Rosalind Knight was eight years old when the Battle of Denmark Strait took place. She heard the news of the loss of HMS Hood and the action between HMS Prince of Wales and Bismarck whilst listening to the radio at Sutton Scotty in Hampshire. She had been evacuated there to stay with the Elliotts, the family of her nanny whose father was the village baker. "It's all right," she told Nanny Elliott, "Daddy will be all right."
As she spoke these words, Esmond lay in the sick bay on Prince of Wales, drifting in and out of consciousness, his face swathed in hot sticky bandages. Having assessed the damage to his ship, Captain Leach was ordered to continue shadowing Bismarck. They were now part of a swelling fleet of British ships intent on revenge for the sinking of the Hood. Prince of Wales continued the pursuit with the rest of the fleet until the following day, when shortage of fuel forced Leach to turn round and head back for Iceland, which also gave him the opportunity to transfer the wounded to a military hospital.
During the voyage, when he was awake, Esmond heard snippets of conversation about the cat-and-mouse pursuit of the Bismarck. There was satisfaction to be gained from the knowledge that her efforts to escape were being hampered by the damage inflicted by Prince of Wales' three hits during their exchange in the Denmark Strait - she was down by the bow, pitching heavy and leaking oil. The chase went on as Bismarck tried to reach the safety of France. Then, on 27th May, remarkable news filtered through to Esmond as he lay in the sick bay: "Another period of sleep, with dreams of blood and murder, and I was awakened to hear an hysterical voice shooting down the ladder - 'Bismarck's been sunk!'".
Bismarck sinking by the stern - 10.30am 27th May 1941. Prince of Wales had had to withdraw from the pursuit due to lack of fuel and Esmond heard the news of the sinking as he lay in the sick bay en route for hospital in Iceland.
At this time Nora Swinburne was on tour, playing in Dear Brutus with John Gielgud, and she was in Llandudno when she heard of Esmond's injury by telegram. The next day, when she had recovered from the shock, she sent a cable to the hospital in Reykjavik and received a brief reply: "Progressing satisfactorily, general condition good. Matron."
Soon afterwards she received a letter from Esmond himself, accompanied by another from Lieutenant Commander George Ferguson that read:
"Dear Miss Swinburne, I have typed out the enclosed letter exactly as my friend Esmond has dictated it to me in the sick bay on board here last night. I am afraid he has lost one eye, as he was wounded while in action the day before yesterday. The other eye is damaged, the doctor on board says it might not be impaired. He is awfully full of good spirits and the pluckiest chap I have ever met. I cannot tell you how sorry the whole ship's company is to know of his loss, on the other hand he is lucky to be alive at all as things turned out. Forgive this note of explanation but I told Esmond I would try and explain why the letter was typed. Yours truly, George Ferguson."
Esmond's letter read:
"My dearest Bun, unfortunately I seem to have mislaid your tour list and do not know where you will be in the immediate future, so I have sent this to your mother in the hope that you will get it in due course. I suppose you will have heard that we supplied the first chapter of a bit of Naval history the other day, as a matter of fact it was right at the beginning of the affair that I was unlucky enough to get wounded in the face. I fear it will mean losing one eye, however, I am extremely lucky to be alive at all since I am about the only one in that part of the ship not to be outed altogether. I expect to be moved to a hospital somewhere ashore in a day or so and wherever I am I will let you know. Everyone has been extremely kind and, apart from a slight headache, I am fit and well myself. I am busy thinking out distinguished character parts for a man with a dark monocle which Micky Powell can provide when the War is over. As I say, as soon as I know where I am going, I'll try and write again and perhaps you could come up and see me some time. All my love to you, darling, don't worry, E.K."
At Hvalfjördur, off the coast of Iceland, Esmond was transferred on a stretcher by ship's derrick onto the destroyer Echo where he lay on a hard table in the wardroom during the short journey to Reykyavik. Then a bumpy ambulance ride to Helgafell Army Hospital in Mosfellssvelt, near Reykjavik, which belonged to the 49th Infantry division, Territorial Army, and eventually into a clean hospital bed. There he was x-rayed and then wheeled into the operating theatre where surgeons tried ("vainly") to remove all the shrapnel from his face and eyes, using a strong magnet to attract the metal. He heard a voice say to him: "Afraid I shall have to excise this left eye, Knight . . ." to which he replied: "All right, go ahead."
