The Fall of the Fortress


Ian Hay continues the story of life in Singapore after the sinking of HMS Repulse. Once again a quirk of fate was to save his life.

It didn’t take long to regain my strength after our sinking, but it has to be remembered I was a very young man, and as the saying goes ‘youth heals all ills’. After our address by Captain Tennant we were designated to work parties, nothing was properly organised; you were just picked out by P/Os as you sat on the quayside. This happened to Michael and myself and we had the duty of loading a merchant ship with aviation fuel. I still can’t imagine why this was being carried out, as there for all to see on the wharves were brand new fighter planes still in the boxes.

As I look back on things that happened during this shambles, it’s blatantly obvious that the hierarchy had already decided to surrender. The trouble was they never told the poor bastards who were ready to fight for the island that in their eyes the fight was over. I saw convoy after convoy bringing men and munitions into the docks every day. As I bring this sad time back to my memory I can’t help contemplating the terrible ordeal awaiting these men at the hands of the Japanese. The majority of the troops had never seen combat before; many of them would either be killed defending Singapore or end up as prisoners of war. 

A couple of days into our duties Walter came to see us and soon made me envious when saying, he was returning to Britain. I never knew the exact reason why he was called back, sadly I would never have a chance to ask him again. I remember seeing Walter off with a sad heart as his merchant ship sailed out of sight. I would have given anything to be onboard it; not through cowardice. I couldn’t have given a toss for the Japanese at that time as we all thought they’d be checked by the allies in Malaya in a short while. The reason I wished to return so much was that I knew my family would be worried over my safety and could have easily thought I’d perished in the battle, as we had no way of contacting relatives and reassuring them of our well being. However, to some degree Walter returning home would ease this plight; he was from Glasgow and had promised to contact my family on his return.

He was never to see home again; a day or so from Singapore, his ship was hunted down by a Japanese warship and sunk. I don’t think there were any survivors. I was informed of the sinking by the P/O in charge of our party and it affected me quite severely. He was a great bloke and had looked after me night and day after our return to base, never once complaining of having basically to wet nurse me till I gathered my strength. Although it did make me shiver when the P/O also told me that, but for his intervention, I’d have been on the very same ship as Walter. Apparently he’d objected, saying I couldn’t be spared from my duties, as he was undermanned. One small statement had meant the difference between life and death. I began to have a different outlook on the advancing Japanese after that incident. Nothing could now leave the island with any degree of safety; ships were being sunk every day.



Reg Woods now recollects the rest of his time in Singapore. It wasn’t a place he was sorry to leave.

I was detailed off and put in command of two Sikh troops, we were to guard the naval headquarters. It was quite stupid the way these men were treated by our officers, as they weren’t to be issued with any more than 5 rounds of ammunition each, in contrast, I could carry as much as I wanted. To me this was a sign of the contemptible way our officer class treated colonial troops in those times.  The Indians were on 2 hours shift turnarounds, whereas I was on 4 hours stints, it was quite boring work, but I wasn’t going to ask for any other form of duties, as every day, we heard of further Jap movements on the Malayan Peninsula. And some of the lads off both ships had already been sent up into the jungle to fight alongside the army, who really had their hands full. Given a choice I was happy where I was.

I’d been performing this duty for a week or so, when we were told a cruiser was to be manned from survivors off Repulse, and skippered by Commander Denby. The following morning, the ships crew was posted on the barracks notice board, I was pleased to see my name included in the list of personnel. Shortly afterwards we went to the harbour and boarded a P&O boat, I think it was called the Moltan, leaving that morning.


On looking back I remember being very happy to be bidding farewell to Singapore as the atmosphere was truly demoralising; you could smell defeat in the air. However, at that time the worst place to be after Malaya was in the oceans surrounding the island, as the Japs were sinking anything that floated. But as with all sailors, the place you feel safest of all is onboard ship. Not for one minute did I think we’d be in danger. Yet thousands perished in the waters surrounding Singapore at the hands of the Japanese during this period. After a couple of days at sea we were informed that our intended destination of Batavia, (where we’d pick up the cruiser), was to be changed. Apparently she’d been sunk by the Japanese whilst in the dock, we now headed for Colombo. It’s amazing to realise that we never encountered any enemy ships or submarines, whilst on our way across the ocean. It was a piece of good fortune I just took for granted. On the morning of 7th January 1942 we arrived in Colombo harbour. For the time being we were safe.


