Return to Action

We now follow the fortunes of one of the scousers in our story Reg Woods, as he explains his rejoining the war. 
It just so happened that the day we docked in Colombo was also my birthday and because of the poor food we’d been given on the Moltan, all naval personnel reported to one of the finest hotels in Colombo, the Grand Oriental for a filling meal. This also happened to be one of the special birthdays that you have during your life, it being my 21st and I never again had 600 hundred people sitting with me to celebrate any others since then. I’m not saying they were all there because of my special day, but it certainly did feel that way, and for a short afternoon I was able to relax and enjoy myself in safety. 
After several weeks of various dockyard duties the Japanese came calling, listening to the planes coming over the harbour brought the noise of their engines back to me once again; I could still remember them from the sinking of Repulse. Their objective this time were the ships in harbour and the attack was carried out with the same clinical efficiency, as had been the case with our battle against them. They came in low over the sea wall and although AA fire filled the sky, I don’t think they managed to down any. 
The first ship I saw attacked was a destroyer in dry dock, after a couple of direct hits it seemed to be ablaze almost immediately. I then watched them turn their attention to a Chinese junk tied up alongside the harbour. It had no AA guns to fight back with and once hit, it literally blew apart, I don’t think many men would have been able to escape the inferno. Finally in this macabre show I was witness to a deeply upsetting sight. I imagine other lads from Force Z who were also in Colombo would have felt the same. As in the harbour that day was one of the destroyers, which only a couple of months beforehand had sailed from Singapore with our ill-fated battle group.   
You may recall one of the destroyers in our group had returned to Singapore because of fuel shortages, subsequently being attacked before any of us, but had lived to tell the tale. Today her luck had finally run out. HMS Tenedos was the main target for the bombers and they were to make sure she wasn’t going to escape again. The attack was unbelievable in its ferocity and although her guns were all blazing away they could do nothing to stop the inevitable. The Japanese soon pressed their attack home and it was a terrible sight to watch her sink in the harbour. I could see men jumping into the sea to escape the terrible heat of the burning ship. The action was over in a matter of minutes during which time, I think they’d sunk about 5-6 ships of all sizes. The devastation was terrible as the harbour was ablaze, being full of debris and also dead men who hadn’t managed to get clear. For all of us who bore witness to this carnage it was obvious that the Japanese were going to carry on coming, until or if, the allies were able to get their act together and strike back.   
Soon after this attack I was given duties on a Lewis gun, situated on the breakwater, this antiquated weapon was to be used against any Japanese submarines trying to gain entrance into the harbour. Fortunately this never happened, although most days the Japs kept me busy with constant aerial attacks, although I didn’t have any luck in shooting any down, they were just too fast for the guns we had in place.   
After a couple of weeks of these duties I was told to report to an armed merchant cruiser, whose name was Corfu. Apparently they needed a gunnery rating and although I was an AA rating they put me on a QR3 job. This meant that I was in charge of height and range finding on the after gunnery control, I was pleased to have this draft as now Singapore had fallen and I could see the panic I’d been witness to on the doomed Fortress showing itself once again in Colombo. It was inevitable that the Japanese wouldn’t be stopping to take stock of the situation, they’d just carry on advancing smashing all in their way. I was starting to believe they were invincible. This ship was to be my home for the next few months and thankfully during my time on her we never had any really sticky moments. As our duties kept us some distance from the action that was all about this part of the world and we were mainly carrying cargo and refugees to safer areas. 
After a few months’ things began looking a little brighter as the Americans had dealt the Japanese their first real defeat in the battle of Midway. This certainly gave all the allies a much-needed boost, as up until then the Japanese couldn’t put a foot wrong. To add to this good news on the fighting front we were informed that the Corfu was to start making her way back to Britain. I was overjoyed with this, as I’d only seen my wife for a matter of days before we left on Repulse from Rosyth in 1941 and I dearly wished to get back home to my family. I couldn’t see any reason why this shouldn’t be the case, I was soon to have one of the biggest disappointments of my life. 
On our route back home we sailed to the port of Mombassa, on docking we saw a gleaming cruiser in harbour. At first I didn’t recognise her, this was hardly surprising, as she hadn’t been in this part of the world before. She was the HMS Gambia and certainly looked the part being newly commissioned and spick and span. I was soon to dread setting eyes on her. 
We’d only been tied up for a couple of hours when an order came over for any gunnery ratings to make their presence known to officers of the Gambia. Before I had time to blink I was onboard, and immediately quizzed by her gunnery officer. He was happy with what he saw and she became my new home, I went back to the Corfu and collected my kit. I was so disappointed; even more so the following day when I was up top on the warship and watched the Corfu sail out on her way back to Britain. Thankfully for all of her crew she made it back safely, I think sometime in July or August 1942. For us it was a different story. The day after she left, we set out for Madagascar. This could have been a source of some concern as the Vichy French held it, fortunately our troops had chased most of their army away. Once on station we took part in close range shore bombardments and I must admit it did feel good to be back on a fighting ship once more. Although nowhere near the size of Repulse, it was still impressive when she was firing broadside after broadside into the harbour and surrounding areas. 


