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George Pulford

Chief Petty Officer Writer
P/MX 69848

HMS Prince of Wales


  Petty Officer Writer George Pulford

George Pulford

George Pulford was a Petty Officer Writer attached to the staff of Admiral Tom Phillips

Born 25th December 1920
George's story:

I was 18 years of age when I arrived on the China Station in September 1939, as a member of the crew of HMS Durban. The ship left UK shortly before the declaration of war, bound for Gibraltar. Unfortunately departure was delayed due to trouble with the condensers and we lay alongside the Cornish coast for several days while repairs were carried out. When the repairs were completed, the ship continued on the voyage to Gibraltar and it was during this time that war on Germany was declared. On arrival we were immediately consigned to convoy duty and sailed with the first convoy to Capetown. During this voyage we made several depth charge attacks on submarines, but we did not have confirmation of a sinking. The convoy arrived safely and after a short spell in Capetown we sailed into the South Atlantic in search of German raiders who were active in the Indian Ocean, but without success. We then sailed to Colombo and briefly visited Madagascar on the way. After a short stay in Colombo we eventually sailed for Singapore joining “Dauntless” & “Danae”, forming a light cruiser squadron there. For several weeks “Durban” was employed on blockade duties patrolling off Padang to prevent German ships in these ports from leaving and during this time the ship was fuelled and provisioned at sea. The blockade ended when Germany invaded Holland and the German ships were siezed by the Dutch. “Durban” was also stationed at Hong Kong and on one occasion she was sent to Vladivostok to escort a merchant ship back to Singapore. During this voyage we ran into the tail end of a typhoon; the ship received a terrific battering, the waves were mountainous and no one was allowed on the upper deck, many of the crew were very seasick but fortunately I was not affected. Hong Kong was awash with Chinese refugees who were fleeing from the revolution and it was pitiful to see the plight of some of these people. There were lots of interesting places to visit; the smugglers’ market where you could pick up many a bargain, Happy Valley and the tailors’ street where you could buy a new uniform, tailor made, very cheaply. The Chinese workers in the dockyard were very poorly paid, I think it was about 1 Hong Kong dollar a day, a dollar being worth about 1s.3p. HMS Durban also patrolled the Bay of Bengal, Car Nicobar being one of the islands visited. The Japanese later invaded and occupied much of this territory.

On the 22nd July 1940 I was drafted to HMS Sultan and worked in the office of the Commander in Chief, China Station. Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was appointed to this command soon after I arrived and I worked in his office until 7th Dec 1941. During this time I had been promoted to P.O. Writer and when HMS Prince of Wales arrived in Singapore I was drafted to that ship to serve on the staff of Admiral Tom Phillips. I joined “Prince of Wales” a few hours before she sailed on her final voyage. The action, which resulted in the sinking of the ships, has been well documented and I cannot enlarge on it. I do, however, remember being on the upper deck watching the destroyer “Express” steaming off to investigate a tug that was towing some barges, when the call “ stand by to repel enemy aircraft “ came over the tannoy. The action station to which I had been allocated was deep in the bowels of the ship and throughout the action we seemed to be completely isolated. We knew the ship had been hit several times because of the explosions and the list to port which was developing, but we had no idea that an order “abandon ship” had been given. By lucky chance someone above noticed the open hatch and called down to us and told us that the ship was sinking. We climbed the steep iron ladder to the deck above and then to the upper deck where I found myself on the fo'csle near the ship’s bow. The ship had a heavy list to port and the destroyer “Express”, which had been tied alongside to take off the wounded, was pulling away from the “Prince of Wales”. I looked round for the “Repulse” but saw no sign of her, but of course she had already gone down. I saw some people attempting to jump from the “ Prince of Wales” onto the destroyer but the gap was now too wide and they fell into the sea. I did not have a life jacket but I decided that it was “now or never” so I went over the side into the sea. I went down quite deep and I could see the sun shining on the water overhead but, although I was a strong swimmer, I had to fight hard to get to the surface because of the suction which was quite strong. The surface of the water was thick with oil fuel and it stung and burned my eyes and face but I could see a destroyer about 500 yards away picking up other survivors and I swam towards it. I turned to look towards the “Prince of Wales” and her bows were high in the air, I watched as she slid slowly, stern first, under the sea and sank to the bottom. As I swam towards the destroyer I wondered if the planes would machine gun the people in the water or attack the remaining ships, but this did not happen. I knew also that these waters were infested with sharks and I hoped that the noise of the explosions and the oil fuel would keep them away, but there was a lot of blood in the water, which could attract them. I never saw any sharks and eventually, after what seemed like an age, the destroyer “Express” picked me up. Once on board I was given salt water to drink to make myself sick in case I had swallowed oil fuel. I returned to the naval base at Singapore and there I had to check in and identify myself after which I was able to shower and rid myself of the coating of oil fuel that covered me completely and then I went to bed. The next day I was issued with new tropical uniform because I had lost everything, kit, personal possessions and the money which I had saved over the past two years and I then returned to duty in the C-in-C’s office.

