In the early afternoon of October 25, 1941, Prince of Wales in company with the destroyers Electra, Express and Hesperus left Greenock naval base destined for the Far East.... Onboard that day was Royal Marine Maurice Edwards he briefly recalls the final time Prince of Wales left British shores:
”It wasn’t made clear to us that we’d be going to Singapore, and the first place I recall stopping at was Freetown. You must remember the lower decks weren’t very well informed on what was going on, and I suppose the same could be said for all but the highest ranking of officers”
The majority of men onboard may not have known their destination, but Churchill wasted little time in telling others. Within days of the Prince steaming out the Clyde he informed President Roosevelt in the following manner .
”As your naval people have already been informed we are sending that big ship you inspected into the Indian Ocean as part of a squadron we are forming there. This ought to serve as a deterrent to Japan”.
Words of Warning.
By November 10, Prince of Wales had reached Freetown and Repulse was in Durban, where the South African Prime Minister Jan Smutts, addressed the crew; offering a profound evaluation of future events. No official records of his talk exist, but I am fortunate in being able to quote from a first hand account by my own father, at the time an Able Seaman onboard the battlecruiser.
” We cleared lower decks just wanting Smutts to say his peace as quickly as possible so we’d begin our run ashore. I can recall not being in the least interested in what
I was about to hear, until, that is, he began talking. From the onset he shattered our conceptions of the Japanese military stating in clear terms that if hostilities
erupted we weren’t going to be confronted by a race of inferiors. To the contrary he felt the Japs weren’t in the least concerned by the possibility of conflict with Britain.
He also made it clear despite what we’d been told in the past that they possessed a fully modern airforce. Though the one comment that’s never left me were the fatalistic
words he feared many of us wouldn’t be returning from this mission and he’d pray for our safety during the troubled times ahead.
None of us could possibly have imagined the accuracy of this prophecy. As in a matter of weeks over 500 of the men in front of him that day would meet their end in the most terrifying of manners”.
After this speech the crew of Repulse were afforded every hospitality by the people of Durban. And for the remainder of their time in these waters Repulse returned to convoy duties, before departing for her fateful rendezvous with the Prince of Wales, a couple of weeks later.
On November 16 the Prince docked at Cape Town, by this time it was known that the carrier Indomitable had run aground in the West Indies and sustained damage making it imperative for her to steam to America for repairs. Obviously, the loss of air cover, was a disaster, but no thought appeared to have been given in making use of another carrier HMS Hermes, which was putting into Simonstown naval base at the same time as the Prince was preparing to leave the ‘Cape’.
Arrival at Singapore and signs of Japanese intent:
So it was the Prince and her two destroyers Electra and Express continued on their way without any future hope of constant air-cover. Their next port of call was Colombo. From here they steamed to a position just south of Ceylon to rendezvous with Repulse and on December 2, 1941 the force entered the Straits of Johore and docked at Singapore’s naval base, where Admiral Philips awaited them. So did the Japanese.
Lieutenant Haruki Iki, of the Kanoya Air Corps, offers a very enlightening Japanese account of the arrival of Repulse and Prince of Wales.
”On November 28, 1941 the Japanese armed forces received information that the Prince of Wales and Repulse would enter port in Colombo and then head for Singapore. The Commander of our combined fleets Isoroku Yamamoto decided to send 36 warplanes of the type known as the Betty equipped with torpedoes to reinforce those already in Indo-China……. On November 30, my own fleet known as the Kanoya Naval Force was unofficially told to attack the Prince of Wales and Repulse using the Betty. We immediately began training day and night to maximise the potential of our aircraft. And on December 3, a reconnaissance plane discovered the ships at Singapore”.
Admittedly, Britain’s leaders wouldn’t have knowledge of the actions of Iki and his Kanoya Air Corps. But this isn’t the case with the next piece of evidence, as it was distributed by the Chief of Far Eastern Intelligence based in Singapore and released on the very day Repulse and Prince of Wales docked at the colony.
”Aircraft French Indo-China approximately North 120 - South 180 including 90 heavy bombers. Assumed minimum troops at South two divisions and mechanised formation. North two possibly three divisions. Majority of 2nd fleet comprising of 12 modern cruisers, 28 destroyers now in Formosa - South China sea area. In addition, 9 submarines sighted 100 miles North of Camranh Bay on December 2nd course South”.
One wonders if Admiral Philips was made aware of this immense force gathering before him?
The evening of December 7, was uneventful, though just before 0400 hrs of the following morning, Singapore’s air raid sirens burst into life. Within minutes the secondary armaments of both ships erupted in a series of forlorn attempts at engaging approximately 17 Japanese bombers, in the process of attacking Singapore city.
The raid was soon over, unbeknown at the time, this attack had been preceded by Japanese troop landings on the Malayan coast; effectively, the battle for Singapore had begun. A matter of hours later information filtered through regarding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During the course of the day, a series of meetings were held between Philips and his staff, dealing with suggestions on what course of action his ships should pursue.
Problems with the Prince.
Any hopes nurtured by Philips that his capital ships could immediately steam from Singapore were soon dashed, the Prince of Wales being incapable of operating at full capacity because one of her boilers was undergoing repairs. Though of far more concern was the condition of her ultra modern surface scanning Radar, which this was inoperative. On the afternoon of December 8, Squadron Leader TC Carter was sent aboard with two RAF technicians to ascertain if the situation could be quickly remedied: he stated
”I was somewhat irritated when I found that the set had been unserviceable throughout the week that Prince of Wales had been in Singapore, and it was only now when she was obviously being prepared for sailing that we were called in and asked to do the job at once. In the event we could not. Had we had been called in a couple of days earlier we might have been able to do the job. So it was Prince of Wales sailed with that radar set unserviceable”
Finally, at 1735 hours, on December 8, 1941, with all other immediate repairs completed, Prince of Wales, Repulse and the destroyers, Tenedos, Electra, Express and HMAS Vampire left Singapore naval base. Their objective being a series of reported Japanese troop landings taking place around Singora in Siam. Philip’s plan being to destroy the beachhead, then quickly retire before the Japanese could gather, what were felt to overwhelming forces.
Royal Marine Maurice Edwards recalled his feelings on leaving the colony onboard Prince of Wales.
”As we left the Straits of Johore I had a terrible feeling of foreboding we just didn’t know what we were going to encounter but one thing I do remember is being convinced that we’d never get back to the colony in one piece”.
However, Bert Wynn, an Able Seaman onboard Repulse, had different feelings on confrontation with the Japanese.
”On leaving Singapore, Repulse was a hive of activity, all necessary equipment was checked, then double-checked; nothing was left to chance. For the first couple of hours I was in my action station - where the main topic of conversation was how long would it take us to sink the Japanese warships felt to be in attendance around the coast of Singora. I still remember the feeling of absolute confidence running throughout the ship. Everyone was eagerly awaiting the kind of action we’d trained for during the past two years, furthermore the outcome of such an engagement was felt to be a formality”!
As evening drew on, all was quiet. The only real issue of note being a signal sent from Singapore by Rear Admiral Palliser to Admiral Philip’s Flagship, indicating air cover would not be available on December 10th, the day Force Z would be under greatest threat of attack from Japanese warplanes known to be in Indo-China. This and other relevant signals are nowadays used as a means of casting doubt on Philip’s decision to continue the mission. But in light of evidence I will be disclosing, gained from the interrogation of Captain Sonokawa of the Genzan Air Corps. I feel the issue of air-cover was of little significance, regarding the ultimate fate of Force Z. Particularly, as the only planes available for this purpose were of an antiquated design.
Continuing with the progress of the ships early in the morning of December 9th HMAS Vampire issued an unconfirmed report of an enemy aircraft. This was later disregarded and Force Z continuing steaming towards Singora protected from Japanese air reconnaissance by squally monsoon weather. But unbeknownst to Philips and his Captains, at approximately 1345 hours events took a major turn for the worse, when the Japanese Submarine ‘I.65’ located them; immediately reporting their position to the Imperial Cruiser Yura in the following manner.
”Two Repulse type enemy battleships spotted, course 340, speed 14 knots”.
However, due to poor wireless reception Yura suffered a one and a half hour delay in receiving the signal. And as none of the Capital ships, nor their destroyers sighted the submarine, the incident had no bearing on Philips intended plan of action. Although the weather was about to play its part in this game of cat and mouse.
Several hours later (1700hrs) the sun broke through, quickly clearing heavy skies. Soon after lookouts onboard Prince of Wales reported three sightings of Japanese aircraft, Philips now realised the element of surprise was lost, and as dusk fell he contemplated what course of action to pursue. In the meantime, because of her lack of endurance, the elderly destroyer Tenedos was despatched back to Singapore. Though no-one could have realised she would see action before the Japanese turned their attention towards Force Z.
Shortly afterwards reports came through from lookouts onboard HMS Electra of sighting a flare estimated to be at a distance of 5 miles away. Philips responded by altering course taking his ships well clear of its approximate location. We can only wonder how events would have turned out if he had not altered course. We now know the flare had been lit by a Japanese bomber, wrongly identifying the Imperial cruiser Chokai for one of the British capital ships. Chokai being part of a force of six cruisers and several destroyer escorts that were desperately searching for Force Z. Needless to say, if they had clashed, it would have been an epic encounter.
As it was,at 20.55 hrs on December 9, Philips, being fully aware his ships were now the subject of a detailed Japanese search, sent the following signal to his commanders.
”I have most regrettably cancelled the operation, because having been located by aircraft, surprise was lost and our target would be almost certain to be gone by the morning and the enemy fully prepared for us”.
With this Force Z turned South and headed back towards Singapore, though once again matters could have been very different. At approximately 23.52 hours a further Japanese submarine, ‘I.58’, spotted the warships, whereon it immediately dived, and within minutes prepared to launch an attack. Though due to a malfunction in one of its torpedo tubes, Repulse and Prince of Wales passed by. And by the time I.58 cleared the problem the warships offered a rapidly disappearing stern target, the belated salvo of five torpedoes, were all wide of the mark.
The realisation amongst Repulse’s crew that confrontation with the Japanese now looked unlikely was not welcome news. So as an alternative to the official account, leading up to the fateful morning of December 10th 1941, I have decided to draw on the recollections of one her crew. His name is Reg Woods, a gunner on one of the battlecruisers multiple pom-poms.
”Once news of our intended return to Singapore was announced there was tremendous disappointment onboard as we felt cheated out of a rightful confrontation. Later on during
the course of the night our spirits were lifted when informed that early in the morning we’d be going to investigate reported troop landings at Kuantan,on the coast of Malaya.
As we’d have to pass this area it wouldn’t be much out of our way, having the added bonus of a possible show down with the Japanese Navy, who’d obviously be guarding the beachhead. I think it was about an hour or so before dawn when we were allowed to stand down. I managed to nip and get some breakfast, never thinking for a moment this’d be the last meal I’d ever eat onboard Repulse.
Early in the morning we arrived off the coast of Kuantan and even though one of Prince of Wales' Walrus seaplanes had conducted a thorough search of the area the destroyer Express was ordered into the cove to evaluate a situation we could see from onboard ship was devoid of all activity, this was nothing more than a futile exercise wasting valuable time, and was most probably the final nail in the coffin of both our ships.
As expected HMS Express returned shortly afterwards, reporting ”All is quiet as a wet Sunday afternoon”. I began to feel uneasy about all this we were now sitting ducks if an air attack was launched. And it was a relief to leave the area, though on our way out we investigated a suspicious looking tug that’d been spotted on reaching Kuantan as it was towing what looked like troop carrying barges. I think I’m correct in stating about this time our skipper gave orders for one of our Walrus sea planes to be launched.
A short while later we came across the tug. The barges in tow turned out to be some kind of grain carrying hoppers, and after a brief inspection we let them go on their way. The rumour then came through that another Japanese plane had been spotted by one of the escorting destroyers. We all knew if that was the case a Japanese force couldn’t be far away”.
Reg was correct in his assumption. Captain Sonakawa of the Genzan Air Corps takes us through the final moments before battle commenced.
”We received the first sighting reports from a submarine at 1600 hrs on December 9th. The message was originated at 1400 hrs but not received at the 22nd Air Flotilla H/Q
until two hours later. At the time we were in the process of loading bombs for an attack on Singapore harbor. So we-re-armed with torpedoes as quickly as possible, but this
wasn’t finished until 1800hrs.
At 0315 hrs on December 10th a contact report was received from a second submarine which gave a new position indicating the ships were heading south, returning to Singapore. Because of this, at 0600 hrs 10 planes from my squadron armed with 60 kg bombs were launched to conduct a sector search for the enemy ships. And about an hour later the main striking force, composed of 27 bombers and 61 torpedo planes was ordered to proceed to the best estimated position of the enemy ships. The striking group was organised into 9 plane flights, which, once rendezvoused, proceeded south along the 105th Meridian. Because of reduced visibility the search planes didn’t discover the ships until beginning their return leg when at 1100 hrs they broadcast ‘contact’ to our striking groups and H/Q”.
By now the main battle was about to commence. But the destroyer Tenedos had already been discovered by Japanese bombers. Though, after skilful manoeuvring by her skipper, she was able to head safely back to Singapore. Avery different fate to that awaiting Repulse and Prince of Wales.
At approximately 11.18hrs a group of Japanese bombers known as ‘Nell’s’ approached the capital ships. It was soon obvious their intended target were the thinly armoured decks of the battlecruiser Repulse. Ted Matthews was in the aft high-angle director; responsible for supplying information to the 4-inch Anti-Aircraft guns, and had a perfect view of this opening attack.
”A couple of minutes passed before our height finder Petty Officer Collet had the planes in his sights, reporting down to the transmitting station ”Enemy Bombers approaching,
height 21,000 feet.” Within moments they’d passed from starboard to port side of the ship. At the time we couldn’t see their bombs, but everyone was certain they’d been despatched.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the results of their action to be felt, as explosions erupted either side of the ship-covering her in heavy spray. Suddenly, there was a tremendous detonation. We’d been hit on the port hangar, almost immediately our position was covered in steam, as a pipe had been fractured in the explosion. I remember being shocked at the accuracy of the attack. It was far more precise than anything we’d previously encountered at the hands of the German Airforce”.
This initial attack had caused severe casualties. One stoker had a miraculous escape; his name is John Dykes. He explains:
”Just after the alarm sounded, I was with a ‘Fire Party’, part of damage control, until ordered up top to assist with the fuelling of a Walrus seaplane. Whilst carrying out this duty the bombs came down. One exploded in the area I’d been in a matter of minutes previously. Shortly afterwards I returned down below. It was a sickening sight. Many of the lads I’d been with on the ‘Fire Party’ had been killed, and scores more had severe injuries. It's strange to recall, but at the time I just didn’t think about how lucky I’d been”.
The cause of this carnage had been a 250 kg bomb detonating in a Fan Chamber. Though it didn’t have a lasting effect on the fighting capabilities of the battlecruiser. Within a short period she was back to full efficiency. Matters subsided for some 15 minutes; suddenly more planes appeared low on the horizon. Lieutenant Commander Harland on the bridge of Prince of Wales commented to Admiral Philips, ”I think they’re going to do a torpedo attack”, to which Philips replied, ”There are no torpedo aircraft about”. But the Admiral was wrong: they were torpedo bombers. The likes of which no British serviceman had ever seen before.
These where Mitsubishi G4M1 ‘Bettys’ with a top speed in excess of 250 mph. Carrying torpedoes equipped with a 330lb warhead. Capable of being despatched at the Betty’s maximum speed. And on launching, running in excess of 41 knots for a distance of more than 2000-metres. In a few short minutes Force Z was about to suffer the most horrific aerial onslaught, at the hands of the Japanese war machine.
Prince of Wales was steaming at 25 knots when 9 Bettys appeared low on her port bow, in a moment they released their torpedoes. The battleship frantically shifted from 5.25 secondary armament barrage to small arms rapid fire. The noise was deafening, reaching a crescendo as the planes flew within feet of the guard-rails. Men on the upper deck watched in horror as the tracks of incoming torpedoes drew ever closer. Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion, eye witness accounts recall the forward motion of the ship appeared to be halted by the force of this detonation. Being so severe, some of the crew felt the battleship had been thrown in the air.
Within seconds the Prince took on a list of 11 degrees and her speed fell to 15 knots; both her steering gear and main electrical systems had been fatally damage and she could no longer maneuvre with any degree of control. More alarmingly most of the power supplies to her dual-purpose 5.25 guns were inoperative.
AB Alan McIvor was in one of the port 5.25 Gun Turrets (P3). He describes the terrifying noise caused by this explosion.
”A matter of seconds before being hit, we’d been training our gun on one of the planes that had taken part in this first attack. Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion. I can best describe the noise as tons of plate glass shattering on a pavement. Immediately, we lost all power to our gun which was stopped whilst training aft”
The result of this initial strike, which incidentally resulted in two torpedoes finding their target, was severe vibrations began running throughout the Prince. This was traced to a damaged propeller shaft, which had been twisted to such a degree that all the watertight shaft seals had blown and the propeller blades were tearing the armour plating off the stern of the battleship. Even though the shaft was immediately shut down, it was too late: the damage was done. In a short while, as a direct result of the stern torpedo hit, the Prince would take onboard over 18000 tonnes of water. This cruellest of blows effectively ended her fighting capabilities. From this point on she would only be able to offer token resistance to the Japanese onslaught.
Assessing Prince of Wales was fatally wounded, the planes shifted their attention to Repulse. At 1156 hrs, 8 torpedo bombers began an attacking run. But Captain Tennant proved a worthy opponent, evading all these attacks. His tremendous skill is still etched in the memory of Ted Matthews; he recalls:
”Our skipper had us falling everywhere in his attempts to comb the incoming torpedoes, manoeuvring this warship more like a destroyer than a battlecruiser. In our elevated position on the H/A director the roll of the ship was alarming. If it hadn’t been for the life-threatening situation, it could almost have been exhilarating”.
However, the tenacity of the Japanese pilots attacking Repulse meant it was only a matter of time before they found their target. Having successfully avoided a further high-level bombing attack, Reg Woods recalls the moment when the first torpedo struck the battlecruiser.
”As the attacks came over with increasing intensity, our gun became a scene of chaos as the ammunition in the pom-poms was beginning to jam and foul up, reason being, the
cartridges were separating inside the gun barrels. At one point we had 7 out of our 8 barrels out of action. Adding to our worries was that some of the Japanese were hanging out
the sides of the planes with sub-machine guns, literally spraying our area with bullets. And as we were all covered in cordite from the shells that’d fouled our gun, one stray bullet
would have been curtains for our gun crew.
Though in the midst of this mayhem, we did manage some success, and felled a couple of bombers, but I still remember my heart missing a beat when the first torpedo struck home. It was inevitable we’d get caught, though the question was, could we beat the Japs off and stay afloat.”
By this time Captain Tennant had sent a message to any British man-o-war, stating: ”Enemy Aircraft Bombing My Position". All was to no avail, the Japanese closed in for the kill. Tennant would eventually evade 19 torpedoes. But the end of his ship would be swift and merciless.
Once again, I feel it fitting to offer a personal recollection of this final onslaught , Ted Matthews recalls:
”I had a clear view of the final attacks, watching in horror as a group of bombers attacked from our the starboard side. The skipper immediately altered course. Suddenly,
three planes approached from the direction of Prince of Wales launching their torpedoes. It was obvious we couldn’t miss them. The planes flew straight by Repulse,
although two of them misjudged their angle of flight, skimming directly overhead, thus presenting themselves as a perfect target for our AA guns and were promptly blown out of
Unfortunately, the damage had been done. I waited in anticipation of the worst, as the torpedoes disappeared under our port side. It seemed to take an eternity for anything to happen at one point. I thought they’d somehow missed, or failed to detonate. But it wasn’t to be. Suddenly there was a massive explosion. I immediately knew we’d lost Repulse, for within seconds she took on a frightening list to port, so rapid no amount of counter flooding would save her. I didn’t hear the ‘Abandon Ship’, but there again I wasn’t going to hang around as I could see her quickly disappearing beneath me.”
One of the men responsible for this final attack was Lieutenant Haruki Iki he offers his account.
”When our squadron arrived I could see Repulse had been hit on the port side. I went in to attack, and Repulse was firing intensively whilst turning to
starboard. At the same time as we approached, one of our fleets was attacking from the Port side, so we caught the ship in a pincer movement. I released my torpedo, pulled out.
I turned to see it hit the ship.
At a height of about 3 kilometres I looked down and saw Repulse beginning to sink, whilst Prince of Wales was moving South East at about 5 or 6 knots. After successfully returning to base I found out my plane had been penetrated by 17 bullets from Repulse's anti-aircraft fire."
Repulse was eventually hit by five torpedoes which literally tore her apart. Her crew now faced a terrifying journey into an oily sea. Before moving on to the situation onboard Prince of Wales, I offer three first hand accounts of such escapes:
From the onset of action, Able Seaman Bert Wynn had been in the depths of a 15-inch shell handling room. He recalls his dramatic escape:
”We had no forewarning of this final phase of the action, as Repulse still appeared to be steaming at high speed. Suddenly, there were three successive explosions.
In seconds she took on a massive list to port. I knew to stay in this room one second longer would mean certain death but the only other lads who seemed keen to get up top were
Taffy Johns and Geordie Jeans, and the only possible escape route would be to climb up the shaft, connecting our room to ”Y” turret. Geordie led the way. I was last in line. As he
entered the shaft I remember him shouting to the lads still waiting for orders from above, ”Come on lads its over. Get out now!”, but no one moved.
On entering the shaft, the thought struck me we could be trapped, for if the hatch at the base of the turret hadn’t been unclipped we’d never escape. Thankfully, I breathed a sigh of relief as it was clear, though elations were short lived as water was pouring down from inside the turret. This could only mean Repulse was partially submerged.
I remember shouting down one last time to the lads below, ”Are you coming up? You’ve got to, otherwise it’ll be too late!” I looked for signs of life, but everywhere was in pitch darkness. Mind you, they couldn’t have been following, as not one man left in the shell room survived the battle”.
The only way out of the turret was through the upper hatch, located in its roof. I found the ladder leading up to it, but Taffy started to panic as he didn’t have a life belt on. We told him to go first and stay put till we got out, we’d then help him off the ship. So up he went clipping the hatch open.
By this time Repulse had a list that must have been approaching 45 degrees, as Geordie and myself got up top we looked in desperation for signs of Taffy but he’d disappeared. We never saw him again. After diving into the sea and spending what seemed an eternity in the oily water we were rescued by the destroyer Electra. Though the saddest part of all was within a short period of reaching safety. Geordie passed away on the destroyers deck, a victim of oil contamination”.
Reg Woods tells of his lucky escape:
”As our gun crew made its way from the pom-pom, the port side was only a few feet clear of the water, which looked a very tempting escape route, but we were being warned
away from there by some Petty Officers, as the rapidly submerging superstructure could easily drag you down with the ship.
I’d estimate the speed of Repulse at the time to be in the region of 20 knots, and also remember the Captain of my gun, Reg Slatter, saying ”Come on, we’ll go over this way", meaning starboard. I replied, ”No, I’m taking the shortest route”, which meant port, reason being I’d seen the P/O’s stopping lads from going over one part of the starboard side because of a torpedo hole, as some lads were diving in only to be swept back inside the ship.
This, along with the terrifying sight of the propellers looming out of the water, left me in no doubt that I was taking my chances elsewhere. With this I left my mates and ventured down the almost vertical deck and into the water from the port side. I never saw Slats again, he didn’t survive.
I’m convinced all of us have at least one everlasting memory of Repulse from that day. Mine’s, once clear of the ship, the sight of huge plumes of water rising some 100 feet or so in the air, caused by the partially submerged propellers. The horrifying consequence of this was men who hadn’t got clear of the turbulence were being catapulted in the air. A lot landed near to me, and all of them were dead. Thankfully my ordeal ended about 40 minutes later when I was rescued by the destroyer Vampire”.
Ted Matthews has one horrific recollection of his escape from the ship:
”I made my way off our action station and onto the almost horizontal deck, passing the rear entrance of the Captain’s quarters. In the recess of the doorway I saw the ships
Padre kneeling down tending to an injured man. The lad caught sight of me and shouted my name. I realised I knew him very well, but won’t offer his identity as he suffered
terribly, and if he’s any family alive, it’s best they’re settled with the fact that he’s one of the many lost during the action.
As I approached them the ship was moving further to port. It was obvious we’d have no time for a lengthy rescue, but it wasn’t until I was literally on top of him, till I seen the severity of his injuries. He had terrible bullet wounds across the whole of his stomach.
The Padre told me to give him a hand to try getting him over the starboard side. But on moving him he let out the most horrific scream. We let him fall back and tried again, with the same result. By now I must have been showing signs of worry for my own safety, as the next thing the Padre said was ”Go on son you can’t do anymore for him”. I don’t care who you are, when faced with that kind of situation, the strongest instinct is for your own survival, and I certainly didn’t need to be told twice. The Padre’s bravery was beyond belief, and thankfully, he survived. However my mate didn’t and the look in his face that day has never left me.
After this terrible incident I made my way over the starboard side and still remember sitting on the bilge keel, taking off my anti-flash gear then my shoes and socks, and diving out as far as I could. It was quite a way down, as the height of the keel must have been in the region of 40 feet or so out of the water. I swam clear and after a few minutes managed to latch onto a heavy crate that’d come from the ship. At that moment for the first time in quite a while, I felt safe. I imagine I must have been in the oily water amongst dead sharks and sea snakes for the best part of an hour till the destroyer Electra came to my rescue."
With Repulse sunk Japanese attention turned to the Prince of Wales. Admiral Philips had already sent the distress call to Singapore, ”have been struck by a torpedo on port side. Send destroyers.", followed by a further message some 20 minutes later of ”HMS Prince of Wales disabled and out of control”. In reality after 6 (possibly 7) torpedo hits, the ship was steadily sinking. Telegraphist Bill Johns depicts the rapidly worsening situation:
”Almost from the onset of action the Prince had been racked by explosions. We realised matters were pretty grim when water began entering our Central Communications Office. Shortly afterwards we received orders to go up top. Entering daylight I had the shock of my life. It was a scene of total devastation. Soon after I was put under direct control of a Chief Stoker, helping carry wounded to the sick bay. It's sad to recall most of the men we took below perished with our ship, their injuries being so severe they were unable to save themselves before it was too late. Not long after this, I decided to take my chances in the open sea and dived in from the deck of the Prince. Some time later the destroyer Express picked me up.”
Even though Prince of Wales was in the throes of sinking, the Japanese airmen continued to attack with tremendous ferocity. Their final assault coming in the form of a high-level bombing run. This was witnessed by many men from Repulse, who had been rescued by escorting destroyers. To a man, they described it as the most sickening sight they had ever seen:
Alan Mc Ivor from Prince of Wales has never forgotten it. He recalls:
”I was standing at the open entrance to our turret; suddenly there were three tremendous explosions, the force of which threw me back inside. I soon realised I’d been very
lucky, for the shock of these detonations lifted our gun turret off its trunion, and I’m certain if I hadn’t been sheltered from the main blast, I wouldn’t be here today.
As a result of this attack, I’d cut my head quite severely, and was losing a lot of blood. This was noticed by Petty Officer Crowther, who made me cross over the gangplank to the relative safety of HMS Express, which was now tied up alongside the Prince. It was the last I ever saw of him. I’ve no-idea if he survived the sinking."
Mc Ivor’s immediate ordeal ended when stepping onboard the destroyer Express. Royal Marine, Maurice Edwards now recalls his experience of the final bombing of the Prince:
”We were several decks below with a Stoker P/O who’d been ordered to flood the High-Angle Ammunition Magazine, though before doing this, we managed to open the
armoured hatch and get the lads out. My next recollection is being alongside another Marine, close to the hatch leading through the armoured deck, when the bombs struck the
Cinema Flat. By pure luck, I missed the force of the blast, but the poor lad alongside me caught it and was immediately blinded.
Soon after I remember making my way onto the quarterdeck. It was absolute chaos, with Carley floats being cast astern where they’d be of absolutely no use. I distinctly recall our skipper asking for volunteers to fight the ship, but this was hopeless, as the ship was sinking fast. From my position on the quarterdeck I was looking down onto the Express , watching the wounded being transferred across. But some of those not injured suffered a terrible fate, as in their impatience they tried jumping across from the Prince onto the destroyer’s deck, only to fall in between both ships, to be crushed or drowned. I soon decided to take my chances on the seaward side, and that’s how I left the Prince, watching her finally sink. It was a harrowing sight. Initially she was upside down, though in a few minutes her bow went up in the air and she plummeted into the depths."
With the capital ships sunk, the Japanese soon left the area. Within minutes, a well-documented incident took place, when a squadron of Brewster Buffaloes flew over the scene. They had responded to the earlier signal for air cover from Captain Tennant, but arrived too late to be of use in the battle. Although I do believe that its highly unlikely that either them or the carrier aircraft intended to be with Force Z would have altered the final outcome of the battle. You may find this a rather contentious statement? In support of it I would like to offer a comment by Captain Sonokawa taken from his interrogation in 1945, in which he mentions the arrival of the Brewster Buffaloes:
”After the attack one plane was left to observe results. He remained on station until both ships sank. During this time ten Buffalo fighters arrived but the observing plane managed to escape. Japanese fighters arrived too late to take part in the action. Some six or seven bombers were reloaded for the second attack, but before they could take off, the ships were sunk."
From this disclosure its obvious that if Repulse and Prince of Wales had sailed with air cover, and managed to ward off some initial attacks. Subsequent Japanese sorties would have been accompanied by Zero fighters, which had a range in excess of 1400 miles. Therefore, I ask, how long can we feasible imagine it would have taken aircraft of this quality to dispose of any allied fighters protecting Force Z?
Summary of Battle:
HMS Repulse sank at 12.35 hrs, with the loss of 513 men. From the Abandon Ship she had only taken a matter of minutes to go under. HMS Prince of Wales had taken 50 minutes longer. Her casualties being not quite as severe, mainly due to her stronger hull withstanding more punishment, giving her crew more time to escape. The total lost onboard her amounted to 327 men. Speculation still surrounds the subsequent actions of the Japanese pilots as they did not interfere with the rescue of survivors. In fact some books written on the loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales state Japanese airmen flashed a signal allowing escorting destroyers permission to pick up survivors.
I dispute this and feel the theory offered by Prince of Wales survivor, Bill Johns' is far more plausible. After the war Bill had many business dealings in Japan; during the course of one such visit he met a pilot who had taken part in the action. Whereon he was informed the airmen had been given specific orders to sink the two capital ships and no other vessels in the area.
I must add Bill’s opinions were confirmed to me by Lt Iki. In one of our correspondences, he stated his task was to destroy either Repulse or Prince of Wales. Once completed his mission was deemed as over. Though it must be noted, Iki soon returned to the sight of the sinking, but for purely personal reasons. On December 11 1941, he flew over the sight of the previous days battle, dropping two wreaths. I asked what prompted this show of respect. His reply shocked, when informing me that one was for the fellow members of his ‘Kanoya’ Air Corps who had perished at the hands of British gunfire. Though, the other was for all British sailors who had died in the battle. He added their display of bravery in defence of the ships had gained them the utmost admiration from all pilots in his squadron.
From this scene of total devastation in the South China Sea, all survivors had a journey of several hours till the rescuing destroyers docked once more at Singapore naval base. Whilst ending my talk on the loss of the ships, I feel it fitting to conclude with the post disaster fates that befell the 7 men who’ve offered personal recollections within the overall context of my story.
We begin with the A-A gunner from Repulse, Reg Woods.
After a weeks guard duty in and around Singapore city, Reg along with many other men from Repulse, was picked for duties onboard a cruiser; which at the time, was stationed at Batavia. Unfortunately or not, as the case may be, a few days before reaching their destination, news came through that Japanese bombers had sunk the warship in harbour. . After this he picked up the armed merchant cruiser Corfu in Colombo serving onboard her until mid 1942. Though, whilst making their way to Britain, he was drafted on to the warship, HMS Gambia, not returning home until July 1943. Reg ended his wartime career on MTBs, by taking part in the liberation of the Channel Islands. Regrettably, Reg passed away in November 1999. I will always cherish the close friendship we formed. He was a great man.
Also from Repulse, certainly led a charmed life during his remaining time in the Far East. To begin with, after a few weeks shore duties in Singapore, he was sent in a party to Batavia, to pick up some Dutch MTBs. Though after a clerical cock-up, they returned to the colony in early January 1942. After which Bert was sent into Malaya, in particular the Muar river area. As I am sure you are aware, this region was soon overrun by the Japanese. Hence, after a precarious journey back to Singapore, he managed to escape on a merchant ship making his way to Colombo. His luck was about to change. He was drafted to the ill-fated cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, which in April 1942, in company with her sister ship, HMS Cornwall was sunk by Japanese bombers. After more than 30 hours adrift in the Indian Ocean, survivors from both ships were picked up by three British cruisers. On his return home Bert spent the remainder of the war on British east coast patrols onboard the Destroyer HMS Pythchley, and now resides in the town of Thurnscoe near Rotherham.
Had a relatively straightforward escape from Singapore, onboard the Australian merchant ship Nellore. After which he was given a draft to the British cruiser HMS Capetown, serving onboard her until returning to Britain in September 1943. .He then volunteered for Submarine Service, spending the remainder of the war as a gunlayer onboard HMSM Sleuth, where he gained a DSM in actions against Japanese shipping. He stayed on in ‘boats’ until 1952 and lives in Wrexham North Wales.
Stoker John Dykes
Suffered a very different fate. After serving onboard a minesweeper in and around the waters of Singapore since the sinking, the day before the surrender his ship made a bid for freedom, only to be sunk by a Japanese cruiser. Whereon John was captured, spending the initial part of his captivity on the Burma Railway. From here he was transported back to the infamous Changi jail. Where, along with thousands of others, he was liberated by allied forces in mid August 1945. John’s a native scouser, still lives there, and is without question one of the greatest characters I have ever met.
Moving on to the men from Prince of Wales….
Alan Mc Ivor
Left Singapore a few weeks after the sinking onboard a tramp steamer, originally designed to carry approximately 130 people; that day it had in excess of 800 onboard. After which he had a 12-months stay in Trincomalee and after qualifying on a submarine detection course, he was drafted on loan to the Australian navy for 2 years; returning home to his native Northern Ireland on D-Day. At wars end Alan was in Hong Kong, and remained in the navy until 1953. He still resides in Belfast.
Telegraphist Bill Johns
Stayed in Singapore until a matter of days before the surrender, whereon he escaped onboard HMS Anking, ending up in Java. After a series of strokes of good fortune he made it to Fremantle, eventually returning home in late 1943. Shortly afterwards he went onto one of the most dangerous duties of all, onboard HMS Onslow, serving on Russian convoys for the remainder of the war. Bill now lives in Sevenoaks, Kent.
Finally, we cover the fate of Royal Marine, Maurice Edwards.
Shortly after the sinking, the remainder of Marine’s from both capital ships merged forces with remnants of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, becoming known as the Plymouth Argylls. Whereon they took part in a series of land actions against the Japanese. Though with being ill prepared for tropical warfare and without air-cover it was a mission doomed from the onset. Subsequently on February 15th 1942, the Argylls were led by a piper from Tyarsell Park Singapore, into 3 and a half years incarceration. As with John Dykes, Maurice spent time working on the ‘Railway’, but at the time of Japan’s surrender he was some 60 miles north of Bangkok, taking part in the construction of an airfield. Maurice now lives in Shrewsbury. He has the most incredible knowledge of the Far Eastern War, and is also a great personal friend.