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Lost by enemy action

By Mike Thomson
Today programme

The Jervis Bay Action by Charles Pears

Nearly 70 years ago 186 men aboard HMS Jervis Bay died in one of World War II's most memorable acts of heroism.

Their ship lies at the bottom of the ocean but a three-and-a-half metre model of it has pride of place in a new exhibition at the Historic Dockyard in Chatham, Kent.

Among those at the opening of No 1 Smithery, National Museum of Maritime Treasures, will be two brothers, Don and Syd Peters, both in their 70s.

Certification of the loss of the HMS Jervis Bay

Their father Sydney Peters served on the Jervis Bay and was among those who lost their lives on 5 November 1940. Don looks almost overcome as he stares at the carefully constructed model inside its large glass case.

"It's very emotional. I've seen pictures of the ship before and I know the history of it but seeing it in this display unit here brings it more real to us," he says.

"I'm looking at a model here where I know my father spent the last minutes of his life."


The former British liner, which was later converted into an armed Merchant Cruiser, was escorting a convoy of 38 merchant ships from Canada to Britain.

On board were tonnes of vital food and aviation fuel needed for a beleaguered wartime Britain.

Syd and Don Peters by a model of the Jervis Bay
I'm looking at a model here where I know my father spent the last minutes of his life

At around 1600 a lookout spotted the German pocket battleship, Admiral Scheer, steaming towards the convoy.

The captain of the Jervis Bay, Edward Fogarty Fegen, quickly decided that there was only one way to save the convoy.

Despite knowing that his lightly armed vessel was no match for the big-gunned Admiral Sheer, he ordered the convoy to disperse. Then, guns blazing, he set course straight for the battleship in a bid to draw its fire.

From testimony given by one of the 65 survivors of the battle that followed, Don and Syd have been able to put together their father's last moments.

"The fire from the German battleship rained down on the Jervis Bay and after a period of time the ship began to sink," says Don.

"It took fifty minutes for the ship to eventually sink with considerable loss of life and of course our father was one of those.

"We do know what he was doing in the last moments of his life. He was ferrying wounded from the deck into the sickbay.

"Unfortunately, as he was doing that the sickbay got a direct hit and he was killed instantly."

Letter informing Sydney Peters' wife of his death
This letter informed Sydney Peters' wife of his death

The Jervis Bay's heroic action combined with encroaching darkness enabled most of the merchant convoy to escape. Captain Fegen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

His crew earned the respect of the nation and the model of their ship pride of place in the Chatham's new £13m gallery, built in partnership with the Imperial War Museum and Greenwich's National Maritime Museum.

Syd and Don's mum and dad
Don and Syd's mother and father met and fell in love onboard the Jervis Bay

Both his proud sons, Sydney and Don, say it is almost like he has come back to life when they look at the miniature ship before them.

"I feel the presence of him. Funny, but I do," says Don.

I asked his brother Sidney if he shared these sentiments. "I most certainly do feel that he is here with us today. I absolutely do feel the same as my brother Don."

The Jervis Bay's place in the Peters' family history has been secured by its role in happier times too. It was the spot where the brothers' mother and father first met and fell in love.

It all happened several years before the war when Sydney Peters, then working on board as a butcher, met his bride-to-be, stewardess Louise.

On 5 November it will be the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Jarvis Bay.

Sydney Peters says he and his brother Don already know how and where they will be marking that sad and unforgettable day.

"We will be here with our families at this exhibition and we will rejoice in the fact that the memory of our father and his shipmates on the Jarvis Bay will always be with us," he says.

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