Everyone was talking about the new naval ship that would head off to fight the Germans. The ship would leave Hebburn, where it was built. I’m John Capit and I was one of the few survivors of H.M.S North Cape. I was 28 at the time of the ship’s launch, I was a young man in charge of a vessel which scared me a bit. It was the 24th of December 1916 and the ship was about to set sail, the town all came to the docks to watch the ship go. The crowd built up as the ship was getting ready to set off, at around 11 I arrived. The crowd was clapping (for some reason) as I walked up the walkway that led up to the ship. As I entered the ship a line of officers saluted me, I saluted back and made my way to the bridge. This was the first ship that I was captain of, it was weird for me as just 2 years ago I was on a ship reloading guns, not even firing them, now I am treated like royalty, people saluting me as I walked by and I salute back just because I was driving a ship? I arrived at the bridge the lieutenant was waiting “Afternoon Captain, you ok?” he asked, “Aye, you?” I replied “Yes sir” and looked back at the window, admiring the cranes, endless sea of house’s and the industrial buildings letting off smoke. The ship was launched at 2 pm exactly, the crowd waving and some crying. I forgot that the ship was a battleship for a few minutes, and then I realized, all the crew were all living souls all in my hands and that there will be lives lost out at sea. I panicked, I started to hyperventilate and shake, the lieutenant asked: “You okay sir?” “Yes” I replied “Just a little worried,” he said “I know how you feel, it will be fine you know sir” “I know” I replied. Once we left South Shields and there was no resemblance to land from the view of the window I went down to get some food, I sat down on a bench up on the deck. Whilst I dug into my fish and chips a crew member sat down next to me, he was about 18-20 years’ old and wore a uniform with few stripes. “Hello, I’m, I’m Fred,” he said “I’m” I replied but he interrupted me “I know who you are Mr Capit, you’re the captain of this ship!” I didn’t even think people would know what I look like, though the stripes and hat kind of give it away. “How’s the weather, for the next 24 hours I mean,” He said “fine” I replied “right,” he said “got to go and finish some work”, he got up, shook my hand and said “see you around” then left, that was a strange encounter. I’ve never seen him since the, well, we’ll get to that later.

Our route was to come out of south shields port and turn right then head down to Amsterdam where we would stay guard on the coast, in case the Germans try to go up the English channel. The waves were calm and everything was going to plan, it was really quite a good start. In the afternoon there was a meeting with me and other high officials on board, I was a bit nervous as all the men would be 35-43 and I was 28. When I entered there was one bright light over a table with a map over it like a tablecloth, half of the men had massive cigars in there mouths letting off clouds of grey. There were no seats and you could barely see the wall colour. As I entered everyone saluted me and I saluted back, “Afternoon captain” one man said “afternoon” I replied. A man in a smart, white uniform stepped out to the table “Everyone” his voice was deep and posh “Let’s talk over the plan again, we turn 90 degrees in approximately 2 hours and then head down to Amsterdam. There will be strong winds at 50 miles an hour, with the weather conditions and an estimate of the ship’s weight at 45, 000 tons we will get to Amsterdam in around 4 to 6 days” I just nodded, I didn’t say much. An hour and a half later the meeting ended, I understood enough to not mess up. That night I went down to the communications room to tell the men to send a message that said we were all ok and the weather conditions were good. That night I was the only one up on deck, well apart from the watchmen. The night was beautiful, all the stars had taken off their pitch-black mask and shone like a sparkle in a black sea. You could hear that relaxing water gulping and splashing, the only discomfort being the freezing cold air. I went to bed at 12 pm and woke up at 8, I was a light sleeper. The food on the ship was low so the less ‘upper class’ and ‘important’ people wouldn’t get there fair share of food, I rarely ate on board as I was always busy so I would go down to the cafeteria and give people food, it was better than porridge (Basically gruel) so due to my little appetite I could give out loads