Ted Matthews opens the account of
the final phase of this epic encounter.
I had a clear view of the final
attacks made on our ship; watching in horror as a group of bombers
approached from the starboard side, quickly dispatching their torpedoes.
These seemed to be treated with almost contempt by the skipper who just
started to alter course to avoid them. The only trouble was a further
three planes had flown from the direction of Prince of Wales and headed
directly towards us. They dropped their torpedoes later than any other
previous attack we encountered; it was obvious we couldn’t miss them,
as we were already on an avoiding course from the earlier attack.
These final three planes flew straight by Repulse, although two of them misjudged their angle of flight, flying directly over the ship, and presenting themselves as a perfect target for our AA gun crews, being promptly blown out of the sky. Unfortunately, the damage had been done and I waited in anticipation of the worst as the torpedoes disappeared under the port side of the ship. It seemed to take an eternity for anything to happen and at one point, I thought that somehow they’d missed us or failed to detonate. It wasn’t to be; suddenly there was a massive explosion, (the biggest one so far). I immediately knew we’d lost Repulse. In seconds she took on a frightening list to port, it was so sudden that I was aware, no amount of counter flooding would save us. I didn’t hear the ‘Abandon Ship’, but wasn’t going to hang around as I could see her disappearing beneath me at a colossal rate.
John Dykes along with other men
below deck now knew Repulse was lost. He retells his journey from the
depths of the ship, to the comparative safety of the upper deck.
As soon as she started to roll ever
further to port, I knew I’d have to get up top as soon as possible.
Throughout the entire duration of the action I’d been down below and
although I’d heard several loud explosions and seen some of the
internal damage to the ship, up until that moment I hadn’t been fully
aware that we were losing the battle. On hearing the ‘Abandon Ship’
over the ships tannoy I never witnessed any signs of panic or even to
any degree selfishness amongst the lads. All injured men were helped up
top if they could be moved.
I began making my way up to the
Marines’ mess deck, an area that had been quite badly damaged from the
high level bombing at commencement of the action. Once clear I came out
onto the Marines’ flat, at this point, the ship moved even further to
port, at the far end of the flat was a ladder taking you up top. This
ladder was on the port side and was at such an extreme angle, it
resembled a staircase more than a vertical ladder. On clearing a way
through the debris collecting in the area I started to pull myself up
the ladder, suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the
ship’s cats. Now I have always loved animals and the danger I was in
at that moment didn’t alter my feelings. The other stoker with me
looked on in disbelief as I put this terrified creature down my jumper,
with this we carried on towards daylight. Once up the ladder we could
see the area we’d just cleared, rapidly filling with water. My fear at
this moment was that Repulse would capsize, making escape impossible.
John Garner had no time to worry
about the consequences of diving into the oily waters looming ever
As the ‘Abandon Ship’ came
over, a small group of us tried our best to undo a Carley float tied
onto the ships side. It was a hopeless task as the years of paint
applied to it made it stick fast on its cradle, no amount of pushing and
pulling would move it. I knew then that I’d have to take my chances (as
others had already done) and dive into the filthy waters below.
I still clearly remember talking to
a mate of mine called Alfie Hughes, he was a breach worker on the left
of our gun, we both calmly wished each other good luck, blew up our
lifebelts and without further words, began making our way over the side.
As the ship was going over to port, we were directed to go over the
starboard side, this would stop you being caught on the submerging
superstructure. I decided to slide down as far as the torpedo blisters
on the ship’s side and from there, find the best point of entry into
the water. It was a good idea, but in reality, didn’t happen this way.
As soon as I started to move, with
the actual surface of the ship being covered in oil, I couldn’t stop
my progress, going straight over the torpedo blister and out into fresh
air. The bulge had actually acted as a catapult and threw me some
distance from the ship. It seemed to take an age to get to the surface,
but I will never forget one of my last sights of Repulse. Almost totally
on her port side, still steaming fast with her starboard propellers
clear of the water, that moment has never left me and is one of the most
vivid recollections I still hold, of the death of our ship.
