Sinking of the German Raider 'Sharnhorst'
A Newport Man's Story of The Second World War

By Jim Dyer
Original article published in the Western Mail on 23/12/87

© Jim Dyer 2012

Bill Watkins, pictured when he was serving with the Royal Navy escorting convoys to Russia during World War II. Picture from an old photocopy of the Western Mail December 23rd 1987.
Bill Watkins, pictured when he was serving with the Royal Navy
escorting convoys to Russia during World War II.

This is Bill Watkins' story of service in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Not only was he involved with the sinking of the German raider, Scharnhorst, but also the arduous Russian convoys in freezing weather. He passed away in Bettws some years ago but this article was widely applauded by readers of the Western Mail at the time of publication.

'There was a bell on board my ship HMS Watchman and if the ship listed to 45 degrees it would ring.

'The rolling of the ship was frightening and you would swear it was going over. The smell of crude oil still gives me a nervous stomach when I step on the gangplank of one of the visiting Royal Navy ships at Newport or Cardiff.'

So sums up Bill Watkins' memories. Now retired, he is not only a courageous man he is outspoken too - proud to bring to recognition the hardships which our seamen, royal or merchant, endured during the second world war for which there has been little acknowledgement.

The great Soviet nation has only recently started issuing medals to the brave men who ploughed the harsh Arctic waves to supply them with much-needed munitions and materials to crack the stronghold of the invading Nazi army. Many South Wales men sailed in these dangerous convoys and there are still dozens who will not easily forget the freezing weather and sleepless voyages across the icy waters of the Arctic Circle to the Kola Inlet and Murmansk.

Bill is proud to have come from Newport. The country was at war and this hard-brassed man had no qualms about volunteering for the Royal Navy in 1942 at the tender age of 16, having served an 'apprenticeship' in the local sea scouts.

Freezing Conditions

He qualified as a weapons mechanic at HMS Raleigh, Tor Point  and reflects, in a matter-of-fact way, 'Out of a class of 40 I was the only one allocated to Russian convoys.' He boarded a train for Scappa Flow and soon learnt the extent this commitment entailed.

He was engaged on secret patrols and not allowed to tell his mother what he was doing. Letters were censored as the slightest slip might be a disaster for the groups of merchant ships steaming north of the Arctic, America, or Scotland.

He was amongst the crew of HMS Onslaught a 1540 ton destroyer built in 1941 and was soon steaming north to escort a convoy of medical supplies. 'We picked them up off Scappa and took them to and from the Kola Inlet and other Russian ports. Once we picked-up four Americans from a Flying Fortress off Norway. Three were dead and the survivor had his arm amputated on the mess decks' table. I couldn’t eat for a fortnight.'

Most of the time they were hunting the dreaded U-boats with little time for rest when the convoy was under attack. 'We were at Action Stations all the time we were up there. The merchant navy boys had it hard but we were there all the time. We were at sea longer, refuelling at sea, and there was no let-up. The convoy would scatter when threatened and we would have to round them up later.'

At one stage of the war to stray from the convoy meant almost certain sinking in those inhospitable and freezing seas. Bill felt sorry for the merchant men who were totally reliant upon the Royal Navy escorts. The German U-boats would employ all sorts of ploys to lure the escorts on false trails leaving the tramp ships sitting-ducks for torpedoes.

Bill remembers, 'One of the worse things I have seen is dead seamen in lifeboats, frozen to death, covered in ice. There was no point stopping even if we could. We had to depth-charge now and then while survivors were in the water. War is a terrible thing. If you went into the water you knew you would die. It was so cold.'

His ship once attacked a U-boat recharging its batteries in an iceberg and on another occasion dropped 50 depth-charges over a submerged U-boat for five days. 'Still we couldn't get it,' he said.

Mighty Battleship Sunk

The captain of the Onslaught, Joe Selby, was much respected by his crew and their naval discipline was to be tested to the limit when they were escorting Convoy JW55B and hear that the mighty German commerce raider, the Scharnhorst,  was in the area.