of food. When I was serious I wore a black uniform with a classic captain’s hat but when it was night and I wasn’t ‘working’ I would wear jeans, a leather jacket and a grey flat cap. The only thing that would suit it would be if I smoked but I didn’t. When I woke up it was Christmas, I loved Christmas and was excited for the party that night, when I went out on deck people were saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to one another. To my surprise it was snowing, it wasn’t thick snow but it still lay on the ground. People were dancing and celebrating, it was brilliant. We passed a French ship, I rushed down to the communications room and told them to send a message to the ship saying merry Christmas. We were singing carols and everything, there was a Christmas dinner which was basically a piece of turkey for the crew but I was invited to a dinner in a big fancy room. There were candles lit down the table and cracker every foot down the table, the table was covered in turkey, gravy and vegetables. It was the most food I have ever seen, I sat down next to a posh man on the end of the table and talked to him for a few minutes. When began to eat I was amazed at the taste of everything, to the other men this was just another everyday meal, I could never be rich. I ate 4 slices of turkey, some vegetables, sausages and roast potato and was full so I said goodbye to everyone and left. I felt sick and going up the stairs was painful, I got into the bedroom and went to bed. When I woke up at 6 pm I was a bit better, I forced myself out of bed and got ready into my uniform. I went down to the cafeteria where the party was being held and it was packed with people. There was a violinist playing ‘Joy To The World’, there were drinks and food all around. one of the best days on the ship. The drunkest thought they were a choir and climbed onto the benches then sang and danced. I stayed in the corner of the room talking to officers and the crew, the posh man from the meeting was even dancing! Suddenly two officers approached me with documents and said “Captain?” “Yes?” I replied “Come with us,” they said, they sounded a bit worried. They took me to the meeting room where there were five men shouting at each other over the table, “Captain” one said, they all saluted. “What’s the problem?” I asked “This is us” one man replied and pointed at a place around 300 miles off the coast of Withernsea, then another man stepped out of the shadow “But there are reports of a U-boat round the north sea, this thing can take down a whole ship sir”. I was worried, if a U-boat shot at us we would be goners. “Ok” I replied “We keep going on the original course, if there is another warning of the U-Boat let me know and we will pull into a port until the treat is no more, agreed?” “Agreed” they all shouted back in a military manner.

You couldn’t go round panicking shouting ‘We’re all going to die!’, no, you had to keep it to yourself. There is even a rule on the ship that what is spoke in the meeting room stays in the meeting room. That night all I did was look out the porthole thinking that somewhere in that blue duvet there was a U-boat looking for enemy ships, I didn’t sleep that night. The next morning I went straight down to the communications room to ask if anything had come through. I ran down the stairs and turned into the room where two men sat on chairs with headphone and one of those tappers on a desk. “Has anything came through?” I asked, trying to catch my breath “No” one of them replied. They both looked quite shocked as I looked like a madman “Ok men” I said “Thank you” I then went down to the cafeteria to grab some breakfast. Fred, the man I met on the first day of the ship’s launch, was sitting down eating scrambled egg on toast. “Fred?” I asked “Hello captain, you ok?” he replied, “Yes, can I sit down?” I asked “Aye, sure” he shouted cheerfully. I sat down and talked to him “So what do you do on the ship?” “I’m a Gunner, I’ve worked on two other ships before” he replied, “What other ships did you work on?” I asked, “HMS Aboukir and HMS Colossus”. Interesting, he’s been on two brilliant battleships. “As a gunner?” I asked, “As a Gunner” he was a lovely gentleman, on the ship it was like people were oblivious to the war. After a long chat with Fred, I went to my bedroom, I was going to go to a meeting later on so I had to grab some documents. I pulled open the draw grabbed the documents and then, I felt it. The ship shook like there was an earthquake onboard, I dropped the document and ran out on