Reg Woods recalls the next round in the battle.
These days it’s hard to come to
terms with the fact that we actually had some respite between the
separate attacks on force Z, I can’t honestly remember any let up in
the action. As I was very close to the position occupied by Ted Matthews
and his H/A director crew, our position was also constantly having its
visibility obscured by steam from the fractured pipe mentioned earlier.
This would obviously cause problems during any engagement with hostile
planes. I still remember that even after this first attack, it didn’t
shake our confidence, we knew it wouldn’t be over that quickly.
Suddenly I saw a low-flying formation of planes coming towards us. I
estimated their height was in the region of 100 feet or so, they
certainly didn’t look like the Swordfish our airforce flew. The speed
that they were travelling at they looked more like Spitfires. Almost
immediately our ships, which had been steaming in close formation, took
separate evasive actions; our skipper then began throwing Repulse around
more like a minesweeper than a battlecruiser.
To our amazement, these were
torpedo bombers and as they turned away from us we could see the tracks
of their torpedoes clear as day in the water. Moving at what seemed an
incredible speed straight towards the ship, just as contact seemed
almost inevitable, we combed their tracks. It was a superbly executed
manoeuvre by Captain Tennant. This further cemented my belief in him
being the finest skipper in the British Navy. Immediately after this
onslaught, a further alarm sounded followed by bomb splashes all around
the ship. The Japanese had co-ordinated a high level bombing, to
coincide with the torpedo attack. I was beginning to wonder what else
they’d throw at us. We tried to engage the low level planes, but at
that time had no real success; it was now clear that this was going to
be a real fight for our lives.
Ted Matthews had watched these
torpedo carrying planes come into attack with pure amazement, he now
I’d been trained to specifically
react to this sort of aerial attack, but the main problem we were having
was the superior speed of these planes as opposed to the Swordfish our
country possessed, they’d come from a different world. The planes
we’d done mock battles with on numerous occasions would approach at a
maximum speed of approximately 90 mph, at the same time as having to fly
on a steady course before releasing their weapon’s. As they couldn’t
release the warhead, if their height wasn’t close to 100 feet or so,
because this would upset the gyro-compass in the torpedo. I’d just
watched this so-called inferior airforce send a group of bombers to
attack our ships at a speed somewhere in the region of 160-180 mph. Then
dispatch torpedoes at almost any height the pilots chose. The ‘fish’
seemed to correct their course once in the water and sometimes surged on
the surface, whilst still running true as an arrow. If we’d previously
been aware of these types of planes and torpedoes it would have been
some help, but to learn it in the heat of an attack was to some degree
Ian Hay literally had his hands
full as he and the remainder of his turrets’ crew had to constantly
deliver the 4-inch ammunition to S1 and P1 guns by hand. At the time, he
had no idea how dangerous this duty would later become.
I didn’t get much of a chance to
see the attacks launched by the initial low level torpedo bombers, but
it had become increasing dangerous to deliver the ammunition because of
the way that the ship was being thrown from port to starboard and vice
versa. I realised this was a ferocious onslaught and the noise of all
our small arms being fired was deafening. This meant we had a hard time
hearing the instructions from the A/B’s on the doors of the guns to
either S1 or P1 guns, which we were supplying with frightening
regularity. The main danger was the long run back to cover after our
delivery; we couldn’t retrace our steps, to do this would hinder other
lads carrying further ammunition for the guns. The second high level
attack we suffered made our charge back down to safety very precarious.
The bombs again fell close by and the tremendous water splash sent huge
plumes of spray over all of us; I was surprised no one was washed
over-board. It’s amazing how you can go into some sort of auto-pilot
in this type of situation. I’m certain if I’d stopped for one second
to think of what was happening, I’d never have ventured from the cover
of the recreation deck again. For some in the delivery party, it was
going to be a short action, before Repulse was sunk, they’d be killed.
