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Sep. 25, 2020 | Friday
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Writer's Circle: Dids' story: Chasing a German warship
File photo.

This is the second of three parts.

Richard West

NOTL Writers’ Circle

There were six children in our family. I was the youngest, 10 years younger than my brother Dick. Being the youngest, I had been looked after a good deal by my siblings.  

When I was five, my father died of tuberculosis, soon followed, by my eldest sister, Eugenie. The family had lived in Peckham, in southeast London, in two rented rooms, no cooking facilities, a gaslight and little heating.  A perfect incubator for disease!  

After the First World War, the government built Council House Estates around London. Our family was lucky. We moved into a small house in Downham, in S.E. London. It was too small for the family, but much better than two rooms in Peckham. I was born and grew up in Downham.

By the time the Second World War broke out, I was living with my mother, while my remaining siblings were married. Even though the Downham Estate was away from London itself, we still experienced bombing, forcing us into air raid shelters at night.  

It was from this suburban life that I was catapulted into the Senior Service. Like so many others, I knew nothing of ships, the sea, or war.  What I did know, was how to be happy and content.  I achieved that with a smile and a chuckle.  But what had puzzled me, and my family, was why the Royal Navy would want a sailor who could neither swim, read or write?




In December 1943, the HMS Virago was part of a convoy’s destroyer screen when the German capital ship Scharnhorst ventured out from northern Norway.  Two convoys were in the vicinity: ours, returning from Russia, and an outgoing convoy.

A Royal Navy task force was in the area, acting as cover for the convoys. Scharnhorst was located and cruisers attacked her.  During this brief fight, Scharnhorst’s radar was disabled. There followed a cat-and-mouse search, as the Scharnhorst lost the cruisers in the dark, heavy seas.

Our destroyer group was detached from the convoy to act as additional escorts for the battleship, Duke of York. We pounded through the heavy seas as fast as possible, without endangering the ships.  The Duke of York located the Scharnhorst and opened fire, guided entirely by her radar.  The slugging match went on for a considerable time, until the injured Scharnhorst broke away at high speed.  

She was located again. Shells from the Duke of York caused further damage. One shell penetrated the Scharnhorst’s armour and exploded in the engine room.

Losing speed, Scharnhorst turned and fought, what all knew would be her final fight.

Badly damaged, but still firing any remaining operating guns, she was attacked with torpedoes. We were in the final attack group, racing toward our quarry with all guns blazing. The noise was terrifying, especially down in the locked engine room, with all the screaming machinery.

Torpedo hits caused the Scharnhorst to capsize under the black sky, and sink in the freezing sea.

To be continued.