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The Loss of the HMS Patroclus

Introduction

On the evening of November 4, 1940 in Dunfield, Trinity Bay, George Clarke sat in his son-in-law, Walter Earle’s kitchen listening to the radio. News of the war was foremost in peoples’ minds, especially for those who had family in the services. George’s son, Joe had joined the Royal Navy in 1939. These were trying times for a man who had already lost two children to disease. Suddenly, his worst fears were realized when the message came over the airwaves, "His Majesty regrets the loss of the HMS Patroclus," Joe’s ship.

George Clarke went to his house with the bad news and, the next morning, took his axe from the liney and walked into the woods to commune with God in the peace and quiet of His garden.

Thousands of miles away in Liverpool, England, Mary Hollingsworth had just come home from her shift at a munitions plant and was hanging up her coat when the same news was broadcast by the BBC. Her father asked her if the young sailor she dated was on that ship. "Yes," she replied. A veteran of the Great War, he assumed the worst, "that’s too bad; he was a nice young man."

My First Assignment: The HMS Patroclus

Like my father, I was a fisherman brought up to live off the resources of the sea and land. By the time war broke out in 1939, I was accomplished at handling small boats and was a pretty good shot with a rifle. In fact, it was during a partridge hunting trip that I decided to join the Royal Navy. Leaving my younger brother, Ralph to bring our gear back to the house, I walked to Trinity to sign up with the armed forces and begin a five year naval career that was to change my life forever.

In an emotional departure from the kitchen, my mother feared that she would never see me again, but I assured her that she would. I was confident that I would return to Dunfield once the war was over.

I left for England in January of 1940 and began basic training. One of the first things I came to understand was that although Newfoundlanders have always been modest people, many of whom lacked formal education, they also learned how to live by the sea and the land which made them ingenious in many ways. On a course dealing with navigation, the Commander asked us if we all knew that the earth’s orbit was circular. Overcoming my anxiety to speak up, I replied that it was not circular but elliptical. He immediately asked me how I knew that. I told him that my father would make marks on the window over the first days of winter as the sun rose over the hillside. The marks would always shift and this proved that the earth’s orbit was elliptical. The Commander was impressed and asked me if my father was a captain. I said he was a fisherman, but that he could use a sextant to navigate a boat.

Firearms training was where my previous experience with hunting rifles paid off. The Navy’s instructors treated all of us as if we had never seen a gun, and most had not, explaining in detail how it worked. When the time came for target practice, I hit the target repeatedly. The old Sergeant-Major exclaimed "that’s not the first time you fired a rifle!" "No," I replied, "back home hunting is part of our way of life." The Royal Navy is not known for its inefficiency, so I was not surprised to find myself placed on gun duty.

After completing basic training, I was assigned to my first ship, the Armed Merchant Cruiser, HMS Patroclus. Lacking enough warships, fifty liners were pressed into the Royal Navy at the beginning of the war. They were outfitted with turn-of-the-century guns and carried depth charges for attacking U-boats. They were also filled with empty oil drums to keep them afloat as long as possible if torpedoed. The main function of these ships was to patrol the European coastal waters and intercept any vessels that were carrying supplies to the Axis powers. They were also used for protecting our convoys, a role that saw the gallant men of the HMS Jervis Bay save many convoy ships by engaging in a hopeless battle with the German Pocket Battleship Admiral Scheer.

The Armed Merchant Cruisers were vulnerable to enemy surface raiders and U-boats, leading them to be nicknamed "Admiralty Made Coffins". During the HMS Patroclus’ short naval career, I can only recall two extraordinary incidents. First, the ship was assigned to carry gold from Gibraltar to England. The gold had come from South Africa and the crew had the unique experience of being heavily protected by a flotilla of Britain’s true naval vessels - cruisers and destroyers. The second event almost saw us meet the fate of the HMS Jervis Bay. One night, the German Battlecruiser Scharnhorst, equipped with eleven inch guns, that would have destroyed the Patroclus in minutes, sailed through our wake! Fortunately, in the pitch black, the enemy did not see us and we left the area immediately.

Other than these oddities, the Patroclus’ operations consisted of the normal coastal patrols. The Armed Merchant Cruisers guarded the northern European coastline, which was divided into two hundred and fifty square mile blocks. The ships would work the outside perimeter of the block during the day and run in towards the coast at night. We only encountered one ship; a Swedish liner lit up like a Christmas tree, the passengers enjoying a boisterous party. Having determined that German supplies were the last things on their minds, we let them proceed on their journey. The next time we endeavored to intercept ships it would be in an ill-fated attempt to save our comrades on the HMS Laurentic, another Armed Merchant Cruiser, and men from a small freighter* that had likely strayed from a convoy, both victims of a U-boat’s torpedoes.

