|Ship Class||R-class Merchant Vessel|
|Builder||Harland and Wolff Heavy Industries, Greenock, Scotland, United Kingdom|
|Launched||22 Aug 1925|
|Commissioned||1 Oct 1939|
|Sunk||23 Nov 1939|
|Displacement||16965 tons standard|
|Armament||8x150mm guns, 2x76mm AA guns|
|Original Owner||Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company|
|Acquired by Royal Navy||24 Aug 1939|
Contributor: Alan Chanter
ww2dbaseAt the outbreak of World War II the Admiralty re-established what was known in the 1914-18 war as the Northern Patrol - an extended line of warships patrolling a vast area of the North Atlantic from Norway to Greenland. Their purpose was to intercept German shipping returning to Germany, and to report the presence of German warships breaking out into the Atlantic. Many of the patrol ships were armed merchant cruisers: ex-passenger liners fitted with guns, flying the White Ensign and commanded by retired naval officers who had been recalled to service (some of them after been on the retired list since the 1921 Geddes Act - a Government economy to reduce drastically the number of senior naval officers).
ww2dbaseShortly before the outbreak of hostilities, Captain (Retd) Edward Coverley Kennedy RN, almost sixty years of age, was surprised and pleased to receive a letter from the Admiralty inviting him to assume command of the SS Rawalpindi, a 17,000-ton former P & O cruise liner which was in the process of being converted into just such an armed merchant-cruiser. Captain Kennedy (incidentally the father of the famous journalist, broadcaster and author-Sir Ludovic Kennedy) was one of the "old-school" naval officers who believed fervently in a code of honour that placed duty above life itself. A man of strong opinions (he had been the Conservative Agent for South Buckinghamshire between the wars), there was never going to be any doubt about his willingness to take up the position. His son, also serving in the RNVR as a Lieutenant, would say later that he had never seen his father so pleased as when they toured the vessel together inspecting the work in progress.
ww2dbaseThe Merchant-Cruisers were never intended to engage in combat with enemy warships, but only to intercept and search any vessels attempting to bring contraband goods into German ports. Nevertheless it was to the Rawalpindi fame that she should be the vessel involved in the first naval clash between surface warships during the war.
ww2dbaseAt 3.51 pm on the 23rd of November 1939 the patrolling Rawalpindi sent an enemy-sighted report to the Admiralty and, a few minutes later (falsely), identified the enemy as the German pocket-battleship Deutschland, which had been earlier reported to be at sea. (It wasn't-The Deutschland had already been recalled to port after sinking just two small ships). The enemy was in fact the mighty German Battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau which Grand Admiral Raeder had despatched two days earlier as a preliminary operation to give the two big ships some experience before letting them loose on the main trade routes.
ww2dbaseSignalled by the German warships to heave to and abandon ship, Captain Kennedy chose instead to turn and engage the enemy warships. Long before the gallant Rawalpindi could get within range to use her elderly 6-inch guns, German shells, from the powerful 11-inch guns of the Scharnhorst, reduced her to a smashed and burning wreck. Within forty minutes the shattered vessel sank beneath the waves taking with her 265 brave men including her gallant Captain. The Gneisenau picked up twenty-one survivors, Scharnhorst another six, and on the following day HMS Chitral found eleven more.
ww2dbaseAdmiral Forbes, the Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief, having been notified of Rawalpindi's two sighting reports of the "Deutschland", ordered the Home Fleet to sail at once from Scapa Flow to intercept, but in the meantime, HMS Newcastle, the next ship to the Rawalpindi on the patrol line, closed the position and also sighted the two German Battle-cruisers, but lost them again in a heavy rainstorm. This was probably fortuitous for Newcastle as her six-inch guns would most certainly have been no match against the superior firepower of the German ships, and she might well have gone to a similar fate as Rawalpindi if she too had attempted to engage alone.
ww2dbaseAdmiral Marschall, who commanded the two German ships, correctly anticipating Admiral Forbes' response, chose to abandon his mission immediately and at high speed broke away to return to Germany. The Home Fleet had little chance of catching the two fast Battle-cruisers, for the distance was just too great. This sudden retirement by the German vessels astonished many in the British Admiralty, who just could not believe that the Germans had turned back and ran for home when they held all the cards to their advantage. This was something that would recur often during the war leaving Allied naval commanders constantly surprised that the German Navy did not more often stand and make a fight unless so cornered that they had no other choice.
ww2dbaseOn the 6th of December 1939, First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill would pay honour to the sacrifice of the Rawalpindi with this tribute to Parliament: "...Whose glorious fight against overwhelming odds deserves the respect and honour of the House (of Commons) and of the nation". And on the 18th of December in a broadcast to the Nation, Churchill would compare the tragic but heroic end of Rawalpindi to the inglorious scuttling of the German pocket-battleship Admiral Graf Spee in Montevideo Roads (the day before) with the comment "Once in harbour she had the choice of submitting in the ordinary manner to internment, which would have been unfortunate for her, or, of coming out to fight and going down in battle, like the Rawalpindi, which would have been honourable to her".
The War at Sea (John Winton, Book Club Associates, 1972) - For Ludovic Kennedy's tribute to his father
War Diary, (Lincolnshire Echo Supplement, November 2005) - Not entirely accurate but I have listed it here as the only place where I could find reference to the number of crewmen lost
Battle of the Atlantic (Purnell's History of the World Wars Special, 1975)
Pictorial History of the Second World War Vol.2 (Walter Hutchinson, Library Press, undated) - For Churchill's remarks
HMS Rawalpindi Operational Timeline
|22 Aug 1925||Rawalpindi was launched.|
|1 Oct 1939||Rawalpindi was commissioned into British Royal Navy service.|
|23 Nov 1939||Rawalpindi stumbled upon German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. When asked to abandon ship, Captain Edward Kennedy turned toward the German ships in an attempt to get into range of her 6-inch guns. She was to be sunk by the German 11-inch guns before she could get close enough.|
|6 Dec 1939||First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill honored the officers and crew of Rawalpindi, "[w]hose glorious fight against overwhelming odds deserves the respect and honour of the House [of Commons] and of the nation".|
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George Patton, 31 May 1944