’ on the map – made of the tension in people between love for oneself and love for others.*

All about me, all about death

Freud is often associated with something called ‘the pleasure principle’, the idea that people are self-serving and ‘aiming primarily to maximize personal satisfaction’. But, as Blass points out, contrary to what is often thought Freud also came up with an alternative view of people as primarily loving, even when that’s painful.  And that is more ultimate than the pleasure principle.  ‘From this perspective’, Blass writes, ‘narcissistic pleasures become associated with death’.

Moving on from narcissism

Since Freud’s lifetime, psychoanalysis has developed these thoughts further in ideas of ‘how the desire to love is not only non-narcissistic, but, rather is self-sacrificing’.  And that is what we saw with Captain Edward Fegen and his crew.  I suspect that the lurch towards narcissistic self-preoccupation will not prove to be a permanent state in the history of the West, although it may take a crisis to shift it.  But while we wait for the pendulum to swing back it is perhaps healthy to pause for a moment and reflect on episodes such as the nearly forgotten story of the sacrifice of the Jervis Bay.




* The role of repetition in narcissism and self-sacrifice:  A Freudian-Kleinian reflection on the person’s foundational love of the other’.