The Sinking of the HMS Patroclus

The Patroclus was scheduled to end her tour of duty on November 3, 1940. Earlier that day we had encountered a small freighter and kept an eye on it until we communicated with our replacement ship, the HMS Laurentic, a former White Star liner from the same company to which the famous RMS Titanic belonged. Once we had rendezvoused, we passed on the information about the freighter’s position and headed home to Birkenhead for a well earned rest.

That evening, while I was on duty at Number 6 gun, located at the stern, we received news that our ship was expected to dock in about twenty four hours. Everything had been going well and the crew’s spirits were high. Later that evening we were informed that both the freighter and the HMS Laurentic had been torpedoed by a German U-boat off Bloody Point, at the northwestern tip of Ireland. Captain Wynter turned the Patroclus north and headed full speed towards the stricken vessels. To our good fortune, the ships’ SOS signals had also been picked up by one of the Royal Navy’s fastest warships, the HMS Achates, which came racing to their distress calls.

In the meantime, my mates and I on Number 6 gun waited at the ready as we sailed on our mission of mercy, ploughing through the icy waters of the North Atlantic. When we arrived at the Laurentic’s position, she was still afloat but it was obvious that she would not be for long. The freighter was sunk and survivors from both ships were all around us in their tiny lifeboats. One of the Laurentic’s officers called through a megaphone saying that the U-boat was still there and told us not to stop. The Captain moved the Patroclus around the area and we dropped a couple of depth charges to scare off the enemy. With that done and no sign of the U-boat, he ordered the ship to stop and begin the rescue operations. My mates and I remained at our station. The nets were dropped down the side for the sailors to climb up to our deck.

The mission seemed to be going well; boats were alongside and men were climbing up the rope ladders to safety. Suddenly, you could see the torpedo’s trail as it knifed through the water towards the helpless Patroclus. We ducked behind the gun’s shield to avoid shrapnel A massive explosion rocked the ship when the torpedo struck near the stern, and knocked us off our feet. Quickly getting back up, I looked down the side of the ship. What I saw can only be described as carnage, the men trying to reach safety having been exposed to the blast.

The Patroclus began to list, but the U-boat continued to fire more torpedoes into the doomed ship. This day belonged to the enemy, the U-boat having claimed a freighter and two Armed Merchant Cruisers in one night. The six of us at Number 6 gun remained at our position in the hope that we might get a chance to fire on the enemy vessel. Meanwhile, there was little else we could do but wait for orders to abandon the ship. These orders never came from the bridge. With the Patroclus sinking ever deeper, the chief gunner finally said, "that’s it men, its every one for himself now, and good luck to all of you."

With my wallet and a new watch in my locker, I thought that I might have time to retrieve them, but when I opened the door to go below I was greeted with a blast of steam. Making the wise decision to head for the boat deck, I arrived there to find, not unexpectedly, that the lifeboats were gone. I was among the lucky sailors who had at least a chance to swim for it. Others had been wounded and the ship’s young Liverpudlian doctor** was ministering to them, relieving their pain and keeping their spirits up as best he could. Commander Martin advised the doctor to abandon the ship, yet he kept to his duty. Other sailors, including myself, tried to persuade him to make a go for it, but he would not and went about his errand of mercy. I do not remember the doctor’s name, but he did not survive the Patroclus’ sinking and I always felt that he was one man who deserved the Victoria Cross.

As we stood on the boat deck, I looked at the Captain, a huge, elderly man with a white beard who had won the Distinguished Service Order at the Battle of Jutland in World War I when his Destroyer had sunk a German Cruiser. Standing there in his high, black leather boots, he was an imposing figure. The Commander told the skipper to try and swim to safety, but, without saying a word, the old man took a cigarette from a silver case, lit it and walked slowly away. I learned later that he did try to make it once he felt that his crew was off the ship, but he must have succumbed to the freezing water.

Escape and Rescue

With time running out, I decided to swim towards the lifeboats that lay invisible in the dark. Commander Martin, who also survived, wished me luck and I, along with my comrade, Pierce Tremblett, who came from Bonavista, dove into the freezing water, swimming as hard as possible to escape any suction from the sinking vessel. After a few minutes, I heard the Petty Officer yell out, "save that bloke!" I swam over to a small carley float and held on to its side until I could be pulled aboard. All I can say about swimming in those waters is that it was the first time I understood the expression "the survival of the fittest". If your mother and father were in that sea, you would have to ignore their plight and focus on saving yourself; to try and help someone else would have guaranteed your own death.