At this point, it has to be
mentioned of conditions onboard Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, she had
been hit by one torpedo at the time that Repulse was under attack. This
by itself should not have been the catastrophe that it was. The torpedo
had stuck in the vicinity of Y turret. Damaging the propeller shaft and
causing horrendous carnage throughout the entire ship. Almost
immediately she took on a list of some 11½ degrees and her speed was
reduced to approximately 15 knots.
The most significant factors of
this were firstly; she was no longer able to manoeuvre with any degree
of control. And even more worrying for all ships involved in the battle
was her ultra modern dual purpose 5.25 inch secondary armament had been
put out of action, because she had lost most of the ships electrical
systems. Matters couldn’t have been worse. From this moment on the
brunt of this ferocious air attack would have to be shouldered by the
antiquated secondary armament of the battlecruiser.
Ted Matthews begins the final
chapter in the life of HMS Repulse and unfortunately also many of his
From my position I could see that
Prince of Wales was in severe trouble, she appeared to be steaming in
circles and I hadn’t heard any of her 5.25’s fire for some time.
Several groups of planes came in for a further low-level attack and we
all knew this could only mean dicing with more torpedoes. The vibration
and speed of Repulse was truly unbelievable, our skipper had us falling
everywhere in his attempt to comb the incoming torpedoes. In our
elevated position, the roll of the ship was alarming and if it hadn’t
been for the life-threatening situation we found ourselves in, it could
almost have been exhilarating.
I began to notice that the bombers
were now starting to fly directly overhead after they’d dropped their
torpedoes, it was as if they were taunting us, I could even see the
pilot’s faces quite clearly. Some of them paid the ultimate price for
this act of bravado and every time our AA gunners scored a direct hit
the planes seemed to explode and immediately drop into the ocean. This
would be met with shouts and cheers from all on the upper deck; but they
still kept coming.
As the planes flew over with
frightening regularity, I began to hear a noise that sounded like their
engines had some kind of misfire, possibly through being hit by our AA
guns. I soon realised my mistake, when the lads above our station, in
the quadruple .5 machine guns, shouted down to me “look at this
Ted”. To my horror, a stray bullet had jammed the magazine of his gun.
It was only a short time after this that I could see these crazy
bastards actually standing in the side door of the planes with
sub-machine guns, raking the deck of the ship with gunfire.
For some reason initially, I found
this strangely amusing, my attitude soon changed on seeing the results
of this action. Men were literally getting cut in half by this close
range fire and all the time this was happening, Repulse had moved in a
sort of protecting circle around the Prince of Wales. I suppose it was
to try and draw some of the enemy fire away from her, as the situation
for her crew must have been terrible. They were sitting ducks; at least
we could try and manoeuvre our way clear of the attacks. Sadly, this
situation wasn’t going to last for much longer.
I can’t remember how many
torpedoes we’d dodged when suddenly; I felt a tremendous explosion on
the port side amidships. They’d found their target and we’d
definitely been hit. I remember wondering whether we’d sink as I’d
never been onboard any ship that had even had a slight collision before,
never mind been hit by a torpedo. I needn’t have worried; Repulse
wasn’t going to give in that easily, she seemed to shake herself down
and keep going. The fight wasn’t over. The Japanese would have to try
harder than that. Despite their efforts, I had seen what I thought were
several planes and their crews get blown out of the sky. We weren’t
going to give up without a great struggle.
Reg Woods had more than the
Japanese planes to worry about.
As the attacks came over with ever
increasing intensity, our gun was a scene of some degree of chaos. The
ammunition in the pom-poms was beginning to jam and foul up with
frightening regularity; reason being, the cartridges were separating
whilst in the firing mechanism of the gun barrels. We thought this was
due to the ammunition becoming too hot and the different metals in the
shells, having varying rates of expansion causing them to literally fall
apart. At one point we had 7 of our 8 barrels out of action. The thing
that made it even more frightening was that the Japanese on the sides of
the planes with machine guns would be directing a lot of their fire on
our position, so as to knock our gun out of action. To add further
danger to the situation, we were all totally covered in cordite from the
shells that had fouled the gun; one stray bullet would have been
curtains for all our crew.
