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Twilight of the Empire

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On leaving Rosyth it was obvious our days in the North Atlantic were, for the time being at least, going to be replaced with sunnier climes. In a matter of hours we were issued with tropical kit (whites). Our first duties were to escort a convoy of troop-carrying merchant ships to Gibraltar; their final destination was Libya and bloody conflicts with Rommel's Army. After dispatching the convoy we had a couple of days in port at "Gib" it was a good place to have a run ashore, one club in particular was normally teeming with life. It was called the "Trocadero" and its popularity was borne from the fact that a female band played there every evening. On the last night in port our crew gave this club a night to remember. Although I wasn't in company with the lad in question, he was a shipmate and that was good enough reason to stick by him during the coming fracas.

As the band finished one of their pieces, the previously mentioned lad approached the bandleader, enquiring would she let him buy her a drink. She refused point blank letting him know, in graphic manner, that she wanted him to disappear. The lad wasn't that bothered over this and to give him credit he let things be and walked back to the table he was sharing with his mates. A couple of minutes later an officer from one of the other warships in port approached the same lady; he also offered to buy her a drink, she readily accepted.

The reason for the conflict was that this same officer began to humiliate my shipmate, with references to the lady and the manner with which she'd refused his offer of a drink. Within seconds the lad erupted, they squared up, and all hell let loose. The club was full of servicemen and everyone got involved. If I remember correctly even when the MP's were called in it didn't have any effect on the situation, as it must have taken about twenty minutes until things calmed down. When the brawl was finally over, the entire club looked as though it had taken a direct hit from a Heinkel. Mind you it certainly brightened up a dull evening of Cabaret.

The following day we sailed, our next destination being the island of St Helena. On dropping anchor, native traders came scurrying to Repulse. Their tiny boats were full to bursting point with all manner of artifacts made by the local inhabitants. If my memory's correct I bought some beads made from sunflower seeds. At that point in time we still didn't know the main purpose of our mission, although lower deck speculation was that we were more than likely bound for the Far East. The reason being there'd been growing consternation in our country and America over recent actions taken by Japan since the capitulation of France.

Since her demise Germany had allowed many of her Far Eastern Colonies to come under the direct control of the Japanese. This had worrying aspects for all other countries with interests in that part of the world. We felt our mission had to have its final purpose as a showing of intent to defend our interests in the Far East; thus hopefully scaring the Japanese from attempting to make inroads into Sovereign territory. The idea of going to the far side of the world to quell the Japs was looked on as a formality Not for one minute did anyone think they would be a match for the might of our country. On leaving St Helena we were told that our next destination was South Africa, this was good news, as the residents of that country had a great reputation for treating allied servicemen in the best possible manner. After a few days steaming we arrived in Durban, little did we realise that this was the last good run ashore our crew would ever enjoy. The hospitality of Durban's inhabitants was beyond belief.

Entering port was a scene more reminiscent of the berthing of a cruise liner rather than the arrival of a warship. I still remember the famous 'Lady in White' standing at the harbour's entrance, singing our arrival. Once tied up, Captain Tennant cleared lower decks and told us that the South African Prime Minister, Field Marshall Jan Smutts would be addressing the crew. I think everyone was expecting his speech to be full of how scared the Japanese would be once news of a Capital ship in these waters reached their ears; we were in for a great shock.

During his short speech, he let it be known from the outset, that in his opinion we were in big trouble. He continued with various references to the modern planes and warships at Japan's disposal, stating we'd be wrong to assume that they were still a small player in world affairs. To the contrary he added their armed forces were a match for any nation. One final part of his speech still stays sharp in my mind fifty-seven years later. From the hastily assembled stage he looked out across the deck at the scores of fit young lads standing to attention and said something along the lines of. " I look out at you brave young men and your fine ship and I am sorry to say that many of you will not return from this mission ".

He spoke for a short while after this, going into greater detail about the words I've just quoted, but I have to admit that I can't remember much else, mainly because he thought we were sailing to our doom. The contents of his speech have never left me and to a certain extent since our ship was lost; I've always felt somewhat haunted by his foresight. Many years later I read a book, which covered in great detail the loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales. I was immensely angered to read one paragraph, which stated in clear and concise terms that Smuts gave exactly the same warning to Winston Churchill three weeks after we left Durban. Sadly it was to no avail, for our Premier paid no heed to the wisdom of this great man. History was to prove the Field Marshall correct, many fine lads never returned.

