Showing the Flag


Time moved on to July 1939 and I was still on barracks duties, although this would soon alter. My orders came through to report to the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, I was bound for a Capital ship, the most envied draft of all. On approaching her in the docks I was absolutely mesmerized by the sheer size and presence of this giant; 794 ft in length, over 90 ft in the beam, and weighing more than 32,000 tons, it was an awe inspiring sight. However on boarding, the whole ship was in disarray, the reason for this was soon apparent.

Earlier in the year, Repulse had been chosen to take the King and Queen to Canada on a Royal Cruise, because of this she'd undergone tremendous alterations to carry the Royal entourage. With the panic of the 1939 crisis, Parliament had no choice other than to revoke the previous decision; the crew then hurriedly prepared themselves for war. This meant that a couple of months before I joined, they'd gone to Gibraltar on working up trials. On her return she had little time to spare, for after a few weeks in dock, she escorted the King and Queen halfway across the Atlantic to Canada. The Royal's were now onboard the cruise-liner Empress of Australia. I'd been drafted a few days after her return to Devonport.

I still feel very emotional whenever I recollect my first day onboard this beautiful vessel. Joining a ship that had almost as many crew as the total population of my town, was obviously a very daunting prospect. I will also admit that since signing up I always felt a bit home sick. However without a word of a lie, the very second I set foot on Repulse, I felt at home. I suppose the point I'm attempting to make is that the warmth and friendship of the crew could be felt on walking up the gangplank. This feeling of comradeship stayed with me until the very day she was lost. I was never to have a similar feeling on any other warship I served on during the remainder of my time in the navy.

After a few days of cleaning duties we were ready to sail, our commanding officer at that time was Captain Spooner. On the day of departure he posted notice that we were sailing for Scotland to rendezvous with other elements of our fleet. My Division was a Quarterdeck man and part of my general duties would be on lookout position, searching mainly for 'U' boats. At the time I'd no idea how important to the survival of our ship these duties would later become. In those days of the big gun, we'd never have imagined that submarines would outshine Capital ships once war commenced. The consensus of opinion was that ships such as Repulse were immune to any foe except opposing battleships. In a very short while these marvels of engineering would be out of place in a modern war.

However I was filled with confidence when talking to some of the lads who'd been on the working up cruise. They added with pride, that whilst returning from Gibraltar the majority of warships present had conducted gunnery practice. Repulse had taken part in a throw off shoot with the 16-inch guns of the battleship Rodney. This would be conducted by firing into the wake of the opposing warship, and then spotters would report the fall of shot. It was the first time our gun crews had taken part in such an operation, but in a very short time they'd already begun to gel into something approaching efficiency. As time progressed our ship gained a fine reputation in gunnery. Culminating in the rumour during the early part of the war, that the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst, always dreaded confrontation with Repulse as we were one of the few British warships who could match her speed whilst having the armament to out gun her. Sadly we'd never have the chance to show our worth in a battle of a by-gone age; modern technology would seal our fate in the not too distant future.

My main duties were in 'Y' turret shell handling room, it was also my action station. Being located in the stern of the ship some twenty feet or so below the waterline, was a terrible location if problems occurred. All the adjoining hatches would be locked and sealed during action making escape impossible. In fact your survival chances were next to nil if the ship was sunk; but to be honest as time progressed I gained so much confidence in Repulse, that the idea of being attacked and actually losing a confrontation never entered my head.

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The most beautiful ship in the Royal Navy; HMS Repulse at speed in heavy seas.


On our return to Devonport things were frantic, we stayed in port a few days before heading for Scapa Flow in Scotland, which was the main naval base in Britain. Hitler had already shown his hand and it was only a matter of time before our navy locked horns with his fleet. A couple of weeks later whilst out on patrol in the North Sea war was declared. Within hours reports came back that 'U' boats had started to destroy our merchant ships. The joking was over, this was the real thing and for the next several months our ship had hardly any respite from incessant convoy duties. We were operating a sort of shuttle service, escorting merchant ships bound for Halifax Nova Scotia, then once refueled returning home with fresh convoys, carrying essential supplies.

I vividly remember one excursion from these duties when in company of the battleship 'Barham'. I was on the upper deck when we heard a tremendous explosion, followed by huge plumes of water around the Barham. She'd taken a torpedo and immediately developed a frightening list. In what seemed a matter of minutes Captain Spooner ordered full speed ahead, leaving the battleship with her escorts. We continued at break-neck speed right up the Firth of the Clyde; Repulse leaving a wake like a tidal wave on the riverbanks as she sped towards Greenock and the safety of our base. It certainly was a lucky escape.

A short time later we happened to be anchored in Scapa Flow, the fleet hadn't been there since the sinking of the battleship Royal Oak, as it had been deemed unsafe to operate from there until the submarine defences were strengthened. The call came for all hands to report on the upper deck in their No 1's (best uniform). We had to prepare to meet a man whose callous attitude in the not too distant future would send our ship and many of its crew to their deaths. The man in question was none other than Winston Churchill; he was to inspect our crew. I felt very honoured when he stopped and spoke to me for a few moments, even going as far as to shake my hand. As I've already stated, at that time in my life I felt elated with his pandering, but in years to come I learnt of his direct actions with reference to the loss of our ship. I have never forgiven him and have to add that time hasn't healed my feelings of disgust with reference to the manner in which he dealt with all the poor souls caught up in the future debacle that was to be Singapore.

Shortly after this episode the allies began their ill-fated invasion of Norway, it culminated in the battles for Narvik. We should have been involved in this action, although if you read any books written about the campaign no mention is made of Repulse being in the vicinity. After the first sea battle, which was fought between our destroyers and an opposing force of German warships, and incidentally was also inconclusive. We were put on station to if requested go into the Fiord and assist our fellow warships. If we'd been allowed to take part in such actions then quite possibly the whole Norwegian campaign may have had a different outcome.

The added firepower of our 15-inch guns would have decimated the whole inland area. Thus making the German occupation of Narvik a far riskier operation. We weren't allowed into the fiord to wreak havoc. Instead we had to wait one full week until the battleship "Warspite" arrived. This was to enable her Admiral to reconnoitre the situation and attack the remaining German destroyers known to be in the area. She was assisted in this action by a force of "H" class destroyers. I have to add that although our warships won the battle, the German land based forces had already established themselves in the area, subsequently the battle for Norway was effectively over.

I can't be too sure of the exact date after this episode, but it was only a short time later that our skipper Captain Spooner left Repulse. He'd been promoted to Rear Admiral. This was when we received as the saying goes "the icing on the cake"; his replacement was Captain William Tennant. The leadership qualities of this man transformed our ship, I'm not trying to imply that Spooner was disliked; its just that Tennant was better in every way. We were now to have many jaunts in the North Sea, during one of these trips I managed to gain a reward for being observant courtesy of our new skipper. On the day in question I was on lookout on the bridge and visibility was poor. Whilst doing a starboard sweep with my binoculars I was convinced I spotted a periscope. It was difficult to keep track of and because of the heavy swells I kept losing sight of it. This put me in a dilemma, I didn't want to cause a stir over a false alarm. Finally having seen it again I shouted to Lieutenant Commander Williams giving him the Gyro bearing. He retorted "keep it in sight" whilst immediately sounding action stations.

Within seconds Tennant was back on the bridge, unfortunately after 10minutes or so the sub disappeared. Williams kept pushing me to try and re-locate it, but to no avail.

I thought the skipper would have complained about being disturbed by this false alarm, fortunately I made the incorrect assumption of his future actions. Much to my surprise he gave me the reward of 10 shillings, for being alert at my post. In those days this was almost the equivalent of a week's pay I was naturally overjoyed. Mind you the lads on my mess gave me some stick when I came off watch because they'd been closed up at action stations for over half an hour because of my alert. I hope that small tale gives you an insight into the mind of our skipper, if he'd torn a strip out of me for my eager shout, maybe next time I may have thought twice with possibly disastrous results; what a man!

During coming months we had many such false alarms followed by fruitless chases, particularly when reports came back over German "pocket" battleships allegedly being in our vicinity. I remember chasing the Deutschland for a couple of days. The weather was atrocious and Repulse took such a hammering from the vicious seas that the for'd breakwater was totally flattened. Even more amazing was that "A" turret was moved partially off its barbette. When you realise just how huge our guns were, it gives you an idea of the power of the sea. In fact the ship was in such a state that when we pulled into Halifax Nova-Scotia, for repairs, all the dockyard workers were adamant that we must have been in action against the Deutschland. It was disappointing to have to tell them the truth.

Halifax was a very strange town to have a run ashore, mainly because the locals didn't bother much with pubs. Rather they bought their drinks from liquor stores and went back to their own houses to drink in the company of friends. Therefore the only option open to us was to buy our beer, then rent a hotel room for the duration of our leave, alternatively you could drink in an expensive hotel. A couple of funny stories spring to mind over times such as these.

First of all, we'd just escorted some merchant ships over to Halifax, once docked all-night leave was granted for most of the crew. In company with a few shipmates, I went to the liquor store and purchased some beer, the next plan was to get a room for the night and basically get drunk. One of our lads namely "Barfield", who was a messmate of mine, found himself a woman so obviously he went to her cabin. The following morning whilst making our way down to Repulse, we saw him walking back into town. The only trouble was he only had half his clothes on. It appeared that during the course of the night he'd woken; feeling cold, so he went outside to fetch some logs in for the fire. On his return the woman tried attacking him with an axe. He couldn't do anything to calm her down so eventually had to disappear into the woods to evade this crazy woman. Obviously this meant most of his clothes were left in the cabin, once back onboard he took an unbelievable amount of stick over this incident, but I tell you one thing; he didn't do anymore fraternizing with the natives on any of our other return trips.

The second recollection still rates as the funniest thing I've ever seen. It must have been about 2-3 months after the fore-mentioned incident, when once more we had all-night shore leave. Having been through some really terrible weather with this convoy everyone was anxious for a good run ashore (some more than others) if I remember correctly about six of us went into a very smart hotel. After half an hour or so two of the lads namely "Jumper Collins and Frank Tees dale" noticed a blond bombshell, sitting by the bar on her own. They went across and bought her a drink; we couldn't believe their luck as she was positively encouraging their advances; it was obvious how this situation was going to progress.

The next thing I remember is watching the lads (who were also roaring drunk) attempting to escort the young lady! to a room in the hotel. The reasons for this don't need explaining. As they approached the top of the staircase "Jumper" gave the lady some assistance by pushing his hand between her legs. In an instant he let out the most terrifying scream "she's got bloody balls" was all we heard; immediately followed by the previously long legged, elegant blond flying backwards down the stairs, courtesy of Frank and "Jumper. It transpired that he was a well-known transvestite. I've heard the saying "any port in a storm" but thankfully, even those pair of randy sods weren't that desperate.

Shortly after returning from this convoy, Repulse had to go into dry dock at Rosyth, I was ashore, along with some other crewmembers, having a game of football at the Inverkiethen ground. We'd been playing for half an hour or so when the aircraft warning went off. It must have been worrying for the lads still onboard; they really where "sitting ducks". At first we didn't pay much heed to the alarm until bombs suddenly started exploding, closely followed by showers of shrapnel landing all around the playing field. This was all we needed, everyone dived for cover as the whole sky erupted with anti-aircraft guns even Repulse was firing back from her dry dock. Thankfully no major hits were sustained to any ships in harbour, after that we decided to abandon the match and get back under cover just in case they returned.

It was now Christmas 1940 and we hadn't been on leave for quite some time. Understandably the mood onboard was quite sombre as we wished to spend the festivities with our families; not on a warship. As the days progressed it was obvious we weren't going back to base, our Christmas would be spent on northern patrols. I have a marvelous recollection of the humanity of our skipper's to this depressing time for the crew. On the big day he went round every mess deck, spending time chatting to the lads and generally cheering everyone up. He had a unique ability to keep your attention no-matter what he was discussing I have never met any man to this day who had the charisma and sincerity of Tennant, he was a born leader.

I think our time in the North Atlantic reached a crescendo with the pursuit of the Bismarck, although we weren't in on the kill it wasn't through lack of trying. We steamed for days at high speed in company with the K.G.V. and the Aircraft Carrier Victorious; it truly was an unbelievable era in naval history. Although the strongest recollection I have of the whole episode is the deep and bitter resentment felt amongst our crew. The reason for this was that after the loss of HMS Hood, we were given orders not to engage Bismarck. The Admiralty were deeply concerned that due to our thinly armored decks, we could face a similar fate to our fellow battlecruiser. From our point of view the disappointment had its origins in the fact that we harbored no-fears of locking horns with this immense man-o war.

The previous comment may sound inconceivable to an outsider who has knowledge of the sheer power of this German battleship; hopefully I can make myself understood in a more concise manner with the following statement. Even though Repulse had her origins in the First World War and therefore was in no way as formidable a weapons platform as Bismarck, not one-man onboard feared confrontation with any hostile force. It has to be remembered that for the entire duration of the war we'd constantly been on the lookout for action. This had the effect of making everyone anxious to prove our worth in any confrontation. I must add that I was drafted to other warships after the loss of Repulse, but without question she was by far the most efficient ship I ever served on. I still maintain to this present day, that the skill of Captain Tennant combined with the efficiency of his crew made Repulse the finest warship in the Royal Navy.

Shortly after this battle the war at sea calmed down to a certain degree, as the Germans didn't have sufficient reserves of warships to risk another major surface ship confrontation with our navy. This meant that except for the constant threat of "U" boats, life became somewhat quieter. During this time I'd been able to get some mail home, we each had our own way of letting family and loved ones know of our whereabouts. It was easy enough to do, all that was needed was a prearranged way of starting or finishing your letter, for example three kisses could mean that we were in the North Sea, "two"-maybe Nova Scotia. The censors knew it went on but unless all homeward bound mail was stopped they were powerless to curtail it.

Time moved on to mid 1941 and from our point of view, the war still looked as if it would end in disaster, as Germany was still sweeping all before her. Although being on Repulse certainly sheltered me from the pessimism shared by many people in Britain, the atmosphere onboard never seemed to be negative. I'm still convinced this feeling of self-confidence manifested itself from the skipper down through the ranks. His track record spoke for itself, whenever we'd been in any type of dangerous situation, he'd always allowed his crew to know as far as possible, exactly what was happening. This reassured us that he had our welfare uppermost in his thoughts. The trust worked both ways, Tennant knew we wouldn't let him down.

The general run of things for our final few months in Britain was one of never-ending convoy duties. We finally docked in Rosyth somewhere in the region of late July 1941, undergoing a short re-fit. The majority of the crew had leave. Unfortunately I was out of luck, subsequently this meant my last two weeks in Britain for quite some time were spent onboard Repulse. Once all necessary work had been completed, we left on our final mission. Dockyard mateys had worked on this much loved ship for their final time; she was never to return. As I look back at my many photographs taken onboard our great ship during wartime duties in the Northern Hemisphere, it saddens me immensely to recall the great lads captured in these shots. Whilst at the same time realising those frozen moments are the only keepsakes I have of the finest men I was ever to sail with. Sadly in a few short months many would perish at the hands of a one-time ally.

Happy times on Repulse


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Myself (second right) taking a break from painting Repulse, along with shipmates, Jan Tucker (third right) and Jack (Blondie) Cooper. Below, 'Stripey Bristow (left )with myself (centre), Fox (left) and Tressider (rear).

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Above, preparing to go under the Forth Bridge.

Below, 'Jan' Cazaley (right) and myself.

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