Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019: The Under-armed Hero of the Iceland-Faroe Passage
Here we see the P&O R-class steamer SS Rawalpindi, a passenger liner who spent most of her life in the Far East and colonial India but earned everlasting fame with a scratch crew of reservists and naval pensioners during her last 13 minutes in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, 80 years ago this week.
The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co Ltd, London which is usually just referred to as P&O, in the 1920s built a series of 16,697-grt R-class liners for the UK to Bombay mail and passenger run. The four sisterships– SS Ranpura, SS Ranchi, SS Rawalpindi and SS Rajputana— were designed by the same people who made the Titanic a decade prior, Harland & Wolff Ltd., Belfast, with the first two built by R & W Hawthorne Leslie on the Tyne, and the last pair by H&W’s Greenock yard in Scotland.
Using a twin set of reciprocating engines with their aft 2nd funnel a dummy used for ventilation, they had a design speed of 17.8 knots although made 19 on trials. With interiors designed by Lord Inchcape’s daughter Elsie Mackay, they were set up with accommodation for 307 first-class and 280 second-class passengers with public lounges, music rooms, dining saloons and smoke rooms separated by class. Capable of carrying large amounts of refrigerated stores, they were popular ships on the run to the Orient.
Laid down at Greenock as Yard No. 660, Rawalpindi was named for the historic Indian (now Pakistani) city and launched 26 March 1925 with Lady Birkenhead as her sponsor. She was delivered to P&O that September and began a quiet 15-year run in regular service uniting the Home Isles with Britain’s colonial Indian Empire.
Rawalpindi notably showed up in Pathe newsreels of the era when she brought the survivors of the lost Parthian-class submarine HMS Poseidon (P99) home from China in 1931.
Once the balloon went up in 1939, the Admiralty called in their markers with London shipping lines and requisitioned more than 50 fast passenger liners for conversion to armed merchant cruisers for patrol and convoy use. Typically outfitted with surplus six-inch guns that had been removed from the casemates of old battlewagons and cruisers, the liners landed much of their finery and art, received a coat of grey paint, and were rushed into service with a crew largely composed of their former civilian mariners who volunteered for active duty in the RNR.
For Rawalpindi, her transformation amounted to removing her fake funnel then picking up eight 6″/45 BL Mark VII guns, a pair of QF 3-inch AAA guns, and a half dozen Vickers machine guns– the newest of which dated to 1916. The armament was intended to plug away at enemy armed surface raiders of the type the Kaiser put to sea during the Great War, fight it out on the surface with U-boats, or warning off the occasional Condor long-range patrol bomber.
Rawalpindi’s conversion was completed on 19 September 1939– just over two weeks after the Germans marched into Poland. Her wartime skipper was CPT Edward Coverley Kennedy, RN, a 60-year-old Great War vet of the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand who had been on the retired list since 1921, a collateral victim of the Washington Naval Treaty. Kennedy, who had first joined the Royal Navy as a 13-year-old cadet in 1892, could have easily sat out WWII but volunteered to return to the colors.
Requisitioned at Tilbury the day the war started, SS Rawalpindi became haze grey His Majesty’s Armed Merchant Cruiser Rawalpindi just 19 days later after conversion by R&H Green & Silley Weir at the Royal Albert Dock, London.
Sailing Northwest for patrol duties in the Iceland Gap, our converted liner had a chance to get muscular with the 4,500-ton German tanker Gonzenheim at 63.25N, 12.00W, in the Denmark Strait on 19 October while the latter was trying to run the blockade home from Argentina. With the gig up, the German tanker scuttled as Rawalpindi recovered her crew. A second vessel, a Swedish freighter with a German destination, was stopped and rerouted the next week towards Scotland.
At the time, there were no less than eight British AMCs, backed up by several actual RN cruisers, prowling between Scotland and Iceland and were effective in stopping German blockade runners, typically catching 8 to 10 a week during this early stage of the war. This led to a sortie by the brand-new Kriegsmarine battleship SMS Scharnhorst, in her first operation, accompanied by her sister Gneisenau, to clear out the area.
Sailing from Wilhelmshaven late on 21 November, the lead ship of the strong German task force was observed through the snow at 15,000 yards by lookouts on the Rawalpindi at 1531 on 23 November in the Iceland-Faeroes channel, about 100 miles to the East of Iceland itself.