deck. Everything seemed fine from the top, I ran down to the engine room as fast as I could. People in flat caps, scruffy dungarees and white shirts with dirt and coal stains all over them ran the opposite direction, “What’s happening?” I shouted “Sir, leave we’ve been hit,” one man said. In my mind, I just thought ‘U-BOAT, U-BOAT’ I opened the door of the engine room, water flooded in. I shouted “Is anyone left in here!” the same man said, “No, sir, everyone’s gone!” “good!” I replied. I then proceeded to shut the door and lock it. I ran up to the deck, shouting whilst I ran “get up on deck! We’re sinking!” there was only one thing that was definitely going to happen, we’re going to sink. I got up on deck, people were getting in boats and fighting for a ride to safety. There were only 5 boats and one was under lock and key, that one is for me and officers. The key was in my bedroom, I had to go down there to get it. I ran down the stairs and into my bedroom. The water was up to my socks, I opened the draw and got the key. I ran back up the stairs and put the keychain around my neck, you see the designers of the ship were clever as the communications room was at the level of the bridge so that if the boat sank you would have time to send a distress signal. When I got up to the room one man was handing the other a lifejacket whilst he was tapping out the morse code. “You’ve sent a distress call?” I asked one said, “Yes, sir” “Good,” I said, “Now go, you’ve done your duty” “But sir,” the other said, I interrupted “No, leave and get yourself on a lifeboat” “Yes sir” they both said and then they left. Only a quarter of the men were left, most were jumping into the freezing cold water. All lifeboats were gone, well apart from the one locked up, a group of officers waited for me. I unlocked the wooden door and two officers helped me drag out the boat, we all got in and were slowly lowered down. That is all I remember from the ship, I must have blacked out or something. I woke up to the sound of someone shouting in a different language, I blinked for a few seconds and then I could open my eyes. We were in a cage in what looked like a cargo bay, there was a man holding a pistol at me and another officer. He shouted something like “Wie ben jij?, wat deed jij daar!” it sounded Dutch, I replied “British! British!” he replied “Brits?” he then walked to a man in the corner of the room. He said to the man “Ze zijn britse” the other man was dressed in a smart uniform, the man with the pistol was in a scruffy shirt and torn pants, the other man replied “Lk zal met ze praten” he then walked over to us, he had a Dutch accent “You are British?” “Yes, yes” the other officer in the cage replied “What were you doing out there” he asked us. “Our ship sank, a U-boat shot us. I’m the captain, John Capit nice to meet you” he replied “Oh, sorry Mr. Capit, I’m Mr. Jan de Vries, but you call me Lars I’m the captain” He then walked up to the man with the gun and shouted “Idioot, onmiddellijk vrij te laten!” the man then walked to the cage door and unlocked it with an oversized key. “Sorry for the inconvenience” then Lars shouted at the man again “Je bent ontslagen! toen we trek in Amsterdam Krijg je spullen en laat!” I had no idea what they were saying but we could tell the captain was angry. He took us into a massive room where half of HMS North Cape’s crew. Apparently, they thought we were German spies, all of the crew were either tied up or handcuffed to a table. The captain shouted “Laat ze! ze zijn British!” and his crew started to untie ours. The captain turned to me and said “We all thought you were German spies, I’m sorry”. He gave us all accommodation and went to a meeting, he said “We will decide where to drop you off” “Ok” I replied. He came out 5 hours later and said “We were heading to Amsterdam but we can drop you off at Dartmouth,” I thought that was a brilliant plan “brilliant! Thank you” the captain then went up to the bridge. Dartmouth is one of the most beautiful places in Britain. The cargo ship pulled up just outside of the dart and sent a boat back and forth to drop us off in the town. That at 2am we all split up to find accommodation, me, Fred and a officer stayed in a ‘room for rent’ on top of a shop on the seafront. The room had 1 bed, a sofa and a bench with a kettle and cups on it. The next day we all went into town and explored, we told loads of people the story and half of them didn’t believe us. We all gathered in a pub where 5 of the crew were staying, the pub had a nice fire and brilliant food.