A fortnight later on the 25th December, I celebrated my 21st birthday; my birthday cake being a corned beef sandwich! After Admiral Phillips took command Sir Geoffrey Layton was on his way to Colombo, but he was recalled to Singapore after the two ships were sunk and resumed command. When the British Far Eastern squadron was formed under the command of Commodore John Collins, an office was opened in Batavia and I was transferred there. I went to Java on one of the “D” class cruisers, I cannot remember which one, but it may have been “Dragon” and on arrival we opened an office in the Lever building. In Batavia I met a wonderful Dutch family named Ooievaar who were very kind to me. The husband was in the Dutch army and he, his wife and three daughters lived in Jambulan, Batavia Centrum. One evening I was invited to their home for dinner and we had just finished our meal when we heard screams coming from an adjacent house. The husband handed me his revolver and he grabbed a sabre and dashed from the house saying to me “don’t be afraid to use the gun if you have to”. When he returned I learned that there had been native intruders intent on robbing his neighbours and he explained that these robbers smeared themselves in oil to help them avoid capture but they were terrified of cold steel and that is why he took the sabre. In this particular case they escaped but without any plunder.

At the end of February, it became apparent that Java could no longer be defended against the Japanese onslaught and the office was closed down. Most of the staff left at the end of February, they were to be shipped to either Mombassa or Colombo and I never saw them again, but I was left behind to burn the confidential books and papers. I spent two days doing this and when the job was completed I joined up with a unit that was making for Tjilatjap in the hope of finding a ship to escape from the island. The first day we travelled as far as Bandung where we spent the night with a Dutch army unit and the following day continued towards Tjilatjap. We arrived in the late afternoon and made our way to the docks where there were two ships embarking refugees. We arranged passage on the smaller of the two ships, SS ”General Verspeijk”, which already had many evacuees onboard, mostly civilians, but there were also some wounded survivors from the battle of the Java sea which had taken place a few days earlier. Both ships sailed at 8p.m. but shortly afterwards I believe the other ship was hit by a torpedo because we did not see it again. I was told later that torpedoes had been fired at “General Verspeijk” but because the ship only drew 10ft of water they passed underneath the ship, however I cannot confirm the accuracy of this information. The next day a corvette appeared on the starboard side and this turned out to be HMAS Maryborough who escorted us to Fremantle. Food and water were scarce onboard and our diet was mainly fried rice or “nassi goring”, as it was known locally. After a few days I became an “honorary” stoker, the ship was undermanned and I found myself in the engine room shovelling coal into the boilers. I must say that the engine room was a credit to the chief engineer, it was spotless! This task was not over arduous but it was hot and sweaty and it was a relief when I was able to get on deck for a breather. On the third or fourth day a Japanese spotter plane “buzzed” the corvette and dropped what appeared to be bombs, but there was no explosion and it was thought that the plane had discarded empty fuel tanks. The ship eventually arrived at Fremantle on 10th March ’42, but we must have had extraordinary luck. A strong Japanese force known as (Kongo), consisting of heavy cruisers and destroyers, was deployed south of Java and this unit destroyed many allied ships including HMS Stronghold, on 2nd March, HMAS Yarrow and the convoy that she was escorting on 4th March, and many others. So yes! we were very fortunate. On arrival at HMAS Leeuwin I was given a meal, the first decent meal for over a week and accommodated in what appeared to be a derelict hotel. I slept on the floor on a mattress and was given a kind of “non-job” in the ship's office for but I don’t remember much about the time I spent there. Eventually I was sent by sea to HMAS Lonsdale and during this voyage I was ill with a kidney infection. On arriving in Melbourne I was taken to hospital and spent about 10 days there. During my stay I was fitted out with new uniforms which I badly needed as I was down to a bare minimum of clothes. After being discharged from hospital I rejoined the group that had left Freemantle and remained at HMAS Lonsdale until 28th May, I then left for Sydney to await passage home.