Sometimes small decisions in life
can be decisive; Reg Woods explains one that undoubtedly saved his life.
As we made our way from the
pom-pom, we could see that the port side of the ship was only a few feet
clear of the water. This looked very tempting, but we were being warned
away from that route of escape as the rapidly submerging superstructure
could easily drag you down with the ship. I’d estimate the speed of
Repulse at that time to be in the region of some 20 knots. And I vividly
remember Slats saying to me “Come on Slinger, we’ll go over this
way”. He meant starboard, I replied, “No I’m going to take the
shortest route”. This obviously meant port side, I’d seen the
P/O’s stopping lads from going over one part of the starboard side
because of a torpedo hole. This fact along with the terrifying sight of
the propellers looming out of the water, left me in no doubt that I was
going to take my chances on the port side. With this I left Slats and
the rest of my mates, venturing down the almost vertical deck. I never
saw Slats again; he didn’t survive. I think all of us have at least
one everlasting memory of Repulse from that day. Mine is once clear of
the ship, the sight of the huge plumes of water rising some 100 feet or
so in the air. The horrifying consequence of this was that men, who
hadn’t got clear, were caught in the turbulence from the propellers
and catapulted in the air to a tremendous height. A lot of them landed
near to me; all of them were dead.
Ian Hay chose the starboard side,
his position on the ship made things slightly safer.
I began to pull myself over the
handrail as P/O O’Rourke shouted his last ever order to me, “Jump
out, get some distance on the ship”. He stayed there helping all the
men with his advice. It was the bravest gesture I’ve ever seen, sadly
he had to pay with his life, for he didn’t survive the sinking. As we
slid down the side of the ship, I remember catching myself on the
armoured belt that ran down the entire length of Repulse. However this
didn’t stop my progress as gravity had taken over and I was soon clear
of her and heading for the sea. I seemed to be in the air forever, but
on hitting the water I immediately came to my senses. I’d swallowed
oil, this set my lungs on fire. I remember going under once again, only
this time, I heard a deafening noise; it was the propellers steaming by.
This scared me to death if I’d been some 15-20 ft closer, they’d
have pulled me into their wake. I soon realised many lads hadn’t been
as fortunate as I. There were bodies everywhere and the debris that had
come out of the ship can’t honestly be imagined.
I will never forget the sights in
the sea, groups of men were huddled together, unable to swim because of
the terrible burns they’d received, it was impossible to help them, as
it was all you could do to look after yourself. I will never forget
these sights; in less than 2 hours, our great ship had been turned into
a living nightmare.
Ted Matthews has one horrific
recollection of his escape from the ship.
I quickly made my way off our
action station and onto the almost horizontal deck, at this point I
passed the rear entrance of the Captain’s quarters. In the recess of
the doorway I saw the ships Padre kneeling down tending to an injured
man. The lad caught sight of me and shouted my name. I realised I knew
him very well, but I will not give his identity, as he suffered
terribly. If he has any family alive, it’s best they are settled with
the fact that he was one of the many lost in action. For to have
knowledge of the circumstances in which he died, would still, after more
than 55 yrs be too distressing to come to terms with.
As I approached them the ship was
moving further to port; I was fully aware that we’d have no time for a
long protracted rescue. Although it wasn’t until I was literally on
top of the lad that I could see how badly he’d been injured. He had
terrible bullet wounds across the whole of his stomach; these must have
been caused by the machine gunners off the bombers. The Padre told me to
give him a hand to try and get him over the starboard side. We attempted
this and he immediately he let out the most horrific scream I’ve ever
heard. We let him fall back and tried again, alas with the same result.
I must have been showing signs of worry for my own safety, as the next
thing the Padre said was “Go on son you can’t do anymore for him”.
I don’t care who you are, when faced with that kind of situation, the
strongest instinct is one for your own survival; and I certainly
didn’t need to be told twice. It was without any shadow of a doubt the
bravest act I have ever seen. Thankfully, the Padre survived, but the
look on my mate’s face has never left me, even after 55 years.
