Ernest Swinhoe was onboard the Duchess. The thought of the trapped men peering thru the portholes screaming for help makes for hard reading. I just hope my uncle was not one of them.
It was an icy, black, December night and the destroyer, "Duchess" was heading home to the north of Scotland. Only another hour and she could dock at Greenock, at the end of a spectacular, record - breaking passage from East to West.
The declaration on of war on Germany in that ; September of 1939, had been the signal for the flotilla of nine ships --all 'D' Class destroyers -- to leave their Chinese port, with the instruction to set sail for the 'friendly' waters of the U.K. with "the greatest possible speed".
It had been a rare experience, an impressive and morale - boosting sight for the crew of the "Duchess", as they had steamed away in single file and at thirty knots, heading for refueling at Singapore On they had gone at break-neck speeds, beyond Colombo, Aden and into the Suez Canal.
Here, the other shipping had been halted to ensure the flotilla's unimpeded progress to Malta. At Malta, three of the destroyers -- "Duchess", "Dainty", and 'Delight" -- were detailed to escort the Battleship "Barham" from Gibraltar to Scotland.
The "Barham" was a mighty ship. A veteran of previous skirmishes with the German fleet at Jutland in 1916. A massive vessel of some 31,000 tons, she dwarfed her escorting destroyers. The battleship and her escorts followed the usual pattern of submarine - avoidance by zigzagging, making it difficult for an enemy submarine to obtain a 'fix' on the ship.
It had been a lightning trip -- perhaps the fastest East - West passage ever recorded and the crew of the "Duchess" were rightly proud of their achievement, as, in the early gloom of a December morning, she zigged and zagged her way towards the Hull of Galloway.
The majority of the crew were below, asleep and the Petty Officer on watch had closed down all but one of the gunnery implacements, held a roll - call of his ten gun crew and ordered them to go below, to secure their hammocks, To clear the way for their messmates at breakfast.
Only a young Ordinary Seaman, a 'boy sailor' called Ernest Swinhoe, was left up top at the 'A' gun. He was the 'communication number', the sailor on watch at the 'fore - gun. As the junior rating, he had been given the icy, early morning duty and he envied his gunnery mates their chance to go below into the warmth of the mess.
Ern had been lucky to join this destroyer, to be a part of the friendly crew of the "Duchess", along with his good friend Peter Port. Peter was his best mate, the lad who had shown him the sights of Hong Kong, before they had left the East,
They had both felt privileged to be a part of this record- breaking destroyer flotilla. As an electrician, Peter was fortunate, he thought, to be below in the warmth of the low power room. Safe from the biting chill of a Scottish strait.
It was 04OO hours now, and the watch had begun. Only an hour of this and they would be home and dry. Ern stood in the shelter of the gun shield, to avoid the wind.
There was a blackout and the absence of moonlight made it a coal-black night. He adjusted his headphones and looked aft. It 3. was then that he saw the massive shape of a ship's prow bearing down on him out of the darkness.
It towered over the diminutive destroyer and with a sickening sound, hit the "Duchess" at about half way and with such tremendous speed, that she simply turned the destroyer over. As she. 'turned turtle' Ern dived into the cold black sea, as other, half - naked sailors scrambled desperately round the rolling hull.
The "Barham's" searchlight lit up the scene, It had been her towering form that had pushed the "Duchess" over. Her crew felt sure that they had hit an enemy submarine, as the "Duchess'" upturned asdic domre looked just like a conning tower.
But, when her searchlight beam moved aft, it revealed the awful truth -- the sight of a ship's screws, still turning --and her horrified crew began to sweep for survivors. The water was freezing and oil - ridden. There had been no time to grab lifebelts and Ern pushed off his rubber boots and overcoat, alternately treading water and floating on his back.
Out of the blackness, a drowning shipmate struggled towards him. He was naked and desperate and Ern realized from his 'Ganges' training, that the condemned boy would use him as a lifebelt - and so, condemn them both.
Ern swam away to a reasonable distance, until the poor fellow disappeared. The light from the "Barham" lit up the side of the upturned "Duchess" and Ern could clearly see the faces of frightened men, shouting through tiny portholes, from which they were unable to escape. On the fast - disappearing hull of the "Duchess", men were clinging on, until the "Barham" pulled alongside, plucking them to safety, only moments before the boilers of the "Duchess" blew and she disappeared. beneath the waves, taking her entombed crew with her.
The "Barham" and her other destroyer escorts, lowered boats and Ern began to shout to them. He realized that he had been in the water for some time now. His chances of survival were diminishing for every minute he was left in that icy waste. Suddenly, he heard the sound of a rowing boat and a coxswain shouting, "Oars!"
The men stopped rowing now and the coxswain shouted again for silence.~ Ern summoned up ~'what little strength he had left and called for help. He was aware of a ship's lifeboat coming alongside and pairs of arms reaching out to pull him into the craft. He felt numb as the cold air hit him and he pleaded with his rescuers to put him back into the water, where it had felt warmer. When he reached the safety of the "Barham' he was a shaking mass, unable to warm himself through.
He was severely hypothermic and had 'been lucky to survive. His rescuers had pulled him out of the water at some minutes after 0500 hours, which meant that he had been in the water for an hour -- beyond a reasonable amount of survival time for conditions such as those on that December night.
As he recovered, Ern learned that he was one of only twenty - three survivors from the ill - fated "Duchess" and, her crew of a hundred and sixty men. His fate had rested on the timing of his watch duty.
He had possibly been the only sailor aboard to see the fateful collision, when the zig and zag of the two vessels had coincided. His heart went out to his mate, Peter Fort, who had been below at the point of impact. He couldn't possibly have survived and Ern hoped that he had known little of what was happening,' as he and a hundred and twenty - three others perished in what was officially described at the time, as, "One of those unfortunate accidents of war." More than fifty years have passed since that accident and my father --
Ordinary Seaman Ernest Swinhoe still remembers the events of December 12th. 1939, as if it happened yesterday. He can recall the cold, misery and confusion.
The anguish of seeing entombed sailors shouting from tiny portholes, the pain of losing a good friend and the guilt of seeing a shipmate drown before his eyes.
Since that day, however, ships have had escape hatches built into their sides, to prevent the fate that befell many of the "Duchess'" crew. While her demise had not been as 'newsworthy' as that of the "Hood", the "Bismarck", or -- later -- the poor old "Barham" herself, lessons had been learnt from this awful night in 1939.