On arrival in Sydney on 31st May, we were sent to Garden Island and accommodated aboard a disused harbour ferry, HMAS Kuttabul. Later that day I decided to join a group of people who were going to Sydney and we visited the Harbour Bridge and other places of interest and finally decided to sleep ashore. In the early hours of the morning I was aware of sirens and the sound of gunfire but I was unable to obtain any information about what was happening. The next morning I returned to Garden Island and found that a torpedo fired from a Japanese midget submarine that had penetrated the harbour had sunk the ferry, on which I might well have been sleeping. Three midget submarines had been launched from their parent ships and managed to breach the harbour defences, their target being the heavy cruiser USS Chicago that was in the harbour. The first submarine, M14, became entangled in the torpedo nets at the harbour entrance and was blown up by its crew. An alert member of the crew of the USS Chicago spotted the second submarine, M24, and the ship then fired at it; M24 responded by firing two torpedoes at the Chicago. By clever manoeuvring the ship avoided the torpedoes and both missed their target but one of them exploded beneath “ Kuttabul”, she sank and 21 men lost their lives. Nineteen of these were Australian but two were part of the group awaiting passage home. The third submarine was “spotted” and attacked with depth charges and it is believed that the two-man crew shot themselves. Later that afternoon I was told to join SS “Dominion Monarch” for passage home to Liverpool. “Dominion Monarch” had arrived in Sydney with Australian and New Zealand troops returning home from Europe and the Australian contingent had disembarked leaving only the New Zealanders on board. Later that day the ship sailed for Wellington and on arrival there the New Zealand troops left us. The ship stayed in Wellington for about a week and during that time I spent several pleasant days at the home of a local Maori family, who, when I left to return to the ship, gave me a Maori grass skirt as a memento. The Dominion Monarch then sailed for Panama and after passing through the canal made her way up the coast to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The ship stayed in Halifax for a few days and then began the final leg of the voyage home, across the Atlantic. Most of the voyage was solo, but as we neared Ireland we were escorted by naval vessels and finally reached Liverpool at the beginning of June. That afternoon I caught the train to Portsmouth and reported to H.M.S. Victory, the naval base, I was back home for the first time in three years.

I was given a month’s leave and spent most of it with and aunt and uncle in Leeds and met up with many other old friends and relations. Returning from leave I spent a month at President V where I passed my professional examination for Chief Writer. I then spent a couple of months in “Victory” until being posted to “Spartiate” in Glasgow. I arrived in Glasgow on the 16th Dec ’42, and acted as Captains Secretary at the naval detention barracks at Coatbridge. On the 7th Nov 44, I was promoted to Chief Writer, but in October I had to have an operation on my knee which had become very stiff and painful. I was in hospital for several weeks and it was not until the end of January that I was allowed ashore to visit friends. The first visit I made was to a family named Bain. Daniel Bain was headmaster at a school in Glasgow and they were an amazing family who spent much of their time entertaining service personnel at their home. I am sure that there were many people in the forces who were glad of their hospitality. Margaret Bain, their daughter, was a regular visitor when I was in hospital. Daniel was the President of the Burns Club and he invited me, as a guest, to the anniversary dinner. It was a splendid occasion; the ceremony of the “Haggis” being piped in was something to remember. I still have the Kilmarnock Burns, 1786, Facsimile Edition issued by John Smith & Son (Glasgow) Ltd, St Vincent St., Glasgow which he gave to me that day. It is inscribed: “To C.P.O. George Pulford in memory of the 85th anniversary dinner of the Tam O’ Shanter (No3) Burns Club. From: - Daniel Bain MC, MA., President. 25th Jan. 1945. Glasgow”. They were very good friends! After a short spell of sick leave I was posted to H.M.S. Vernon, but I was not there very long before I had to return to hospital with a recurrence of the knee trouble. I was coming down a flight of steps when my knee gave way and I fell to the bottom of the stairs. I was admitted to the Naval Hospital Haslar sometime in early June, ’45. On the 20th September, I was told by the specialist that I would never be able to serve at sea again as I had osteomyelitis in my knee and I was discharged “physically unfit for naval service”. I received this news with mixed feelings, on the one hand it meant that I would be able to spend time with my wife and recently borne daughter, while on the other it meant the end of my naval career. I was still only 24 years of age and had already reached the rank of Chief Petty Officer, so I had much to look forward to. However, I had no choice, I was on the beach and that was that!

For the past 26 years I have lived in Oxford and during that time I have met some very interesting people who have become good friends. Amongst them is Wing Commander Branse Burbridge DSO, DFC and Bar. Branse was best man at my wedding when I married my present wife Pat, and Barbara his wife was a witness. Another interesting lady, Daphne Paul, who is also a very good friend, has many tales to tell of her service in the Wrens. My wife and I are both committed Christians and have been actively involved with students at the university. Like the Bains in Scotland, we have entertained many students in our home and have many friends worldwide. Japan, Mexico, Africa, USA, India, Pakistan and China are just a few of the places where we have regular contact with our friends. I am writing this account on the 8th December ’06, and in two days time it will be the 65th anniversary of the sinking of the “Repulse” and “Prince of Wales”. Earlier this week I read an obituary in the “Telegraph” for Surgeon Commander Sidney Hamilton RN, who was surgeon on the “Repulse” at the time when the ship was lost, he was 94 years of age. That gentleman did a wonderful job both at the time of the sinking and later.


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George Pulford.