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The Story of Repulse

When Repulse entered service in August of 1916 she was a different ship from that originally proposed in 1914. She and her sister ship Renown (launched two months later) had been changed from an original design of battleship, to that of the far more elegant, but less protected, battlecruiser. The main advantage in this change was that these ships were considerably faster than the ‘R’ class battleships they were originally to join. The basic idea was that a battlecruiser would be able to score hits on an opposing battleship, but through superior speed be able to evade their counter attacks. Whilst on the other hand, they would be able to catch and out-gun the smaller, but equally fast, cruisers of hostile nations.

Repulse joined the British fleet shortly after the battle of Jutland, because of the tremendous damage inflicted on the home fleet’s battlecruisers during the engagement. Particularly by the German heavier armoured battlecruiser Derflinger -credited with sinking the Queen Mary and the Invincible. Repulse was sent back to dry dock to have heavier deck armour fitted. This still didn’t give her anywhere near the protection of a similarly dimensioned battleship, but thankfully didn’t detract from her top speed and once fully worked up was capable of pushing 32,000 tons of steel through the water at 32 knots.

The only time she was ever to fire her huge destructive main 15-inch armament against an enemy was in 1917, in an engagement at the ‘Horns Reefs’ off the Heligoland Bight. Whilst helping a squadron of light British cruisers to withdraw, she encountered the German ship Konisberg, scoring a confirmed hit although the action was inconclusive. This was a great shame as throughout her years in service no other ship had a finer reputation in gunnery.

After the conclusion of hostilities with Germany life became distinctly quieter for Repulse, 1920-21 saw her back in dock for a further refit. The main alterations were an increase in size of the torpedo bulges running the port and starboard lengths of the ship. The cost of this and other work was £860,684, which at the time would have purchased one ‘Carlisle’ type light cruiser.  After completion of Repulse and Renown only one other battlecruiser was completed by the Navy, this being the ill-fated Hood. As for Repulse she joined the Hood in 1923 for a world tour, the latter being the flagship because of her greater size and extra 15-inch gun turret.

 

In 1925 Repulse took the HRH Prince of Wales to South America and South Africa, its ironic to think that the ship bearing his name was to end up entwined with her in naval history for eternity. In 1936 she underwent her biggest ever refit costing £I,000,000. This included the provision of aircraft hangars amidships to enable her to carry a maximum of four Walrus seaplanes. She was then sent to the Middle East on various flag waving and enforcement patrols during the unrest in Palestine. One of her last engagements before the outbreak of the Second World War was off the coast of Spain during their civil war, to report on the situation to the British Government.

 

HMS Repulse - Technical Specifications

Builders:

John Browns, Clydebank, Scotland.

Displacement:

32,000 tons (full load)

Length:

 794 feet

Beam:

90 feet

Draught:

26 feet

Armament:

This is the original specifications as built in 1916 and differs from that of 1939, mainly by the removal of one set of triple 4-inch guns to be part of later modernisations. These included three multiple pom-poms, six anti- aircraft guns (3 each side), four 0.5 anti aircraft guns and four Oerlikon.

Repulse 1916 Specification:

Main Armament:

6 x 15-inch

Secondary:

17 x 4-inch

AA:

2 x 3 inch

AA:

4 x 3 pdr

General:

5 x machine gun (1 landing)

Torpedo Tubes:

8 (above water)

Costs:

An estimated figure of £2,627,401 was submitted on the completion of Repulse, but further costs had to be submitted.

Keel Being laid (click to view - opens a new window) (41101 bytes)

Keel being laid – May 14, 1915

Barbettes under construction (click to view - opens a new window) (42700 bytes)

Gun Turrets, (Barbettes) under construction. – August 18, 1915

On slipway prior to launch (click to view - opens a new window) (39930 bytes)

On slipway prior to launch – January 8, 1916

Launching into the river Clyde (click to view - opens a new window) (40982 bytes)

Launching into the River Clyde – January 8, 1916

View of A & B turretts (click to view - opens a new window) (41766 bytes)

View of A and B turrets – August 13, 1916

Preparing for acceptance trials (click to view - opens a new window) (44235 bytes)

Preparing for acceptance trials – August 14, 1916.

