Eighty years ago, the Royal Navy shows its capacity for self-immolation, Chamberlain offers a proto-EU as a war-aim and the Soviets attack Finland

The Royal Navy fought one of the sanguinary and futile actions which are the stuff of legend, albeit legend that glorifies pointless self-immolation. The Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi was an oldish P&O liner capable of 15 knots, which had been requisitioned by the navy and kitted out with elderly 6 inch guns and manned by equally elderly naval reservists. She had the bad fortune to encounter the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, heavily armoured modern battleships capable of 31 knots and armed with 11 inch guns, even their secondary armament of 5.9 inch guns was superior to Rawalpindi’s. The Germans called on the British ship to surrender but her captain, 60 year old Edward Kennedy, chose to fight in the full knowledge that his ship was doomed. He did not seem to have considered scuttling her and letting the crew take to the boats. Rawalpindi scored one hit on Scharnhorst which caused minor damage. Kennedy and over 200 of his crew were killed when she was sunk; only fifty or so survived. Captain Kennedy was awarded a posthumous mention in despatches; he was not, as is sometimes supposed, awarded the Victoria Cross. The confusion might arise because Captain Edward Fegen of another Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Jervis Bay did receive a Victoria Cross posthumously when his ship was sunk in a similarly unequal fight a year later with the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer; Jervis Bay was escorting a convoy and her sacrifice bought time for most of its ships to escape. Kennedy's son, Ludovic, became a famous advocate and broadcaster.

Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the nation for the first time since the outbreak of war. He described his health as unimpaired, lest anyone were concerned that he had suffered an attack of gout severe enough to be reported in the newspapers. He claimed, accurately, that British naval losses including the Rawalpindi’s did not dent British naval dominance but this did serve to remind listeners that the Kriegsmarine had been significantly more successful so far. He offered a vision of a New Europe in which nations would settle their differences by negotiations and active international trade would cement peace. He frankly applied the term utopian to his vision and accepted that it would takes years to achieve.

The Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations with Finland, denounced the non-aggression pact between the countries and almost immediately declared war. The reason given was an entirely imaginary Finnish “threat to Leningrad.” Quite why the Soviets felt the need to observe the practices of diplomacy in undertaking such a transparently predatory attempt at expansion is unclear. Units of the Red Army attacked – possibly before Molotov had actually delivered his declaration of war – and air raids were launched on the civilian population of Helsinki. The Winter War had begun.


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