HMS Repulse leaves Singapore
HMS Repulse leaves Singapore
With these meaningful words from the skipper, Repulse left Singapore. Derek Jones recollects his feelings of that fateful day and his thoughts on the Captain’s message.
Everyone knew that this time we’d see some sort of action as the ship was immediately put on second degree of readiness and I have to say that I never saw one person who seemed in the least perturbed by all the recent upheaval. When I first read the message it was obvious Captain Tennant feared planes could well attack us; with our few anti-aircraft guns this prospect must have worried him immensely. It had been a very emotional time as we left harbour; thousands of people stood on the quayside to wave us off. It was hoped by everyone in that part of the world that we’d inflict enough damage on the enemy to make them see sense and start behaving again. And in some ways I was hoping for trouble, as we all wanted to give the Japs a hard time.
It was a beautiful evening and after being in my shell room for a couple of hours I managed to get relieved and go up top for a quick scout around. As we were in a state of alert, I didn’t have to perform any of my normal steward’s duties. As no cooking would be done, subsequently, all of the crew would be eating sandwiches or any other types of cold food that was available. During the course of the night we heard that our final destination was to be Singora, as reports stated the Japanese were implementing landings; our job would be to get in amongst their landing craft and destroy the beachhead. And if any enemy warships were supporting them, we were to engage in a surface action. The news couldn’t have been better; it looked as though we’d finally have a full surface engagement. At that time I’m sure that no one onboard would have any doubts as to the outcome of this type of battle. After all, this was what we’d trained for.
It was an uneventful night, although the hoped-for surface engagement had given the crew a much-needed jolt; keeping them on their toes during the long hours of searching for any signs of hostile activity. John Garner recalls.
I honestly couldn’t wait to get to Singora; after all our disappointments of recent times, we could now show that we were much more than a convoy escort. It was alleged that the Japanese battlecruiser Kongo was the biggest vessel with the landing force, destroyers and other craft were allegedly supporting her. It was going to be a good scrap and I felt that we wouldn’t be caught as the Americans had been at Pearl Harbour.
The morning of the 9th December dawned, it was quite overcast; this could only help in the quest to keep our whereabouts secret. For once everything seemed to be going according to plan and our crew were just counting the hours until we met with the Japs. We still had quite a way to steam, when just after mid-afternoon our luck turned. The weather quite suddenly cleared up. This now meant that all available Japanese spotter planes would be trying to locate our position. However, none of our warships had realised from early that afternoon we’d been located by a Japanese submarine. They had even been able to send a signal with our position back to their base. With hindsight of over 50 years, it seems to me that at this point Repulse finally used up the last of her good fortune. There couldn’t have been much daylight left when a report came through that a spotter plane was seen far in the distance, although none of our battlegroup’s AA guns could engage, as it kept out of range. It was obvious they were plotting our course and reporting back to their HQ. We later found out that there’d actually been three planes. We now knew the Japanese were onto us. About two hours after this the destroyer Tenedos was told to return to Singapore. We realised this was to due to her fuel situation. Mind you, no one at that time could have realised that she would encounter the Japanese before our battlegroup.
Immediately after the fleet was discovered, all ships were put on first degree of readiness. For Reg Woods this entailed being stationed on the air defence platform in a lookout position. This story is as much about dreadful mistakes made by men in authority as it is about sailors’ lives onboard Repulse. At this point you will read of one of the worst mistakes made by Admiral Philips. To this day Reg can’t understand the Admiral’s actions over one incident.
As you can imagine everyone was right on the button as we knew the chips were down, I’d just relieved some of the lads on lookout, as it became a terrible strain on your eyes after some time up top. A short while later a report came back from the destroyer Electra of a flare being sighted some five miles away. I think some of our lads caught sight of it as well. Everyone is aware flares are manually operated, so obviously someone activated it. I naturally thought we’d investigate its source, as it had to be from the enemy. The following actions taken by the Admiral had myself and others puzzled. At first I thought he’d made the fleet turn to port to surprise whoever it was that had lit the flare, but in later years I found out this manoeuvre was to take our group away from the its origin. I can only think that he took this course of action to avoid detection; this I feel, was totally wrong.