It would be wrong to give the impression that our stay in Durban was a solemn affair, in fact from my own point of view it was fantastic. I remember watching a native South African wedding, it was the most colourful affair I ever saw. There were literally thousands of people in all their regalia attending the function. Whilst sitting on a grass bank watching the show unfold, I thought back to months gone by, when our ship had been dodging "U" boats in the hostile and freezing conditions of the North Atlantic. To be sitting in the sunshine, enjoying the many benefits of a beautiful city was possibly one of the greatest contrasts in lifestyles I've ever experienced.

As for our stay in Durban, the locals couldn't do enough for us, this had the effect of making the warnings of Field Marshall Smuts seem unfounded. We really did feel that our presence in this part of the world was just a formality, and the longer our stay the better the holiday. After a week or so our time came to embark, although we stayed in the locality, spending the next couple of weeks protecting various allied merchant ships which were carrying arms and munitions to the Middle East. If I remember correctly we returned once more to Durban, picking up our last ever troopships. On dispatching the convoy we sailed onto Colombo taking on fresh supplies, after the relatively relaxed atmosphere of the previous few weeks, things began to move at a much faster pace.

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HMS Repulse escorting her final convoy

After a short stay in Colombo we sailed onto Trincomalee, where we had a short respite, I think one of the lighter moments was a football match between our team and a side from the Ceylon Light Infantry. On leaving "Trinco" the skipper posted notice that we were steaming on a course to rendezvous with Force "G". This comprised of the "KGV" class battleship Prince of Wales in company with the destroyers Electra and Express. There was widespread consternation amongst our crew on hearing that we'd be sailing with the "Prince". She'd gained the unenviable reputation of being a "Jonah" ship. I don't mean this as a sign of disrespect to her crew, its just that two of the actions she'd been involved in since her commissioning had both ended in disaster. In the case of HMS Hood, it had been both fatal and catastrophic.

After the loss of the battlecruiser, Prince of Wales had to go into dock for repairs to battle-damage sustained at the hands of the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. Once sea-worthy she carried our Wartime Premier, Winston Churchill to Platencia Bay, Newfoundland. The purpose of this trip was the signing of the Atlantic Charter agreement. Her final mission before our fateful meeting was to sail, part way to Malta on convoy duties along with the battleship Nelson, unfortunately the latter warship was torpedoed by a 'U' Boat. Thankfully her damage was relatively light, subsequently she was repaired a short while later.

By now the die had been cast and the "Prince" would carry this unenviable mantle of a "Jonah" till the day she was lost. Another point worthy of note is that in my opinion, this immensely powerful warship was never given the chance to become fully efficient. Her crew lost valuable working up time whilst she was in dock undergoing repairs after the Bismarck incident. To this day I don't think she had a fair chance to prove her worth. From the onset of her active service she was constantly being put into situations that only a well drilled and fully worked up ship should have had to contend with. She never had a chance.

Once our battle group rendezvoused, word came through that our final destination was Singapore. We were to act as the naval deterrents against the Japanese should they decide to attack our Colony. Because we had the senior Captain, it was our privilege to lead most of the way towards the naval base at Keppel. However on nearing the island we had to allow the "Prince" to lead into harbour. The reason for this was that she was the chosen Flagship of Admiral Tom Philips, who was in command of this small battle fleet, he was already in Singapore, awaiting the arrival of the ships. It was now December 2nd 1941 in less than a week the whole world would be in turmoil and from our isolated position in the Far East we were going to be one of the first to experience the full force of Japanese military might.

Our crew had a miserable few days tied up mid-stream at the naval base. This was made all the worse with the knowledge that ratings from the "Prince" had been granted leave to enjoy themselves in Singapore City; whereas we had to be content with the confines of the naval base. Its funny to recall this point, but on one of my visits to the barracks I was both fascinated and saddened by the sight of a huge Himalayan mountain bear. It was locked in a tiny cage, never seeming to rest, all day it kept walking to and fro; looking totally frustrated with its surroundings. After a couple of days in the confines of the docks, many of our crew felt we had a lot in common with this poor animal.

I remember Captain Tennant addressing us to show his support for our grievances with respect to the manner in which we were being treated. He stated that he was doing all that was possible to give our crew parity with the men off the "Prince" but added that he couldn't promise the situation would improve. I respected his honesty in this matter but it still caused terrible resentment onboard. Every day the papers were full of pictures and comments about the "Prince". Whereas we were referred to with the indignant title of "other heavy units". I couldn't believe it.

Our ship had escorted countless thousands of troops across hostile waters, throughout the last two years of the war; never losing one single vessel in the fulfillment of these duties. Yet now we weren't given credit of being here to help defend the Colony. In contrast a battleship that had only been in commission for a matter of months was offered all the plaudits as the savior of the island. Without question, it was a disgusting way to treat our ship. I still have absolutely no idea why this concealment procedure was carried out. To imagine that by omitting to mention Repulse in the local papers would be deemed sufficient to conceal her presence was absolutely stupid. We were tied up mid-stream in the Straits of Johore. How could anyone miss us?

After a few of days of misery, our ship, in company with the British destroyer "Tenedos" and Australian warship "Vampire", set off for Port Darwin. I never found out the reason for this escapade, but I must admit that I was extremely happy to be leaving Singapore. It was an island living on its colonial laurels and as such made me resentful of the rich property owners who lived there. I had no qualms about fighting for the freedom of my family and country, but the possibility of dying for these gin-toting fools, solely to preserve their wealth and power filled me with anger.

The initial pleasure of leaving Singapore was quickly dampened, after being at sea for less than a day, fresh orders came through, we had to return to Keppel with all possible speed. It was now December 7th. Once at anchor, word came through that it looked likely Japan was about to declare war on our country. This didn't bother anyone; it was felt that if they were stupid enough to attack British outposts then our warships would soon quell their activities. Little did we realise that we were about to sustain a defeat far in excess of any previously suffered by the British Navy and at the hands of a nation, better prepared than our own for the coming conflict. As evening drew to a close I went below to get my head down, I can't remember the exact time, but I'm sure it was early morning when the air-raid sirens screamed into life. The first thing that amazed me was that although the alarm had sounded and it was still dark, no blackout procedures were in operation. I couldn't believe it; we'd been used to this ritual at the first sign of bombing raids when on home leave. It was known to be vitally essential; with streetlights blazing away it would only take a few seconds for planes to gain a bearing or landmark. In our case this could easily have been catastrophic, as we were helplessly tied up mid-stream; thankfully we weren't their objective.

After a couple of minutes we heard a series of rapid explosions, it was obvious that Singapore City was under attack. Almost immediately the anti-aircraft guns of both ships burst into life, unfortunately no planes were hit and within minutes the bombers disappeared. Unbelievably the lights of the city still blazed away, it was obvious that the majority of servicemen on this island weren't ready for war, although they'd soon be fighting for their very existence. It took about twenty minutes for confirmation of what we already suspected; this being the planes were Japanese. Shortly afterwards the declaration of war was announced; we heard later on in the day (8th Dec) that the American base at Pearl Harbour had been attacked. Precise details weren't made clear to the lower decks. Whether our skipper and other men of high rank had been told full details of this defeat, we were never to find out. But we did realise that matters were coming to a head, and due to our precarious location in the world, we'd obviously be seeing action in a very short while.

Captain Tennant was at meetings both ashore and onboard Prince of Wales until late afternoon, we still didn't know what was happening until in the region of 16.00hours, when the skipper posted notice of our intended actions in reprisal to the attacks launched by the Japanese. We were to leave at 17.35 hours that evening (8th Dec) to intercept reported troop landings at Singora on the coast of Malaya. I couldn't wait, particularly when it was made clear that there was a strong possibility of detachments from the Japanese Navy being in attendance guarding their beachhead. We didn't care; "Let them all come and we'll sink the lot" was the attitude shown by our lads. I have to add that if we'd been involved in a fleet action against the Japanese navy, I'm certain that would have been the outcome. Sadly they had different plans and were about to show the world a new and deadly form of warfare.

It was a fantastic feeling sailing from Singapore, thousands of people came to the docks to see us off. The two Capital ships in company with the destroyers Electra, Express, Tenedos and Australian warship Vampire made a wonderful sight. We were now to be known as Force "Z". The feeling of invulnerability was tremendous and I thought that within a couple of days we'd be back in Singapore, being hailed as heroes and the victors of the Japanese. All would be fine and with our work completed we'd sail back to Britain and resume the real war.

Not for one second did anyone imagine the real outcome of this coming conflict. To comprehend that within forty-eight hours both Repulse and Prince of Wales, two of the finest ships in the Royal Navy would be sent to the bottom of the South China Sea was just beyond belief.

 

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 The poignant photographs of HMS Repulse leaving Singapore on her final mission

 

 

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