“For I Knew Then that My Father Was Dead…”


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.

Follow-up on the HMS Rawalpindi

Tad discovered a useful site that transcribes old newspapers from Liverpool and Merseyside in the UK. While some of the facts in the articles are now known to be false (ie HMS Rawalpindi was sunk by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and not by the German pocket battleship Deutschland), the articles themselves are quite helpful in showing us the vibe of the time and giving us insight into the information available to the common British citizens during this time. I have reproduced the articles as transcribed below:

Old Mersey Times

Rawalpindi ex P and O Steam Navigation Fleet

Daily Post, Nov 27th 1939



The Admiralty last night announced another serious naval loss, the sinking of the Rawalpindi, ex Pand O Mailship Co’s 16,697 ton liner. It is feared all the officers and ship’s company have been lost except the following: Sub Lieut A. H. B. ANDERSON, RNR; Reginald BYGRAVE, Leading seaman RNR; Septimus PITT, AB, RNR; Frederick SKELLY, AB, RFR; Francis SAUNDERS, AB, RNR; Jeffe G. CHELTER, AB, RNR; Arthur CHANDLER, CPO; Joseph BRIGGS, Steward; Roy LEADBETTER, Steward; Percy HARRIS, PO; Frank SIMPSON, Plumber; Robert REID, Cook; Richard STONE, Cook; John DEMPSEY, Steward; John PEERS, AB; Henry FLEMING, Steward; Frederick RUSSELL, AB.

The Rawalpindi had on board the normal compliment of an armed merchant cruiser of her class, about 300 officers and men. Until she became a merchant cruiser she was in the P and O Steam Navigation Fleet. She was a 16,697 ton twin-screw, oil-burning liner, built by Harland and Wolff Ltd at Greenock in 1925. On the outbreak of war she was requisitioned by the Admiralty and after many weeks in the dockyard many of her luxury fittings were taken out and she was fitted on her broadside with guns, she sailed again painted grey and flew the white ensign. As an armed merchant cruiser she was a warship and an integral part of the Royal Navy, and took no part in commercial activities.

She was a different kind of vessel to the defensively armed merchant ships which continue to carry allied trade in spite of German submarine and mining activity. The latter have no broadside or bow guns only stern guns, and an anti-aircraft gun, which comprise of a purely defensive armament for a merchant ship in strict accordance with international law.

Survivors of the Rawalpindi in London

Daily Post, Nov 30th 1939




Survivors of the Rawalpindi sunk by the pocket battleship Deutschland off Iceland, arrived in London yesterday. They were immediately driven to the Admiralty. Soon they marched into the Horse Guards Parade, people noticed the quiet, little procession and ran towards it shouting, “Well done boys!” Admiral Sir Charles LITTLE greeted them and praised the way they had, “Worthily upheld the traditions of the Navy.”

Graphic stories were told, one man, an old RNR who saw service on HMS Malaya at the Battle of Jutland, was called up at the outbreak of the war and joined the Rawalpindi as an AB Seaman gunner and was No 2 on the aft starboard six-inch gun. “It was just before 4pm that the warning was given that an enemy ship had been sighted,” he said, “In the fading light we could see the enemy ship on the horizon 10,000 yds away.”

“She began to bombard us, with our six-inch guns we could see we would be outranged. We got nearer however and shells began to hit us. We were given the order to fire and got three rounds off. Other guns around me were also firing. We might have hit the enemy, but, shell after shell hit us and before long the Rawalpindi caught fire.”

“Another enemy craft fired at us and a shell fell near my gun, I think several of my mates were hurt. The gun-layer was hit in the knee and laid out. I do not know what became of him when the order to abandon ship was given. With another mate I jumped into the sea, the ship was ablaze burning like a piece of paper. A boat empty but water-logged came near and about 50 of us jumped from the ship’s side, only about 10 reached the boat. How we clung on I do not know, it was getting darker every minute, it seemed a long time before we were picked up.”