The next day I got a knock on the door, when I opened the door I saw two men in uniforms “Captain Capit?” one man said “Yes” I replied “Could you and all the officers come with us?” they definitely were military, you could tell by the walk. Once we got all the officers together we were taken to a naval base down the dart by boat. The last time I had been there was when I was a child and it was lovely and the river wasn’t this busy, there were big battleships passing the small rowing boat. When we arrived there we entered a big planning room, it had 20-30 people crowded around a table. A man approached me and said “Captain, we have an offer for you, follow me” he took me into a small room with a desk covered in paperwork and one ashtray, with two chairs on either side. “Please, do sit,” he said whilst grabbing a document from the table, I sat down “Right, you are a brilliant captain I hear?” he asked “I try” I joked, he smiled “That U-boat, it’s still out there you know? We have a ship that’s leaving to find it, the only problem is we don’t have a crew” “And you want me to supply that crew and for me to be the captain” I interrupted, he said “If that’s not too much to ask” I was excited, I had been wanting to get back to sea since I set foot on shore “Yes, I would like that” I said. I went over to the officers and said “We’re going back to Sea” they were all excited to get back on a ship. It would leave the next day to find the U-boat, the government got intelligence that the U-boat would surface in two days. We were provided with a new ship, much bigger than the last one. We bored the next week and I spent half the day looking around the boat, the ship was much nicer and had more lifeboats then before. The crew was mostly different as a lot of them died in the sinking, a crowd gathered around the shore to see the ship set off. As the ship started to move I felt dread for some reason, probably because of the sinking of H.M.S North Cape. The crowd was cheering as most of them had built the ship. The ship had to pass through one of Britain’s busiest ports and the sheer size of that thing was overwhelming. We left the port at noon and set off to go through with ‘Project Cape’ which was the name of the mission given to us by the ministry of defence. I slept from 6 pm to 8 am as I was extremely tired, when I woke up the sea was quiet. No land in sight and a sailboat in the distance, the ‘woosh’ of the water hitting the bow was quite relaxing as I Leant over the barrier and stared into the blue. I began to walk down the deck and watch the funnels blast out smoke, one of the crew members walked past me. He saluted and I did the same. The next day I was leaning over the Barrier passing the time. I heard fast footsteps come towards me and stop. I turned to find an officer saluting me, following the ship’s ‘social protocol’ I saluted back. “Captain, you know how the enigma code was broke last month?” he asked whilst trying to catch his breath “Yes?” I answered with uncertainty ‘It got the position of the U-boat, and it’s not that far.” I was shocked. I ran straight up to the bridge where a tall man wearing a waistcoat and glasses plotted on a map. “Tell the crew were sinking a U-BOAT today,” I said. They all ran to their stations. The horn sounded and we were off. About 2-3 hours later we spotted a circular like structure sticking up from the sea. We slowly moved towards it, the silence was deafening. I heard the ship’s main cannon turn towards the structure. We could now see a body to the circle, it was flat but with some curvature.
There was a huge explosion from where the structure stood and water sprung up from the sea. I fell over as I didn’t expect the gun to fire so soon. After a minute of loud bangs, the water fell back to reveal no more structure. We had sunk the U-BOAT.
A ship joined us shortly after to search for survivors but that was to no avail. We went back to Dartmouth and stayed there for a week. Just resting. We were then taken home by a ferry of sorts. The next few years were just like any other year in the navy, but the only difference being an officer or a captain would ask “Didn’t you sink that U-BOAT?” With an integer look on their face. I got promoted some more until I left the navy in 1935. I still work with ship’s, I own a dock called Harrison in Hebburn. I live there too. The second war hit me hard but I got through it. It’s now the 24th of December 1947, 10 o’clock at night. Exactly 31 years ago tonight HMS North Cape set sail. I’m 59 now. I am writing this in my office in the shipyard. Snow is falling past the window in front of me. Outside is dark, but I can still see the water. Merry Christmas.
Harrison shipyard: