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Able.Sea. Norman "Prof." Scarth HMS MatchlessI joined HMS Collingwood as an HO volunteer Ordinary Seaman early June 1943. I had only been there two weeks when a lone German bomber, unheralded by sirens, dropped bombs on either side of the hut opposite ours (No. 26 I think). 36 were killed, with more injured. The grave of one of those killed is in Killingneck Cemetary Leeds. I must visit it again.
After Collingwood it was HMS Vernon Torpedo School to become a Seaman torpedoman, then to Scapa Flow to join the destroyer HMS Matchless (Russian Convoys & Scharnhorst battle). Then to HMS Vernon again to become Leading Torpedo Operator prior to joining Dido class cruiser HMS Cleopatra & joining East Indies Fleet. Cleopatra, carrying CinC Admiral Arthur John Power, was first ship into Singapore (behind the minesweepers) after the war ended. When Cleo came home, I was not due for demob, so stayed with the East Inies Fleet to join Fleet Minesweeper HMS Niger.
The BBC Radio World Service recently interviewed me for its 'Witness' programme about Boxing Day 1943 (the sinking of the Scharnhorst). It was broadcast several times from Boxing Day 2011 to New Years Day 2012, & can be heard now by going to their website.
On Christmas Day we had been ordered to join another convoy because it was rumoured that the Scharnhorst was out. The Scharnhorst was greatly feared. She was the most successful fighting ship of any navy during World War II and she was the bravest ship. We were full speed at 36 knots and going through those mountainous seas. It was a full gale blowing. To go through that at full speed, the bow would rise in the air and come down, hover there and come down with a clatter as if on concrete; mountains of water coming all over the ship.
We were ordered to join the 10th Cruiser Squadron - HMS Belfast, Norfolk and Sheffield. They had met up with the Scharnhorst and they had engaged her. There was a brief skirmish, then the Scharnhorst broke off - she was a very fast ship - and with her superior speed she was able to get out of range. But our vice-admiral guessed that she was heading north to attack this convoy that we had been escorting and the guess proved correct.
She had a reputation and she deserved it. There was an awe of her reputation, the excitement that we may be able to end the career of this most dangerous threat to us, to Britain, to the Allies - and fear knowing what we were up against.
It was Boxing Day when we finally met up with 10th Cruiser Squadron and the Scharnhorst. She had abandoned her mission and set off for the Norwegian fjords, which was her base and safe haven. It was pitch black and we shadowed with the use of radars. We knew that she was heading straight towards HMS Duke of York, which was cutting off her escape. She was hit by the Duke of York and was damaged and her speed was slowed. There was the Duke of York, the Scharnhorst, the 10th Cruiser Squadron with various destroyers and another cruiser, the Jamaica.
All of us met up and all hell broke loose. Although it was pitch black the sky was lit up, bright as day, by star shells - fired into the sky like fireworks - providing brilliant light illuminating the area as broad as day. Towards the end we had been ordered to fire a torpedo. Because the weather had eased a little I had taken up my action station as lookout on the starboard wing of the bridge. The Scharnhorst was close and she was lit up by the star shells and by the fires aboard her. As we steamed past to fire the torpedo I was the closest man - on the wing of the bridge - to the Scharnhorst. She looked magnificent and beautiful. I would describe her as the most beautiful fighting ship of any navy.
She was firing with all guns still available to her. Most of the big guns were put out. They were gradually disabled one by one. As we were steaming past at full speed a 20mm cannon was firing tracer bullets from the Scharnhorst. A 20mm cannon was like a pea-shooter compared to the other guns and it could have no part in this battle, but it was just a gesture of defiance from the sloping deck of her. And that's one of the things that remains in my memory - a futile gesture but it was a gesture of defiance right to the very end. I can picture that man on the sloping deck of the Scharnhorst. I can picture that man to this day. Eventually it took 14 ships of the Royal Navy to find her, trap her and sink her. At that point it went pitch black.
The star shells had finished and I presumed the Scharnhorst had been sunk. We set off to do another torpedo run to fire from the port side and the Scharnhorst was nowhere to be seen. So we slowed and we soon saw many men floating in the water - most of them dead, face down in the water, but some were alive. We switched our searchlight on and I remember our captain calling out to the men in the water "Scharnhorst gesunken?" and the reply came back "Ja, Scharnhorst gesunken", so we threw scrambling nets down and began to haul these men aboard. Thirty-six were saved out of 2,000 men.
We then received an order from the commander-in-chief to join the Duke of York. So we switched off the searchlight, pulled up the scrambling nets and steamed away. We could still hear voices calling from the black of that Arctic winter night, calling for help, and we were leaving those men to certain death within minutes. It seemed a terrible thing to do and it was. But it was the right thing to do. If we had stayed a moment too long we could have joined those unfortunate men. I can hear those voices and I grieve for those men every day of my life. I've even had someone accuse me of being a traitor because I praised the bravery of the German sailors. I can imagine their feelings as that searchlight went out and they heard that ship steaming away. I truly can imagine the feelings of those men.Norman Scarth
Ord.Sea. Colin Campbell Fisher Taylor HMS MatchlessMy Father, Colin Taylor joined the HMS Matchless on it's commission in Glasgow in 1941. He saw action in the Maltese convoys (including the famous Operation Harpoon convoy that saved Malta), the Russian Artic convoys, and participated in the sinking of the German Battle Cruiser, the Scharnhorst. Matchless undertook sea trials in the Firth of Clyde and then joined the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow for crew training in gunnery and torpedo attacks. Her first active service was on an Arctic convoy to Murmansk and the Kola Inlet. On 13 May 1942 she was one of four destroyers that sailed from Murmansk escorting the light cruiser HMS Trinidad , which had been damaged during a previous convoy and partially repaired for her homeward voyage. On 15 May 20 Ju 88 bombers attacked the flotilla and one bomb set Trinidad on fire and crippled her. Matchless rescued over 200 survivors and then scuttled Trinidad by torpedoing her.
In June 1942 Matchless took part in Operation Harpoon: a heavily-armed convoy to relieve the besieged island of Malta. The convoy sailed from Gibraltar on 12 June and Matchless was damaged by a mine off Malta on 15 June. This forced her to remain in Malta for repairs, where she survived 265 air raids. In August she sailed from Malta disguised as an Italian warship. She reached Gibraltar just in time to join Operation Pedestal, which was the next convoy to relieve Malta.
After Operation Pedestal, Matchless escorted two successful Arctic convoys from Loch Ewe to the Kola Inlet: JW 51A in December 1942 and JW 51B in December and January. In May and June 1943 Matchless escorted RMS Queen Mary part-way across the North Atlantic while the liner was carrying Winston Churchill to the USA. She then escorted further Arctic convoys: JW 54B in November 1943 and JW 55A in December 1943. Matchless was returning from the Kola Inlet with RA 55A in late December when she and three other destroyers were ordered to detach from the convoy to assist HMS Duke of York to engage the Scharnhorst. On Boxing Day (26 December) 1943 the German battlecruiser was attacked in the Battle of the North Cape. She was weakened first by shellfire from Duke of York, then by torpedoes from British and Norwegian destroyers. Finally the destroyer detachment from Convoy JW 55A, including HMS Matchless, closed in and sank Scharnhorst with a further 19 torpedoes.
After the battle, Matchless returned to Scapa Flow, resumed duties with the Home Fleet and performed escort duties including further Arctic convoys until August 1944. She was paid then off in Hull, but after repairs and a re-fit she was recommissioned later the same month. Matchless saw further service in the Mediterranean until 1945, and was then decommissioned in April 1946.Colin Taylor
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