Posts Tagged ‘HMS Keppel’

Sir Winston Churchill described the convoys from ports in Scotland and Iceland to the Soviet Arctic ports of Murmansk and Archangel as being ‘the worst journey in the world’, but they were vitally important in keeping the Red Army supplied with vital military equipment and food to fight the Germans on the Eastern Front.

One of these ships, the 1920-built Shakespeare Class destroyer HMS Keppel (D84), had been in reserve since 1937, and recommissioned in August 1939 to be stationed as leader of the 13th Destroyer Flotilla. She assisted in the evacuation of forces from Dunkirk in June 1940, and in the attack on the French Fleet at Mers el Kebir. Following this, she returned to Scapa, joining 12th Destroyer Flotilla for fleet operations such as assisting in fleet escort duty, offensive sweeps in home waters, and preparations to resist the anticipated German invasion.


HMS keppel

In February 1941, HMS Keppel was deployed to the Western Approaches for Atlantic convoy duties, designated as leader of 12th Escort Group, which was stationed at Londonderry. In this role, Keppel was engaged in all the duties performed by escort ships; protecting convoys, searching for and attacking U-boats which attacked ships in convoy, and rescuing survivors.

John Macgregor Mackay, who had previously served on HMS Wolfe (F37), and HMS Highlander (H44), joined HMS Keppel on 25 February 1943 as one of two ASDIC (*see Note 1 below) operators, and worked on a four-hours-on, eight-hours-off shift pattern. When working together they would take turns, listening for one hour and then change places. There were too many men on board to be allocated a cabin, so John shared an open space on the top deck, below the stokers and signalmen, with six others, who were fortunate to have been allocated a hammock; in some other quarters men had to bunk on wooden boards.

HMS Keppel left Loch Ewe on 11 February 1943 on the arduous convoy duties with part of the Third Escort Group sailing to Russia. John said spoke of his time onboard: ‘I remember having to chip away at the ice; you could not touch the sides of the boat without gloves on or your hands would have stuck to the sides and your skin would have come off. We were lucky to get a meal if ‘action stations’ was sounded. I always remember thinking when my next meal would be. The potatoes would be frozen and we would have to try to squeeze the water out of them. The bread would be black with mould which we had to cut away.’

‘We used to travel in twos, and with the Sloop HMS Kite (U87) beside us we took up our position as Advanced Starboard Attack Party on convoy JW-59 in August 1944, and on 20th, we picked up a target on our starboard quarter. Together with HMS Kite and a Swordfish aircraft from the Nairana-class escort carrier HMS Vindex (D15), we attacked a U-boat with depth charges and hedgehogs (these were self-arming mines that were fired several hundred feet in front of the attacking vessel), and went on to deploy anti-Gnat (German Naval Acoustic Torpedo) devices (known as ‘Foxers’ – *see Note 2 below) throughout the night but without success.

The next morning, however, as HMS Kite slowed down to clear her tangled Foxers, the German submarine U-344 fired a spread of three Federapparattorpedo (FAT) torpedoes at the Sloop. The ship was struck by two of the torpedoes on the starboard side and heeled over to that side immediately. The stern broke off, floated for a few seconds, and then sank.

‘I was asleep in my hammock when I was woken by an explosion, shortly followed by a second, but as ‘action stations’ sounded, I already had my duffel coat on (the crew was instructed by the Captain to sleep fully clothed in the event that the ship was hit by a U-boat torpedo) and made my way onto the upper deck towards my station.’

‘HMS Kite was astern of us and was sinking fast, and within a minute of my reaching my post on the bridge, she was fully submerged. I carried out a sweep of the surrounding area but could not pick up a contact with the U-boat. The Keppel circled the survivors until support arrived in the shape of the Sloops HMS Mermaid (U-30) and HMS Peacock (U-96), and we then drifted among the survivors who were scattered far apart. I was ordered to go to the foc’sle with a hard line, and from there I could see a large number of men covered in thick oil and clinging to Carley rafts or pieces of wreckage.’

‘There were only nine survivors on our boat, and it was my job to bury the dead. I did this by putting them in hessian sacking, and sowed them up with a sail-maker’s needle; the last stitch was put through their nose to make absolutely sure they were dead. The Union Jack was put over them and then the officer would nod and we would tip them overboard.’

‘Our task then was to look for the U-boat that had sunk the Kite. With the help of aircraft we fired at the U-boat, damaging it. It was leaking oil and we followed it. As it got nearer to the Norwegian coast (which the Germans then occupied) we set off a Hedgehog and it blew the U-boat out of the water, nearly taking us with it. I remember rescuing a tin of beans out of the water that had come off the submarine, and we had something different to eat that night.’

HMS Keppel escorted more than thirty North Atlantic convoys, and more than a dozen Gibraltar convoys, sinking one U-boat and assisted in the destruction of two others. She escorted fifteen Arctic convoys, during which she sank a further four U-boats.

Keppel was leading the 3rd Escort Group in the Atlantic in 1943, and in September, she was involved with convoy ONS18, which saw six ships and three escorts sunk, for the destruction of three U-boats. One of these, U-229, was attacked and destroyed by Keppel. In February 1944, she attacked and destroyed U-713, and in April, she rammed and sank U-360.

In the summer of 1944, HMS Keppel was transferred to the Channel for the Normandy Landings and in August, Keppel and other units attacked and destroyed U-boats U-354 and U-394.

In June 1945, HMS Keppel was decommissioned and a month later was sold off for breaking. John Mackay was discharged from service on 3 January 1946, and returned to his trade as a painter and decorator. He was awarded the Ushakov Medal at a ceremony in Manchester on 13 October 2014.

John Mackay receiving the Ushakov medal. Photos: Iris Burgess

John Mackay receiving the Ushakov medal. Photos: Iris Burgess

Note 1: ASDIC, known to the Americans as Sonar, was the primary underwater detection device used by Allied escorts throughout the war. It was basically a transmitter-receiver that sent out a highly directional sound wave through the water. If the sound wave struck a submerged object it was reflected back and picked up by the receiver.

Note 2: (A ‘Foxer’ consisted of one or more 3,000 lb (1,360 kg) trailing lines of hollow metal pipes with holes cut in them. The pipes banging together and the water rushing through the holes created cavitation noise which was much greater than that coming from the ship’s propeller, and confused the German homing torpedoes which were tuned to home in on the sound frequencies generated by cavitation.)

Part of John Mackay’s story from my book ‘Voices From the Arctic Convoys’.

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