After this terrible incident, I
made my way over the starboard side, I still remember sitting on the
bilge keel and first of all taking my anti-flash gear off, then my shoes
and socks. After this I dived out as far as I could to get clear of the
ship. The height of the keel at that time must have been somewhere in
the region of 40 feet or so out of the water. I began to swim and after
a few minutes, managed to latch onto a heavy crate that had come from
the ship. At that moment, for the first time in quite a while, I felt
John Dykes had finally managed to
clear the innards of Repulse. He now explains how he escaped to safety.
The other stoker and myself had to
climb on our hands and knees up from the hard deck onto the quarterdeck.
Thankfully the hatchway connecting both areas had been fastened open,
but we could still see water entering from the port side of the door. In
the distance were little blobs in the water, however after a couple of
seconds of focusing on them, I realised they were men who had already
gotten off. As I emerged onto the starboard side of the bilge keel
everywhere was greasy and full of oil, the barnacles on the keel were
inflicting quite bad cuts on my body. Luckily I noticed a pair of
trousers that someone must have discarded before diving in. I took hold
of these and began to move along to the edge of the ship, suddenly, a
wall of water came over me. I realised that she was starting to go and
I’d been swept over on the port side into the sea. I remember going
underwater and hearing the propellers roaring by. In a matter of seconds
I surfaced, immediately checking for the kitten, but it had gone,
looking back I saw Repulse in the throes of sinking.
entire action Derek Jones had been locked inside a compartment connected
to one of the 4-inch magazines. It was one of the most dangerous areas
of the ship. He now explains how maybe he is the luckiest of our group
to live to tell his tale.
I heard the final three explosions
that I now know signalled the end of Repulse, although I had no definite
knowledge of this, the increasing list left no doubt in all our minds
that she was going. Throughout the entire battle we’d felt the ship
being thrown all over the place and also heard several explosions. So at
the very least I think we all knew the ship was in deep trouble, but as
with John Dykes, no one amongst us knew exactly who had the upper hand
until the explosions were heard.
For some time we’d been trying to
open the hatch from our magazine to get outside, but it was an
impossible task as it was still bolted down. This was normal procedure
during Action Stations and the biggest worry we had was that in the
confusion of battle our area could be overlooked. The consequences of
this were too horrible to imagine. Thankfully, a short while after the
final torpedo strikes we heard the outside bolts being released, we
immediately began to push the hatch clear. This was no easy task as it
opened against the list of the ship and was extremely heavy. Eventually
we got one of the lads out of the compartment and he managed to pin the
hatch back. I was told to see if anyone had been left below, on
checking, it appeared to me that everyone who was coming out had done
so. With that, the hatch was dropped and we made our way to the upper
deck. On entering daylight we saw our P/O, he told everyone to go
forward before jumping in, as it was too dangerous on the stern because
of the propellers.
Approaching the catapult deck there
seemed to be men diving in from all angles, another P/O directed
everyone to a safe point on the Bilge Keel that was free from torpedo
damage. As some poor blokes were diving into the sea only to be drawn
into these holes, which obviously meant certain death. It must have been
a terrible way to die, as they’d have been totally powerless to escape
the ship. I picked my point of entry, sat down on the keel and began
taking my shoes off. I’d just started doing this when a wave swept me
off the ship; it took a second to realise that Repulse had actually gone
from underneath me. I was then caught in the turbulence and dragged
under for a few seconds, on surfacing I was surprised to see that the
ship was still moving, but only just visible.
I can still remember the cries of
men in the water, I couldn’t offer any help as at the time I was
having a hard job looking after myself. The main reason for my trouble
was my lifebelt had deflated and I was having tremendous problems with
the thick oil on the surface of the water. I managed to ease my plight
by finding a heavy piece of wood, the added buoyancy gained from this
made life somewhat easier. I then began taking my kit off as I’d been
caught by the waves still wearing my anti-flash gear. Once I’d done
this I surveyed the area; dead and dying men were everywhere and it was
obvious that some of the badly injured would have no chance of survival.
