One of my most favourite things to research is the lives of fallen soldiers. Telling their story and bringing to the fore once again the smallest detail of their lives just seems like the very least I can do for these wonderful men who paid the ultimate price for the freedoms that I enjoy now. I am working on a larger project that will honour the memory of every single war hero that has been discovered since I began researching my family tree but until that is ready I will continue to make smaller tributes to these servicemen wherever I can. Today’s offering is for John Shields. I have two men of that name in my family tree and both of them had their lives taken by war. One died during WWI and the other during WWII and it is that John that I write about today.
John Shields, whom I shall refer to as “Jock” because that is how he was known to his nearest and dearest, was born in 1903 in Musselburgh, Midlothian, Scotland, to my husband’s 2nd Great Uncle Richard Shields and his wife Bethia Wyse Shaw. He was the eldest of their four children.
Sadly, I know more about how Jock died than how he lived. His life came to an end on 23 November 1939 whilst he was serving as a Royal Naval Reservist on-board HMS Rawalpindi. The Rawalpindi was a passenger liner that had been requisitioned by the British Admiralty and converted to an armed merchant cruiser and her assignment on that fateful day was to patrol the waters off Iceland and north of the Faroe Islands. There had been reports of a possible enemy sighting and it was the job of the Rawlapindi to investigate this possible sighting and not to engage with the enemy but rather to report it’s position back to Home Fleet Headquarters which is what the commander Edward Coverley Kennedy did before changing the ship’s course and heading for cover to try and gain some protection from a nearby iceberg.
Commander Kennedy had thought the ship he sighted was the German pocket ship “Deutschland” but he was mistaken and it was in fact the German Battlecruiser “Scharnhorst” and as they were taking cover, a second sister ship to the Scharnhorst was spotted to its starboard which was identified as the “Gneisenau”. Caught now between these two battleships, the fate of the Rawalpindi was sealed. Commander Kennedy chose to go down fighting rather than surrender to the enemy. He was even heard to say “We’ll fight them both, they’ll sink us and that will be that. Good-bye”, before shaking the hand of another officer and turning on his heel to set about clearing the decks.
With the Rawalpindi refusing multiple orders from the enemy to “Heave to!” and to “Abandon ship!”, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had no option but to follow through on their orders to sink any British patrolling vessels they found in the strait. Shells were “rained” down upon the Rawalpindi and being completely out-gunned was rendered dead in the water – there was fire everywhere and all of it’s systems were destroyed including it’s steering system. The whole battle had taken about fifteen minutes and one final shell from the Scharnhorst found the Rawalpindi’s forward magazine causing a massive explosion which ripped the ship’s spine apart causing it to sink. Some lifeboats had been successfully launched from the Rawalpindi but one lifeboat containing about 40 injured men was upturned during launch casting the men into the freezing waters. Other lifeboats were swamped as the Scharnhorst did a sharp about-turn to escape the pull of the sinking ship. The ship returned to pull survivors from the water but sadly this total was only 38 (an additional 10 being pulled from the water by another ship) with their companions , 238 of them, going down with the ship including our Jock.
I think for me the saddest thing about this story is that because the men on the ship were Naval reservists rather than regular officers, they were not entitled to receive the medals or same honours that were afforded the regulars. Commander Kennedy was posthumously mentioned in dispatches and the crew of the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau all became eligible to receive the High Seas Fleet Badge awarded by Nazi Germany for their participation in the sinking of the Rawalpindi but the rest of the crew were largely forgotten about except to their families. Today, the name of John Shields is remembered on the Liverpool Naval Memorial and treasured in the hearts of his family. I thank him for his courage and dedication to serving his country. Nothing I can ever do will equal what he and thousands more like him did for us but if I forget, then I’ve failed them so I endeavour not to do that but to remember him and remember them all.
(With thanks to Stuart Butterworth for the creation of the above video)