HMS Petard (G56) was one of the P-class of destroyer/escorts ordered upon the outbreak of the Second World War. She was laid down in December 1939 and commissioned in to Royal Navy service on 27th March 1941. Displacing just over 2,000 tons when fully loaded this relatively small warship played a big contribution in defeating the Axis powers at sea by sinking one submarine from all three of the Axis nations – Germany, Italy and Japan.
Being a destroyer/escort the ship was expected to defend a convoy against submarines, aircraft and fast attack torpedo firing E-Boats. To that end her armament was quite light comprising of 4x4inch guns, 1x2pdr ‘Pom-Pom’ gun, 2x20mm anti aircraft guns and 4x21inch torpedo tubes. Additionally a large quantity of depth charges could be carrier on the aft deck. Her 40,000shp steam turbine engines propelled her to a speed of 37 knots making her very fast for the day which was essential in convoy work as the ship could break off and attack an enemy before rejoining the convoy.
On the 28th April 1942, Lt. Cmdr. Mark Thornton DSC assumed command of HMS Petard. Just two days later whilst operating off the Nile Delta in the Mediterranean the German U-Boat U-559 was spotted by an RAF Sunderland flying boat and HMS Petard along with HMS Hero (no not the one from the well known BBC drama), HMS Pakenham, HMS Dulverton and HMS Hurworth intercepted and attacked it with depth charges which forced the sub to the surface. Petard attacked with her deck guns and this forced the German crew to leap overboard. Crucially however they failed to destroy their Enigma codebooks and the coding machine itself.
With the crew off the U-Boat, three members of Petard’s crew swam to the disabled U-Boat in the hope of recovering them; Lieutenant Anthony Fasson, Able Seaman Colin Grazier and NAAFI canteen assistant Tommy Brown. The three men scrambled through submarine realizing she would only remain afloat for a little longer. Upon the discovery of the machine and the codebooks, Fasson ordered Brown to take them up the ladder through the conning tower and on to the Petard. As he made it off with their valuable find however the submarine began to sink taking Fasson and Grazier with it. Their deaths were by no means in vain however as finding the Enigma machine intact was a hugely important find that no doubt went a long way to shortening the war.
This would not be Thornton and Petard’s only submarine action however. While on her way to Malta with a small force of ships from Benghazi on 15 December 1942 Petard stumbled across the Italian Adua-class submarine Uarsciek. At first the submarine was misidentified as a British one but then in the night the Uarsciek fired two torpedoes. Thornton immediately ordered evasive action to be taken and after a series of violent manoeuvres the destroyer successfully evaded the torpedos by turning between their tracks. Thornton felt it best to reply in kind and set up his ship with two depth charge attack patterns followed by one from a third ship which forced the damaged submarine to the surface 200 yards from Petard. She was illuminated by searchlights from Petard and another warship and when it appeared that the Italians were trying to man their own deck gun Petard opened fire. During the course of the engagement there was a collision between the Petard and the submarine shortly after which the Uarsciek sank. As a result of the collision Petard had to remain in dry dock at Malta for several weeks to be repaired.
Despite his success the war had taken its toll on Lt. Cmdr. Thornton and on 9th Januray 1943 he surrendered command of the Petard to Lt. Cmdr. Rupert Egan. The whole thing was done without the pompous ceremony normally associated with a change in command of a ship as per Thornton’s request. Under Egan the Petard continued to have a successful career supporting the Sicily landings and helping defeat the Axis navies in the Mediterranean. In January 1944, under the command of the now Commander Egan, Petard set sail as part of Convoy KR-8 which was to travel through the Suez Canal and on to India. It was a large convoy that could expect attack from Japanese forces once through the canal.
And that’s exactly what happened.
On a clear day and a calm sea it was quite easy to spot torpedo tracks and a set were sighted heading for the troop ship Khedive Ismail which was hit and then sank in minutes taking 1,217 men with it. The crew of Petard retaliated with a classic anti-submarine depth charge pattern. After initially proving fruitless a third pattern forced the attacking submarine to the surface. Being used to the relatively small submarines of the Germans and Italians the crew of Petard must have been stunned by the size of what appeared alongside them. The Japanese submarine I-27 was nearly as large as the Petard herself!
HMS Petard and HMS Paladin engaged the submarine with their four-inch main armament before Paladin attempted to ram the Japanese submarine. Egan, the most senior of the two captains, signalled his compatriot aboard Paladin to abort the ramming. While Paladin’s captain complied he failed to break off in time and carried by her momentum Paladin hit broadside into the submarine’s hydroplane tearing a hole 15 feet long in Paladin’s hull. Petard continued the attack with several close-range depth charge attacks before engaging the submarine with her four-inch guns but both methods proved frustratingly ineffective. Finally, Egan tried a torpedo attack and it took seven attempts before I-27 was sent to the bottom for good. A full two hours had passed since the I-27 was forced to the surface.
This action gave Petard the “hat-trick” of sinking three submarines, one each from the three Axis powers. No other allied warship could make this claim. More importantly however the capture of the Enigma machine and books and its contribution to winning the war at sea can’t be underestimated.