Joining Repulse

Ian Hay now gives the reader an insight into his first impressions on boarding the battlecruiser in Portsmouth.

On the 3rd January 1939 an era began in my life, which I still hold close to my heart, the memories will never fade of the wonderful times I had onboard this ship. I have to add that on walking up the gang plank that morning, I couldn’t have been more disappointed with the sight that lay before me. The setting where Repulse was berthed couldn’t have been more fitting, moored alongside Nelson’s Victory, a proud sign of continuing British sea power. The only trouble was, the whole of the ship looked like it had just been salvaged from the depths of the ocean. I had a job to walk on the decks, in fact at certain places on the ship the deck wasn’t visible because of coils of electrical cable, riveting and welding equipment.

After a couple of minutes, I was sent to my mess and the first thing I did was to try and find out the whereabouts of Michael. This didn’t take long and after a short chat, he went onto tell me that Repulse had been chosen to take the King and Queen to Canada on a Royal Cruise. Adding that even the skipper had lost his cabin to the Royals. In fact, the whole of the ship from stem to stern was in some form of alterations of one kind or another. This effectively meant that for the rest of my first day, I went on cleaning duties. It was hard work, as our task was to polish the teak deck till it was clear of all the tar that had been used to seal it when it had been laid.

My first evening onboard was spent listening to what Michael and the other lads had to say about life on Repulse. They all agreed that it was a fine place to be, adding that the elder men onboard felt her to be the most efficient ship in the Royal Navy and were rightly, very proud of her. After a few days of cleaning work I had a welcome respite, being picked along with a few others, to go to the dockyard stores and pick up fresh materials for the refit. The size of this building was immense; it was said that they kept under one roof everything from a pin to a 15-inch gun barrel. After a few days getting constantly lost in the maze of corridors that formed this building I didn’t doubt the statement.

The situation with Germany was becoming much worse and all efforts to defuse the situation were falling on deaf German ears. Because of this, whenever I was off duty I heard one recurring statement from all the elder men onboard. There main concern was that as we practised for hours on end each day to greet the Royals onto our ship in the manner which they felt befitted them, the German sailors we could soon meet in combat were more than likely on gunnery practice in the Baltic. I listened intently to their comments and even as a young lad I could see they were right. Our country already had a Royal Yacht, why wasn’t it being used? We were a warship, but at that moment in time we looked more like a cruise liner, however, this situation was soon to alter.

Life on the Royal Yacht

Some 14 days after Ian Hay joined Repulse, the main contingents of the crew were drafted onboard, all the men were from Plymouth and as such were Devonport ratings. The ship, up until this time, had her base in Portsmouth, this made her a Pompey ship. Effectively it meant that Portsmouth had lost the ship to Plymouth. This strange occurrence had never happened before and led to a great deal of resentment from the natives of Pompey as they had lost a popular ship to a rival port.

We now bring another young man into our story. He is the first of three scousers you shall read of; his name is Reg Woods.

I was born and bred in Birkenhead and suppose the bitter irony of my tale is that I was one of the first, and last people to see the keel of the Prince of Wales. The first being, when I worked as an apprentice driller in Cammel Lairds when she was under construction and the last being the main subject of this book. It was whilst working at Lairds that I saw the aircraft carrier Ark Royal being launched. It seemed to stir something inside of me, and before I knew it, I along with some other lads from the yard had signed up for the Navy. I did my basic training at HMS Wildfire in Sheerness Kent and on completion of it, I must have shown quite well, as I’d rose to the rank of P/O boy. It didn’t take long for news of my first draft; I’d been picked for the Repulse. The rumour was, (although never confirmed) that the whole crew had been chosen because they’d shown above average abilities in their duties. The ship’s compliment mainly came from the West Side of the country and we were a crew with very little animosity amongst us. I can’t explain the reason for this; all I will say is that after she was sadly lost, I served on other surface ships that had fewer men onboard. None of them, without exception, had the same sense of comradeship that I felt for my entire length of service on Repulse.

For the first few weeks I spent most of my time doing the same as everyone else. This was basically to clean the ship from stem to stern; it became tedious work in the extreme. I could also feel the resentment of the Royal Cruise building up. Thankfully, Parliament must have read the newspapers one day and realised what was happening in the world, for Repulse was relieved of her duties as a Royal Yacht, We’d now be sailing to Gibraltar on a working up cruise. It was a marvellous feeling leaving land for the first time, I couldn’t believe just how fast this huge ship was. The journey down to ‘Gib’ was one of constant practice with hardly any rest.

 

I’d been given duties of on one of our multiple pom-pom anti aircraft guns. These were a good weapon, but we had far too few of them (which will become apparent to the reader as the story unfolds). Initially performing my duties on this gun were a nightmare; I was a layer, which meant I had to work out the angle of flight and approach of incoming aircraft. This had to be done in a matter of seconds as time was obviously, of the essence in this type of situation. I wasn’t on my own with my problems as we had a crew of 14 men on the pom-pom, only a few of the lads were sure of their duties, but I had a fine teacher in the Captain of my gun, a man we came to know as Slats. His full name was Reg Slatter and he had the patience of a saint with me for my first few weeks. Even to the end of my days I still feel that there was too much for the human brain to effectively calculate when operating this type of weapon, although by the time we were on our way back from ‘Gib’ we were beginning to gel into something approaching efficiency. This was mainly down to Slats and the other experienced men in our gun crew, sharing their knowledge with everyone.

 

Ted Matthews now speaks of his impressions on the first of many escapades he was to enjoy on Repulse

 I loved the life onboard from the word go, the only thing I wasn’t too happy with was my first action station duties. It was located in a very dangerous part of the ship, especially for a battlecruiser with her thinly armoured decks. I was in the 15-inch shell handling room and I’m glad to say that as my time on Repulse progressed, I moved out of this area. The work was quite claustrophobic as you were locked in the room even when we were on practice shoots. This had to be the course of action for safety reasons, because if we did receive a hit in this area during action, the fact that the compartment was sealed could well stop the explosion from tearing the ship in half. Obviously, the occupants of the room wouldn’t be around any longer to reap the benefits such procedures. I remember being truly amazed at the size of the main armament 15-inch shells, they were taller than I was at the time and weighed in the region of 1 ton each. We were told that in the heat of action Repulse could consume these columns of steel when firing full broadsides at a rate of 12 a minute.

We arrived back in Britain in early spring, and the next duty I remember our ship performing was to escort the King and Queen halfway across the Atlantic. This time they were sailing on the type of ship that should have been used in the first place, the liner, Empress of Australia. No sooner had we returned home than the 1939 crisis began, this was far more extreme than the similar occurrence of the previous year and we waited in anticipation of coming conflicts. I think the main thing adding gravity to the situation, was for a full week I had next to no sleep; we were working flat out, fusing all our shells. To my amazement the crisis only lasted a couple of weeks and we were then told to stand down. A few weeks passed and the powers that be, deemed the climate safe enough to send the crew home on leave in two separate watches. I caught the first available train and found Wrexham much as I had left it several months previously; little did I know that on my next homecoming, we’d be at war.

I was soon back at Plymouth and after a day or two spent checking equipment we were sent up to Scotland. Our first destination was Invergordon and after a short stay we went up to Scapa Flow. It was a strange feeling to anchor in the ‘Flow’ and look at other sailors staring at Repulse, as I myself had done not 12 months previously. I wondered if they too, were struck by the beauty of her; to me she never looked finer than that first time we sailed to Scapa.

It was clear to a blind man, that we were all up in this god forsaken hole to try and stop the German fleet from entering the North Atlantic. Everyone was also aware that this would be the precise way the Germans would expect us to act. So if war were declared, they wouldn’t be surprised by our presence in this part of the world. For myself I wasn’t too worried by all of this, I’d already been taken in by the feeling of confidence Repulse and her crew gave to each other. Not one man doubted the ability of the ship to overcome any adversary and after a short time here, we went out on Northern patrols. Everyone was now right on the ball as it was made clear to all of the crew that we could be attacked without any declaration of war being announced.

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