Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Rawalpindi, Loss of (23 November 1939)

British armed merchant cruiser sunk after single-handedly engaging the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, causing them to abort their first wartime voyage into the Atlantic. Rawalpindi was built in 1925 by Harland and Wolff of Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P & O) service between Britain, India, and the Far East. At 16,697 tons, she was 568' long and could carry 600 passengers in two classes, along with 380 crewmen, at a maximum speed of 17 knots.

In August 1939, the Admiralty requisitioned the Rawalpindi as an armed merchant cruiser, equipping her with 4 x 6-inch guns. With a crew consisting primarily of naval reservists under the command of Captain E. C. Kennedy, she was assigned to the Northern Patrol between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, there to intercept German merchant shipping and escort convoys. In the late afternoon of 23 November, her crew sighted what Kennedy identified as a pocket battleship of the Deutschland-class, but in fact, it was the Scharnhorst, with a main battery of 9 x 11-inch guns. The sighting was reported to the headquarters of the Home Fleet. The Rawalpindi was then ordered by the Germans to heave to and maintain radio silence, but Kennedy responded by turning toward the German ships and laying a smoke screen. After the Rawalpindi ignored a warning shot across the bow, the Scharnhorst opened fire with her large guns at about 8,250 yards and was soon joined by the Gneisenau. Kennedy returned fire and scored one ineffective hit on Scharnhorst, but the rest of his shots fell short by hundreds of yards. After 10 minutes, the Germans disengaged on receiving false reports of torpedo tracks, but the Rawalpindi was left burning fiercely. The ship remained afloat another three hours, during which time the Germans searched for survivors. Kennedy and 270 others were lost; of 38 survivors, 27 were rescued by the Germans, and the remainder were saved by the British cruiser Newcastle.

The Rawalpindi's arrival on the scene reinforced the decision of the German task force commander, Vice Admiral Wilhelm Marschall, to abandon his mission on grounds of poor visibility and British knowledge of his presence. He was criticized for that decision on his return to Germany.

John A. Hutcheson Jr.


Further Reading
Barnett, Correlli. Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.; Kludas, Arnold. Great Passenger Ships of the World. Vol. 3, 1924–1935. Wellingborough, UK: Patrick Stephens, 1976.
 

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