Steaming alone but with other units nearby (the light cruisers HMS Newcastle, Delhi, Ceres, and Calypso; heavy cruisers HMS Suffolk and Norfolk) Kennedy twice signaled (incorrectly) that Rawalpindi had found the German pocket battleship SMS Deutschland at 63.40N, 12.31W, an alert that drew emergency orders from the Admiralty to Clyde to send the gorilla squad– consisting of the battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney, along with the heavy cruiser HMS Devonshire and seven destroyers– north.
However, stuck with a ship that at the time could only make 14 knots, and outgunned even if confronting a pocket battleship much less a full-grown brawler, Kennedy decided to stand and fight rather than surrender.
The fast-approaching Scharnhorst fired a warning shot across Rawalpindi’s bow at 1603 from a range of 10,000 yards and signaled the Brit to stop transmitting and halt. Soon after, Gneisenau emerged from the fog and made her presence known. The converted liner faced 18 11-inch, 24 5.9-inch, and 28 4.1-inch guns as well as a dozen torpedo tubes between the two German battleships. As they had 13-inch belts, the best the merchant cruiser’s own 6-inch guns could do was scratch their paint.
“We’ll fight them both, they’ll sink us, and that will be that. Good-bye,” Kennedy reportedly told his crew and ordered his guns to fire.
The action was over within 13 minutes or so, with the unarmored Rawalpindi pummeled by 11-inch shells from the two German capital ships, causing the death of over 260 of her crew, Kennedy included. The British ship was a burning hulk but had landed shells on Scharnhorst’s foc’sle causing Hitler’s newest battlewagon slight damage.
A final signal came from a morse lamp on the British ship “please send boats,” to which the Germans launched whaleboats. Between the two German battleships, they picked up at least 20 survivors (some reports list numbers as high as 38) from the flaming wreck who went on to become POWs for the duration, largely at Stalag X-B, a merchant lager near Bremervorde.
German ADM Wilhelm Marschall, aboard Gneisenau, ordered his task force to withdraw into an approaching gale, doubled back towards the Arctic to lose their pursuers, and returned to Wilhelmshaven on 27 November after successfully evading the alerted, and very revenge-minded, British fleet.
The responding 6-inch gun-armed light cruisers Newcastle and Delhi spotted the Germans at a range of 6 miles as they left Rawalpindi’s last location around 1900 on 23 November but chose, wisely, not to engage.
Another P&O passenger ship converted to an armed merchant cruiser, HMS Chitral (F57), moved in to search Rawalpindi’s floating wreckage field for survivors the next morning, in the end rescuing 10 and landing them at Clyde on 24 November where the Second Sea Lord, ADM Sir Charles Little, was on hand to greet them in a special parade in London.
Around the world, the incorrect headline, “Rawalpindi sunk by the Deutschland” flashed.
While there had been a number of warships sunk by aircraft (see= Polish Navy) and significant individual submarine vs. ship actions– for instance between the carrier HMS Courageous and U-29 on 17 September that left British carrier and 518 of her crew in the cold embrace of Poseidon– the often forgotten scrap between Rawalpindi and the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst was the first large surface clash of World War II and the first the British had seen since 1919 when RADM Tich Cowan tossed around the Red Navy in the Baltic during the Russian Civil War.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told Parliament of the Rawalpindi: “These men might have known, as soon as they sighted the enemy, that there was no chance, but they had no thought of surrender. They fired their guns until they could be fired no more, and many went to their deaths in the great tradition of the Royal Navy. Their example will be an inspiration to those that come after them.”
On the 6 December 1939, then-First Sea Lord Winston Churchill honored the sacrifice of the Rawalpindi in Parliament, “Whose glorious fight against overwhelming odds deserves the respect and honor of the House (of Commons) and of the nation.”
Of Rawalpindi’s sisters, Ranchi served on East Indies Station and in the Pacific during the war as an armed merchant cruiser and was returned successfully to P&O in 1947. She was then used on 15 lengthy emigrant voyages from Portsmouth to Australia carrying thousands of “Ten Pound Poms” to Oz on one-way trips before she was broken up in 1953.
