HMS Rawalpindi sunk on 23 November 1939 by the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. *
“…we dined and went into the library to hear the news on the wireless…I was smoking a cigarette and drumming my fingers on the table, not concentrating on what was being said, when one word struck a chord in my brain and made me sit bold upright on my chair…’The Secretary of the Admiralty,’ came the impassive voice of the announcer, ‘regrets to announce the loss of the Armed Merchant Cruiser Rawalpindi…The voice drifted on, but I did not listen. For I knew then that my father was dead.”
From Sub-Lieutenant by Ludovic Kennedy. This short book was published in 1942 when the author was a sub-lieutenant in the RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was 19 when his father was killed in action as Captain of HMS Rawalpindi. The ship was part of the Northern Patrol which covered the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland to prevent German warships from slipping into the North Atlantic to attack British merchant convoys.
The engagement took place between Iceland and Greenland in the Denmark Strait.
This ship was built as a passenger liner for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company and launched in 1925. She was requisitioned by the British Admiralty in 1939 and quickly converted into an Armed Merchant Cruiser by equipping her with eight 6 inch naval guns from World War One. There was no centralized fire direction control and the gun captains fired the cannons at ‘guesstimated’ ranges and elevations. That the British even deployed these unarmored ships showed the paucity of their naval resources at the beginning of the war.
Captain E.C. Kennedy, RN.
HMS Rawalpindi was commanded by Captain E.C. Kennedy, RN. The Captain was highly experienced but had been cut from the navy and placed on the retired list by the infamous Geddes Axe in 1923. Prime Minister David Lloyd George appointed Sir Eric Geddes as head of a committee charge with investigating public finances and recommending cuts in government expenditure which had grown dramatically during World War One. Massive retrenchment in government expenditure followed the recommendations of the Geddes committee and hardest hit were the services.
His task was to send sighting reports to the Admiralty of any German warships and then “run like a hare” as Captain Kennedy had put it. But he was caught between two German ships of far greater speed. The Germans twice demanded the British ship to surrender but Royal Navy ships never surrendered and Kennedy, an old sea dog of sixty, was hardly a man to do such a thing. He was heard to say “We’ll fight them both, they’ll sink us, and that will be that. Good-bye”.
The Germans pounded HMS Rawalpindi into a burning hulk and Kennedy along with 238 men were killed in action or went down with the ship. Thirty-seven British sailors were rescued by the German ships and 11 more were rescued the next day by another Armed Merchant Cruiser, HMS Chitral. The list of the men killed is here. It makes sobering reading. http://wow.naval-history.net/xDKCas1939-11NOV.htm
Sir Ludovic Kennedy, knighted in 1994, survived the war and went on to become a famous British journalist, author and television personality. He died in 2009 at age 89.
There is detailed information about the Rawalpindi both before the war when she served as a passenger line and during the war as an AMC. You will find that information here: www.pandosnco.co.uk/rawalpindi
A fascinating remembrance by one of the survivors of the terrible battle and subsequent sinking of the ship by the Germans can be found on the BBC’s World War Two People’s War site here: www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar
*The scale model of the ship shows it as it was after being converted to an AMC during which process one of the funnels was removed. Photo T.C. Dring, British Ministry of Defence, from the collections of the Imperial War Museums. The photograph is in the public domain.