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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.

 

Abandon Ship

 

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 nearer.

 

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 safe.

 

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.

 

Throughout the 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 just witnessed.

 

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 us.

 

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.

 

 

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