We already knew the Japanese had sighted our group and if they were stupid enough to light flares giving their position away they obviously didn’t realise we were breathing down their necks. As already stated his actions had me baffled, but some years later I learnt that this flare had come from the Japanese fleet that was searching for our ships. At the time of its sighting, we had actually been (as first reported) a maximum of 5 miles from their battlegroup, comprising of six cruisers and their destroyer escorts. If we had encountered these ships, I’m sure we’d have literally blown them out of the water. I admit that it may not have changed the final outcome of force Z’s fate, but I think it may have bought the allies more time; but such is war
Shortly afterwards, we changed course once more, it was soon obvious we were heading back to Singapore. There was tremendous disappointment onboard as once more we felt cheated out of confrontation with an enemy. Later on during the course of the night our spirits were lifted to an extent, on being informed that early in the morning we’d be going to investigate further reported troop landings at Kuantan. This area on the coast of Malaya was on our return journey so it wouldn’t be much out of our way, it also had the added bonus of a show down with the Japanese Navy, who would obviously be guarding the beachhead. I think it was about an hour or so before dawn that we stood down and managed to get some breakfast, at that time none of us were to realise that this was to be the last meal we’d ever eat onboard our beloved ship.
Arriving off the coast early in the morning, the destroyer Express was sent into the cove for a deeper search; she returned shortly afterwards, reporting all was quiet. I began to feel uneasy about all this, as we were now sitting ducks if an air attack was launched. It was a great relief when we eventually left the area. On our way out we investigated a suspicious looking tug that had been spotted when we first reached Kauntan, as it was towing, what looked like troop carrying barges. I think I’m correct in stating that also about this time our skipper gave orders for one of our Walrus spotter planes to be launched. A short while later we came across the tug, the barges in tow turned out to be some kind of grain carrying hoppers, after a brief inspection we let them go on their way. However, I was still somewhat concerned on hearing the rumour that a further Jap plane had been spotted by one of the escorting destroyers when we first entered Kauntan. If this was the case I was convinced that a Japanese force couldn’t be far away, although at the time, everything was still totally peaceful. I imagine that because we had one of our spotter planes in the air we were allowed to stand down to 2nd degree of readiness. It was as the saying goes, ‘the calm before the storm’.
At this lull in activities most of the crew could sit back and relax for a short time, for Derek Jones it was a different story. As midi’s steward he had to find out what was for dinner, it was to be the last time he made such an enquiry aboard Repulse.
It must have been somewhere in the region of 1100 hours when I was allowed to stand down and make my way to the galley. I had to enquire what was on the menu for lunch. It’s strange to recall, but to this day, I still remember what we were having, a cold meal, mainly consisting of legs of lamb. After this I went back to the mess, whereon I set the tables and cleaned up. My chores never seemed to end as about this time, the ‘up spirits’ call came and I was duly sent for’d once more with a jug for the rum ration, whilst queuing up action station’s sounded. I knew this was trouble.
The subject of the next chapter is self explanatory, before the story of the battle is told it has to be noted that certain aspects of the action will differ from the official account. The reason for this is that all the men who have contributed to this book saw things differently at certain times throughout the battle. The accounts they have given have been left as they are and not altered in any way to fall into line with the dispatch of 26/2/1948 published in the London Gazette. All these men saw as much of the action as the officers who forwarded the report and have a right to offer their own views.
As Derek Jones dropped his rum jug in the effort to get to his action station, Ted Matthews was already on his Aft H/A director, along with a lot of the crew he knew the battle had started, although not on the ships in their vicinity.
Just as the alarm sounded, we’d already heard that Japanese bombers were attacking the destroyer Tenedos, who’d left our fleet the previous evening. It seems strange to recollect my feelings all this time afterwards, but I distinctly remember shouting something along the lines of “Why don’t you bastards leave her alone and have a go at us”. Needless to say, they must have heard me as Tenedos did eventually make it safely back to Singapore.
A couple of minutes had passed before our height finder P/O Collet had the planes in his sights; reporting to the transmitting station “Enemy Bombers approaching, height 21,000 feet.”. Within moments they’d passed from the starboard side of the ship to port. At that time we couldn’t see their bombs, but everyone was certain they’d been despatched. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the results of their action to be felt; we started getting explosions either side of the ship-covering Repulse in heavy spray. Suddenly, there was a tremendous detonation; we’d been hit. They caught us on the port hangar and almost immediately our position was covered in steam, as a pipe had been fractured in the explosion. I remember being shocked at the accuracy of the attack, it was far more precise than anything we’d previously encountered by the German Airforce. Field Marshall Smuts was correct, they didn’t fly planes made with rice paper. The fight was on.
