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HMS Repulse at sea - click to view (opens a new window) (41833 bytes)

HMS Repulse at sea

Introduction

  “I turned in the water to face her, it was an unbelievable sight. The bow rose in the air to a tremendous height and with her propellers still turning; slowly began to go under. The saddest thing was that within minutes the sea was calm once again; no sign of her or the epic battle she put up before succumbing to the overwhelming odds that finally destroyed her”.

 

The passage you have just read is from an eye witness account of the last moments of the battlecruiser HMS Repulse. On December 10 1941, off the coast of Kuantan, in the South China Sea, Japanese aircraft sank her and the battleship HMS Prince of Wales. It was an epic encounter, one that caused horrendous death and destruction to both ships companies. There are many aspects to this story and  to cover the battle and no other area would have been a pointless exercise, especially as several fine works have accomplished this in recent years. Consequently, this story is unique because of the actual sources used, which, as the title suggests, are first hand accounts offered  by sailors who lived through those testing times. I have called on the memories of six men who served on Repulse to compile this tale, and am certain you will find their stories both interesting and humorous. During the course of interviewing these proud men, I became aware that their experiences once Repulse sunk, were every bit as interesting as the recollections they hold of life onboard this truly beautiful warship. With this in mind, it was a mutual decision by all concerned to continue their tales after the fall of Singapore.

However, it would be impossible to write a story in which Repulse was such an integral part, without devoting some part of its contents to the ship itself. These men truly loved this warship and its fine Captain, consequently with their full blessing, I have written a chapter on the life of Repulse before they joined her in 1939; which includes some unique archive photographs of the ship under construction in 1916.

For two chapters the story leaves the fortunes of these young men; in the first instance to venture into the mind of a Japanese pilot who attacked Repulse on that fateful day. The second is a personal one, which I believe offers a valid insight into the political intrigue that still surrounds the sinking of these ships. I state my own viewpoints; others may well disagree with my conclusions, but all my opinions are based on facts that were available at the time of the disaster.

The final pages of this book list the names of all recorded deaths onboard the Repulse and Prince of Wales, that fateful day in December 1941. This is a mark of deep and everlasting respect from all the contributors of Sailors’ Tales, to the brave men whose final resting-place is the South China Sea.  

Basic Training

 

The story begins with the recollections of Ian Hay; he vividly recalls his journey to the most infamous of training establishments, HMS Ganges, in 1937. It was to be the hardest 12 months of this young man’s life.

 

A life at sea had been my intention from my earliest days. My father and grandfather had both served in the Royal Navy and actively encouraged me to follow in their footsteps. My determination to join up had been further enhanced by the old Admiral who was the recruiting officer in my hometown of Glasgow. I always remember one of his comments the day I signed up, it was along the lines of. ‘Have no worries son, we are just like one big family.’ I told my father this when I returned home, after finding out where I was to have my basic training, he commented wryly. ‘Well that place is like no home I’ve ever seen and if the instructors there were my family, I’d put myself up for adoption!’.

I had a few days wait before receiving orders to report for basic training, I said my farewells and set off for the south-east coast of England in company with countless other young lads who had also signed up for the Navy. Most of them were considerably taller than me, as at that time in my life, I’d soared to a heady 5 feet 3 inches, so the advice given by my father as my train pulled away from the station was very relevant. He said, ‘Ian, make sure you make friends with the biggest lad in your class.’

We arrived at Harwich station and were transferred onto picket boats, these took us over to the headland that was Ganges. Once there, I saw the most immaculately dressed Petty Officers (P/O’s), who greeted us as though we were holidaymakers; this was soon to change. I noticed a number of small boats tied up at the pier and enquired in my most polite voice, ‘Do you think we may be able to use these in our spare time?’ The instructor looked at me and said. ‘You are going to sleep in any spare time we choose to give you, now shut up.’ The abruptness of his tone took the wind right out of my sails.

 

At the same time however, he did me the greatest service, because one tall, hard-looking recruit turned to me saying ‘Don’t worry mate, it won’t be that bad.’ With these kind words I’d found the greatest friend I was ever to have, his name was Michael O’Hern and he hailed from Southern Ireland. He and I became inseparable once we were serving on the battlecruiser HMS Repulse. In further chapters you will read of the exploits Michael and I had together, all my recollections in this book are dedicated to his memory; but back to the beginning.

