Gowkshill sailor killed protecting convoy

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Many men from Midlothian served with the Royal Navy in the Second World War, some in large battleships and cruisers, but many served in the fleet with smaller ships known as destroyers, writes John Duncan. Fast, well armed and agile, they were often at the sharp end of the fighting.

One such ship was HMS Eskimo. A Tribal class, she was modern, having been built just before the war. She saw action very early in the war hunting for the German battleship Gneisenau and the cruiser Koln. One of her crew was Stoker First Class, William McGuire from Gowkshill, a young lad of just 22.

Their first serious action came during the doomed Norway Campaign of 1940. The Tribal class were in the thick of the action and performed brilliantly in the narrow fjords.

Eskimo engaged the enemy on a number of occasions and had a remarkable escape when she was hit by a torpedo from German destroyer Georg Thiele which took part of her bow clean off. She was repaired by her crew and towed back to the UK where she went into the dockyard at Barrow.

In 1941, Eskimo saw extensive action in Norwegian waters in support of the fledgling commando units. Whilst on one of these raids she intercepted the terrified crew of a German trawler. As they were being captured, the Germans managed to throw their Enigma code machine overboard but were unable to stop the boarding party seizing a set of rotor for the top secret device. The same year Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Russia suffered staggering losses and was pushed back to the gates of Moscow. In 1942 to keep Russia in the war and fighting, the Allies undertook to supply them by means of shipping convoys. The routes into Murmansk and Archangel were perilous enough at the best of times with dreadful weather and sea conditions. Add the threat of enemy aircraft and U-boats and it was doubly hazardous.

One of these convoys, designated PQ17, but now infamous as the “Convoy from Hell”, was en-route to Russia. As the convoy passed beyond Norway a signal arrived telling the escorts that the German navy including the battleship Tirpitz had put to sea and was heading their way.

What followed next struck terror into the heart of every merchantman. The order came through “Convoy is to scatter”. They were being abandoned and left to get on themselves as best they could. The effect was disastrous. Many were sunk by U-Boats or enemy aircraft. Helpless victims were picked off at will. By the end of the attacks Convoy PQ17 had lost 24 of its 35 merchant ships.

Prime minister Winston Churchill called the fate of Convoy PQ17 “one of the most melancholy naval episodes in the whole of the war”. With that in mind the escorting ships were increased in number and on the next convoy, PQ18, an aircraft carrier, HMS Avenger, was deployed for the first time. Helping protect her was HMS Eskimo and other destroyers including her sister ship HMS Ashanti. On September 12, PQ18 was spotted by German reconnaissance aircraft and shadowed. Efforts by Hurricanes from HMS Avenger to see off the planes were unsuccessful. That day, two merchant ships were sunk but Swordfish biplanes from Avenger also sank a U-Boat.

The following morning though, the Germans attacked in earnest. Look-outs spotted aircraft low down, at wave-top height, 42 of them flying in almost wingtip to wingtip. The klaxon sounded “Action Stations”. Every man went to his station and Eskimo, like everyone else, turned hard into the track of the torpedoes. Guns let rip, though they had little chance of hitting given the violent movements. At one point more than 100 torpedoes were in the water. Carnage ensued and in no time eight ships were hit. Some sank at once and, in one case, there was a gigantic explosion and the ship simply disappeared.

Eskimo, however, managed to pick up a large number of survivors from the sunken American ship, John Penn. As the aircraft flew away, one in five of the merchant men was on its way to the bottom. Five German aircraft had been shot down and a number damaged. The loss of life in the convoy was huge, but crucially they made it through with their vital supplies.

The following year, Eskimo moved on warmer waters in the Mediterranean supporting the Allied landings on Sicily. On July 12, 1943, Eskimo was spotted and attacked by German dive bombers. One bomb penetrated two fuel oil tanks causing a massive explosion which killed 19 men and injured 22 others.

Sadly, one of those killed was William McGuire. He was buried at sea with full military honours.