I finally joined up with a group of lads; this helped matters, as we now
encouraged each other, in a short while safety beckoned as a lifeboat
headed for us.
John Garner remembers the final
moments of H.M.S. Repulse.
I’d swum some distance from the
ship and could hear shouts that she was about to go. I turned in the
water to face her, it was an unbelievable sight. The bow rose in the air
to a tremendous height and with her propellers still turning; slowly
began to go under. It was a very emotional moment, Repulse had been my
home for more than 18 months and I loved her. The saddest sight was that
within minutes, the sea was calm once again. No sign of her or of the
epic battle she put up before succumbing to the overwhelming odds that
finally destroyed her.
I can’t remember how long I’d
been in the water, but all of us were then witness to the final attack
on Prince of Wales. She was now totally helpless as a group of high
level bombers could be seen approaching her. It was obvious she was
going to be attacked; seconds later, a series of explosions erupted
around her. These were even more accurate than the first to hit us, as
she couldn’t manoeuvre to avoid the attack. The devastation was
terrible in a matter of moments the entire ship was engulfed in smoke
and flames and I distinctly remember feeling sick at the sight I’d
This was the last attack from the
Japanese, their job was completed; Repulse was gone and Prince of Wales
was on her way. The sky quickly emptied of planes and I could see the
escorting destroyers starting to pick up survivors. All was going well
and I was quite confident of getting out of the water quickly. When
suddenly a group of planes appeared, dropping like stones from the sky
they seemed to be heading directly for us. When they were directly
overhead, one of them did a low level victory roll. The panic was
terrible, everyone thought they were enemy fighters preparing to attack
It turned out that they were
Brewster Buffaloes, flown by the Australian airforce, I later found out
that the pilot who performed the roll actually thought everyone was
cheering him. I have to say he was mistaken. At the time I truly wished
I could have got my hands on him. I guarantee he wouldn’t have flown
for some time afterwards. Totally exhausted and injured men had thrown
themselves off the Carley rafts and lifeboats to avoid this stupid
bastard’s antics. Some time later we found out that our skipper had
sent a message to Singapore during the attack, telling them to send
Fighters. They’d left immediately, but the battle was over by the time
they arrived. The pilot may have thought he was boosting our morale by
his antics, I’m sorry to tell him it had exactly the opposite effect.
Although not the fault of the pilots mentioned if they’d been with us
when first attacked, the outcome of the battle might well have been very
different. With all this commotion I’d missed the destroyer I was
hoping would pick me up as it had gone on another loop. Eventually she
came round again to were a large group of us gathered. Our ordeal
finally ending when we climbed up the scrambling nets and came onboard
the destroyer Electra. It’s funny, but the first thing I did was to
get down to the galley and scrounge a massive bowl of rice pudding off
the Chef. It was the best meal I ever had.
Ted Matthews recalls his time in
the water. It wasn’t the enemy planes that bothered him so much, as
creatures whose domain he had invaded.
Once in the water I could see a
couple of the lads who I knew to be very strong swimmers sitting on the
propeller tunnels not making any attempt to dive in. They must have
frozen and couldn’t muster themselves to enter the water. Sadly
neither survived. It’s a split-second decision you make at a time like
that and I feel if you are unfortunate to ponder for too long, then your
chance has gone.
After Repulse sunk I started to
look for the nearest destroyer; it was obvious that I’d have a
substantial wait as none were in my vicinity, it was now I began to
worry, as sharks were thrashing around on the surface of the water. For
some time I actually believed they were in the process of attacking men,
but this wasn’t the case. It seemed that they were dying through
swallowing the fuel oil that was several inches thick on the surface of
the ocean. After realising this, I relaxed somewhat until I began to see
bright yellow and red objects darting across the surface. These were as
bad as the sharks; the whole area was infested with sea snakes. It was
obvious they were frightened by all the noise, as I’d seen these
creatures many times before and normally they seemed to just lie on the
surface of the water. I also knew that their bite was deadly, so if you
were bitten, then you would swiftly and painfully die.