The powerfully built battleship, displacing some 26,000 tons, was the pride of the German navy and the scourge of allied shipping. Just off Bear Island the two opposing forces converged. Bill recalls, ' It was December 21, 1943 when we heard the news. Everyone on board was frightened. There was total silence. Our strict training was the only thing that kept us at our posts.'

As it transpired the Onslaught was ordered to remain with the convoy, but Bill witnessed the events on that pitch-black Boxing Day. 'The skies were brilliantly lit-up by starshell and the noise of shells being fired and exploding was terrific. In the morning HMS Belfast was put out of action and a second salvo from the Scharnhorst fired the Norfolk.

'The Duke of York was called up and got within 15 miles of her and then all hell was let loose. The Scorpion hit her with four torpedoes, but the Duke of York fired 470 shells that day. Eventually the job was completed by the Duke of York and the cruiser Jamaica, the Scharnhorst  going to the bottom at 6pm. I'll never forget that day.'

Surviving Aboard

It was not only the U-boats and the Luftwaffe which brought danger; there was a greater danger - the weather.

'The weather was a real swine - the enemy. I have seen ships funnels lying down from the weight of ice and waves 40 or 50ft high pounding the ship mercilessly. In 1943 we never had Christmas dinner or any sleep because of the conditions. In any case you couldn't sit down and eat or drink and held onto anything you could.

'The mess deck had 18 inches of water in it caused by melting ice. We were continually seasick and nearly froze to death. The guardrails were frozen solid with 8 inch thick ice. The guns were frozen solid and we couldn't fire them if we wanted to. The lifeboat splintered. Terrible.'

In the early days the clothing issue was inadequate. 'All we had to wear were rubber wellies and duffle coats. Even then there weren't enough coats to go round and we had to share. Once Lord Mountbatten's wife came aboard and couldn't believe the clothing. She arranged for us to get proper stuff - fur-lined boots and coats. The best we ever had.'

Change of ship

In February 1944 he joined the old destroyer HMS Watchman but there was no escape from the Arctic. 'The ship was a bit rough and needed repairs. Surprisingly it rode those seas a lot better than the new Onslaught. But the bad weather persisted.

'On one run we were returning home from Russia in the worst weather I have ever known; waves must have been 60ft high and the ship was listing perilously. it was being hammered so badly that one of the engines moved. We called the deep sea tugs but they wouldn’t come out because the weather was too rough!'

' We all had to stand to starboard to try to stop the list. Then we got caught in a minefield. We got to the Faeroes Inlet with only one propshaft working to await a Norwegian diver to carry out repairs. This took 14 days and I was really glad to get back to Princes Dock, Liverpool - how we ever made it in that weather, I will never know.'

Sadly Bill reflects that the pressure of the weather became too much for some of the crew. 'One young boy hung himself. He couldn’t take it and just cracked up. I felt sorry for him.'

The Watchman was later sent to the Normandy landings and to patrol the busy English Channel aptly named 'E-Boat Alley'. But Bill was never able to forget the tortuous Arctic runs and that eventful Boxing Day. He has memories too of his old shipmates - Ivor Humphries from Swansea and the famous singer and television personality, David Hughes.

Of the German navy he has nothing but respect. 'They had the finest gunners and rangefinders in the world. They were like us – discipline and plenty of tradition. They wouldn’t run from a fight. Their gunnery was superb and accurate.'

In 1981 Bill Watkins was attending a function and met some survivors of the Scharnhorst. Pleasantries were exchanged and memories.

'I shook hands and as I was about to leave one of them said - It's a good job the Tirpitz wasn't with us - it would have been a different story!'

Bill Watkins could only agree.

Jim Dyer - 22/12/11


1. Original article published in the Western Mail on 23/12/87

2. Battle information from various books