Friday, 29 July 2011

Lewis Heroes of the Rawalpindi

Stornoway Gazette, 8 December 1939
In the House of Commons last week the Prime Minister paid tribute to the naval reservists and pensioners of HM auxiliary cruiser “Rawalpindi” whose heroic fight against two German pocket battleships has aroused the admiration of the whole world.
“These men might have known as soon as they sighted the enemy that there was no chance”, said Mr Chamberlain. “But they had no thought of surrender. They fired their guns until they could be fired no more, and many of them went to their deaths thereby carrying on the great tradition of the Royal Navy. Their example will be an inspiration to those who come after them.”
Twelve at least of these gallant men were fellow islanders of ours, and the whole community shares the sorrow of their relatives at home, a sorrow which may be lightened at times by the flickering hope that they are still alive, although prisoners in the hands of the enemy, but which which is more likely to be tormented by fears and doubts that are more poignant than certainty.

There may be those in the crowded cities, lying under the terror of air raids, who turn wistful eyes towards the peaceful islands of the west, out of the danger zone, a sanctuary in the midst of the storm. But while these islands may be relatively safe from direct attack, and there is no need to carry gas masks to one’s daily work, or dig air raid shelters in the streets, they are contributing more towards the defence of the Empire than most other communities of the same size.

In the “Courageous”, the “Royal Oak”, the “Northern Rover” and in other losses the details of which are not known, men from these islands have already forfeited their lives, and in many of the disasters which have overtaken our merchant fleet. Lewis and Harris lads have conducted themselves with tenacity and courage. There were three in the “Athenia”, ten in the “Lochavon” out of a total deck complement of sixteen and one in the “Arlington Court”, a modest youth from Calbost  who is now at home recuperating at home from the effects of six days’ exposure in an open boat.

No one would claim for these men least of themselves, that they are struck from a finer die than the rest of humanity or moulded of a nobler clay, but one can without any sense of boastfulness that when the nation is at war, the small crofting and fishing communities of the northern Scottish seaboard have a contribution to make to the fighting forces which is out of all proportion to their population or their wealth.

The name of “Rawalpindi” is in our minds today. In the past it was known as that of the largest garrison town in the whole of India, “the key to the British system of defence in the North-West Frontier”, but now the name has other associations for us and for the world. Let those who today feel pride in the gallant heroes of the “Rawalpindi” remember, when the strife is over and the wounds have healed, that many of those who died in that desperate encounter were men from another North-West frontier, which is seldom mentioned in the history books, but whose sons have done more than most to man the garrisons of the Empire”.

Historical note
The battle preceding the loss of the Rawalpindi has gone down in naval history as an incredible display of bravery on the part of its crew. After trying to hide themselves from the Germans in the North Atlantic fog south of Iceland, they were ordered to surrender by the Scharnhorst. In response, the captain of the Rawalpindi said: never. And he fired a shell at the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau to underline his point. Bear in mind that the Rawalpindi was a converted passenger liner, kitted out with a gun and some armour plating. The Scharnhorst had to reply in kind, and sank the Rawalpindi. The bravery was noted by the German admiralty (sic!). All but 37 of the Rawalpindi’s crew were lost in the sinking. Their sacrifice was not in vain; before battle commenced, the Rawalpindi had been able to signal the position of the German battlecruisers to back to base on the Clyde, and an armada of British warships was heading north to intercept. More on this story here.
The casualties from the Isle of Lewis were:

Seaman DONALD MACARTHUR (Dollan Mhurchaidh Alasdair), 10 Cromore
Seaman COLIN MACKAY, 31 South Bragar
Leading Seaman MURDO MACKAY (Mac Choinnich Dhomhnuill Alais ‘c Dhonnachaidh), 53 Back
Seaman JOHN MACKENZIE, 21 Swordale
Seaman NORMAN MACLEOD, 25 Swordale
Able Seaman WILLIAM MACLEOD, Marybank, Stornoway
Leading Seaman JOHN MURDO NICOLSON, 3 Marybank, Stornoway
Seaman DONALD SMITH junior (Domhnall a’Bhard), 52 North Tolsta

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