At the beginning of World War II, Fegen became acting captain of the 14,000-ton armed merchantman Jervis Bay, which had been converted from a passenger liner. It had a crew of 254 seamen drawn from the Royal Navy, Naval Reserve, and merchant marine. The Jervis Bay mounted seven 6-inch guns, adequate to tackle submarines and other armed merchant cruisers and perhaps to ward off destroyers.
On 28 October 1940, the Jervis Bay was serving as escort for convoy HX84, a group of 38 merchant ships bound from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Britain. The convoy faced a 2,000-mile journey, the second half through submarine-infested waters. Mines around the British coast were an additional hazard. In addition, three German battleships were loose in the Atlantic. German naval intelligence informed Captain Theodor Krancke, commander of the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer (with six 11-inch guns), of HX84's departure, ordering him to seek it out and attack it. Krancke hoped to surprise and destroy an entire convoy, thereby justifying German naval demands to build more battleships rather than submarines.
On 5 November, the Admiral Scheer made contact with the convoy. The other ships scattered, and Fegen immediately attempted to lay a smoke screen from his ship and to close to gunnery range with his powerful adversary. The Admiral Scheer concentrated her guns on the Jervis Bay, but Fegen kept it on a collision course toward its opponent. He maintained command even when he himself was wounded and had one arm blown off, but he died when the bridge took a direct hit. The battle lasted 22 minutes, giving the convoy vital time to disperse, before the Jervis Bay sank with 189 of its crew dead. Although the Admiral Scheer did sink 6 additional convoy ships, with the loss of 251 more lives, 32 ships escaped. Fegen was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross, the highest British award for gallantry in battle.
Doherty, Richard, and David Truesdale. Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000.; Laffin, John. British VCs of World War II. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 2000.; Roskill, Stephen. White Ensign: The British Navy at War, 1939–1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1960.; Winton, John. The Victoria Cross at Sea. London: Joseph, 1978.