Another survivor a 1st class Petty Officer RNR, said, “After one hit the lights in the magazine went out, a fire had broken amidships, it was an inferno. I was in charge, there was nothing else to do but flood the magazines to prevent the ammunition exploding. I called eight men to come up with me to B deck, live shells and cordite were in the path of sparks and flames shooting from the fire amidships.”

“Our guns were still firing, About 30 or 40 of us went over the side, we saw a water-logged boat floating past. It was a 1000 to 1 chance of reaching it. Some of us did. The only thing we could find in the boat was a white handkerchief with which to attract attention. We tied it to the end of a boat hook and hung it up, we tried to fix up a jury-rigged sail with oilskins hoping to make land. We thought we might make the Hebrides, but luckily we were picked up by the Chitral, I should think the action lasted 40mins.”

[Images courtesy of the Old Mersey Times.]

A Courageous Epic of World War Two at Sea



The Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi Fights German Battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau


scharnhorst in heavy seas

Scharnhorst (German battleship, 1939-1943) Taking water over the bow while steaming in heavy seas, possibly during the Atlantic sortie of January-March 1941. A 150mm twin gun turret is in the foreground. This is a screened image, taken from a contemporary publication. It has some abrasion damage in the upper center. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

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If ten people witness an event, each will give a slightly different eyewitness report. The more emotionally extreme the event, the more the eyewitness accounts will differ. This doesn’t mean people are telling lies. It means that we each see an event through our own unique perception, shaped by our emotional makeup. What makes history so fascinating to me is the variation in accounts of people who each witnessed the same event yet give completely different accounts.

Nothing illustrates this better than my previous two posts on the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and HMS Rawalpindi. To be consistent, I used the account of the sinking which appears in Engage the Enemy More Closely: the Royal Navy in the Second World War by Correlli Barnett. While his version differs from other versions of the engagement, I had to pick one or I would have driven myself bats. I chose Barnett since he based his account on a translation of the log of the Scharnhorst produced after the war by British naval intelligence.

This is what we know for sure: Scharnhorst and Gneisenau encountered HMS Rawalpindi and after repeated requests for the ship to stop and surrender, they both fired on her. However, there is disagreement over who fired first. Barnett says the Germans fired first. Others say differently. We know Rawalpindi hit Scharnhorst with at least one shell which may, or may not have, caused some German casualties.

In an eyewitness account prepared for the BBC’s oral history project, Royston Alfred Leadbetter, a steward on the Rawalpindi, says:

After a short while the German ships opened fire – one on each side of us… Our guns opened up in retaliation, and we hit one of the ships several times causing some casualties.

Yet Naval-History.net, a website which presents a summary of the war diary of the British Admiralty, doesn’t quite agree. They claim the Rawalpindi hit Scharnhorst with one 6-inch shell (not two) which exploded on the quarter deck causing some splinter casualties among the crew. However, neither Barnett nor German accounts mention casualties.

While the Admiralty war diary can be useful, every war diary has the following limitation: it only records what is reported to the command echelon keeping the war diary and when it is reported. If any of this information turns out to be incorrect, and it often is, no one goes back and corrects the war diary since the value of a war diary is to ascertain which facts commanders had at a certain time and what actions they took based on those facts whether the facts ultimately proved correct or not.

We know that Rawalpindi sank and that both German ships actually stopped and fished a number of British sailors out of the water. But there is disagreement over how many sailors the Germans rescued and how many sailors British ships later rescued.

Another controversy is the number of guns on the Rawalpindi. This should be easy to find out but the various histories don’t agree. Engage the Enemy More Closely states the Rawalpindi had four 6-inch guns but other histories say the Rawalpindi had eight 6-inch guns. Once again steward Royston Alfred Leadbetter of the Rawalpindi contradicts Barnett’s account by saying:

Our guns, eight 6-inch made around 1900, were standard for Armed Merchant Cruisers.

Finally we come to the times at which various things happened. These are all over the map. You can take your pick. Barnett says the Germans opened fire at 1604. Naval-History.net says 1603. The Scharnhorst website, which offers no footnotes, says 15:45. Wikipedia, also without footnotes, says Scharnhorst opened fire at 1703. Much of this confusion is a result of the differences in how ships kept time.