 

My first night’s sleep was sheer hell, the beds in our dormitory were just steel frames covered in a piece of heavy cloth that was an excuse for a mattress. The following day we were woken by the deafening strains of a Royal Marine bugler, we’d soon learn to cringe at this early morning alarm call, as it invariably meant another day of purgatory was upon us. Every single thing we did during the course of a day had to be performed at the double (running); otherwise you’d be punished. This applied even while eating your breakfast, we were allowed three minutes and it meant just that. If you loitered for any reason, then without warning, you’d receive a quick rap with a rope. I soon learned not to loiter or answer back. When I recall those early days in my career, I remember almost crying myself to sleep at night, my father was right; I did want to put myself up for adoption. The only trouble was the Navy was my guardian and they weren’t letting me go; I was theirs for another twelve years.

 

After a few weeks of this punishing regime, I managed to get into a sort of rhythm, things also became easier as all our class helped each other out whenever we could. I won’t say that at that point life became enjoyable, but it did start to become bearable. If I have one single memory of the most fearsome training exercise whilst at Ganges, it has to be the first time I conquered the mast. I’d noticed this landmark (which was used for teaching recruits how to climb rigging), when we arrived at Ganges for the first time. Standing at a height of some 143 feet, it was a daunting sight and was also the highest in any naval establishment in Britain. I’d never been a lover of heights and was also aware that this monstrosity wasn’t there for show.

 

One day my fears were realised; we were told to fall in four deep at its base, to begin our training to eventually reach the top. I must admit that I soon became confident whilst working my way up top. As for the first few times we climbed it, we went through the ‘lubber's hole’, a more direct way to the top. By using this route you wouldn’t have to go onto the ‘Devil’s elbow,’ an overhang of some twelve feet that had to be negotiated on the way up top. We did have a substantial safety net at the base of the mast. The only problem was that the huge steel supports, which held it in place, ran inside the net itself. This in fact meant, if you were unfortunate enough to lose your footing, there was a real possibility of impaling yourself on one of these supports. It was a worrying prospect.

 

I had no idea of my instructor’s intentions on the day I finally had to go onto the elbow. So as usual, I lined up with three other lads. Just as we set off he shouted, “I want you to clear the elbow now, go and don’t look down”. At that very moment all my strength drained away and the other lads pulled clear of me. I came up to the elbow; (it was just over halfway up, around 80 feet or so off the ground) and looked on in amazement at the way the three other lads seemed to just whip round the overhang. This gave me a bit more confidence, so I rushed onto the first part of the traverse; suddenly, I was struck numb with fear. I’d never felt anything like this before and I couldn’t move a muscle.

 

I felt like I’d been stuck on the elbow for ages, clinging like a kitten to a branch, when from nowhere came my instructor. He climbed directly underneath me and shielded my body in case I lost my footing. Even in this situation I was still more scared of him than the predicament I’d put myself in. I needn’t have worried, for he spoke quietly, but firmly saying, “Come on Ian, live off your fear. Make it work for you”. As he spoke I knew I’d be okay. Within seconds, he let me climb from under him and make my way up top. To say I felt proud with myself that day was an understatement. Throughout the rest of my time in the Navy, particularly whenever I was scared, that moment always came back to me and I have no doubt it saved my life on at least one occasion. As training progressed and my confidence grew, I’d often go onto the mast to eat my favourite snack, a ‘Charlie’. This was two pieces of pastry filled with bread pudding, topped off with sugar. Eating it on the mast was one way of making sure no one else got any of your treat.

HMS Ganges Mast (click to view - opens a new window) (39500 bytes)

The mast at HMS Ganges

After this episode I gradually settled into the pace of life at Ganges, but after about 8 months of constant training, I began to feel continually weary. This didn’t go unnoticed by our instructors, as no matter what we thought of them, they always made sure everyone was fit enough to take this punishing regime. I reported to the sick bay, where fatigue was diagnosed, so I had to stay in bed for a couple of weeks. You may think this was a time for rejoicing, but I can tell you it wasn’t. From my point of view, missing training meant that I was removed from my original division, Collingwood and transferred to a batch of later arrivals in Anson division. This upset me as I’d become good friends with quite a few lads in Collingwood, particularly Michael; now I’d be leaving Ganges a couple of weeks after him. Thankfully I wouldn’t have to go through all the rigours of previous exercises with my new classmates, as I’d be finishing my basic training a short while before them.

 

I soon settled in with my new class, it’s a fact in all the services that, although you may have one or two very close mates, there is a common bond with everyone and friendships soon form, this was to be the case with Ted Matthews and myself. He was a boxer in Anson division and our careers were to run on almost parallel courses throughout the war, particularly on the battlecruiser Repulse.  

 

 

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