A report about HMS Electra and the sinking and rescue of some of her passengers, by Able Seaman Jack Taylor
H.M. Destroyer "Electra" built and launched by Hawthorn Leslie 1934. 1375 tons displacement. 4x4.7" guns. 2x4 torpedo tubes. Complement 148 officers and men. Pennant No H27. She was one of a flotilla of nine:
H. 02: Exmouth (leader)
Prior to the start of the Second World War, the "E" boats as we were known, had been laid up in reserve. Quickly they were brought out of retirement, were manned, stored, ammunitioned and made ready for sea. I was a 19 year old Able Seaman in No 3 mess, Action Station sight setter "X" gun aft. Captain of the gun was Leading Seaman Brayley. "Electra" was under the command of Lieutenant Commander SA Buss — a very good Captain who could find his way on any ocean of the world. A fine navigator and a fine seaman and officer. The First Lieutenant, known as "Jimmy the One" was Richard D Jenner-Fust, a gentleman, if ever there was one. He was responsible for the day to day running of the ship. A fair man to a point. If you were adrift or late on duty he would see you did not do it again.
The few weeks leading up to 3rd September 1939 when war was declared were hard and tiresome. It was a period called ‘Working up’ — learning to fight the ship. It was practice all the time. Gun crews, torpedo men, night action stations, dawn action stations. This went on day in, day out. Sea trials steaming at speed and turning. Gun turret practice. Surface firing. Another day practice. Surface firing. Another day an aeroplane would fly over towing a drogue. Anti aircraft guns would go into action, firing at the drogue. Eventually we were as ready as we would ever be.
We were split into two watches — port watch and starboard watch. This was known as the two watch cruising system. While one half of the ship’s company were sleeping or working normal ship’s duties, the other half were closed up at gun cruising stations. This was 4 hours on and 4 hours off until 4 O’Clock in the afternoon when the watch on duty did only 2 hours. This watch was known as a ‘dog watch’. By alternating the 4pm to 6pm and 6pm to 8pm watches we automatically changed and nobody did the same watch on consecutive days.
The names of men in this book are real and served with me. Buster Brown and AB from Suffolk was always good for a laugh. Nick Carter, a three badge Able Seaman, Royal Fleet Reserve had already served his time and was recalled to "Electra".
When we received the signal that war had been declared, jubilation went round the ship and there was great excitement. Guns were cleared and made ready for action. Ammunition was brought up from the magazines and placed in the ready use lockers. 4.7" shells were stowed in the ready use racks around the gun platforms.
We had eight 21" torpedo tubes amidships in two sets of four. These were drawn and armed with warheads. 0.5" machine guns were loaded. These guns were set between the two funnels either side of the ship. Everyone was in high spirits and the ASDIC operator, Leading Seaman Darby Allen, was already pinging away sending electrical waves through the water hunting for U Boats. The day was drawing to a close. The port watch had closed up at cruising stations and the starboard watch was at supper. I was in starboard watch and had finished my meal was enjoying a cigarette. I had got first watch — 8pm to 10 midnight. Suddenly the shrill pipe of the Bosun’s call sounded and the Bosun’s Mate, Able Seaman Smith called "Starboard Watch to Cruising Stations." It was now dark with a chill in the air. I donned my duffle coat and went to my cruising station which was the 0.5" machine gun platform. I had only been on watch about 5 minutes when there was a lot of activity on the bridge. Signal lamps were flashed between the two destroyers and we suddenly altered course. A S.O.S. had been received from the Donaldson Line Ship "S.S. Athenia". She had been torpedoed about 250 miles off Ireland — the first ship of the war to have been attacked. The "Athenia" was 13,581 tons gross. She had onboard 1414 passengers and crew under Captain James Cook bound from Liverpool to Montreal. Among the passengers were many American women and children going home.
We were now steaming at full speed to the position given by the radio officer in "Athenia." She was some 200+ miles from us and at 30 knots it would take some seven to eight hours to reach the position. Decks were cleared, jumping nets made ready at the ship’s side and jumping ladders were keyed up. We were all keeping a good look-out. At 12 midnight the watch was changed and Port Watch took over cruising stations. I went below to get a little rest but it was all too much and we were unable to sleep. Just before 0400 hours when we would have changed watch again, the Tannoy system came to life, "Action Stations! Action Stations!" Within 5 minutes the ship was closed up and ready.
As dawn broke we were able to discern the horizon. The look-out called, "Ship bearing Green 2 OH, Sir!" "Very good," came the reply. We had arrived at the position 04.35am 4th September 1939. The "Athenia" was still afloat. There were boats filled with people, people in lifebelts floating around and others clinging to pieces of wreckage.
The destroyer escort signalled "Electra to pick up survivors," while she circled round the stricken vessel searching in case the U-Boat was still in the area. The order came, "Port Watch fall out, stand by to pick up survivors. Starboard Watch to cruising Stations." By this time another ship had appeared on the scene. She was a Norwegian freighter. We picked up 300+ women and children and we took over the patrol whilst the destroyer "Escort" picked up another 300+ survivors. The Norwegian also had boats down picking up people in the water. The ship, by this time, had a very bad list and the boats’ falls were hanging down into the water.
One of the ladies we had on board was the ship’s nurse and she said, "I think there’s still a woman in sickbay." Our whaler was lowered and the boats crew pulled over to the "Athenia." Two of the crew climbed up the rope falls hanging over the ship’s side. They found the woman still on the bunk in the sickbay. Quickly they got her wrapped in a blanket and got her on deck, put a rope round her and lowered her into the whaler. She was brought back to "Electra” where she was put into our sickbay. The woman had sustained a broken nose through falling down a gangway before the U-Baot attacked.
By now it was getting on for 12 O’Clock midday . A thorough search was made of the area and no more could be found. The stricken ship was now a danger to shipping and was sunk by gunfire. We turned away and made course for Greenock on Scotland.
Our ship’s Cook was doing a grand job supplying our guests as we called them with hot soup, tea, cocoa and sandwiches. The women took over the messdecks so we stayed at the guns. Cookie sent us corned beef and hot soup. During the two and a half to three days it took us to get to Greenock we went to depth charge Stations several times. The first time some of the survivors got a little panicky but when we explained what was happening they were quite happy and cheered every time we depth charged.
We arrived at Greenock about 7th September. Signals had been sent and as we came alongside ambulances, nurses, doctors and other transport were waiting to take our guests. We said our goodbyes. Many of them had tears and we were kissed and hugged.
We spent the next 24 hours getting the ship back to wartime condition from what was a nursery and floating hotel. Many of us had to replace uniform parts as we had given them away because most of our guests had lost everything and many were in wet clothes. So went the first 4 days of the war for "Electra."