I correspond from time to time with the distinguished naval historian, Mr. Vincent O’Hara, author of numerous works of naval history including:

The German Fleet At War 1939—1945;

Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean Theater, 1940-1945;

On Seas Contested: The Seven Great Navies of the Second World War

and others, all of which I commend to you without reservation.

Mr. O’Hara specializes in “drilling down” to very fine detail: when did ships encounter one another; how many shells did they fire; at what range; how many hits did they get, etc. To write books with this kind of detail, the author has to have some way of reconciling all the various accounts. I asked him about the saga of the Rawalpindi, which he has not written about, and how in the world he managed to reconcile all the different accounts of the naval actions he wrote about. This is what he told me:

When I reconcile accounts of sea battles I first look at the type of evidence I have, how far removed it is from the actual events, its nationality and the vested interest of the source. In an ideal situation I’ll have reports filed by participants from both sides and some first person accounts as well. An acceptable situation is where I have accounts written by historians that had access to said reports…

Basically I build a timeline listing all major facts and when they occurred. I map every action, at least with a sketch. I trace the linage of secondary accounts. Secondary accounts are often based on one source and if you can find that and assess its reliability, that’s a help. On your blog piece, the number of 6-inch weapons on the British AMC is a good example. Where did Barnett get this from? People have repeated it. Is he the first source, or does some earlier source state that as well?

Once I have all the “facts” listed by time and source, I reconcile. Often it’s a judgment call. My experience is that the more information you have the better sense things make… It’s a lot of fun and I don’t feel the need to do crossword puzzles or play war games or anything like that.

A Courageous Epic of World War Two at Sea

The Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi Fights German Battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau

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1602 hrs. – At a range of 9,000 yards or 8.2 kilometers, Scharnhorst repeats: “Heave to!” and fires a warning shot across the bow of the Rawalpindi.

The Germans were puzzled. What in the hell was the Captain of the British ship thinking? To the credit of the Germans they signaled several more times before opening fire.

Scharnhorst: “Heave to!”

No response from Rawalpindi although the forward lookouts report to Kennedy that a second German battleship is coming up fast astern of Scharnhorst.

Scharnhorst: “Abandon your ship!”

Rawalpindi does not slow down and actually begins to drop smoke floats overboard in an attempt to create a smoke screen.

1604 hrs. – Scharnhorst opens fire with her main battery of 11 inch guns.

Scharnhorst (German Battleship, 1939) Firing her forward 283mm (11″) guns, during exercises in the winter of 1939-40.

1607 hrs. – Rawalpindi opens fire. One of her shells hits the Scharnhorst but bounces off the armor of the German ship.

Rawalpindi has been hit and is on fire.

1611 hrs. – Gneisenau opens fire.

Rawalpindi quickly becomes a flaming wreck.

1617 hrs. – Germans cease fire.

From Rawalpindi to German ships, signal repeated, “Please send boats.”

The Scharnhorst drops boats and they are on the scene in fifteen minutes but most of the crew is already dead. Killed in action. 270 British sailors perish. The Germans fish 27 British sailors out of the water. Another 11 are later rescued by a British cruiser which has steamed to the location. Captain Edward Kennedy, called out of retirement at age 60 to command Rawalpindi, is not among the survivors.

I’m sure Kennedy never thought of surrendering. No British warship had surrendered on the high seas in more than one hundred fifty years. He did what was expected in the Royal Navy: he closed with the enemy.

Writes historian Gerhard L Weinberg in A World At Arms: A Global History of World War Two (Four stars):

…evident in the first months of the naval war was the extraordinary willingness of British naval ships to run whatever risks seemed appropriate to fight it out regardless of losses in specific engagements.

I could not say it better.

Source: Engage the Enemy More Closely: the Royal Navy in the Second World War by Correlli Barnett.

[Images courtesy of the Department of the Navy – Naval History & Heritage Command.]