Ted Matthews had worked his way from the enclosed areas of the 15-inch shell delivery room and now occupied a position on the Aft High Angle Director. He was a layer and the main duty he performed was to plot incoming aircraft through open sights. His findings would be sent down to the transmitting station for relevant information to be sent to the 4-inch AA guns. He now tells of the feelings onboard when Repulse had a change of Captain.
was a short time after Dunkirk and morale in all the services was as you
can imagine, very low. The news came through that we’d be losing
Captain Spooner, as he’d gained promotion to Vice Admiral. Our paths
would cross again, but under the most dire of circumstances. He’d been
a true professional and none onboard had any complaints or doubts about
his skill, as with all officers of that era he’d been somewhat aloof.
This was as normal and we didn’t think any other skipper would be act
any differently. The worry was that he could quite easily be inferior
and with the situation as it was that could be disastrous.
His replacement was Captain Bill Tennant, all officers had nicknames given to them by the lower decks, his happened to be “Dunkirk Joe”. It was said that he’d worked miracles at Dunkirk during the evacuation, the reward being his Captaincy of Repulse. It turned out to be a great combination. At this time the main duties we performed were still convoys, but ours were somewhat different. Because of our high-speed capabilities we did nearly all our work in the company of the more modern and faster merchant ships. He instilled confidence immediately and maybe because of his religious background appeared to be more approachable than Spooner and soon had our respect. Mind you, one time springs to mind when the whole ship's crew fell foul of our new skipper. We’d been at Rosyth for a few days and were about to put to sea. Before we could leave we had to allow the battleship Rodney to enter harbour. As she had an Admiral onboard this would also mean all our crew on deck to salute her.
At this point I must tell you of a
tale that later became folklore, concerning a member of Rodney’s crew;
as the alleged culprit was never named; these days I have to doubt the
truth of the story. It was stated that the said person was discovered
one morning on Flotta Island Scapa, by a farmer in a compromising
situation with one of his sheep. I couldn’t say who’d first spread
this rumour, but it was never to give her ship's company a minute’s
peace and this time was going to be no different. As soon as we were
ordered to salute; it started. Can you imagine some 1300 matelots
saluting the Admiral, whilst at the same time bleating like a flock of
lost sheep. The aftermath of this action was a reprimand for the whole
ship's company. The skipper wasn’t at all impressed and gave us some
stick over it for quite some afterwards. I still think nowadays that he
must have found it funny once the dust had settled. This stigma never
left the Rodney, but make no mistake there was no ship in the Navy that
we had more respect for as a fighting unit. Their gunnery and efficiency
were second to none, but I don’t think they ate much lamb onboard.
The same day we sailed, to look for
raiders, alas with no success, and it was a tired crew that returned
some three weeks later. Thankfully we were granted leave I think it was
sometime in August, although I can’t be too sure. It was good to get
home, as my hometown hadn’t really been touched by the war. I was
pleased to see all my family in good health and unlike earlier peacetime
visits I wasn’t so eager to return. It was nicer to wake up to an
alarm clock than an alarm siren. One thing that constantly upset whilst
on leave, often occurred if I happened to be out for a drink at night
(it was unusual if I wasn’t) when parents of other servicemen
approached me. They would always ask in a very hostile way why was I out
drinking when their sons were MIA or worse reported dead. This happened
to other lads in all parts of the country and I could never figure out
why people acted in this way. We were doing our bit, although I admit
the shock of losing their loved ones must have been devastating, they
were dealing men such as me a low blow with this scathing comment. It
was something we could never respond to without sounding callous, and I
know it would upset my mother every time I told her about another
On my return we went out for a few months looking for raiders, mainly pocket-battleships who along with U-boats were destroying our convoys. Christmas 1940 came and went and we still found no real action. The reports coming back from the bridge were to tell us all this could soon well change as the pride of the German fleet, the immensely powerful 45,000 ton battleship Bismarck, was attempting a breakout into the Atlantic shipping lanes. All the available British fleet would have to try and stop her, for if she did succeed; allied shipping would be in extreme danger.
It was May, and the weather was unusually severe as we left Greenock to rendezvous with the battleship KGV and Aircraft Carrier Victorious. We didn’t know our orders, but on clearing land the skipper soon informed us. He said we were pursuing Bismarck and her consort the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugene, they’d been located by one of our cruisers or the RAF, I can’t remember which, whilst attempting to break out into the North Atlantic. We rendezvoused with our battlegroup and steamed at break neck speed through the night, I don’t think anyone slept a wink as we all thought our paths could cross at any moment.
It was a worrying time, as everyone
knew German gunnery was more accurate than ours, in the early phases of
any encounter, the pendulum would only swing our way after a few salvos
had been fired. As for some reason (I
never discovered why!) they’d begin to lose their initial
accuracy. The whole crew was on second degree of readiness, for me this
meant being in the for’d H/A Director, on the top of the foremast.
Early the following morning Captain Tennant announced that the flagship,
battlecruiser Hood and the battleship Prince of Wales were set to engage
the enemy. Our orders were to cut off any possible escape routes, if
they decided to break off the engagement. It wasn’t long after this
that the legendary message came through from the transmitting station. I
had my headphones on and was one of the first in the crew to hear the
terrible news. Hood has been sunk and Prince of Wales has had to break
off the engagement. No one could believe it and the transmitting station
was inundated with the message “Repeat-Repeat” Tragically, the
message was correct; Hood had gone and they were still at large.
After this shattering news, the chase became even more intense, our task force was getting a severe hammering from the atrocious conditions and the ship was still at second degree of readiness. In my position on the Director, we took turns on the headphones. I couldn’t help thinking of the outcome if we met the duo. One thing was certain knowing our skipper as we did. He wouldn’t allow the Germans to attack first. He was fully aware of our vulnerability from shells landing on our thinly armoured decks; as we later found out this had been the downfall of the Hood. It was while I was off watch that the disappointing news came from the bridge. “On no account were we to engage the Bismarck”. We must avoid her.’
Everyone was totally devastated; we’d chased for days, and just as action with her appeared inevitable, we had to stand off. News filtered through that during the night, Bismarck and Prinz Eugene had parted company as the battleship was losing oil from a hit, which history now shows was a 14inch shell from the Prince of Wales. She was thought to be making for safe harbour in France. It wasn’t until the battle had been fought that we were informed our battlegroup had actually steamed across her path some hours earlier. I think it must have been in the region of 1400 hours that day when our fuel situation became chronic. We received orders to break off from the KGV and Illustrious and head for Conception Bay in Newfoundland. Once in safe harbour we’d refuel and patch up some of the damage to the superstructure caused by the sea during our fruitless chase.
The rest of the Bismarck episode is part of naval folklore. Our fellow task force battleship KGV caught up with her the following day and in company with the Rodney smashed her to a pulp; eventually she scuttled herself. It had been an epic chase.
However, our troubles were far from over, we’d used up almost all our fuel reserves, this meant we reduced speed to no more than 8 to 10 knots, which left us wide open to attack from the abundance of U-boats known to haunt this area. From my point of view, I found this more nerve racking than when chasing the Bismarck. We had now lost our greatest defence over torpedo attack the actual speed, which we could travel, any increase at all, would mean running dry in mid Atlantic. After an extremely tense period, it was with great relief that we managed to reach land with no mishaps, and everyone was able to relax properly for the first time in almost a week.
At this point I was privileged to witness at first hand the most sincere gesture from a Captain to his subordinates I’ve ever heard of to this day. The harbour town of Conception Bay was living on the poverty line. It shouldn’t have been the case as they had an abundance of that vital element in any mechanised war, Iron Ore, on stepping ashore you had to walk on it. No need to mine for it, you could collect it with a bucket and shovel. The British Government decided in their wisdom, not to buy this material from these people, some of whom were actually fighting in the war on our side. Instead it was being bought from America and still up to this time Norway.
Our skipper must have been fully aware of the plight of these people, and implemented some small action to ease their situation, which had the added effect of showing to his crew, that he truly cared for their welfare. The area was also a great fishing community, but no one could afford to buy their salmon. He quickly remedied this point by purchasing, out of his own pocket fresh salmon for the whole ship’s compliment. You have to remember, the vast majority of us came from poor backgrounds and at that time salmon was a delicacy; the cost must have been immense. It also has to be remembered that he performed this kind act, with no fanfare or speech to tell us how lucky we were. Rather, he did it because he was someone very special. I only served under two officers, during my time in service, whom I have had total respect for. He is one, the other you shall hear of later in my tale. With this act of humanitarianism he’d both helped the people of the town, and also sent our morale through the roof.
A couple of years ago, I read a small statement about the hunting of Bismarck, it was from an article in some old magazine. Our skipper was asked how we’d have fared, if we had met the duo. His answer was “We would have given a good account of ourselves”. I must add; the poor Hood was lost mainly because the Admiral in charge didn’t give her, or the Prince of Wales, a fair chance. He approached on the totally wrong angle, which firstly stopped his ships from being able to unleash full broadsides at commencement of action. Although far more disastrous, was the fact, that this allowed the German ships to do just that. It was an advantage they never let slip. Whatever would have been the outcome if we had clashed one thing is sure Captain Tennant knew his job too well and would only have attacked when things were in our favour.
Captain “Bill” Tennant, addresses his crew
During those tense days at sea, Ian Hay had been locked in the confines of ‘A’ turret. This was an area that would have seen the main action, had the two ships met in battle. He was extremely relieved to set foot ashore.
Leave was to be granted, but only
until 11.59 hours for under age men, I had to tell Michael that this
time I wouldn’t be on the run ashore with him. The reason for this was
that another mate of ours Lofty Digby had relatives here and he’d
promised to introduce me to his cousin (a
female) who was about my age. I’d spent enough time in male
company so for once Michael and the rest would have to take a back seat.
The afternoon went too quickly, but as Lofty and myself had arranged to
meet Michael for a few beers, before returning to Repulse, we said our
goodbyes and they wished us luck. Shortly afterwards we met up with the
lads and went for a pint. Some of us couldn’t get served as they could
see we were underage. I found this point ironic; we could chase up and
down the North Atlantic running the risk of getting blown to bits, but
were too young to drink some beer. This point was soon remedied; we went
to an illegal-drinking den, and after some three pints I was in no fit
state for anymore. Soon after we were on the liberty boat bound for
I think the coxswain on her must
have been in a worse state than any of us, as he promptly rammed into
Repulse to such a degree that Michael was catapulted forward. If it
hadn’t been for a quick-witted (and
sober) stoker he’d have been thrown headlong into the ships side.
Eventually we dragged ourselves up the gangplank and made a half-hearted
salute, and headed straight for our hammocks. Awaking in the morning
with thick heads, we had no time to do anything about it; we were on the
move. The repairs had been completed and we had to get away before the
Germans had a chance to get a wolf pack onto us. This time full of fuel
and with only one destination in mind (Britain)
the skipper gave Repulse everything she had on the way out of Conception
Bay. If U-boats were waiting, (as
Lord Haw-Haw stated) they’d better be quick, because we’d soon
be home. It was an uneventful return journey of a few days, finally we
dropped anchor at the point were the chase first began, the port of
Rosyth. It was good to be home.
We’d been there for a day or so
when the Prince of Wales docked, I was anxious to talk to some of her
crew to get a picture of what happened in the pursuit of the Bismarck.
That afternoon while ashore I came across a couple of lads off her. They
were very upset and as they told their tale I could see why. After the
sinking of Hood they made one brief, (for
security reasons) signal to the fleet of
“Hood sunk. Am retiring”. Other ships that had not been involved
in the action seemed to interpret this as they had run away. This
remains such an injustice to her Captain and crew that I think the truth
has to be explained for their pride’s sake.
The main points to be considered over this encounter are as follows. Prince of Wales had been sent into battle with her main armament of 14-inch guns giving tremendous problems during trials. It seems they wouldn’t go into automated sequence of loading. In fact they were so unreliable, she had technicians from Vickers Armstrong onboard when they sailed. In comparison, the Bismarck was an operational and fully worked up ship. The ‘Prince’ had no time to do this; just 14 days after acceptance trials, she was sent into the foray. The skipper, Captain Leach saved his ship from certain sinking, as the Germans had her range and were giving her a tremendous hammering and it was a marvellous piece of seamanship from him to get her out in virtually one piece. Even though the Admiral in charge lost the advantage of surprise. Prince of Wales gunnery crews managed to score several direct hits on Bismarck, rupturing a fuel tank. This was the only reason she was returning to port, and without question this damage inflicted by the ‘Prince’ sealed her fate. The reward to her Captain and crew for this gallant effort was to be booed by all the British ships in port at Rekjazik when she pulled in for repairs. It was a terrible end to a brave fight. Powers that be were quite happy to allow them to carry some responsibility for the loss of the Hood. This was a great injustice. After the conversation we parted. I think they were happy to have told their side of things to a sympathetic ear.
Next morning after refuelling and taking on fresh supplies, we sailed for Scapa Flow, our crew would be working hard on the way up there, as we were on gunnery practice for a few days. Things had quietened off considerably after the sinking of Bismarck, but once at Scapa we had to endure the horrors of the canteen. The harbour was full to bursting point with all manner of ships and that evening the vast majority of our crew ended up in the canteen. We young lads felt quite safe in all the melee, mainly because we were watched over by our crazy gang led by the hard man of Repulse, ‘Scouse’ Hogarth. The evening grew progressively louder, especially when one of the Rodney’s crew got his private parts out and stuck it straight in his pint, whilst saying. “This is all it’s good for up here”. You can imagine the comments from all around and as usual it ended up in a brawl. After ten minutes or so things quietened down and order was restored. No more beer was to be served so we returned to our ship. I cleared off early and got back onboard just to listen to the other sailors shouting and screaming as they tried getting on the liberty boats without going on a charge for being late. It certainly was a crazy time.
The following day we went out on a sub calibre shoot, this meant the size of the gun barrel’s diameter was reduced by means of an insert. Believe it or not the reason for this, was that our country was in such a terrible financial state, we couldn’t afford to use our main battery shells for practice as they were in very short supply. The shoot, as always, was a good one and we returned to Scapa a happy and contented crew.
Plan of Bismark action, charting the demise of the Battleship.
Tale of a
On one of Repulses many forays into the North Sea, this time on gunnery practice. One young man was to see her sail by, it was the second time in as many days he’d tried to board her. His name is Derek Jones and he hails from Overton-on-Dee near Wrexham, North Wales. This is his tale.
I was born in the country and from an early age there wasn’t a lot of work opportunities, the first profession I chose was a life on the farm and found work locally. It didn’t take me long to realise, the reason I found employment so easily was because the owner and his family treated everyone who worked under them basically as slaves. I soon became disenchanted and realised I’d have to find alternative employers. This was a relatively easy task, and within a couple of weeks I moved onto another farm. As I had a greater distance to travel, I had to live in. Initially this didn’t present any problems, but as time wore on I realised that farm life and the horrendously long hours you had to work, wasn’t for me. My mother suggested I find work in service, as next to the farms it was the biggest employer in our area. I agreed, and was given the name of one such gentleman namely, Captain Kenyon Slaner, his home was at Hatton Grange near Shifnal. After a brief interview, I landed my last job in Civvy Street, for quite some time.
To begin with I did all general duties in the house and eventually became a footman; my work then consisted of cleaning the silverware, along with general upkeep of cutlery, waiting on, and serving on tables. It was a good life and I was well treated. After approximately 3 years, fate took a hold on my life; one morning the Captain informed everyone that as he was in the army reserve, he’d been recalled due to the worsening world situation. It wasn’t long after this that war was declared, as I already had a brother in the Navy I decided to volunteer. By doing this I’d be able to choose my profession although this didn’t extend to your duties once in your chosen service. I had hoped to become a signalman like my brother’ who was a Petty officer, but it wasn’t to be.
I joined up at Butlins Holiday Camp, Skegness and a right mixed bunch we were, I have never to this day seen so many square pegs in round holes It was quite a rough and tumble camp, which was in keeping with most training establishments of those days. We stood on the parade ground and all aspirations harboured to follow in my brother’s footsteps went out of the window. One by one we were told’ you’re a cook, you’re a steward, you’re a writer’ and that was that. No debate or recall, you just got on with it. After a of a couple of weeks we left Skegness, our destination was another Butlins site at Pwllheli, North Wales. The camp had not been fully built and all we had was a couple of tents as canteens and some half-finished chalets to sleep in. The conditions were not helped by the weather; it was bitterly cold and damp, still as with all other new recruits, you just got on with it.
I was there for some 6 weeks doing square bashing and rifle drills, I have to add that I don’t think our training was as hard or intense as the boys, who trained at Ganges or Wildfire, but it was hard enough for me and I can’t say I was sorry to see it over. After completing basic training I was transferred to the main barracks at Plymouth; it was an unbelievably busy place and the size of the docks was daunting. Before I had time to settle in, I received my first draft, to the battlecruiser, HMS Repulse. The following morning, along with other lads bound to serve on all manner of vessels I caught the train up to Glasgow. I was supposed to be picking her up at Greenock, although as with all great plans, they quite often backfire.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived, there were many ships in port, but alas no Repulse, she’d already sailed, so along with the rest of her allocation I stayed overnight in barracks. The next day we were put on a fresh train and sent up to Thurso, to catch a ferry onto the main naval base of Scapa Flow. As we were approaching Scapa an officer piped up “here’s the Repulse”. I just got to the side of the boat to see this huge ship sailing bye. I had to wait a couple of days for her return, but it was worth it, the apprehension on boarding Repulse for the first time was a feeling I still vividly remember. The sheer size of her was incredible and if she looked immense from the quayside, then once aboard it was even more daunting. The whole ship was one gigantic labyrinth of corridors and hatchways, I was certain it’d take an eternity to find my way around. Much to my disappointment, I never had the length of time onboard to become familiar with my new surroundings, but that’s another story.
As I was a steward my duties were
basically the same as those performed during my time with Captain Slaner
and didn’t present any problems. The young midshipmen I waited on were
in general a great bunch of lads who knew how to have a good time, even
if the Sub Lieutenant in charge of them, would on occasion’s, rule
them with an iron fist. I think the most silly, (and
amusing) thing they’d do every single day, would be to walk into
the mess and order a ‘gininit’ then go over to the old wind up
record player, crank it up, and put the same record on, every single
time. Each and every one of them would repeat this in turn. Although it
gave the stewards on duty, a good laugh to see who would be the first to
enter the mess and carry out the daily ritual.
The action station I’d been
designated, wasn’t an area that would have been an ideal choice of
mine, as it would be locked during any action. It was the supply room
for the ‘aft’ 4-inch triples, situated above the magazine. Our
duties were to transfer the ammunition off one hoist, over to another
lift up to the guns. It was a hot, and also a very dangerous place to be
if under attack. As we were located in the actual ship’s upper
structure; if we came under heavy bombardment with our light armour
plate, a hit in our area would give those inside, virtually no chance of
survival. However, this was one small pitfall of serving on a great
ship, and I took it with no complaints. The benefits of being on Repulse
far outweighed the drawbacks.
We spent the next couple of weeks off the coast of Scotland on trials and just generally showing the flag. Nothing much happened and I for one was extremely pleased to hear that we’d be returning to Rosyth for a short refit. This also meant that the crew in two watches would be allowed 10 days home leave. I’d been away from my family for the longest period of my life and couldn’t wait to get home. The day I left the ship with the rest of my watch we realised that something was afoot. We’d been told through different sources that another pom-pom was to be fitted in the ‘aft’ area of the ship. This brought our haul of pom-poms to the grand total of three. As I walked down the gangplank there, for all to see were fresh issues of tropical kit; enough for the full ship’s compliment. This was observed by a lot of men leaving the ship. Subsequently from the quayside to the station, talk was of our future climes, everyone knew we wouldn’t be seeing the North Atlantic for quite some time.
The journey back home was a great experience as the Navy had put on two trains, running down either side of the country, dropping men near their hometowns. The hospitality we received at Preston Station was marvellous, as the WVS. laid on endless amounts of hot tea and pasties. It doesn’t sound much these days, but food on land was scarce and here we were being fed till it came out of our ears. Despite their horrendous workloads the girls never once complained, they just carried out this operation with every train full of servicemen arriving at the station. They really were unsung heroes.
Meeting with Destiny
For Reg Woods the journey to
Liverpool couldn’t come quickly enough; he was returning home to get
married. Ironically enough so were two other shipmates, namely Reg
Slatter, the Killock of his mess and Royal Marine, Bob Bloham.
I looked forward to getting home
although it seemed I’d no sooner arrived, than I was packing my bags
and returning to Rosyth. On the train journey the ‘buzz’ was that
we’d be going to sunnier climes although our duties would most
probably be those of convoy escort once more.
For myself, I looked forward to the warmer weather and also a
change of scenery. I spoke to Reg and Bob quite a lot on the return
journey as obviously we had a lot of common ground to talk on. It’s
still very upsetting to realise that these two men had waved good bye to
their young wives a few hours earlier, and that was to be the last these
women ever saw of them. In a matter of months they would both perish at
the hands of the Japanese. Once onboard and under way, we were told that
we’d be escorting a group of merchant ships in a convoy to the Middle
East. The weather was fantastic and a welcome change from the sometimes
hostile and always cold weather of the North Atlantic. It was quite a
large convoy, but we weren’t encountering any problems with U-boats as
most of them were attacking shipping coming from America. After an
uneventful week or so, we called into Freetown to refuel and take on
more provisions. Whilst
tied up in port I had to man my AA gun, as the Vichy French had a bomber
operating in the area that would fly over the harbour every evening.
This meant whenever they appeared we’d immediately open fire, although
they made sure to keep out of the effective range of our guns. The
reason for this daily visit was to observe shipping in the harbour,
although they’d never attempt to bomb any vessels in port.
After the French had bid farewell, I went to clean our pom-pom; whilst performing this task one of the gun tappets jammed. Unfortunately, lying just away from us was the aircraft carrier Hermes. Her crew had a very rude awakening, as I inadvertently sprayed several rounds of live ammunition across her bows, just clearing her deck by about 10 feet or so. By the time I’d managed to pull the gun off target (by elevating it) Marines and all kinds were up on deck of Repulse; they must have thought I was some kind of one-man mutineer. I still dread to think of the panic and mayhem this incident must have caused aboard the aircraft carrier. The reason for the problem was eventually found to be paint on the gun tappets that had gone somewhat adhesive in the warmer climate we now enjoyed. This had stopped the gun going into safe mode. Consequently, when I set it to fire to check the circuit, the tappet stayed in the closed position, thus firing the rounds. Admittedly, it must have looked to an observer that I’d lost my head though. Thankfully the skipper accepted the reasons stated for the mishap, subsequently I was fully exonerated.
Proudest day of my life; we are pictured in the middle of the wedding group.
Repulse now set sail for the island
of St Helena, as another young man comes into our story, John Garner, a
Royal Marine from Liverpool.
I hadn’t been on Repulse as long
as the other lads in the tale as I joined her in 1940, but no one could
have thought more of the ship or our skipper. Early on in my life
onboard I’d gone on Captains report for what may seem to people these
days a petty offence. I’d dropped a rope over the ships side as we
were tying up in port, the midshipman in charge immediately made a
report, and I ended up in front of Captain Tennant. He spoke to me
without once raising his voice and just drove the point home, that the
piece of rope I let slip, could quite easily have immobilised this
32,000 ton battlecruiser. The end result was I had a few days of number
11’s (a form of punishment for
small offences also known as Janker’s) and the matter was closed.
It was a very happy time onboard as
I think the climate, to some extent, helped in making the crew put the
war out of our thoughts. When we finally got to St Helena some of the
lads played a great joke on a lot of the crew. At that time fishing had
become a great pastime and those that weren’t fishing had all gone
into the swimming pool that had been set up on the foc’sle. No amount
of persuasion would shift them. However, after a short while one of the
men who were fishing caught the most horrible looking fish I’ve ever
seen. It was a bloody massive red and white thing and was so ugly that I
was frightened being on the same ship as it. The next plan of action to
get the lads out of the pool was to spread the word that this bloody
thing was poisonous and the most obvious place for it was the swimming
pool. This had the desired effect, I’ve never seen such panic; there
were matelots everywhere screaming and bawling. I still don’t know to
this day who actually got rid of the fish, the only way I’d have gone
near it would have been with a barrel from one of the 4-inch triples I
From here we sailed onto Durban, South Africa; we’d been told to expect a great reception from the people of that country sure enough, on arrival the quayside was absolutely teeming with people anxious to meet our crew, I for one couldn’t wait to get off ship. However, before this could happen, all Marines dressed to the hilt to welcome a very special man onboard; the Prime Minister of South Africa, Field Marshall Jan Smutts. Although, just before his arrival the heavens opened up and all the hard work in polishing our equipment went to waste. We looked like extras from a Black and White Minstrels show.
October 1941: Repulse escorts the liner New Amsterdam into Durban Harbour.