Rajputana was likewise transformed into an armed merchant cruiser during WWII and was torpedoed and sunk off Iceland on 13 April 1941 by U-108, after escorting convoy HX 117 across the North Atlantic. In all, the British lost 15 out of 57 of their armed merchant cruisers in WWII: 10 to U-boats, three to German surface raiders, one (the converted A. Holt & Co liner HMS Hector) to Japanese carrier aircraft and one (the converted P&O liner HMS Comorin) to fire.
HMS Ranpura (F93) was used as an armed cruiser in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean during WWII and notably moved Britain’s gold reserves to Canada in 1940 for safekeeping. She finished the war as a repair and depot ship in Malta and was retained by the RN through the 1950s in such a role, participating in the Suez Crisis, before she was finally scrapped in 1961, the last of her class.
Rawalpindi is remembered extensively in maritime art by the likes of Jack Spurling, William McDowell, and Norman Wilkinson.
The original 1:48 scale (2155 x 4045 x 900 mm) P&O builder’s model of SS Rawalpindi, complete with its ornately carved mahogany display case, is on display at the Maritime Museum Greenwich, London.
As for P&O, they went defunct in 2006 with their assets spun off to Maersk and Carnival.
“Bulldog” Kennedy is remembered in a memorial at High Wycombe, Bucks, on a panel in Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, at the Plymouth memorial, and on an altar rail at All Saints Church, Farringdon, as well as wherever old sea dogs gather to tell stories.
The Admiralty mentioned him in dispatches, but he was not posthumously decorated. Perhaps a VC would have been appropriate or, alternatively, the entire crew of Rawalpindi collectively could have been recognized with the George Cross, much like the population of Malta was in 1942.
Kennedy’s son, Ludovic, went on to be a noted journalist and BBC broadcaster. In 1971 he hosted an hour-long documentary entitled “The Life and Death of the Scharnhorst.”
Notably, he spoke with eloquence of the stand of the Rawalpindi saying, “In Britain, this action caught the imagination in a way that it might not have done later. For it was the first naval action of the war and it showed people that they could still rely on the Navy and that, even in a ship manned by pensioners and reservists, the Navy was going to fight this war’s battles as it had in the past, whatever the outcome, whatever the cost.”
Displacement: 16,697 grt / 9,459 nrt
Length: 547.7 ft
Beam: 71.3 ft
Draft: 25.9 ft
Engines: 2- Screw 2 shaft 2xQ4cyl (33, 47, 67.5, 97 x 60in) Harland & Wolff engines, 2478nhp, 15000ihp, 17.8 knots
Crew: (1939) 276
8 x 6″/45 (15.2 cm) BL Mark VII guns
2 x QF 3 in (76 mm) 20 cwt anti-aircraft guns
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“Explosive Torpedoes Found under the interned German ships Prinz Eitel Friedrich and Kronprinz Wilhelm after they were seized by the United States in April 1917. These devices, shown here disassembled with components labeled, were placed by the ships’ German crewmembers in anticipation of the seizure, in hopes of disabling the ships and thus rendering them useless to the U.S. ”
A 16,000-ton passenger liner turned German auxiliary cruiser (Hilfskreuzer) with the help of 14 small deck guns, SMS Prinz Eitel Friedrich had claimed 11 Allied ships over the winter of 1914-15 before she escaped destruction at the hands of the Warship Wednesday alumni, Royal Canadian Naval Service’s HMCS Niobe, by presenting herself to the captain of the port at Hampton Roads. She was later moved to Philadelphia Naval Yard and interned alongside Kronprinz Wilhelm. She was renamed USS DeKalb (ID-3010) and placed in commission on 12 May 1917 to serve as a troopship to carry Doughboys “over there.” She was later used as the liner Mount Clay, scrapping in 1927.
The 24,000-ton liner/hilfskreuzer SMS Kronprinz Wilhelm had much the same story as Friedrich and renamed USS Von Steuben after her seizure in 1917 in honor of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, of Valley Forge fame. She put into Halifax on the afternoon of 6 December 1917 to respond to the terrific explosion at the port– which also damaged HMCS Niobe, giving her and Friedrich another connection.
Postwar, she continued to sail for the U.S. Shipping Board simply as Von Steuben until 1923.
In a final tie-in between the two German liners and Niobe, the Canadian vessel was scrapped in Philadelphia in 1923.
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