In the midst of all this and whilst
falling over used shells we did manage some success and definitely
managed to fell a couple of bombers. Even in the heat of all this
action, I still remember my heart missing a beat when the first torpedo
struck home. It was inevitable that we’d get caught, but the question
on everyone’s lips was, could we beat the Japs off and stay afloat. I
don’t remember being scared at that point; I just wanted to down as
many of the bastards as possible. With hindsight, I must have been
living on pure adrenaline. Possibly my strongest recollection which
still fills me with pride, as I look back all these years later is that
even though we were being attacked by planes we never thought existed,
resulting in our backs being firmly against the wall. I never saw one of
our lads shirk his commitment to the ship or his mates. It’s obvious
in any type of dangerous situation, if men of this calibre surround you
the fear factor is greatly reduced.
John Garner on the aft 4-inch
triple was also aware of the damage being inflicted on the ship. His
crew had the satisfaction of shooting down one of the attacking planes,
although even to this day, Reg Woods and he, jokingly both claim credit
for the kill.
As with all gun crews, the pace of
the action was frantic and never-ending; planes seemed to be attacking
from all angles and the noise was unbelievable. I still remember one
that our crew managed to nail. They came from the port side to the
starboard quarter after launching their torpedo. Our gun was in local
control (this meant we had total choice of targets to engage), we’d just
loaded up all three barrels, and immediately laid the gun onto them and,
wallop. They got hit with all three shells; the plane just exploded in a
massive ball of flames and fell into the sea. There were no survivors.
It did our morale good to inflict some damage on them, as we’d been
taking quite a hammering up until that point.
Ian Hay had seen at first hand, the
death and mayhem caused by the Japanese machine gunners.
As I described earlier, the run
back along the exposed area of deck was to become terrifying; it had now
claimed the lives of three of our delivery party, all by machine-gun
fire. I lost count how many times we went back down for further
ammunition. It was like playing some crazy game of dare. Once you handed
your shell to the loader, you had no time to speak to each other. There
would have been no point everyone was terrified, but we all did our work
without exception. It was just after the first torpedo hit that I saw a
sight that’s haunted me to this day. We were on our way to feed the
gun crew of S1, when the shout came up from Bob Hewlett “Get down”.
We dived into the ‘gun well’ as a hail of bullets tore into the boat
deck. Immediately afterwards, I heard men screaming and shouting. It was
obvious some had been caught by the machine gunners. I got up to see Bob
in pain, but still giving orders, he’d been shot in the arm, but
thankfully survived. Then he screamed, “Don’t just stand there, get
some ammunition, star shells, anything in the breeches”. I could then
see the carnage caused by the bullets, most of the gun crew had been
killed or injured.
Some of our party transferred to
the gun to help keep a barrage of some kind up thus stopping the
Japanese having a free rein over our part of the ship. It was very
difficult for the lads to get a shot at the approaching aircraft because
they were so low on the horizon, they couldn’t get sufficient
depression on the gun. After a short while, we were redirected from our
precarious route along a less exposed area. I’m sure this act saved
most of our lives. A matter of minutes later there was another
tremendous jolt, on the starboard side, roughly in the area that we were
located, so we felt the full brunt of this torpedo. I now knew deep
down, the Japanese wouldn’t let us escape as we’d been fighting them
off tooth and nail for the best part of an hour and still more planes
kept appearing. The whole sky in the area of the ships was literally
swarming with them again. Once more this great ship kept our hopes alive
for she took this attack in her stride. I started to think maybe we
could scrape through, but any hope of this were soon extinguished, more
bombers were on the horizon.
Captain Tennant had already combed the tracks of some 16 torpedoes, it was a sign of a true craftsman. Unfortunately the enemy pilots were of the highest quality. Repulse would evade three more attacks before succumbing to the inevitable.