Fred Russell was one of the great survivors of the First and Second World Wars. He had four extraordinary escapes from death at sea between 1916 and 1939. Here, I look at the wartime adventures of Fred – who married into the Roberts family in 1922.
Gun layer Fred Russell was staring death in the face when a ship he was serving in was shelled by two of Germany’s most powerful warships in the Second World War.
The British armed merchant cruiser, HMS Rawalpindi had been on patrol when she encountered the enemy battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.
She was hopelessly outgunned. Devastating shell attacks and a huge explosion broke her in two in less than an hour.
More than 250 of Rawalpindi’s crewmen lost their lives as she was sunk north of the Faroe Islands on November 23, 1939.
With crewmates ‘lying dead on the deck’ around him and fire sweeping through the vessel, Fred went to the aid of a wounded Bideford sailor who was ‘bleeding badly’ before escaping from the sinking ship by climbing down a burning rope.
He swam for his life as the 548ft long ship burned ‘from end to end’, reaching a drifting ‘water-logged’ lifeboat which had broken free from the Rawalpindi. Wearing trousers, a jersey and an overcoat, he scrambled into the boat with a number of other men.
‘All we had in the way of food were some biscuits and tins of condensed milk. The hours of darkness seemed endless. We had been in the boat nearly 18 hours when we were picked up by a steamer (the armed British cruiser Chitral),’ Fred told reporters.
‘It was terrible seeing the Rawalpindi disappear with so many of our mates. I shall never forget the sight of men drowning in the bitterly cold water.’
Fred and the other men rescued from the lifeboat were given a heroes’ welcome in London five days after the battle when they were greeted by Admiral Sir Charles Little, the Second Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Personnel, at Horse Guards Parade, St James’ Park. Called the ‘heroes of Rawalpindi’, they were cheered by large crowds and celebrated in a special British Pathe News film.
Fred, among just 48 survivors of the sinking of the Rawalpindi, had two narrow escapes from death at sea in the Great War.
He was just 17 when he found himself at the centre of the greatest naval confrontation of the Great War – the Battle of Jutland. He was an errand boy in the British battleship HMS Malaya as she was crippled in a wave of shell attacks. Sixty-five crewmen were killed and 33 wounded in the battle in the North Sea on May 31, 1916. Fred survived unscathed.
Promoted to orderly in August that year, and to able seaman in December four months later, he was transferred to HMS Hazard on July 31, 1917 – seven months before the ship sank after a catastrophic collision with the hospital ship SS Western Australia in the eastern Solent on January 28, 1918. The 262ft long,1,070-ton vessel sank with the loss of four crew after she was ‘cut in two’ in the collision in thick fog in the Solent – between the Isle of Wight and England’s southern coast.
Fred was called up as a reservist in 1938, joining the aircraft carrier, HMS Courageous that year. The ship was destroyed on September 17, 1939, sinking within minutes of being hit by two torpedoes, with the loss of her captain and 518 of her crew. Fred had been transferred to HMS Rawalpindi just a few days before the attack.
Fred was just 16 when he first joined the Navy in April 1915. After serving in HMS Malaya and Hazard in the Great War, he was in the cruiser HMS Glasgow between June 1918 – when she was in the Adriatic, covering the bombardments of Durrazo, Albania by Allied forces – and April 1918. Fred served in the battleship HMS Benbow between October 1919 and June 1920, when she was in the Mediterranean Fleet.
After his remarkable escape from the Rawalpindi in the Second World War, he was based in the Royal Navy ship Belfort in Fowey in 1941. Fred left the Navy in January 1942.
- Fred married Norah Kathleen Roberts (1903-1988) in 1922 in Exeter. Norah was the daughter of Frederick Roberts (1877-1942) and Emma Kate O’Keefe (1877-1952). Frederick was the son of Daniel Roberts (1856-1936), the second son of John Roberts (1829-1919), who was my great-great grandfather. Born on August 14, 1898 in Exeter, Fred was the son of James and Lucy Russell, who for many years lived in Alpha Street, Heavitree. Fred, died in 1973 in Exeter, aged 74. Norah, born on June 23, 1903 in Heavitree, died in 1988 in Exeter, aged 85.
- Fred was a gun layer in HMS Rawalpindi. His role involved aiming guns against enemy ships.
THE FULL STORY OF FRED RUSSELL IS TOLD IN HISTORY MAKER
Fred and his wife, Norah after he survived the sinking of HMS Rawalpindi in the Second World War.