His left eye was removed. The right eye was saved but so badly damaged that it was deemed to be useless. As he lay recovering from the operation Esmond was befriended by the navigating officer from Prince of Wales who had also been on the compass platform during action with Bismarck. Both men had been injured by the same shell. Even with a piece of metal in his cheek, with one one eye swollen shut and in great pain, the navigating officer had refused to leave his post, steering the ship throughout the rest of the action, which included drastic manoeuvres to avoid the wreckage of the Hood as she sank, and only allowing someone to relieve him when Prince of Wales was out of danger. He chatted with Esmond, wrote letters for him and brought him fruit from town.
Photograph courtesy of Rosalind Knight
In the grounds of Helgafell Army Hospital near Reykjavik, Iceland, with his guide, Nurse Thorday. Years later, Esmond and "Sister Toby", as he called her, were to meet again
under very different circumstances in a BBC television studio.
At the time, author Angus Macnaghten was an officer in the British Army, Field Security Force, stationed in Iceland. In his book, Vigil in Iceland, he wrote: "I found plenty of work when I resumed my duties after a leave in England. Esmond Knight, the actor, was one of the casualties from the Prince of Wales in the Bismarck affair, and was in hospital outside Reykjavik. He had been blinded, and one used to see him being led about the hospital grounds, a pathetic figure."
Esmond remained in Iceland throughout the summer of 1941, gradually recuperating and coming to terms with his situation. He began to walk about again, firstly round the hospital garden, then as his confidence returned, and with the help of Nurse Dorothy Thorday (nicknamed Sister Toby by Esmond), he ventured further afield - into the countryside, then Reykyavik to dine and dance, and into the mountains to fish for trout. He even took part in a radio broadcast and was delighted when the audience applauded his contribution, not realising he was blind. He was still in Iceland in August when Prince of Wales, repaired and refitted, carried Winston Churchill across the Atlantic to meet Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign the Atlantic Charter. Missing out on such a momentous occasion was a bitter blow for him. "It nearly broke my heart . . ." he later wrote.
He eventually left Iceland by sea in August, bound for Scotland. A Major Quinn's parting words to him were: "Well, goodbye, Knight. I'm afraid there's not much hope, but you can never really say with eyes." Ironically, Prince of Wales put in to Reykjavik soon afterwards on her way home from her historic transatlantic trip and Captain Leach sent a boat specially to bring Esmond home with them. Esmond was a bitterly disappointed when he later heard about this gesture, but by then he was in Gourock, 25 miles west of Glasgow. There he was told by a medical officer (who had lost a son in the Hood) that the Admiralty had decided not to send him to the Liverpool Eye Hospital, as Esmond had expected, but to St Dunstan's, a home for blind ex-Service men and women. They had a house in Regent's Park and another near Brighton but had been evacuated for the duration of the war to Church Stretton in Shropshire. Fran went up to Gourock to meet him; they travelled south together and Esmond was officially admitted to St Dunstan's on 19th August 1941. Fran stayed with him for a few days while he got used to his new surroundings and then left him to his own devices.
This was no doubt a most depressing time for Esmond, and the moment when the reality of his situation struck home hardest, especially when the surgeon at St Dunstan's, Mr Davenport, reiterated that Esmond would never see again and that he should settle down, learn braille and touch-typing and consider what work he would like to do. He found good companions in other St Dunstaners - there were about half a dozen officers at the home, which was called Battlefields. All had passed through the same process of adjustment: bitterness that it happened to them, thoughts of suicide, then a gradual realisation that "… it really wasn't so intolerable as we had expected." Certainly Esmond showed nothing but great courage throughout this whole period of his life. Nor did he ever fully accept that he would never see again. He started to learn braille, and although he had an excellent teacher in Lady Joan Buckmaster, his heart was never in it.
Photo courtesy of St Dunstans
Learning to type at St Dunstan's in Church Stretton, Shropshire -
sitting next to Esmond is his instructor, Tommy Rogers,
a First World War veteran blinded at Amiens in 1918.
Meanwhile he went for walks in the Staffordshire countryside, bike rides on the back of a tandem, exchanged letters with old friends and had occasional visitors, including Nora. He also underwent a nasty operation to remove two pieces of shrapnel from his face, one in his eyebrow and the other in the side of his nose. The piece in his nose was particularly painful and the plastic surgeon who came up from London to perform the operation had to dig deep to remove it. There were other smaller fragments in his face, too, which gradually worked their way out over time.
