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THE SINKING OF H.M.S. PRINCE OF WALES AND REPULSE
As told by Cecil Brown, War Correspondent on HMS Repulse

 

In late 1941, the Japanese began to conquer the Pacific. They attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7 and then seized Guam and Wake Island. On December 10, Japanese submarines and fighter jets attacked a British fleet near Singapore. The following account was written by reporter Cecil Brown on board the HMS Repulse. He describes the sinking of the ship and his escape.

The torpedo strikes the ship about twenty yards astern of my position. It feels as though the ship has crashed into dock. I am thrown four feet across the deck but I keep my feet. Almost immediately, it seems, the ship lists. The command roars out of the loudspeaker: “Blow up your lifebelts!” I take down mine from the shelf. It is a blue-serge affair with a rubber bladder inside. I tie one of the cords around my waist and start to bring another cord up around the neck. Just as I start to tie it the command comes: “All possible men to starboard.” But a Japanese plane invalidates that command. Instantly there’s another crash to starboard. Incredibly quickly, the Repulse is listing to port, and I haven’t started to blow up my lifebelt. I finish tying the cord around my neck. My camera I hang outside the airless lifebelt. Gallagher already has his belt on and is puffing into the rubber tube to inflate it. The effort makes his strong, fair face redder than usual. . . .Captain Tennant’s voice is coming over the ship’s loudspeaker, a cool voice: “All hands on deck. Prepare to abandon ship.” There is a pause for just an instant, then: “God be with you. ”There is no alarm, no confusion, no panic. We on the flag deck move toward a companionway leading to the quarterdeck. Abrahams, the Admiralty photographer, Gallagher and I are together. The coolness of everyone is incredible. There is no pushing, but no pausing either. One youngster seems in a great hurry. He tries to edge his way into the line at the top of the companionway to get down faster to the quarterdeck. A young sub-lieutenant taps him on the shoulder and says quietly, “Now, now, we are all going the same way, too. ”The youngster immediately gets hold of himself. . . .The Repulse is going down. The torpedo-smashed Prince of Wales, still a half to three-quarters of a mile ahead, is low in the water, half shrouded in smoke, a destroyer by her side. Japanese bombers are still winging around like vultures, still attacking the Wales. A few of those shot down are bright splotches of burning orange on the blue South China Sea. Men are tossing overboard rafts, lifebelts, benches, pieces of wood, anything that will float. Standing at the edge of the ship, I see one man (Midshipman Peter Gillis, an eighteen-year-old Australian from Sydney) dive from the Air Defence control tower at the top of the main mast. He dives 170 feet and starts to swim away. Men are jumping into the sea from the four or five defence control towers that segment the main mast like a series of ledges. One man misses his distance, dives, hits the side of the Repulse, breaks every bone in his body and crumples into the sea like a sack of wet cement. Another misses his direction and dives from one of the towers straight down the smokestack. Men are running all along the deck of the ship to get further astern. The ship is lower in the water at the stern and their jump therefore will be shorter. Twelve Royal Marines run back too far, jump into the water and are sucked into the propeller. The screws of the Repulse are still turning. There are five or six hundred heads bobbing in the water. The men are being swept astern because the Repulse is still making way and there’s a strong tide here, too. On all sides of me men are flinging themselves over the side. I sit down on the edge of the Repulse and take off my shoes. I am very fond of those shoes. A Chinese made them for me just a few days ago in Singapore. They are soft, with a buckle, and they fit well. I carefully place them together and put them down as you do at the foot of your bed before going to sleep. I have no vision of what is ahead, no concrete thoughts of how to save myself. It is necessarily every man for himself. As I sit there, it suddenly comes to me, the overwhelming, dogmatic conviction. I actually speak the words: “Cecil, you are never going to get out of this. ”I see one man jump and land directly on another man. I say to myself, “When I jump I don’t want to hurt anyone. ”Down below is a mess of oil and debris, and I don’t want to jump into that either. I feel my mind getting numb. I look across to the Wales. Its guns are flashing and the flames are belching through the greyish-black smoke. My mind cannot absorb what my eyes see. It is impossible to believe that these two beautiful, powerful, invulnerable ships are going down. But they are. There’s no doubt of that. Men are sliding down the hull of the Repulse. Extending around the edge of the ship is a three-inch bulge of steel. The men hit that bulge, shoot off into space and into the water. I say to myself, “I don’t want to go down that way. That must hurt their backsides something terrible. ”About eight feet to my left there is a gaping hole in the side of the Repulse. It is about thirty feet across, with the plates twisted and torn. The hull of the Repulse has been ripped open as though a giant had torn apart a tin can. I see an officer dive over the side, dive into the hole underneath the line, dive back inside the ship. I half turn to look back on the crazy-angled deck of the ship. The padre is beside one of the pom-poms, administering the final rites to a gunner dying beside his gun. The padre seems totally unconcerned by the fact that the Repulse is going down at any moment. . . .The jump is about twenty feet. The water is warm; it is not water, but thick oil. My first action is to look at my stopwatch. It is smashed at 12.35, one hour and twenty minutes after the first Japanese bomb came through 12,000 feet to crash into the catapult deck of the Repulse. It doesn’t occur to me to swim away from the ship until I see others striking out. Then I realize how difficult it is. The oil soaks into my clothes weighting them and I think underwater demons are tugging at me, trying to drag me down. The airless lifebelt, absorbing oil too, tightens and tautens the preserver cords around my neck. I say to myself, “I’m going to choke to death, I’m going to choke to death. ”Next to confined places, all my life, I’ve been afraid of choking to death. This is the first moment of fear. I have a ring on my left hand which Martha bought for me on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence when we were on our honeymoon. It is rather loose on my finger. With oil on my hands, I’m afraid I will lose it. I clench my fist so that it won’t slip off. I start swimming away with the left hand clenched. With my right hand I make one stroke, tug at the cord around my neck in a futile effort to loosen it, then make another stroke to get away from the ship. That ring helps save my life. Something like it must have helped save the lives of hundreds of men. Your mind fastens itself on silly, unimportant matters, absorbing your thoughts and stifling the natural instinct of man to panic in the face of death. I see a life preserver eighteen inches long and four inches thick. It is like a long sausage and I tuck it to me. A small piece of wood appears inviting and I take that too. A barrel comes near, but I reject that because the oil prevents me getting a grip on it. All around me men are swimming, men with blood streaking down their oil-covered faces. The oil burns in my eyes as though someone is jabbing hot pokers into the eyes. That oil in the eyes is the worst thing. I’ve swallowed a bit of oil already, and it’s beginning to sicken me. Fifty feet from the ship, hardly swimming at all now, I see the bow of the Repulse swing straight into the air like a church steeple. Its red underplates stand out as stark and as gruesome as the blood on the faces of the men around me. Then the tug and draw of the suction of 32,000 tons of steel sliding to the bottom hits me. Something powerful, almost irresistible, snaps at my feet. It feels as though someone were trying to pull my legs out by the hip sockets. But I am more fortunate than some others. They are closer to the ship. They are sucked back. When the Repulse goes down it sends over a huge wave, a wave of oil. I happen to have my mouth open and I take aboard considerable oil. That makes me terribly sick at the stomach.

Source: Excerpt from Suez to Singapore by Cecil Brown (New York: Random House, 1942). Copyright © 1942 and renewed 1970 by Random House.

 

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