The details of the following story are based on an actual happening, and have never before been related. It is a tale of tragedy at sea, and of the heroism displayed by men thrown together in a common lot by the fortunes of war. The setting is in the "Graveyard of the Atlantic", that frigid gray expanse of the North Atlantic in the land of the midnight sun, a hundred miles south of the polar ice packs.
The time, July 1942, six months after our entry in the Second World War. Already this part of the Atlantic had become the final resting place for thousands of Allied seamen and their ship's, the victims of marauding German U-boats, surface ship's and aircraft. Our task force, under the command of Admiral George Giffen, USN consisted of the battleship Washington, cruisers Tuscaloosa, Wichita and the British Devonshire. We were escorted by ten destroyers to act as anti-submarine and anti-aircraft patrol.
The duties of the task force consisted of protecting the convoys of relatively unarmed merchant ship's that had to run the gauntlet of German submarines, aircraft, and occasionally, surface ship's. Our position was west of the coast of Norway and was such that our forces would absorb the first impact of any thrusting at the convoy.
The ever present threat to any convoy of the Nazi cruiser Prinz Eugen and the mighty battleship Von Tirpitz, sister ship of the ill-fated Bismark, was foremost in our minds. It was the prime reason for our most powerful battleship, the Washington, operating in the area. The Nazi ship's were based at Trondheim, Norway approximately half the distance of the convoy route from Iceland to Murmansk, Russia. The possibility of their making a foray on the convoy was only too evident.
At six o'clock, the morning of May 1, 1942 while on such a convoy run, we received the electrifying news that our fears had been realized. Planes had spotted the Nazi ships with destroyer escort, steaming westward from Trondheim Fiord to the open sea. Immediately condition zebra was set, meaning that all watertight compartments were secured. We expectantly awaited further developments at our battle stations.
Meanwhile, fog had settled to such an extent that visibility was very poor. The ship's had to close in to within a few hundred yards of each other, and needless to say, skillful navigation was a necessity at all times. At three o'clock in the afternoon, we were joined by a large British force. Led by the battleship King George V, with the flag of Admiral John Tovey, of the British Home Fleet, at her foremast, the force included the battle cruiser Renown, the carrier Victorious, the cruisers, Kent, Glasglow, Tanganyika, and the Belfast and nine of Britains crack tribal class destroyers.
We were reassured by the addition of the new force. The fog had become so thick by now, that fog horns were the only way we had of knowing our positions. At three thirty, our destroyers relayed the startling news that contact had been made. Suddenly, several heavy underwater explosions occurred in the vicinity of our ship, and the vessel shuddered violently from the concussion. We were thrown off our feet and onto the deck by the terrific force. Most of us at our repair stations below deck figured that surely we had been torpedoed. The turning and twisting of the ship, as if trying to escape those missiles of death, gave credence to our thoughts. A few more explosions sounded beneath the ship. Then all was quiet.
At four o'clock, the clear signal was given. We went topside to see what happened. Upon our arrival on deck, we received a pleasant surprise. The fog had cleared, and the sun was shining brightly. It was altogether different from the bleak day we had last seen before going below deck.
Our momentary joy was replaced by sorrow however, at a sight which met our eyes. To our port, lying on her side and slowly sinking was the crack British destroyer Punjabi. The ship was broken in half, and her crew was in the water trying to swim clear. Life rings and lines were thrown in the water in an effort to aid the unfortunate men. British and American ship's alike, braved the peril of being torpedoed, by stopping to pick up members of the crew.
Details of the tragedy were related to us by members of our ship's crew stationed topside during general quarters. In the fog, the King George V had made a ninety degree turn to starboard, and in doing so, had rammed the Punjahi amidships, breaking her in half. Only very skillful maneuvering by Captain Benson, had prevented our ship from colliding with the Punjabi in her death throes. The explosions, which we had mistaken for torpedo hits, were the Punjabi’s depth charges exploding as the stern portion of the ship sank.
The loss of life on the destroyer was very heavy. Most of the men died in the frigid water before they could be rescued. The King George V was so badly damaged that she had to make port soon afterwards.
At six o'clock in the evening, we received the welcome news of the damaging of the Nazi cruiser Prinz Eugen. She had been struck by torpedoes from planes operating off the carrier Victorious, and she and the Von Tirpitz were steaming under forced draft back to the cover of Trondheim Fiord.
Our fears were now replaced by confidence. It was an exciting day, with only the tragic sinking of the Punjabi to mar the day. All of us slept soundly that night.
Note: by Robert T. Shaffer, 1/c R Division