Ted Matthews had been spared from
seeing the full carnage caused by this first attack. The bomb had
actually detonated in a fan chamber and a lot of men had been injured or
killed. Derek Jones had his first of many lucky escapes.
I was locked in my delivery room when I heard the explosion and to some extent felt its force, as it had gone off in the next compartment to ours, actually blowing a hole in our deck head. The smell was terrible and there was quite a severe fire burning. This was extremely worrying, as we couldn’t get a message down below for them to stop sending up more cordite. It just kept mounting up in our compartment. We couldn’t send it up to the guns, as at that time they were out of action. If one single lick of flame had entered our compartment, we’d have been blown to bits. Eventually, we did get a signal to the delivery room to cease supplying. It was with great relief that the door leading onto the upper deck was opened and we were able to throw all the excess cordite overboard.
Our crew then got sent down below to move injured men to the sickbay, some of their injuries through burns were horrific and I was shocked to see how many lads had been killed. After helping for as long as needed, we were sent to a small compartment just above the 4-inch magazine to recover as we’d been inhaling smoke for quite some time. To our dismay the door was locked behind us, it was a worrying situation.
Stoker John Dykes, was another lucky man at this point; he now explains why.
I was on the fire party watch although this wasn’t my action station, I’d been down below for some time and just after the alarm sounded, it came over the ship’s intercom “Fuelling party report to Catapult Deck”. As this was my actual action station, I asked for permission from the P/O in charge (I think his name was Pierce) to go up top. The duty we’d perform was to fuel up the second Walrus plane so as it could relieve the one already on lookout. Sadly this never happened, almost immediately the bombs came down and to my horror one landed exactly where I’d been, just minutes earlier. Most of the lads I’d been on fire party with had been killed and I recollect that many of those that escaped had severe injuries. At the time I didn’t think about how lucky I’d been, it took a while to sink in, the majority of the lads had joined the ship with me and we’d become close friends.
The explosion had also wrecked the Walrus so badly that it had to be ditched over the side. After doing this I was sent down below once more to help out in checking the condition of the engines. I’d been very lucky and prayed for my good fortune to continue.
After this first attack Marine, John Garner had come through unscathed. Once the initial threat from aerial attack had subsided he was taken off his aft 4-inch triple, and sent below; this was the last time he’d perform such a task on Repulse.
As soon as the imminent threat of attack had subsided I was sent on fire control duty along with other Marines off our gun. We had to go down to the Captain’s flat once there, we connected our fire hoses and fought the flames raging through the Marines mess deck. It took some time to bring under control, although none of us were aware at the time; a far more deadly attack was forming. One we couldn’t escape.
The Japanese fleet hadn’t been discovered, so a full crew wasn’t needed on the 15-inch guns. This meant that Ian Hay had been taken off his station. He now explains how one small quirk of fate saved his life.
Once the initial alarm sounded, our crew had been split up; key men, such as Michael and Jan had been left in the turret the rest of us would be helping out with the delivery of 4-inch AA ammunition. This had to be delivered by hand; it was going to be hard work. A/B Gibble led us to our first port of call, the 4-inch Magazine. One by one, our crew went inside when full, the door would be locked behind us. Just as my time came to enter the P/O said, “That will do Ian”. I wasn’t to enter. He now wanted me to deliver shells that would be coming off the hoist, across to the guns. At the time I honestly didn’t think anything of it, but by pure luck, our P/O had saved me from certain death. For when our ship finally succumbed to the Japanese onslaught, all the lads who’d gone into the magazine sadly perished. I still dread to think how terrible their deaths must have been, as they would have had no idea what was happening up top during the action.
Obviously so early on in the battle I wasn’t aware of the significance of the decision, but I do remember being shocked that after all this time at sea we’d actually been hit. I knew the area the bomb had detonated in, but had no knowledge of the damage sustained. In a short time we’d be receiving damage we’d never recover from.
There was now a twenty-minute lull in hostilities, during this time all necessary urgent repairs had been carried out and Repulse was making good speed, in the region of 25 knots. At this point Prince of Wales hadn’t been attacked. All this was about to change.