HMS Gambia (click here to view a larger version of this picture - opens a new window) (99083 bytes)

HMS Gambia


After this we did some convoy work, returning to Mombassa on several occasions. Time seemed to be flying by and before I knew it Christmas 1942 had come and gone. I decided to put in a request for home leave, although I didn’t hold out much hope as at that time war was still raging. But I knew from the mail I was receiving from home that a lot of lads off Repulse and Prince of Wales, had managed to get back, admittedly for the briefest of visits.   
In early 1943 I had the honour and privilege to meet my old skipper off Repulse, it was pleasing to see him fit and well and sporting some extra braid; he’d been promoted to an Admiral. He came onboard Gambia and as I spoke to him I could see why he had meant so much to all of us on Repulse. The warmth and understanding of the man had not altered in any way. He chatted to me and I could tell that he was interested in what I had to say. I told him that I hadn’t been home since the loss of the ships and that I’d put in a request to rectify this situation. After my words he said two thing; the first was ‘Don’t hold your breath for your leave,’ but also, ‘Don’t worry about it. You never know what happens’. I took the latter comment to mean that we’d be going back home. Don’t ask me why, maybe it was pure desperation on my part, but I also made the mistake of telling all the lower deck that I had it on good information we’d be returning home. This seemed to be further reinforced the following morning when we were told we’d be escorting a homeward bound troop convoy.   
Well I was everyone’s hero, all the lower deck loved me for giving them this gem of information. True enough that evening we set out to rendezvous with the convoy and what a sight it was. I believe it was one of the biggest ever throughout the entire war. It was a full of prestigious liners namely the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Mauritania and the New Amsterdam the four largest in the world. Initially this was a great spectacle, till we realised they were going the wrong way. It took a matter of a few seconds to understand why. They were certainly going home, but back to Australia. In an instant I went from hero to villain. All the lads erupted; I won’t offer the words I was called that day. Suffice to say I was as popular as a ham sandwich in a Synagogue.   
A few days later we arrived at Fremantle, stopping over for a short while, after this we headed for my old favourite, South Africa. On the way out there I began to remember the great times I’d had whilst in Durban with the lads off Repulse some 18 months earlier. Sadly the words of Field Marshall Smuts had been correct, a lot of fine lads off both ships hadn’t returned. We docked in Durban and picked up £2,000,000 worth of gold bullion, which filled one of our magazines; we then went up the coast of Africa, calling in Gambia itself to show the ship off. After a couple of days we left and caught up with a convoy that was destined for invasion of Italy. I was certain we wouldn’t be taking part in any actions, particularly with the cargo we had onboard. Eventually fate played its part in our fortunes as one of the ships’ boilers began to give severe problems and the word was going round that we’d have to go in for repairs. I waited with bated breath to hear if our destination was to be the UK. Mercifully the message came down that we’d be returning home. It was music to my ears and I wished away every single mile of our homeward stint. 
We arrived in England on June 12, 1943. It just so happened that it was my wife’s birthday on the 14th. Well someone must have been watching over me, for immediately on docking in Plymouth we were told our final destination was Liverpool. It was the first time I’d seen my hometown in two years and my wife would have no idea I was back in Britain never mind Liverpool. I honestly cannot remember one inch of my journey from the docks to our home. It was one of the greatest feelings in my life to see her face as I walked through the door. I will never forget it.

Midshipman’s Steward Derek Jones, now takes us back through his post-Singapore exploits and up to the point he returned home.   
It was a real motley crew that sailed from Colombo on the Endeavour, I’d say that most of us had seen severe action of one kind or another during the preceding months. I can’t remember how many on her had been on our two ships, but there were a few and we spent quite a lot of our spare time early on in the voyage talking over those times. Thankfully I’d been given my old duties of a steward, it was easy enough work as there weren’t many officers onboard and all of them were pleasant enough to deal with.   
The ship was actually serving under the merchant Navy and our first port of call was Bombay, we stayed there a few days then set off for Karachi, and onto Aden. When docked, I began to hear just how badly we’d been doing against the Japanese, both on land and at sea. It upset me to hear that the ship that saved my life when Repulse sank, namely the destroyer ‘Electra’ had been sunk by Japanese warships during the Battle of the Java Sea. It was reported that she’d suffered heavy loss of life. I couldn’t help, but think back to all the great lads on her who’d cared for all of us once our ship had gone. It was another sad blow in a war that unfortunately had only just begun.   
 After a few days we left Aden and went up the Red Sea onto Suez, finally docking in the mouth of the Suez Canal. It was at this point that the merchant skipper left, he thanked all of the crew for helping him, but couldn’t give details of what lay in store for us. Shortly afterwards a group of Royal Navy officers came onboard, subsequently a lot of personnel were taken off and replaced by specialist officers and men. The reason for all this changing round became apparent in a very short time. The ship was now to be commissioned by the Royal Navy and its role was to become that of a survey vessel. 
We left the following morning and sailed back into the Red Sea to do a number of surveys on the harbours in the area. I think the first one was Port Berinice, we then went onto Sudan and up to the Gulf of Acquaba. All this work was done at a very fast pace and men like myself had no idea what was being measured and plotted every time we dropped anchor. We were also totally in the dark as to why this old coal burning ship was in an area that could become very unfriendly at any time. Obviously if that had occurred we’d have been sitting ducks. In the end the skipper decided to end our bewilderment, informing us that these surveys were to be used for landings in the invasion of North Africa. This had the effect of giving myself and a lot of the other men a sense of purpose as our work could save lives when the time came for the allied fightback. After this whenever I had any spare time from my own duties of Captain’s and Chief Surveying officer’s steward, I’d try and spend as much of it as possible helping the officers in their work. Even if this meant just holding a measuring stick whilst a reading was taken. In fact towards the end of our voyage I struck up a good friendship with one of the officers I was steward to, and he would quite often request that I went ashore with him to help with his work. 
During times that I had to myself I began to worry if my family knew I was safe. Owing to the state of shock I’d been in when Repulse sank, I was certain I’d given the wrong service number to the officers I’d first reported to, once back at the naval dockyard in Singapore. If this was the case then my parents must have been torn apart thinking I was presumed dead.   
It was now some seven months since our sinking and I was beginning to wonder when I’d be returning back home. I even thought that I could be stuck out here until the war had reached its conclusion. This point made me feel cold, as I dearly wanted to see my family and friends as soon as possible. Shortly after this the tension lifted, as we were told our mail that we’d been sending home on a regular basis was now being delivered. This made me feel far more contented as at least my family would now know that I was alive and well. After this I settled into life onboard in a fully relaxed manner and a while later I began to receive letters from home, so I knew things were well with all of them. The tide of war had begun to turn in favour of the Allies and as a consequence our ship pulled away from the main areas we’d been surveying. This obviously meant our leaders had all the information they needed; the next step would be invasion. 
I was to spend a great deal longer on Endeavour than originally anticipated; in fact I served nearly all the following year (1943) onboard. It was a good ship and in all my time on her enemy forces never attacked us; I feel this point had a relaxing effect on everyone. However, on December 19, 1943 we docked in Suez for the last time, the Endeavour, my home for almost two years was to be decommissioned. I don’t know what became of her after that, I think she was sold off for scrap. It was a sad end to her days.   
Although I was more concerned with my fresh draft, which was to a troop ship whose final destination was home to Britain. Enroute we sailed into the Mediterranean then onto the freshly conquered Island of Sicily adding to my frustration to see friendly shores was the bloody ship developed a problem making it impossible for us to sail from Sicily, subsequently we had a most uncomfortable for two weeks there. I must admit, it tried my patient nature to the full I was so anxious to get home; I could have screamed. To make matters worse no one was granted any shore leave and with it being absolutely sweltering onboard, tempers quite often went past boiling point with the inevitable results of scuffles between many of those incarcerated in this hell-hole. 

Thankfully with all repairs completed we set off for Liverpool. I think the funniest point I still recall was that on our way home, and being full to bursting point with all manner of servicemen, a huge gambling school had formed. Fortunes were being won and lost. I still laugh on the point that on docking the majority of us couldn’t wait to get ashore; not so with the gambling school who all stayed put. What a bunch of characters. 
I left the ship at the Albert dock in Liverpool, quickly reporting to the Naval Barracks being detained for an hour or so. Thankfully the P/O in charge could see how desperate I was to get home and pulled a few strings enabling me to catch an earlier than anticipated train back to Wrexham. The short journey was fantastic and I looked on in wonder at the greenery of the countryside, which wasn’t surprising after the burnt and desolate landscapes I’d seen during the past two years. It was early evening when I set foot on my parents front door step, I’d been away since early 1941 and in that time, I’d gone from a quiet country lad to seeing the full horrors of war. Once settled in, the entire evening was a huge round of questions and answers. I didn’t mind; being thankful that I was one of the lucky ones who’d returned to their families and I hoped this would also be the case once the war was over.


John Garner now tells how he managed to escape the all-conquering Japanese and return to Britain.


Once Bill and myself had left the men we'd escaped from Singapore with it, was a daunting prospect that lay ahead. No one was interested in giving us any real help and with the utter chaos all around we had no officers to report to. We headed north for the following few days, having all manner of transport, whether it be walking or a lift on a horse and cart. We just kept moving, as we knew that trouble was catching up with us in the shape of the fast moving Japanese. Our first main stopping point was when meeting up with a group of Chinese 'guerrillas' who were waiting for the Japs; unbelievably, they planned to fight a series of actions against them whilst hiding in the mountains. After a couple of weeks with these hard men we decided to leave them to it, on looking back I remember feeling great admiration for them. They had no fear of the Japanese and seemed to be relishing the prospect of conflict against them. Although it has to be remembered that the Japs had decimated their own country in the years leading up to the war and they truly hated them. Before leaving, they gave us what food and water could be spared, mind you this was always the case whenever you came across any Chinese. They'd never let you leave until you had at least had a meal with them.


We managed to get a lift on a bus that went along the most precarious roads I've ever seen and the driver was a maniac, travelling at break neck speeds along these narrow mountain roads. Eventually I was so scared that I put my rifle to his head and told him slow down or 'bang-bang'. This did the trick, and we finally arrived at a railhead, I think the place was called Sanswack. From here we boarded a train that took us onto Pedang. On departing all servicemen who'd been onboard were marched to the main living quarters of the town. One small memory of this short march still fills me with a little remorse, most probably because of the age of the person who went without so that Bill and myself could eat. 

As we marched down the main road, both of us feeling close to starvation; 100yds or so up the road I spotted a little lad eating a huge jam, butty. To us it looked like rump steak. I couldn't resist the temptation and as I came along side I reached out and stole it. In seconds I'd torn it in half and Bill and myself had our first food for days. If the young lad's reading this, then my deepest apologies, but our need was greater than yours. 

We reported to an old school, although before knowing what was happening we received the sum of 10 guilders each unbeknownst to us this meant we'd joined the Dutch army. Almost immediately we were sent to form a perimeter around Pedang. The Japs were moving at an unbelievable rate and were almost upon us, the main worry being the town was on the West Coast, they'd come from both the North and South. Subsequently, Pedang looked like it was going to be the joining up point for their conquest of the island. Deep down I knew we had no chance of stopping them, the best that could be hoped for was to slow them down for a while. I felt totally exhausted and wasn't in any way looking forward to another battle, but if I had to fight then I would, although it did look as though this was going to be a bloody encounter. I've never looked on myself as someone who's been very lucky during his life, but throughout my time in that part of the world, I certainly appeared to live a somewhat charmed existence. As the following stroke of good fortune will explain.


Resigning myself to fighting, I knew this was going to happen in the next couple of days as intelligence details stating the strength and movements of the Japs were coming through the ranks. We were also aware of what had happened to a lot of men they'd previously captured, reports constantly filtered back giving details of further atrocities they'd carried out. This didn't give me much hope of survival if we were captured. Miraculously the arrival of a ship in port was to save both Bill and myself from a battle I don't think we'd have walked away from. The vessel that docked in the harbour was from the Royal Navy; its name was HMS Scout. The first I knew of its arrival was when a message came up to the front line asking whether any naval personnel were in the ranks, if so would they report with all haste to the harbour. We didn't stop to think. Such was our haste that just back from the front line we saw a horse and Gharry. The driver must have been answering a call of nature or something similar, well I'm sorry to say, on that particular day he was to do a lot of walking. As we took one look at the carriage and decided that this form of transport was a lot easier than walking, so we stole it and in a matter of fifteen to twenty minutes we'd reached the harbour.

We were met by a P/O from the Scout, he told us to report aboard straight away, the irony of this was the first person I saw on setting foot on her was an old mate of mine from much happier times. His name was 'Ginger' Carter. The first scouser I met when joining Repulse at Scapa Flow in 1940. I spent a while with him discussing how we'd both fared since the sinking. Each of us thinking the other had perished; therefore it'd be an understatement to say we were happy to see each other. I knew we'd have to beat a hasty retreat as gunfire could be heard in the distance, thankfully we'd only been onboard a short while till slipping anchor. I thought that was the last I'd see of Pedang, but I was wrong. We'd been at sea for an hour or so when the ship began to throw huge thick black plumes of smoke from the funnel. I realised we had a major problem and sure enough the message came up from the engine room that we had contaminated fuel onboard. It appeared that the fuel tanks on the docks had been tampered with by fifth columnists known to be in the area, they'd put water in with the oil. Therefore we had no alternative, but to return to port as it would only take a short time of running to cause severe and fatal damage to the ships engines. There were a lot of worried faces onboard after the announcement, as this would cut our escape time down even further. Once docked the order came for everyone to go ashore while the ship was de-oiled and refuelled. However, Bill and I stayed onboard in the company of Ginger and a couple of other lads, we had an agonising wait of 6 hours or so before the ship was ready for sea. After this the crew were taken back aboard and I tell you this, that ship left the harbour quicker than anything else I ever served on.


After a couple of days we met up with an Australian cruiser, having said our goodbyes to Ginger and one or two others we transferred over to her. From here we sailed to Colombo, once docked I could see for myself the hammering the city had taken from Japanese bombers. We went ashore and I heard more bad news when a matelot told us in detail about the allies' further major losses in the battle of the Java Sea, this was one more bitter pill to swallow. We reported to St Joseph's College, where I placed a tick by my name on a list posted on a wall in one of the rooms. This was to establish how many crewmembers off Repulse and Prince of Wales, had survived so far. The journey that Bill and I had undertaken gave my body a severe hammering, previously I'd been a very fit boxer, and my actual fighting weight had been 11 stone 8 lb. On arrival in Colombo this had dropped to just over 7 stone. 

The rest of my journey back to the UK was quite uneventful, however with regards to the time I spent with Bill. I have to say; we both trusted each other with our lives and neither of us would have survived without the other's totally unselfish help. Nowadays I look back and I'm glad I was able to push myself to that degree. Thankfully I never had to do it again. However for the purpose of this book, if I am to recollect one lasting memory it has to be of Bill. I couldn't have picked a better oppo. He will remain to my last day the finest man I ever met.