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The arrival of the Field Marshall, was for one our contributors (Ted Matthews) a meeting he’d rather have missed. That is until the man started to talk. To this day his words still haunt him.

 

We cleared lower decks just wanting this small (in stature) man, a veteran from the Boer war to say his peace and let us hit town. I felt his talk would be no different than a million others I’d heard from other politicians since joining the forces and to stand through these sermons was basically a drawback of the job.  It took our crew a matter of minutes to change our minds; his words took the wind right out of our sails. The main difference between him and other politicians I’d listened to during my time in service was that he’d been a fighting man and knew the full horrors of war. And he wasn’t going to allow our ship to leave his country without telling us of the dangers we’d be sailing into.

 

He first of all let it be known that the Japanese weren’t some myopic servile race who’d be scared of confrontation with the British. To the contrary, he stated emphatically that they’d openly encourage it. You have to remember, we all thought the Japanese were inferior. He would have none of it, adding they had a fully modern airforce and their nation was on a war footing. I think the most haunting thing he said was that ‘He was sorry to say, but some of us wouldn’t be alive to see the end of the war’. To young men who thought they were invincible this was a bitter pill to swallow and I don’t think I’d have believed it from anyone except him.

 

The rest of his speech dealt with his hopes that we’d enjoy our stay in South Africa and that he’d pray for our safety. I honestly believed he would. It takes a special kind of person to put the points of view across that he did without causing some degree of resentment from the people you are addressing. I for one didn’t doubt anything he said and it wasn’t until years later that I was to realise just how much this man knew of future Japanese war plans.

 

The great scandal of this was our own government also knew of the tremendous danger we were sailing into. However, we had to be informed by a man who seemed more concerned with our welfare than the leaders of our country. Who in their wisdom, or indifference, chose to let us believe in 19th century propaganda.

 

Field Marshall Smutts, inspecting the crew of Repulse, escorted by Captain Tennant (Click here to view a larger version of this picture (opens a new window) (39636 bytes)

Field Marshall Smutts, inspecting the crew of Repulse, escorted by Captain Tennant

After this haunting prophecy by the Field Marshall, Repulse’s crew had a great time in Durban. To some extent the joyous time enjoyed there helped these young men to forget the storm clouds gathering before them.  The final man in our tale now comes into the limelight, he is John Dykes and his duties were that of Engine Room Stoker.

 

I had a great time in Durban; the strongest recollection I still hold is of an illicit run ashore, discipline was quite relaxed, therefore I was able to swing the lead to some extent and grab a quick pint. It was a relatively easy task to accomplish, all l did was pick up a big can of paint and walk across the upper deck with it held firmly in my arms. As any ex-matelot will tell you, acting in this way was always a guarantee of escaping from the watchful eyes of officers, as you looked busy.

 

I strolled across the deck and down the gangplank, I’d already been told that inside of a large building close to the quay was an unguarded doorway, which led straight into the rear entrance of a pub, in a couple of minutes l was at the door. Leaving my cargo inside the building, and venturing into the pub I realised my luck was certainly in, as the Landlord was scouser. He came across and bought me a drink, being understandably pleased to meet someone from his hometown. I’d been in there about 20 minutes or so when a group of Dutch merchant sailors came across, they never spoke, although one of them (the biggest) was continually glancing in my direction.

 

Eventually, they were alongside me, and the big guy, appeared to be a bit of a handful, as he was shadow boxing, whilst the other looked on. Suddenly he turned his attention towards me. I could tell he hadn’t done this to buy me a pint and sure enough, within seconds his right hand began probing in my direction. It was obvious he was giving an account to his mates of a previous bout; the only problem was he wanted to make me his stooge. Thankfully, I had my back against a large stone column, in an instant his right hand flashed across my face, I dropped to the floor, just before he made contact with my chin. This was followed by an almighty scream, as his fist connected with the column, I picked myself up and cleared off before he gathered himself, mind you I was in fits of laughter.

 

Returning to the building, I looked everywhere for my can of paint; I couldn’t find it, obviously some rotten beggar had stolen it. I couldn’t return empty handed so after a frantic search I found an empty drum, I threw it on my shoulder and strolled up the gangplank; not a word was said. I remember stowing it in an empty corner of the quarterdeck and going back to my mess. It was still there when we sailed a couple of days later.

 

Ian Hay gives a summary of his time in Durban.      

 

I couldn’t wait to get ashore and thankfully none of us were disappointed with the way we were treated, it was definitely the best run ashore I ever had. I can’t remember exactly when, but shortly after our arrival a boxing match was arranged between our ship’s team and a South African squad. As always we thought the result was a formality, as we had one of the strongest teams in the fleet and looked on the Durban team as living somewhat in the backwaters, as such they’d be taught a swift and severe lesson. I suppose you could say that we’d been a little over optimistic of our own chances and quite the opposite of the South Africans. I sat their with bated breath waiting for the first bout to begin, which would naturally signal our first victory. But I had a long wait as every contest came and went with no success, in the end I began to think of it as a win of sort’s if our lads managed to stay on their feet for three rounds. At the conclusion of events, Repulse did manage one victory, but before you say “at least it wasn’t a clean sweep”. The only win we had came from Marine John Garner, and his opponent didn’t turn up. So his victory came as a result of a bye; still he was the only man who could legally claim a victory. We had a terrific beating by a fine team. I think it would have been closer if our lads hadn’t got a war to contend with, which obviously hindered their training, but I don’t know how the result would have gone if that hadn’t been the case. The South Africans were fine athletes.

After this event, party atmosphere was definitely the order of the day, I remember on one occasion when Michael and myself, along with some of the other lads off our turret had a very lucky escape. We’d been for a drink in the afternoon and were in fine spirits when we came across a large group of Australian sailors off the ship of the same name. Some of these were very big men and we’d heard the rumour that they’d started to pick on small groups of men off Repulse, often sending them back to our ship in a bad state. As we fitted the bill then this was to be their intended course of action for us, thankfully we managed to get away. It has to be remembered that there wasn’t an awful lot of friendship between the Aussies and ourselves while ashore, but this was the worst time I’d ever seen. Matelots were coming back onboard Repulse in a terrible state they’d always be attacked when in ones or twos and no quarter was given. It got so that you couldn’t really chance going ashore unless you were in a large group.

 

It was obvious that something by means of reprisal would happen and I knew it would come from ‘scouse Hogarth’ and his mate another scouser called Naylor. The word went round to get ashore, as something was afoot. I was a bit late making my way to the action (thankfully), but I did see these men and others from our ship, give the Aussies an absolute hammering. It was almost a full-scale riot, there were police all over the place (in amongst unconscious Australian sailors). It certainly did shake Durban up somewhat, but also had the desired effect of stopping all the beatings in one fell blow. Shortly afterwards we left Durban and I for one was sorry to leave, it was a great city to visit.

 

We picked up a convoy and after a short cruise ended up in Ceylon for a couple of days, we returned to Durban once more, but only for the briefest of visits. After this we sailed with our last ever convoy, carrying troops, guns and munitions for the El’ Alamain battle. Then we went down to Colombo, followed by Trincomalee, where we had a short respite when our ships soccer team played a team from the Ceylon Light Infantry. This time we covered ourselves in glory, winning I think, 3-1, it made up for the defeat of the boxing team in Durban. Mind you, we did have an advantage as they had no football boots.

 

Matters were now becoming tense and I for one could see the prophecy of Field Marshall Smuts unfolding before my eyes, as the unrest with the Japanese was becoming more evident. It was obvious that there was something in the pot for us, as we’d heard that Parliament was sending a Fleet to the Far East headed by the battleship Prince of Wales. It came as no surprise to everyone onboard when we left ‘Trinco’ that Captain Tennant informed all hands that we’d be joining the Prince and her escorting destroyers and our final destination was to be Singapore.

 

It was a great morale booster to all onboard when we rendezvoused with the battle fleet in the Indian Ocean; Repulse having the senior Captain led the way. I’d be lying if I said we were happy to be with the ‘Prince’ she’d seemed to attract bad luck since her building in Cammell Lairds on Merseyside, as whilst under construction she had been bombed by German planes. Since then she’d been tarred with being somewhat of a ‘Jonah’ ship. On her last voyage before meeting with Repulse whilst in the Mediterranean with the battleship Rodney on Operation ‘Halbart’ the latter warship was torpedoed. The Navy in those times was full of stupid superstitions and I’m sorry to say that this powerful battleship never lost this stigma until the day she sank.

 

HMS Repulse with her final convy after leaving Durban (Click here to view a larger version of this picture (opens a new window) (45935 bytes)

HMS Repulse with her final convy after leaving Durban (Click here to view a larger version of this picture (opens a new window)  (35005 bytes)

Shortly after leaving Durban. HMS Repulse pictured with her final convoy.

After the initial elation of leading the battlegroup towards Singapore, our spirits soon took a knock; approaching our destination the message came through to allow the Prince of Wales to lead into the Naval base as she was now flying the flag of an Admiral. The man who was to hold the fate of all men of the battle fleet in his hands wasn’t to be our skipper rather it was to be Admiral Tom Philips. His nickname because of his small stature, was naturally enough ‘Tom Thumb and he was a man none of us had served under before; he hadn’t seen any active service during this war, his time had been in the Great War. This didn’t please us too much as all of our crew knew what our Captain was capable of and we’d also heard how Prince of Wales skipper, Captain Leach had saved his ship in the Bismarck incident a few months earlier. It seemed to most of our crew to be a sign of bad things to come.

 

Once tied up midstream in the Straits of Johore there followed, I feel the worst case of man management I’ve ever witnessed, I know it didn’t please our Captain at all. We knew that Prince of Wales being the flagship would berth alongside at the Naval Base, as this was a privilege of the Admiral’s flagship. However, everyone on Repulse was dumbfounded when it was made clear that now we were tied up that was were we were staying as we wouldn’t be allowed any leave in the city of Singapore. This would have been a bitter enough pill to swallow if the same had applied to both ships companies, but this wasn’t the case. The crew from Prince of Wales were to enjoy the full splendours of the city; whereas we’d only be allowed shore leave in the naval base canteen, effectively being excluded from venturing outside the Dockyard gates. The explanation given for this was the most pathetic excuse I’ve ever heard.

 


The government in Singapore felt that with these two huge ships in port there’d be a deluge of naval personnel within the confines of the city. And it would be in danger of being to some extent over run with matelots; this lame excuse stunk of the colonialist attitude that was rife in Singapore. To this day, I feel it was the rich and prosperous of that island (most of British descent) who had no wish to have their streets full of men who wouldn’t give them the same respect they received from the poor bastards who had to work on their plantations and such like, for a bowl of rice a day. It’s amazing to recall that we’d sailed to this far-flung part of the Empire to, if necessary, give our lives in its defence whilst the people who lived there, didn’t think we were worthy to walk the same streets as them.

 

HMS Prince of Wales docks at Singapore Naval base (Click here to view a larger version of this picture (opens a new window) (33946 bytes)

December 2, 1941. Pride of place, HMS Prince of Wales docks at Singapore Naval base

The Poor Relation

 

Reg Woods tells of a further incident that caused such resentment onboard Repulse, that Captain Tennant had to address the ship’s crew.

 

After we’d been tied up for a day or so, we started to receive the local papers which I think caused even more resentment than our exile from the city. All were full of pictures and comments referring to the Prince of Wales. This would be very reassuring news for relatives of her crew to read back in Britain as they would know at this present time their loved ones were safe and under no immediate danger. For our crew it was a different story we’d been reported for alleged ‘security’ reasons with the non-descript title of, ‘other heavy units’. This effectively meant we didn’t exist, as no one at home would have any idea of our whereabouts. For our ship to be described like this must have been as much as our skipper could take, as he cleared lower decks and addressed the entire crew.              

 

Whilst informing us that we were to be known as HMS Anonymous, he shared in our grievance of folks back home not knowing our whereabouts. Going as far as he could to criticise the decision by the powers that be. It was obvious that he genuinely felt for our plight, although the resentment this episode caused onboard was terrible. After matters had died down, we resigned ourselves to the situation and just got on with the refuelling and checking of equipment. It was now obvious that as previously with Germany, conflict was on the horizon with Imperial Japan. Although I still felt they wouldn’t be as formidable a foe as the Germans. How were we to know they had one of the most powerful and modern navy’s in the world? Mind you, if we’d been aware of this point I’m sure we’d still have thought they wouldn’t attempt to seek outright conflict with our country. Everyone was about to learn a severe lesson that only complacency can breed.

 

On Friday the 5th December 1941, Repulse, in company with British destroyer Tenedos and Australian destroyer Vampire, left Singapore bound for Australia. John Dykes, offers his views on the trip out of Singapore.

 

Our destination was to be Port Darwin and you could feel the tension leave the ship as we sailed. It was a good feeling to be vacating an island, where in most respects we’d been treated as social lepers. After being at sea for a few hours, the skipper posted notice, that once docked and wherever possible, some short shore leave would be given. Our intended destination was mainly an oiling station, so it wouldn’t have the amenities of a town or city, but it would be good to get ashore.

 

Shortly after this announcement, the final nail was put into Repulse’s coffin. We’d been steaming for over 24 hours and all engine room staff knew we were quite low on fuel. In fact, we’d almost got to the point of no return, only just having enough fuel to make it back to Singapore although, as far as we were aware returning to that base wouldn’t be a matter for consideration. How wrong we were. An order came down to change course; our destination wasn’t to be Australia our fate was sealed. We were to return to the inhospitable island of Singapore. It seemed that the Japanese were on the point of conflict and we were now to act as a deterrent. Even then I couldn’t believe that a whole nation’s navy would be scared of two battleships and a hand full of destroyers. History was to prove my fears were well founded, but at that time I, along with the other lads onboard weren’t the least concerned with having to face them in conflict. We arrived back in Singapore December 7, and all was as peaceful as when we left, our situation hadn’t changed, as we were still confined to the dock yard, while the Prince of Wales crew still had the comparative freedom of the city. This didn’t really concern us any more. I think we all knew that trouble was on the horizon and no one would be partying for much longer.

The following day was spent relaxing as well as checking and storing ammunition and provisions. It was obvious that matters were going to change, as the bright Lights City of Singapore was about to have her last night of carefree fun. For in two short bloody months this bastion of British Colonialism would fall to the swords of the Japanese.

 

 Ted Matthews ends this passage with his views on the night of  December 7, 1941.

 

It had been an enjoyable evening onboard as the Royal Marine Band had been playing; I turned in quite early, but couldn’t sleep mainly because of the heat. After some time I did get off, but was woken early in the morning, (along with the rest of the crew) by air raid sirens. We all scrambled on deck and could hear the distant throb of aeroplanes, they were obviously coming towards us. Suddenly a series of explosions filled the air; Singapore was under attack. We immediately realised, the fuse had been lit with Japan. The attack didn’t last long, but was long enough to let everyone know there was no turning back. They had effectively thrown down the gauntlet.

 

We’d been given a good view of the aerial attack and because of my action station onboard I was able to estimate aircraft height quite accurately. This isn’t to say that I was an exception, all the men I knew could do their work effectively and efficiently. Because of this, I found it particularly worrying to watch the Indian troops on the Bofor guns trying to hit these aircraft. Which were flying somewhere near a height of 20,000 feet and also literally miles away. It has to be remembered that Bofors had an effective range of only a few thousand feet, if the crews had been properly trained they’d have known this and saved their ammunition. It was the first time I realised we had an awful lot of untrained troops stationed here; from that moment on I couldn’t see how Singapore could survive if it was attacked by a well trained force. It’s also quite ironic to recall that I still didn’t doubt our ship’s ability to see the Jap fleet off in any action.

 

A few hours later we heard of the attack on Pearl Harbour, although details were still quite sketchy, I think we all realised that a proper fight was on. If the full extent of the American losses had been known, then I feel the atmosphere would have been gloomier. I still remember the message onboard. “Ahoy there we are now at a state of war with Japan”. The following months would be an era that any persons unfortunate enough to be present in Singapore would never forget.

 

The next day was one of great speculation and debate amongst the crew of Repulse. One thing was for sure; they would be sailing to seek confrontation with our nation’s latest enemy - Japan. Captain Tennant had been on shore at meetings all day. On his return everyone was aware of imminent action. On December 8 1941, Repulse left Singapore for her final voyage. I feel it is fitting before we move onto the thoughts of one of the men in our story to devote space in this chapter and allow the message from Captain Tennant to the ship’s complement to be read in full.

 

‘To the ship’s company H.M.S. Repulse. from the Captain. We are going off to look for trouble I expect we shall find it we may run up against submarines or destroyers, aircraft or surface ships.

 

1.We are going to carry out a sweep to our Northward to see what we can pickup we must be on our toes.

 

2. For two months past the ship has felt that she has been deprived of her fair share of hitting the enemy, although we have been constantly at sea and steamed 53,000 miles in nine months, we have practically seen nothing

 

3. There is every possibility that things are going to change completely.

 

4. There is every likelihood that we shall get a good deal of bombing in harbour.

 

5. I know the old ship will give a good account of herself, we have trained hard enough for this day. May each one of us, without exception keep calm and if and when action comes that is very important.

 

6. Lastly to all of you whatsoever happens do not deflect from your job when say high-angle guns are engaging a high flying aircraft and all eyes are in the sky, none of the short range guns on the disengaged side should be looking at the engagement, but should be standing by for a low dive-bombing or torpedo bombing attack, coming from the other side similarly in a surface action at night, provided the disengaged guns look out on the disengaged side they may be able to repel a destroyer attack that  might otherwise damage the ship.

 

7. For all of us concentrate on the job, keep calm.

 

8. Life saving gear is to be worn or carried or is to be immediately to hand not because I think anything is going to happen to the ship she is much too lucky, but If anything happens you have your life saving gear handy. That is all you have to think about with regards to yourself, you are then absolutely free, to think of your duty to the ship.

 

(signed) W.M. Tennant.

Captain.

 

 

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