Derek Jones remembers the form of transport he was allocated when ordered off the island. It certainly wasn’t first class accommodation, but he wasn’t complaining.


I’d been sitting on my backside for a good week or so and felt we were an embarrassment to the Government in Singapore. There were too many of us; they just couldn’t move us out quickly enough, and the docks were full of half dressed matelots. I waited a few days to get issued with some bits and pieces of kit, as up until that time, I still stood in the clothes I’d had on when Repulse went down. Some lads weren’t as fortunate; they’d still be in their survivor’s rags when the island fell. After a few days I was ordered to board a merchant ship, it was my ticket out of Singapore. There were a few lads off my old ship on it and we shared the vessel with all manner of people from that part of the world. The ship was like ‘Noah’s Ark’, being full of live pigs, sheep, chickens and anything else that could be eaten on the voyage, as it had no refrigerators, this was obviously the best way to keep our meals fresh.


One day I went up top and the Indians onboard were killing some sheep in readiness for our dinner, it was a terrible sight. The whole area was full of flies, blood and guts; it certainly was an eye opener. It may sound these days to be a bit inhumane, but this was a desperate time and I was quite happy to see my meal being prepared, as this would at least allow me to sleep on a full stomach. Although I use the term sleep in the broadest sense of the word, as we had no bunks or sheets. The latter problem was quickly remedied by one of the lads; he found a bedding store and promptly broke into it. The skipper wasn’t at all pleased when he saw how we’d acquired our clothing, I thought he was going to throw us overboard.


To some degree I’d forgotten about the Japanese and their onslaught, but after a few days it was brought home to us. We began seeing bombers flying overhead with increasing frequency, it was obvious they were focusing a lot of raids on Singapore. I couldn’t see how the island could survive such a persistent barrage and don’t mind admitting that I was glad to be from the place. I can’t remember exactly how long it took to reach our destination of Colombo, but I think it was in the region of two weeks or so. The port was teeming with evacuees from all over the place, thankfully after a short while I left the ship being sent to a rest camp in the jungle for a couple of weeks R@R. It was a welcome relief not to constantly be on your toes as this’d been the case since the loss of Repulse. On returning to Colombo, I was sent to a transit camp and stayed there for a further couple of days to await my fresh draft, which was to the merchant ship, Endeavour. Unbeknownst at the time, this vessel was to be my home for a lot of the war and we were sailing to the comparative safety of Suez and the Red Sea. Shortly after leaving port I’d hear of the fall of Singapore.




Ted Matthews describes his last final days in Singapore and his subsequent good fortune in escaping the horror of the surrender.


I didn’t feel at all relaxed in Singapore; it had a feeling of gloom about it, everywhere I looked, plans for evacuation were under way. I ‘d been put on guard duty in an oil terminal and was in company of some other lads off Repulse namely, Mickey Andrews, Jock Macbeth and Scouse Cooper. We got on well, which was very fortunate, as we’d be seeing a lot of each other in the next couple of years. We were under a P/O named I think either. Watson or Jackson and had been issued with rifles and bayonets. After a couple of days we received orders to report to the docks in Singapore, once there, we had to board an Australian merchant ship named the Nellore. It appeared that the skipper was having trouble with the Chinese crew. Apparently, they were worried about sailing as the Japs were sinking almost everything leaving Singapore; we’d gone onboard to make them calm down till they left.


The following day, after a quiet night, the ship was ready to sail but the skipper wouldn’t put out to sea, at the time we didn’t know why, but the reason soon became apparent. He wouldn’t, under any circumstances leave, unless we sailed with him for protection. After a few hours the order came back that we were to stay onboard. As soon as we set off, one of the ships officers decided that we should have some clothing, as we looked like tramps, still having the same gear on from when Repulse sank. All poor Jock had on, was an old pair of boxer shorts, he had looked a right sight with a rifle and bayonet and his private parts popping out every time he moved, he certainly felt a lot happier after his issue of kit.


The people onboard were all refugees from Hong Kong and were a mixed bunch consisting of women, children and of course rich businessmen. Thankfully the skipper knew his stuff and kept us clear of trouble as he hugged the islands enroute to safety. We arrived in Batavia a couple of weeks later; once tied up in the harbour; Dutch police boarded us and took a Russian woman ashore, apparently they had suspicions of her being a spy; we never knew what became of her. It was here that I met my first Americans of the war, two destroyers tied up in port and we were invited onboard one of them. At first, we talked about Pearl Harbour; the things they said were quite interesting; I couldn’t get over their confidence. There was no question that they’d eventually beat the Japs. For them it was only a matter of time till revenge was theirs.


They began enquiring about what we’d been through and one incident still stays clear in my mind to this day; it occurred when a Yank sailor said to me with reference to my old ship. ‘See Mack, that’s what you get for sacrificing armour for speed.’ I took it that he meant one of their battleships would have survived the battle we lost. You can imagine my reaction. I still missed Repulse and would have nothing that I took as detrimental said about her, jumping up I said. ‘Well at least we build ships that float.’ Implying about the demise of one battleship at Pearl Harbour that actually turned turtle due to a bomb landing between the quayside and her hull, causing a wave that turned her over, he conceded the point and changed the subject. However as I recollect that conversation, it makes me laugh to see how little it took in those days to get my back up. After this things calmed down and we left on good terms, they turned out to be a fine bunch of lads. It’s with sadness that although I can’t remember the names of their destroyers, I think I’m correct in saying they were both lost during the coming months in the battle of the Java sea.


After a couple of days we left for Tjilatjap, we didn’t stay there long and were pleased to be told our next destination was Australia. One further incident stays in my mind on the way to Fremantle. It was early evening and I was on duty on my own, I could hear a big commotion going on; then one of the half-cast Chinese onboard walked past looking very worried. As he had permission to enter the quarters I was guarding, I let him pass. A few minutes later, a group of very angry Chinese sailors appeared, for some reason they wanted his blood and tried to pass. At first I wouldn’t let them and had my rifle and bayonet extended in their direction. One of them (he appeared to be the ringleader) pulled his shirt up and walked into my bayonet and began to push harder and harder to the point that it was beginning to cut him.

I wasn’t going to let this happen and couldn’t carry through my threats on an unarmed man. So I withdrew my rifle, naturally thinking they’d sweep me to one side and mete out their punishment on the man they wanted, but no, he’d proved his point. This being, he wasn’t the least scared of me, rifle or not, and to a man they turned and went back to their quarters.


I thought no more of it, but later that evening on going to turn in for the night I passed the bar, the Chinese lad I’d been in trouble with earlier on called me over. I could see by his face that he meant no ill. They were all in there keeping quiet, but also getting pissed and I was asked to join them. I promptly did just that. It was a great night and I had no trouble with any of them for the rest of the journey. The Chinese are a fantastic race of people, sometimes Westerners don’t understand their ways, but during my entire time in the Far East I never saw one of them that wouldn’t offer their own life for you. They also did a great and unsung jobs of helping the allies defeat the Japanese.


Once in Fremantle we were issued with proper naval uniforms, it was good to feel like a sailor once more and shortly afterwards we sailed to Melbourne. Once there people began asking our group a lot of questions, as the Australians were rightly worried about the threat from the Japs. A couple of days later we sailed to Sydney, and gained some celebrity status, as when the newspapers heard of our arrival they interviewed us. Eventually we also did a film with a newsreel crew just telling of the loss of our ship; apparently this was shown all over the country. 


I have a lot of good memories of my time in Australia, but also one that was quite upsetting. We were put into digs with a woman whose son was in a detachment of the Australian army based in Singapore. Initially, she was great with us, but as the situation on the colony worsened, she began to resent our presence in her country. Although it obviously wasn’t our fault, she seemed to hold our group personally responsible for the plight of her son. I have to admit that it was a terrible situation for the Australians, countless numbers of untried troops were pouring into Singapore, even though it was obvious the island would fall. I dread to think what became of some of these lads once our troops were beaten. She had a right to be bitter, but the trouble was we weren’t the men responsible. Those men, if you can call them that, had already got a ticket back home to safety.


In the end we moved out of her digs and stayed in a B&B for our last few days. On rejoining the Nellore we were told our final destination was Colombo. It was an uneventful voyage and once docked it was the last time I ever saw the merchantman. I never enjoyed my time onboard any other ship Repulse included, more than the few months I spent on her. The crew were a fine and trusting bunch of lads and we were all sorry to leave, but we had to get back into the war. Our next destination was a fresh draft onto a warship.


Author’s Note


 During the past year I read a book entitled ‘Blood and Bushido’ which covered Japanese naval atrocities during the war on allied shipping. It saddened me immensely whilst reading this fine, but horrific book to see the Nellore mentioned as one of the vessels sunk by the Japanese. No actual accounts of any atrocities against her crew were mentioned I hope they survived. The four lads from Repulse owe them a great debt.