Captured after surviving one of the early naval battles of the Second World War, sailors were forced to endure the hardships of Nazi prison camps. Now their harrowing
ordeal has come to light. TOM COTTERILL reports
Sitting at his desk, a tear wells up in the eye of retired sailor Ron Cope.
The hardy Chief Petty Officer has just finished his second book chronicling an epic Second World War naval engagement which he says has been ‘lost to the mist of time.’
‘There were many tears and cheers when writing this story,’ admits the 71-year-old.
‘Reading about some of the experiences these men had to endure, it just makes you think: “How on earth did they survive it all”.
‘What’s amazing is their story has been lost to the mist of time.’
The men he speaks of are the ship’s company of HMS Hunter, one of two ships blown up and sunk during ferocious fighting in the fjords almost 78 years ago.
Their stories took the best part of a decade to compile from notes by Ron’s father, Cyril, who was a sailor in the war.
Ron, who served 22 years in the navy and was based in Portsmouth during his career, reveals the chaos of the war through personal extracts of survivors and their families in Doomed Destroyer.
Many of the sailors on Hunter were from Portsmouth, including some of the survivors.
The warship was part of a fleet of five British H-class destroyers that steamed into the North Sea in April 1940 in retaliation to a pressing Nazi assault of Scandinavia.
German forces had blitzed through the land as part of Adolf Hitler’s Operation Weserubung, on March 1, 1940, designed to secure the valuable iron ore being delivered by rail from Sweden to the Norwegian port of Narvik.
To complete the task, Hitler sent 10 large destroyers, with 220 alpine troops on each.
Hunter, and sister ships Havock, Hostile, Hardy and Hotspur were deployed in retaliation, with little knowledge of what to expect.
‘They had no idea how many Germans were waiting for them,’ says Ron. ‘It was almost like going in blind.’
On April 10, the first British battle of Narvik began. Captain Bernard Warburton-Lee led his flotilla at midnight into the fjord; undetected, under darkness and in driving snowstorms.
The harbour erupted into a torpedo attack; back into the fjord, the destroyers Hardy, Hunter, Hotspur, Havock and Hostile were confronted by German destroyers emblazoned with the blood-red Nazi swastika.
It was chaos on the water as German and British torpedoes streaked past one another towards their targets, with shells and machine gunfire erupting.
Hardy was the first to be hit, being battered by the guns of Georg Thiele and Bernd Von Arnim, forcing her to pull back.
Hunter then steamed forward, charging towards Thiele. Within moments, the Nazi warship unleashed a devastating torrent of anti-aircraft gun fire, peppering the bridge and causing Hunter to change course.
Then the Germans countered with a vicious salvo gun fire and three torpedoes – which found their mark, blasting into the British ship. Hunter exploded in a ball of flames, losing all power and control before drifting a stop.
On board, it was a scene of unimaginable carnage, with men lying dead or mutilated on the floor as acrid black smoke and icy water filled the ship.
To compound the situation for the 159-man crew, the destroyer was rammed by Hotspur, which had lost steering after being pounded seven times.
The collision tore into Hunter amidships, killing everyone in the engine room. At 6am, the order was given to abandon ship.
Among the survivors was Waterlooville man Lieutenant Alex Stuart-Menteth, the ship’s first lieutenant.
He had broken his leg when Hotspur slammed into Hunter and had been pulled onto a rescue craft.
‘He was so brave,’ Ron says. ‘A lot of these guys were young men. He thought: “I ain’t going to survive this. I should really put myself over the side”.
‘Some of the men were dying around him. That’s when he passed out.’
Of the 159 men to start the battle, only 48 would survive.
Many died succumbing to the cold after plunging into the freezing water.
Those who remained were rescued by the Germans. Some, like Lt Stuart-Menteth, were taken to hospital for treatment. The rest were marched into prisoner-of-war camps.
Ron says: ‘They were forced to march about 40 miles in three days through deep snow, going through 27 mountain tunnels. I don’t know how they did it.’
The prisoners were interned at a camp in Sweden. Before being handed over to the Swedish authorities, they were made to sign a legal form.
‘They were all at gunpoint,’ Ron says. ‘The form said they could no longer take up arms against Germany. If they did and they were caught fighting Germany they were to be executed.’
Portsmouth man Andrew Black was among those who had to agree to the terms.
The 26-year-old had joined the navy at 15 and trained as an artificer in Portsmouth.
At first, his parents had been told he had been killed but he was able to get word from Sweden about his survival, writing and telling them he planned to escape.
Andrew joined a large team of other British captives on a daring escape bid, Operation Rubble.
Stealing five ships from under the noses of the Nazis, they attempted to sail back to the UK, with five vessels making it back to the Clyde dodging minefields and bomber attackers.
Unfortunately, Andrew was not so lucky. He was recaptured and sent to a prison in Germany.
Ron adds: ‘This story of survival is amazing, it really is.’
Born in Salford, Ron Cope followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Royal Navy in 1964, working in electronics.
After leaving the forces in 1986, he spent more than 20 years working in the probation service, specifically with young offenders. Now a proud father and grandfather, Ron is retired and living with his wife Alison in Telford, Shropshire. His first naval history book Attack at Dawn: Reliving The First Battle Of Narvik In World War Two was published to acclaim back in 2015.
Doomed Destroyer by Ron Cope (published by Clink Street Publishing April 2018 in paperback RRP £12.99 and ebook RRP £4.99) is available to purchase from online retailers including amazon.co.uk and to order from all good book stores.