Spies, Lies and Bravery - The life and death of Jack Bishop, Royal Navy. Chapter Five

Spies, Lies and Bravery - The life and death of Jack Bishop, Royal Navy. Chapter Five

Spies, Lies and Bravery - The life and death of Jack Bishop, Royal Navy. Chapter Five

First published in Family Memories

Chapter Five

 

To War !

 

 

Jack arrived back at the docks in Portsmouth where workers worked at a frantic pace to prepare warships for sea and the talk was on of one thing and one thing only – war. A war that was to kill millions and destroy the world where Jack grew up. Nothing would ever be the same again.

That night, Jack sat down and wrote on a piece of paper: “A Diary of the Great War.” It was still an adventure then and at the very least it meant his brief thoughts would be passed down through the generations, which was probably what he had in mind anyway.

The first entry in the diary records how Jack spent August 1 with a coal shovel in hand, loading precious fuel as HMS Edgar prepared for its first patrol. The Edgar carried 1,000 tons of coal and could burn up to 11 tons an hour at top speed. The next day work carried on from dawn until dusk as the deck was cleared for action..

On August 3, the day before war broke out, HMS Edgar set sail from Portsmouth, along the South Coast towards Cornwall and Land’s End. The 570-strong crew lined the warship's bows and saluted as the ship steered out of Portsmouth alongside sister ships of the Edgar Class, Grafton and the flagship of the squadron Crescent; the Crescent was under the charge of Rear-Admiral Dudley de Chair. On the captain's bridge, aboard the Edgar, were sealed orders.

At midnight, Britain declared war on Germany. Security was stepped up throughout the armed forces for fear of attack. This state of alert found the Edgar wanting. Jack records in his diary that all hands were “told off” for not keeping watch.

The next stage of Jack's journey is taken up by a young man who was merely a year older than him who came from another world. Detailed accounts of the movements of Jack's ship, the Edgar, came from Alexander Scrimgeour, a 17-year-old midshipman aboard the flagship the Crescent. Scrimgeour, the son of a stockbroker, grew up in a wealthy family near Canterbury in Kent. He too kept a diary of his time patrolling the North Sea and helped to fill in many of the gaps in Jack's account with his wartime diary.

Jack Bishop and Alexander Scrimgeour may have come from opposite ends of the social scale, but both served their country bravely and paid with their young lives.

Scrimgeour records that the flagship Crescent met up with Jack and the Edgar at 8 AM on Tuesday August 4, just a couple of hours after steering past Lands Ends. Grafton joined them at 11 AM.  During the night the three ships passed the Isle of Man as they steamed north towards Scotland.

Aboard the Edgar, Jack and his shipmates were getting used to handling the elderly vessel. The Edgar weighed 7350 tons, it was 360 feet long and slow. Maximum speed was only 19 knots making the warship very vulnerable to attack. The cruiser was one of a class of middle-aged vessels built under the Naval Defence Act of 1889 and they were all patched-up and poorly armoured. Their weak mix of 9.2 and 6 inch guns were to cause the death of many a good crew in the war.

To make matters worse, its voracious appetite for coal left a massive smoke trail from its twin funnels for enemy ships, from miles around, to see.

Despite its weaknesses, the Edgar struck one of the first naval blows of the war. On August 5, while steaming across the Irish Sea on the way north, it captured a German timber boat in rough weather off the island of Jura and the Grafton escorted it in to Belfast. Scrimgeour records ruefully that a cruiser squadron that should have numbered eight vessels, was now left with two.              

A day later Jack arrived at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. Here lay the largest battle fleet that the world had ever seen. There were row-on-row of warships amid a hive of activity. Here, the Edgar coaled before heading back out to patrol the grey waters of the North Sea. Summer was almost over and it was going to get a lot rougher and colder in the coming months.Before he left, Jack was able to send home his first letters to Bewdley.

The Edgar was a kingpin in the newly appointed Admiral of the Fleet, Admiral Jellicoe's plan to win the war at sea. The idea was to cut supply from the sea to Germany and starve the country to its knees. The Edgar may have been a creaking old relic, but it was at the heart of the 10th Cruiser Squadron that was to throw a blockade across the North Sea from Scotland to Scandanavia. Admiral Jellicoe expected heavy traffic to Germany along these cold northern shipping lanes with merchantmen running for home with food, volunteers, lead, coal and gun cotton. Eight cruisers stood in their way.

Edgar joined Crescent, Royal Arthur, Endymion, Gibraltar, Grafton, Hawke and Thesus to form Cruiser Force B, later renamed the 10th Cruiser Squadron. Between them they patrolled Scottish, Shetland and Norwegian waters in search of contrabanders attempting to slip through. It was to prove a dangerous and frustrating task.

The Edgar held up and searched ships off the Fair Islands on August 7. The next day, the cruiser sank two German fishing trawlers for failing to stop. This entry in Jack's diary pays testament to his terse writing, he managed to squeeze the sinking of two vessels and a change of course to Norway into just nine words.

The Edgar hit a gale as it steamed up the Norwegian coast to guard the trade routes. On August 12, the ship sailed for the Shetlands to send mail and collect 500 tons of coal.

The next day the Edgar swept the North Seas with the 1st 2nd 3rd and 4th battle squadrons, sailing within 100 miles of the German coast. Jellicoe had drafted in the big guns to try to plug the gaps in the blockade. The Edgar was soon heading back to Lerwick in the Orkney Islands to take on 300 tons of coal before setting out for the Norwegian coast. On the way the crew was mustered in their “duck” suits as part of a battle drill. The same day, sister ship, the Hawke captured a German collier.

On August 20, Jack went on his first boarding party. They charged aboard a Norwegian ship, the SS Bergensffiord, and found papers in order, but captured two German reservists who were lurking below decks. Little did Jack know that less than five months later this same ship was to lead to his untimely death.

During the day an armed merchant cruiser, a converted liner from the Allan Line, came alongside the Edgar. It was a fast modern ship, renamed HMS Alsatian, one of a number of new armed merchant cruisers that joined the line on August 18 to strengthen the blockade.

Among the new vessels were a P and O cruiser and a White Star Atlantic liner, Oceanic.

But the job wasn't getting easier. The northern patrol was stopping many ships, but few were German and fewer were blockade breakers. The weather was getting worse by the day.

Royal Navy seamen were boarding more than 100 merchant ships a month – for nothing.

They searched in vain for double bottoms, dummy deckheads, false bulkheads and hollow steel masts full to the brim with contraband. To make a difficult job even more so, was the fact that the Royal Navy had strict instructions to tread carefully in dealing with civilian merchant ships so as not to offend potential neutral allies like America – a country where a story was brewing that would intertwine itself with the fate of Jack Bishop, RN.

 

written by Chris Bishop

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