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We manned the guns of the HMS Rawalpindi

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We manned the guns of the HMS Rawalpindi

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We manned the guns of the HMS Rawalpindi.
The first real naval engagement of the war the battle between the HMS Rawalpindi and the Deutschland (wrongly reported actually it was, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau), on 23 November 1939 was an epic fight in the finest naval traditions. Of the crew of 276, only 28 were known to be saved, and the story of some of these gallant survivors is here reprinted from The Daily Telegraph.

Ten survivors of the HMS Rawalpindi worked loudly cheered in London on 29 November 1939 following their arrival from Scotland. They were marched out, bare, in double file on to the horseguards parade, to wait the arrival of the second Sea Lord and Chief of Naval personnel, Admiral Sir Charles J. C. Little. The men were led by a stocky gunner with the grey stubble of beard. Admiral Sir Charles Little came out of the Admiralty buildings to express the Admiralty's thanks and appreciation for their services. Graphic accounts of the HMS Rawalpindi 40 minute flight were given by some of the survivors. One of them, who was in HMS Malaya at the Battle of Jutland and joined the HMS Rawalpindi as an A.B. Seaman Gunner said that he was on the aft starboard 6 inch gun. Action stations were sounded when the enemy was sighted, he went on, and those of us who were below deck, rushed up and manned the guns. In the fading light of the afternoon we could see the enemy ship on the horizon about 10,000 yards away. She began to bombard us, and with 6 inch guns we could see that we would be out ranged We got nearer, however and shells began to hit us. We were given the order to fire, and we got three rounds off. Other guns around me were also firing. We might have hit the enemy. I cannot say, but shell after shell hit us, and before long the HMS Rawalpindi caught fire. Another enemy craft began firing at us and a shell fell near my gun. I think several of my mates were hurt. The gun layer was hit in the kneeand was laid out. I do not know what became of him when the order to abandon ship was given. With another chum, I jumped into the sea. The ship was burning like a piece of paper. A boat, empty but waterlogged, came near. I think that about 30 of us jumped from the ship's side, and I believe only about 10 got to the boat. How we clung on and I do not know. It was getting darker every minute, and it seemed a long time before we were picked up.

Another of the survivors, a first class Petty Officer and Royal Marine reservist, who has had 25 years service, said my job was in the aft magazine. Well below the watermark. With three others I opened the magazine and began sending up ammunition. Our guns were firing and then we felt several hits. After one hit, the lights in the magazine went out. Then we realised that a fire had broken out amidships. It was an inferno. I was in charge and realised that there was nothing else to do but flood, the magazine to prevent the ammunition exploding. I called for eight men to come up with me to B deck. Live shells and cordite were in the path of the sparks and flames shooting from the fire amidships. We began throwing shells overboard. Our guns were still firing. I can't remember how we reached the deck. The ship was ablaze all over and was being abandoned. About 30 or 40 of us went over the side. We saw a waterlogged boat floating past. It was they thousand to one chance of being able to reach it. Some of us did. One of the first men I saw in the boat was annulled Townie of mine, who was one of the gun crews. The only thing we could find in the boat was a pocket handkerchief with which to try to attract attention. We tied it on the end of a boat hook, and hung it up, but the boat was rolling heavily. Then we tried to fix up a jury rig sail with oilskins, hoping to make land. We thought that we might make the Hebrides, but luckily we were picked up by the Chitral.

Crowds gathered in Seabright Street, Bethnal Green, E., an 29 November 1939, to cheer 21-year-old Harry Fleming, a survivor of the HMS Rawalpindi, who had just been reunited to his wife, whom he married an 25 September 1939. He said that their honeymoon only lasted six days. Then he put to sea as a steward. Describing the fight with the Deutschland (wrongly reported actually it was, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) he said, the Nazis, I estimate, came to within 200 or 300 yards of us and fired at point blank range. One of our gunners scored three direct hits, before his gun jammed. When he turned round to call on his mates for assistance, he found them lying around him dead. He was one of the survivors, and it was a great disappointment having to leave his gun. Many men were walking or sitting about with severe wounds, refusing to go to the surgeons who were attending to those totally disabled. I saw one man, with his arm and shoulder torn off. Calmly sitting on a locker smoking. When a burst of flame, enveloped in him he was too weak to get out of its way. The whole ship was ablaze from stem to stern, and I was thrown into the sea trying to launch one of the boats. Four of us scrambled on to an overturned lifeboat, but gradually, one by one the others fell off. I flattened myself against the hull and when I was picked up unconscious and cold and sea had frozen my body to shape of the hull. One of my rescuers said they had a job to drag me off the boat, so firmly, as I fixed myself rigid with cold.

Royston A. Ledbetter, another of the survivors, arrived at his home of Etruria, Stoke-on-Trent, a week after the action. He said that he and his brother, Jack were members of the gun crews in different parts of the ship. When my gun was put out of action by a shell. He went on. It killed practically every member of the gun crew. I escaped only because I had moved away to fetch ammunition. His brothers gun crew was also put out of action, and he put a lifebelt round him and took him to the boat deck. I left him there to search for a friend. I had no clear recollection of what happened after that, but I did not see either my brother or our friend again. As the ship was sinking. I saw a half submerged lifeboat about 70 yards away from the ship. Although I could only swim, a few strokes. I jumped into the water and somehow or other got to the boat. Altogether there were 10 of us in this boat and the Germans, having thrust their searchlight on us, called us to go alongside. We could not make much progress as we had only three oars, but when we got near the Deutschland (wrongly reported actually it was, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau). Members of her crew shouted, is it called down there ?. The Germans must buy this time have heard that one of our cruisers was coming to the spot, for they never gave us any real chance of going on board. They put on speed and vanished.

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Deutschland picture 2

Gneisenau picture 2

Scharnhorst Battleship picture 2

HMS Rawalpindi survivors picture 1

HMS Rawalpindi survivors picture 2

HMS Rawalpindi Petty Officer Frank Simpson picture 1

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Sources

The Second Great War.
Edited by Sir John Hamilton

The War Illustrated.
Edited by Sir John Hamilton

2194 Days Of War.
ISBN-10: 086136614X

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