A short but dramatic account by Paul Hannah of a very messy naval battle in the second world war, in which a young seaman demonstrated that good judgement is inherent, and not something that necessarily comes with age.

Soldiers, sailors and airmen are usually known as great pragmatists, except in one respect, those of them at the pointy end can be very superstitious. They often perform special rituals or carry talismans and lucky charms, certain that if they fail just once, Lady Luck will frown and they will be among those who do not return. No one can blame them when you consider the fate of 17 year old seaman Allan McGyver aboard the battleship HMS Prince of Wales when she was tasked to find and sink the best of the German fleet, The Mighty Bismarck.

On May 24, 1941 the Prince of Wales was in company with The Mighty Hood, pride of the Royal Navy – the most famous ship in the fleet and together they attacked the Bismarck and her companion the Prinz Eugen in what became known as the Battle of Denmark Strait. In possibly the most dramatic single moments of the naval war a single lucky shot from Bismarck flew high into the air and found the weakest place on the Hood and that one single shell simply exploded and moments later,The Hood disappeared. Of the 1418 officers and men, only three survived.

Young McGyver knew nothing of this disaster as his duty station was inside one of the giant gun turrets of The Prince of Wales and shortly he was to have more pressing concerns.

Almost immediately after another of the Bismarck’s 8 inch shells hurtled toward young McGyver’s turret. It hit the deck of The Prince of Wales, wrecking boats and setting them ablaze before punching a hole into the working chamber below McGyver’s gun turret. The three sailors in the turret had no time to react as the shell hit the opposite wall and began to whirl around and around its occupants. The projectile literally shaved the back of one man’s head, taking off all the hair without scratching the skin before it fell to the feet of the stunned men without exploding.

As you can imagine, this sort of event is not covered in basic training and none of the three knew quite what to do. There they were, in a room full of things that could go bang and this thing that should have set all that off, killing them and likely sinking their ship is sitting smoking at their feet. The Petty officer in charge told McGyver to call the gunnery officer for advice and he told them to leave it there so that it could be inspected later for its intelligence value.

Even 17 year old McGuyver knew this was a particularly stupid command but he passed it on to the stunned Petty Officer. Moments later the PO told McGyver to call back and young Allan did something very brave – he lied. He picked up the phone and pretended to speak to someone and said to his PO “They said ditch it.”

And that is what they did, while the Bismark was still pouring shell after shell at their ship, sending water and shrapnel all around them, they gingerly carried the shell out onto the deck and dumped it over the side, probably saving the lives of all of their shipmates and saving the ship in the process.

(c) 2018 Paul Hannah

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