The HMS Patroclus managed to stay afloat for some time with Commander Martin, a couple of other senior officers and a seaman named Kemp, from our gun crew, on board. Commander Martin’s Official Report noted that the U-boat opened fire with a 9mm machine gun, probably thinking that the Patroclus was abandoned. But the Chief Gunner fired a shrapnel shell in a 3 inch gun and almost sank the enemy! The submarine moved off and Martin and the men eventually abandoned the ship before it went under. Remaining together in the water, two of them, one being Kemp died of hypothermia.

The sailors from the three sunken ships huddled together in the small boats. The night dragged on as we bobbed up and down in the North Atlantic. Men were beginning to die from their wounds or from the cold. I remember one sailor, who had recently been married, singing "Roll Out the Barrel" to keep our spirits up. As time crawled on, he stopped singing; later, someone checked on his condition and found that he had died. It seemed like days since I had left the Patroclus, but it had only been a few hours.

Then we heard the explosion of star shells being sent up by the Destroyer HMS Achates which had made its long journey to our doomed vessels. She didn’t stop immediately, but used her astic (sonar) to track the U-boat and made sure it was out of the area before beginning the rescue operations. Another Destroyer, the HMS Hesperus soon arrived and, between the two of them, all of the men were picked up. I was brought aboard the Achates and I remember how hot the deck felt on my freezing legs. After a welcome ration of rum, I was brought below to get dried off and into new clothes.

While I was now safe and sound, the horror of the whole event would never go away. Of the 306 sailors serving on the HMS Patroclus, 76 had lost their lives. Four Newfoundlanders paid the ultimate sacrifice that night. The Patroclus’ losses included Leslie Moore from Dildo, Trinity Bay, and Frederick Gullage of Corner Brook, who succumbed from his wounds in January 1941.

Roy McLeod from Bay Roberts, and Frances Roche of Branch, St. Mary’s Bay Died on the Laurentic.

I found out later that our attacker was U-99, commanded by Otto Kretschmer, who became the U-boat ace of the war. Just a month after torpedoing the Patroclus, he sank the Armed Merchant Cruiser Forfar. Ironically, Captain Donald MacIntyre, who commanded HMS Hesperus during the rescue of our men, was reassigned to the Destroyer HMS Walker and, in March 1941, depth-charged U-99 to the surface where Kretschmer and most of his crew surrendered. They were held as prisoners of war in Canada years after, Otto Kretschmer became an Admiral in the West German Navy.

After returning to England, I spent a couple of weeks recuperating and continued with further training. I took courses at HMS St. Vincent, a former boys residence that was converted into a school for training in the operation of torpedoes, and became a seaman torpedoman. Later, I went to Brighton where the Roedean girls' school had been taken over by the Navy and renamed HMS Vernon. After further studies, I became a Leading Torpedo Operator.

The next ship I was assigned to was the Battleship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, originally built in World War I, but completely modernized. It was quite a jump from the old Patroclus to one of the mightiest warships ever built, equipped with a main armament of eight massive 15 inch guns and 5.25 inch secondary armament. I was to see quite a bit of action aboard the "QE", Admiral Cunningham’s Flagship of Force-H in the Mediterranean Sea. But that story is for another time.

Epilogue

Three days had passed since Joe’s family had heard that the HMS Patroclus was sunk. Finally, a cable was received from the Royal Navy saying that he was alive and well. Walter Earle ran into the woods shouting the good news to George Clarke. The family would celebrate their good fortune. However, for the next four years, they would have to live with the fear that their son might lose his life on a distant sea.

Mary Hollingsworth married Joe Clarke on December 4, 1943. Soon he would return to his naval duties and she would continue making munitions in Liverpool, while enduring endless bombing raids on the city. For all the uncertainty that wars create, people must carry on with their lives.

Like most historical events, war is a complicated phenomenon. It is both a destructive and creative force at the same time. While some families are torn apart, new ones are created from a union of people who would otherwise never have met. The writer of this article is a "baby-boomer", who exists only because of World War II.

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* This ship was later identified as the SS Cassanare

** Through recent research, he was identified as Lieutenant-Commander Surgeon John Barr.

This story is dedicated to Mary (Hollingsworth) Clarke, who entered into Eternal Peace on July 19, 1999.

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I Am Grateful to Allan Clarke for Allowing me to put his father's story on my website.

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