With Rosalind on one of his first visits home from St Dunstan's. Photograph courtesy of Rosalind Knight
It had a powerful affect on him, and the possibility of resuming a career in acting began to strengthen in his mind. This was encouraged in early December by an offer from the BBC to do a radio broadcast about his pre-war career. Just prior to the broadcast, Fran met him at Paddington Station with the news that the day before (10th December) his old ship Prince of Wales, together with another, Repulse, had been sunk by the Japanese in the South China Sea.
With thoughts in his mind of the horrors of the sinking and what might have become of friends and comrades, he found it very difficult to concentrate in front of the microphone and the broadcast did not go well. He later discovered that 327 of the crew of 1,612 had been killed, including Captain Leach and Lieutenant Commander George Ferguson, the man who had written letters for him. Many others subsequently died in Japanese prisoner of war camps. The fate of Robin Kempson remained a mystery until after the War when it was discovered that he had left the ship at Singapore to take part in commando raids behind Japanese lines, running motor boats through mangrove swamps to evacuate British soldiers. When Singapore was overrun in 1942 he tried to escape with others by sea in a tugboat but they were fired upon and had to abandon ship. Kempson and the skipper made a raft for the seriously injured, using all available life jackets. The two men then started swimming towards land; but it was 15 miles away and Kempson had a badly dislocated shoulder. They were never seen again.
Despite this set back, the year ended with Esmond in a positive frame of mind, returning home from Church Stretton for the Christmas break having appeared on stage again for the first time since his injury, albeit with other St Dunstaners in their production of a thriller called Shivering Shocks.
"As we arrived home for the holidays the old street was silent under snow. Nanny opened the front door and there was the smell of toast in the hall. Then Rosalind came tearing downstairs and with hot excited hands dragged me into the drawing room, where a log fire crackled and a thousand little lights danced in the glittering decorations on a Christmas tree.”
The depth of affection felt for Esmond by his fellow actors was demonstrated early in the New Year when at 2:30pm on Sunday 18th January (1942), they put on a testimonial matinee in his honour at the London Palladium. President and Chairman of the Show Committee was none other than Nöel Coward, and the impressive array of performers included Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Edith Evans, Margot Fonteyn, Naunton Wayne, Robert Helpmann, Hermione Baddeley, Hermione Gingold, Jack Hulbert, Cicely Courtenage, Fay Compton, Bud Flanagan, Tommy Trinder, Emlyn Williams, Stanley Holloway, Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch.
The London Palladium where Esmond's friends and colleagues in the
theatre put on a magnificent testimonial for him in January 1942.
During the interval, Leslie Henson auctioned a book called Enemy In Sight!, an account written in long-hand by Esmond of the action between Prince of Wales, Hood and Bismarck. It was the original of a story published in Blackwood's magazine and had been described by a critic as "one of the finest narratives of the war". The book was illustrated with drawings by G.L. Stampa and included a manuscript copy of the previous week's Postscript radio broadcast by Emlyn Williams entitled "Esmond Knight". The foreword was by A.P. Herbert and the epilogue by James Agate, the critic who had given Esmond his first notices in the 1920s. The winning bidder was a Mr David Greig from Kent who paid 650 guineas.
On 31st January 1942, Esmond appeared on the front cover of Illustrated magazine, heralding an article he'd written entitled "Blind Sailor-Actor Comes Home" in which he made it clear he was coming to terms with his blindness and that he intended to end his days in the theatre. He wrote: "I was walking with a friend down St Martin's Lane a few days ago, and I met an old stage-door keeper I had known years ago, and he told me that an actress, famous in her time, played specially adapted parts for fifteen years after she had completely lost her sight. This set me thinking and I believe that, treading warily at first, learning a new technique, relying more on one's other faculties, it might be done … after all, the art of the theatre is illusion!"
Back at St Dunstan's, Esmond received a letter from Eric Johns, the actor with whom he had chatted in Berlin in 1935 during the filming of Black Roses. They began corresponding and in the process Johns put a series of questions to Esmond clarifying how he would tackle his return to acting. The result was a moving article by Johns entitled "Defeatism Defeated - Esmond Knight Will Tread The Boards Again" which appeared in Theatre World magazine in April 1942. It ended with the prophetic sentence: "I am convinced that sooner or later night will fall on London - as beautifully as it fell on Berlin that Midsummer when we sat on the Eden roof - throwing into bold relief a neon sign blazing the name Esmond Knight across the facade of a West End theatre."