The Shepherd: understanding responsibility and self-sacrifice

Based on the true story of the Jervis Bay, part of the Atlantic convoy of ships bringing supplies to Great Britain during World War II. The ship was sunk on 5 November 1940. The battle stands as a symbol of Christ-like self-sacrifice.


History tells many amazing stories of responsibilities taken, and sacrifices made, by ordinary men and women. During World War II, the story of the Jervis Bay on 5 November 1940 was held up as a powerful symbol of Christ-like self-sacrifice, in which a few were prepared to give up their lives for the sake of the many. For his bravery, Captain Edward Fegen was awarded a (posthumous) Victoria Cross.

Christians believe that Jesus, in voluntarily allowing himself to be captured, tried, tortured and executed by the people of his time, was making a personal sacrifice, taking upon himself the sin (‘wrongness’) and suffering of his own people and all humanity, past, present and future - and so reconciling people with their Maker. Nothing would be able to separate them from God, if they could only identify with this sacrificial act, which Christians remember particularly every year at Easter.

In calling himself the ‘good shepherd’, Jesus was also offering himself as an alternative model to the leaders of his time, who called themselves ‘shepherds of the people’.

Note: Able Seamen ‘Sam Cutter’ and ‘John Barker’ are fictional characters.


Source pictures of the Jervis Bay, Admiral Scheer and Captain Edward Fegen VC, using Google Images.


Ask: what does the word ‘sacrifice’ mean? (Something or someone that suffers pain or punishment in someone else’s place?) What might it mean to ‘take responsibility’ for something? (To make ‘sorting it out’ your job?)

Explain that we are going to be studying a true story from World War II, during the Battle of the Atlantic. During this time, Nazi Germany was trying to make Great Britain give up fighting, by starving the country of food and raw materials. The best way for them to do it was by using submarines to sink all the ships that brought these things to Great Britain from around the world.

Our government responded by organising these ships into groups called ‘convoys’ that travelled together for better protection - but it was still very dangerous. Out of all the merchant seamen who served in the convoys, one in three died, usually drowned when their ships were sunk by torpedoes. The Germans also sent out battleships to make raids on convoys. This is the story of one battle that took place in 1940.

The Shepherd

by Chris Hudson

Everything seemed to be turning grey. The sea, the sky and the ships in the convoy all seemed to be losing themselves in a haze of mist and low cloud. On his side of the ship, Sam Cutter kept studying the darkening sky through his binoculars, looking for the telltale black speck of an enemy aircraft - hoping he would never see one, but knowing that if he did, that would mean trouble.

There were 38 ships in this Atlantic convoy, travelling in nine lines, all trying to keep together at the speed of the slowest - but some were itching to go faster. Yesterday they'd left the Canadian escort ships behind, and tomorrow they'd meet British Navy escorts to shepherd them home. But today, they were vulnerable. Even now, an enemy submarine could be looking at them through its periscope, sizing up which ship would make the juiciest target. Any moment, the long thin track of a torpedo could appear, lancing towards them, and the ship’s crew wouldn't know it until the explosion blew a huge hole in their hull, the sea would pour in… and that would be it.

Sam winced. He was only 18 but he'd seen too many go down like that. At least his own ship could stop the submarines from attacking on the surface. Jervis Bay used to be a passenger liner, but now she carried a few old six-inch guns to keep the ‘sea-wolves’ away. He scanned the horizon with his binoculars again, feeling like a shepherd guarding a flock of sheep, then checked his watch. Four o'clock, just over an hour to dusk, when it would be safer.

His friend John Barker had been keeping watch with him but had gone below, replaced by someone else. Captain Edward Fegen's crew always kept themselves busy. As ships’ captains go, he was strict, but the volunteer crew respected Fegen. They were reservists - experienced merchant seamen, used to working with passengers or cargo. Now, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, they were all guarding the lives of hundreds of their fellow sailors.

Sam scanned the sky again. What was that? A bird? No. A plane. 'Aircraft! To port!' he shouted. The Captain rushed out from the ship’s bridge.

'Does it have floats?' he demanded.

Sam strained his eyes. 'Yes.'

'Are you sure?' There was a pause.

'Yes, sir.'

‘We need to tell the others!’ Messages were flashed to the other ships, and red warning flares fired high into the air. An enemy plane with floats was probably the spotter from a big enemy battleship. They'd know his convoy's position and course now, and would be preparing to attack.

Alarm bells rang throughout Jervis Bay as the crew raced to action stations. Sam joined his friend John at the starboard 3-inch anti-aircraft gun, John still wearing his Liverpool football jersey under his thick duffle-coat. He'd come up in a hurry! They took positions, donned their steel helmets and waited - for what? The other ships were turning south and scattering, some dropping ‘smoke floats’ in the water, sending up great black clouds of swirling fog that added to the evening gloom. With a surge of power from its old engines, he could feel their own ship turning north... towards what?

An officer ran up with news. 'It's a pocket-battleship, probably the Admiral Scheer. We're going to engage her and buy time for the others to get away.’

'A pocket-battleship?' Sam looked up in horror. 'How many guns?'

'Oh… six 11-inchers plus some 5-9s. She'll have turrets that can fire a shell over ten miles.'

'And we're attacking that? We don't stand a chance!'
The officer shrugged. 'That's what Captain Fegen says too. But… it will buy time for the others. That's what we're here for - right?' He hurried away to tell the others. Sam and John stared at each other. Fighting a pocket-battleship…? Behind them, a new flag was fluttering from the main mast - a battle ensign of the Royal Navy.

Far off in the distance, there was a faint rumbling sound, a flash, a loud whistling overhead, then two almighty splashes in the water, to starboard.

'Missed!' yelled Sam, as a cloud of spray washed over them.

'She's getting our range,' muttered John, wiping his eyes.

More rumbling, another whistling, another series of splashes and explosions, this time to port.

'She's got us now,' said John.

The six-inch guns of Jervis Bay were firing now, their barrels elevated as high as possible to increase their puny range. To Sam they sounded loud enough, but to the enemy their little bangs probably sounded like a child's pop-gun. In the distance, the monster roared out again.

Then it happened. The whole ship shook as a two massive shells blasted into the Jervis Bay, destroying the forward bridge and the radio room. That's where the Captain is, thought Sam. With a big lurch, the ship started to turn wildly as smoke billowed from the burning wreckage at the front of the ship. Fire crews with hoses rushed forward, trying to control the flames, but there was too much smoke. The ship was turning - but then, somehow, they were back on course, heading north again, towards the enemy. They were still going to attack!

Another officer shouted from somewhere: 'You two! Help!' He was crouching by a man lying bleeding at the shoulder. It was the Captain! Sam and John raced to help. 'Keep on course!' shouted Captain Fegen from the stretcher. 'Get as close as we can!' The deck shook again as more massive shells slammed into the ship’s side, creating more clouds of choking smoke. Crewmen were lying wounded and worse, hit by the shell splinters. But others were still at their positions, firing their guns or fighting the flames. Another seaman came racing past, with a rolled-up flag and a hammer.

'What's that for?' yelled Sam.

'It's another Ensign! I'm going to nail it on. They've just blown off the last one!'

Jervis Bay still had a few guns working. 'Are we close enough to hit them yet?' shouted the Captain as a surgeon tried to patch up his arm. 'Keep firing!'

But the whole ship was ablaze, and then the deck started shaking. ‘That’s the ammunition!’ shouted John. ‘They’ve hit the magazine!’ It was hopeless. 'Abandon ship!' an officer shouted, as Jervis Bay began to heel over and sink. What was left of the crew started to dive or jump overboard into the freezing Atlantic. Treading water, some turned to stare as their ship slowly capsized. Everything they'd known on that ship - their friends, their lives - all sinking in a haze of explosions, steam and dirty smoke.

The whole battle had lasted 22 minutes.

The water was cold, very cold, and full of a thick oil that stuck to Sam's skin and face so he couldn't wipe it off. 'John! John?' he cried out in the dark, frantically trying to stay afloat. A wave washed over him, he thought he was drowning, but then he heard a voice. 'Over here!' He swam to his left and found a whole group of men swimming together, some wearing life-jackets with little lights glowing a dull red. Others lay wounded on a life-raft. How many? Ten? Twelve? What about the rest? There had been over 250 men on his ship! Wasn't anyone going to rescue them?

The night drew on. In the distance, there were more explosions, more flashes, probably more ships being sunk. The survivors were joined by other swimmers, then another life-raft - carrying John! Sam would have cried if there'd been any tears left, but he was too tired, too tired... his head went down into the water.

A hand grabbed him. 'Oi! You!' It was a stoker from the engine-room. 'Start singing!' What? Singing?

'I said SING! Sing anything, just stay awake! Keep out the cold! Come on! SING!' He shook Sam awake. Together, they tried 'Roll out the barrel', then the 'Wild rover', then any other song they could think of. Just stay awake, that's all they had to do... If they fell asleep now, they'd never wake up again – the icy cold would see to that.

There was a sound, voices. 'Who's that?' Sam shouted. The voices came nearer. It was a rowboat, he could hear the slap of oars. Foreign voices? Not English. German?

'Hall-o?' said the voice in a strange accent. Sam felt himself lifted out of the water, wrapped in a blanket. He didn't know the language but these people were rescuing his friends, pulling them out of the water, towing the raft back to a ship. Who were they? Strong arms lifted him up to someone on a ladder who passed him up and over, on to a ship's deck. Sam felt more blankets, tasted a hot drink - was it hot chocolate? The ship's flag - it was Swedish. They were on one of the convoy ships. Someone was talking to him, a big man with a wide smile.

'Are you OK? We couldn't just leave you, after seeing what you did. After the Germans came past, we thought we'd come back. Thank you!' The man refilled Sam's mug with more hot chocolate. There was something else mixed in with it, that made him feel warm all over.

Some hours later, Sam woke up and felt stronger. He cleaned himself up, was given some warm clothes and went up on deck. It was early morning, the sun was lighting the sky again. And nearby, he could see a British Navy escort ship. He turned to one of the Swedish crew who was also on deck – the Captain.

'How many?' he asked.

'How many? Pardon?' the Captain was puzzled.

'Survivors. My friends... from Jervis Bay? How many were rescued?'

The man frowned. 'Sixty, about.'

'Is that all?' something in Sam wanted to cry and scream.

But the Captain grabbed him by the shoulders, made him look him in the face. 'Is that all? Don’t you know how many you have saved? Hundreds! The way you fought, it was like… watching a bulldog leaping at a lion. That battleship would have sunk us all. Listen! Your friends saved us! Your Captain saved us! He was... he is… like the good shepherd. Do you understand?' The Captain let go and stood back with tears in his eyes, unable to say what he felt, then turned and walked away.

Sam stared out to sea again, gazing at the sunrise. He thought about the friends he'd never see again, and Captain Fegen. Yes, he thought. They'd been just like the good shepherd he'd heard about once in Sunday school. They'd laid down their lives for their sheep.

Religious Education: 'Sacrifice is...'

For discussion: display the word ‘Sacrifice’ on the board. In pairs, then as a class, list as many ways as possible that someone might make a ‘sacrifice’ on behalf of someone else (for example, giving up a kidney for a transplant).

Remind the pupils that the story you’ve just shared mentioned ‘the good shepherd.’ Jesus called himself the good shepherd because he saw himself protecting his followers, ‘getting into harm’s way’ to save them from predators.

Share this Bible passage:

‘I am the good shepherd, and the good shepherd gives up his life for his sheep. Hired workers are not like the shepherd. They don’t own the sheep, and when they see a wolf coming, they run off and leave the sheep. Then the wolf attacks and scatters the flock. Hired workers run away because they don’t care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep, and they know me. Just as the Father knows me, I know the Father, and I give up my life for my sheep. I have other sheep that are not in this sheep pen. I must bring them together too, when they hear my voice. Then there will be one flock of sheep and one shepherd’ (John 10:11-16, CEV).

Sometimes, Christians talk about Jesus ‘leading them’ like a shepherd, ‘saving’ them from their mistakes, guiding their lives and keeping them safe. There’s a famous passage in the Bible, written by one of Jesus’ ancestors, that says:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—they comfort me (Psalm 23, NRSV).

During World War II, many people heard the story of the Jervis Bay, and some likened the sailors’ bravery in protecting the convoy to the bravery of the good shepherd defending his sheep.

For writing: Title: 'The Jervis Bay and the good shepherd'

  1. Copy: ‘Sacrifice is when somebody suffers in someone else’s place.’
  2. Discuss and list the different ways that sheep on a hillside could be similar to the ships of an Atlantic convoy in 1940: ‘The sheep and the convoy ships both…’
  3. Imagine you were one of the crew on one of the other convoy ships. What would be your most powerful thoughts and feelings before, during or after the battle? Quickly sketch a ship, and put the responses into three thought-bubbles nearby.
  4. Discuss and list the different ways the Jervis Bay could be similar to a good shepherd: ‘The Jervis Bay and the good shepherd both…’
  5. In what ways might Christians think Jesus was like this good shepherd? (Key question for RE assessment purposes.)
  6. What would be your most interesting comments or questions about this idea?

Plenary: Share some pupil responses.

History: Studying evidence: the Battle of the Atlantic

The Jervis Bay was an AMC (Armed Merchant Cruiser), a passenger liner adapted to serve as the sole escort ship on convoy HX84 in 1940 because the Royal Navy didn’t have enough warships to protect all the convoys crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

Study this picture from the Imperial War Museum collection, and others related to the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II on the same website. Pick one or two pictures that you think might best explain what it was like to serve on an Atlantic convoy, and explain your choice, giving at least three good reasons.

Literacy: Making a pitch for a film project

If someone is planning to make a film, they first have to persuade producers to pay for it to be made. This ‘pitch’ has to explain the main events of the story, but also the main themes - for example, friendship, making a journey, dealing with an intruder, personal bravery, facing dilemmas and so on.

Imagine you are a writer or director making a pitch for a film that retells the story of the Jervis Bay. In 50-100 words, write that pitch, explaining why this film should be made, giving:

  • Working film title
  • Main themes: ‘It’s a film about…’
  • Key plot points: what’s in the opening and closing scenes, and what is the climactic scene?
  • Casting suggestions: which actors would you want to play Captain Fegen and some of his crew, and why?
  • Likely audience: who would want to see it?

Literacy: Writing a persuasive letter, appealing for volunteers

The Jervis Bay was an AMC (Armed Merchant Cruiser), a passenger liner adapted to serve as the sole escort ship on convoy HX84 because the Royal Navy didn’t have enough warships to protect all the convoys crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Most of its crew were volunteers, not Navy men. They would have been asked if they were willing to serve on a mission like this in several ways.

Write a persuasive official recruitment letter to Sam Cutter (at his house in Liverpool), asking him to consider volunteering to serve on an Armed Merchant Cruiser in 1940. Remember to include information that explains why people like him are needed for missions like this. His country is at war, and there is a danger of Britain running out of food and fuel if enough merchant ships don’t get through to British ports. If he signs up, he will receive Navy pay and pension rights, but will also have to sign the Official Secrets Act, which means he will be unable to tell his friends and family where and when he is going away.

Then write Sam’s reply. Remember - he is only 18, but he has already worked as a deckhand on merchant ships crossing the Atlantic for three years. However, he has never thought of joining the Royal Navy before, and has never had any weapons training.

Values: Sacrifice

Questions for discussion and writing:

  1. Why do you think the crew of Jervis Bay didn’t try to escape when they could?
  2. Do you think this was a difficult choice? Why?
  3. Have you ever had to ‘give up’ something so that someone else could benefit? What was it?
  4. Some world faiths have special times of the year (for example, Lent, Advent, Ramadan) when believers give up certain things, and give to support certain charities. Some faiths give to charity all the time, on a regular basis! Of course, charities benefit from this - but how could ‘giving up’ certain things also be good for the person doing the giving? (What might it be teaching or reminding them about?)
  5. Which do you think is better when giving to charity - asking your parents/carers for £5 to give to charity, or giving £1 of your own money? Why?

Values: Responsibility

Questions for discussion and writing:

  1. What are you responsible for in your life?
  2. What sorts of responsibilities do you want to be taking on as you get older?
  3. Are there some difficult responsibilities that you might not be looking forward to?
  4. In ‘The Shepherd’, what were the responsibilities of Captain Edward Fegen and his crew?
  5. What personal qualities do you think they needed to have, to help them carry out their responsibilities?

What do you think we can learn from them?


Photo by Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash