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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Shortly after leaving Durban. HMS Repulse pictured with her final convoy.
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.
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.
Matthews ends this passage with his views on the night of December
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.
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.