JR Potts, AUS 173d AB (Updated: 1/2/2015):
During the inter-war years (the period between World War 1 and World War 2) Germany made a habit of side-stepping international treaty rules limiting the number and tonnage of warships allowed to the Kriegsmarine (based on the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles. As such, the Reichsmarine classified the Scheer as a smaller armored ship, or "Panzerschiff". This subterfuge of the class placed him in the eyes of the world as complying with the treaty rules for, at least on paper, he was a small warship. The heavy cruiser was one of the few ships in naval history that has often been referred to as male by its crew and referred to as "he"instead of the usual feminine gender use of "her" utilized in most navies of the world, even today.
The Scheer's first mission began in July 1936 when he was sent to Spain to evacuate German civilians caught up in the Spanish Civil War. The vessel was also called on to spy on Soviet ships carrying supplies to the Communist Republicans while protecting ships delivering German weapons to Franco's Nationalist Fascist Army. On May 31st,1937 he and several German planes bombarded the Republican town of Almeria, Spain, in response to a previous air attack on the sister ship KMS Deutschland. The British papers condemned it as a criminal act and, upon further review, only a few deaths were attributed to the limited shelling. By the end of June 1938 the Scheer had completed a total of eight deployments to Spain in support of the Fascist Spanish government. He returned to Germany for a refit, having his superstructure lowered for a reduced profile and radar image. After the refit, the Kriegsmarine reclassified him as a heavy cruiser for shore bombardment and supply delivery to Spain was not what Hitler had intended for his pocket battleships - commerce raiding of convoys was more the forte of this class
A convoy was a group of ships traveling together for mutual support and protection - this tactic was utilized before and during the Second World War. The British adopted a convoy system, initially voluntary and later compulsory for all merchant ships, when World War 2 was declared. The first convoys emerged from Canadian ports and then soon after from American ports. A Commodore with naval experience was assigned to oversee the assignment of these ships and their cargos. He would develop a master plan for each ship and they would be assigned to a particular spot in the convoy "box". The box required each ship to maintain a certain speed and keep an assigned distance from the ship along her bow and stern and to her on port and star board sides. No doubt this required a lot of discipline for each ship and crew, especially when considering operations at night, often running in complete darkness so as not to provide easy prey to enemy submarines.
Convoy HX-84 was assigned 38 merchant ships with cargos to be shipped from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada sailing to Liverpool, England under the command of Commodore H.B. Maltby. The vital cargos being carried by the ships in the convoy ranged from general merchandise, steel, military trucks and maize. The convoy sailed out on October 28th, 1940 taking a secret route only known to the captains at the time of sailing. Due to the lack of warships early in the war, the convoy's security was handled in three legs; first the local leg escort from Halifax was composed of the Canadian destroyers Columbia and St. Francis. The most dangerous center ocean leg was handled by the HMS Jervis Bay and the local escort close to English shores from Liverpool were the destroyers HMS Hesperus and three accompanying Corvettes. The ocean leg was assigned to a converted armed merchant ship, formally the Aberdeen & Commonwealth liner, Jervis Bay. The Jervis Bay, built originally as a passenger ship, was taken over by the Admiralty in August of 1939. She was fitted out with 7 x 6-inch guns of World War 1 vintage with each gun attaining a maximum range of 15,000 yards (or 8.5 miles) at 28-degree maximum elevation. Painted grey for camouflage and manned by 255 crew men, she proudly hoisted the White Ensign of an ocean escort for Atlantic convoys.
The Admiral Scheer slipped quietly into the Atlantic on October 14th, 1940, searching for a convoy target. Its two Arado seaplanes were launched daily looking over the horizon for targets or enemy warships to contend with. On November 5th, 1940 one of the pilots spotted a convoy and, not seeing any warships, felt it was an unescorted target and promptly radioed the Scheer with the ship's location.
The Scheer proceeded towards the position as radioed by the seaplane. Sure enough, as the Scheer approached the target location, only a single ship was seen. Captain Kranckes problem was that if he steamed around or attacked the small freighter she could radio the speed and heading of the Scheer and convoy HX.84 could scatter. Krancke decided to approach the vessel at flank speed and ordered the target vessel to stop and not use her radio. The vessel turned out to be the banana boat SS Mopan of 7,909 tons. The Mopan's skipper decided to obey the German order primarily since they themselves had no life boats to use and it was November in the chilly Atlantic. Scheer stopped and took on the 76 crew members as prisoners before destroying the Mopan, this becoming the Scheer's first kill. The decision on the part of the Mopan took an approximately an hour, giving the rest of the convoy more time to react and less daylight for the Scheer to operate in. With daylight running out, Captain Kranckes ordered full speed ahead.
Scheer's problem now was that it was late afternoon and it would be ever more difficult to find additional targets after dark. Captain Fegen of the Jervis Bay also knew the convoy needed time to escape and made the decision to attack the Scheer directly. Jervis Bay dropped smoke floats as she closed the range between her and the pocket battleship. Jervis fired but all her initial volley shots fell short and soon the 11 inch shells from Scheer started to find the Jarvis Bay. Without deck armor, casualties proved heavy. Captain Fegen was on the bridge when it was hit and lost an arm in the ensuing actions. He continued to give orders, trying to close the range, but was subsequently killed when another shell hit the bridge. The destruction of the bridge and its crew included the lost of gunnery control. In this 24 minute battle at sea, most of the Jarvis Bay officers were killed and, with the ship ablaze stem to stern, the order was given to abandon. 198 men were lost in this one-sided battle. The Swedish freighter Stureholm found and saved the remaining 65 crewmen. Captain Fegen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for Valor.