End of an Era



As we left Singapore, Repulse was a hive of activity, all necessary equipment was checked, then double-checked; nothing was left to chance. For the first couple of hours whilst I was in the 15-inch shell delivery room the main topic of conversation was how long would it take our fleet to dispose of the Japanese warships that we hoped would be in attendance around the coast of Singora. I still remember the feeling of absolute confidence running throughout the ship. Everyone was eagerly awaiting the kind of action we'd trained for during the last two years of war. The outcome was a formality!

Later on in the night I was allowed to stand down, making the most of the opportunity I went up top with some other lads off my action station where we had a chat and a smoke. It was a beautiful night, after the stifling humidity of being tied up in Singapore; the fresh-cooling sea breeze made conditions far more pleasant. Countless rumours swept the ship concerning the alleged movements of Japanese forces. I didn't pay much attention to most of the chitchat, until I heard reports that seemed to be quite well founded. These stated that the beachhead at our hoped for objective of Singora, was being guarded by a large Japanese fleet. This was exactly what we wanted, and the information built up our anticipations for the coming conflict. As dawn broke on the 9th December we continued at high speed towards our main objective. Thankfully the weather was very overcast, obviously this was good news as it meant we'd be harder to locate from the air. However later on during the course of the day matters took a fateful turn; the sun began to break through, eventually clearing the low cloud screen.

Shortly afterwards a plane was sighted flying low on the horizon; it had to be Japanese. This meant that although we were hunting them; they were already aware of our presence. Regrettably we'd lost the element of surprise and matters weren't as clear-cut as first anticipated. After this incident Repulse was put onto 2nd degree of readiness, this meant I reported to "Y" turret to carry out various duties, although lower deck speculation was that the mission had to be in doubt; we didn't have to wait long for this disappointing news to be confirmed. Admiral Philips suspected that the Japs had located our fleet, therefore the mission was to be abandoned. Almost immediately our fleet altered course. It was obvious that we were returning to our base in Singapore. Everyone felt we'd been cheated out of giving the Japs a good hiding and it was a disappointed crew that stood down as night fell.

Early the following morning (10th) the skipper gave us some good news; fresh reports came through stating further Japanese troop landings were taking place at Kuantan on the coast of Malaya. As we were already quite close to the area, this meant that there was a distinct possibility of surprising the Japanese landing force. The order was given to proceed at high speed to reach the area with all possible haste, which would enable Admiral Philips to reconnoitre the situation. It was about this time that I was issued with an order that's given birth to the title of this book. Our White Ensign had become fouled around its mast. As soon as this was noticed my P/O gave me the order to go to the "jack-staff" and untangle it.

Undoubtedly you may find this a strange recollection to bring up at this very tense moment in the final hours of Repulse, but I guarantee its of great relevance in my story. To this very day that moment remains a clear and poignant reminder of our great ship and the battle we were about to fight. After carrying out this duty I went down below to have some breakfast and generally tidy myself up.

It wasn't long afterwards when I heard the sound of one of our Walrus seaplanes being launched. The Captain had apparently requested permission from Admiral Philips to pursue this course of action; as it would enable a quick and accurate report to be given of suspected troop and warship movements around Kuantan. I still find it strange that we continued steaming into the cove when we already had a plane carrying out the search. The only signs of activity we saw from Repulse was a solitary tug, towing some barges a few miles off the coast. Within a short time we could see for ourselves that the bay was devoid of all activity. I still can't understand why the Admiral didn't accept the fact that it was a false alarm. Nevertheless he persisted with his quest; sadly his stubbornness was to have dire consequences for all men present that day.

The next orders he issued were for the destroyer Express to go deeper into the cove, to carry out a more detailed search of an area that had already been thoroughly inspected; in my opinion this was stupidity. Why he couldn't accept the fact that if troop landings had taken place we'd obviously missed our opportunity is beyond me. Without question this was the final blunder that sealed the fate of Repulse and Prince of Wales. The time wasted in this pointless search around the coast of Kuantan allowed the Japanese to gather their forces and close in for the kill. I am also convinced that if our skipper had been in overall command of Force "Z", his actions would have been very different to those of the Admiral. We'd have been well on our way back to Singapore, not steaming around in circles chasing shadows. Mind you Philips was an officer from a different era as he hadn't recorded any time at sea during this war; his experiences dated back to World War 1. It must have been so distressing for both Tennant and the skipper of Prince of Wales, Captain Leach to watch their ships being led by a man with little knowledge of the changing face of naval warfare. Regrettably, matters were about to be taken out of his dubious control; the hunters had now become the hunted.

The time was approaching 1100hrs and tension was beginning to mount. The cause of this was that during our futile excursion into Kuantan, a trio of Japanese spotter planes had been reported by lookouts on the destroyers, although they'd stayed out of range, only dispersing once we began to leave the area. I was still on the upper deck and all eyes were trained on the horizon; suddenly the aircraft alarm sounded. Immediately Repulse erupted into a mass of bodies as men ran to their action stations. I went directly to "Y" turret handling room; it was the last time I was to see our ship in all her glory. The White Ensign was lowered; being replaced by our Battle Ensign. As I made my way down below the 4-inch High Angle anti-aircraft guns were already bursting into life. In what seemed a matter of seconds, Repulse was rocked by a tremendous explosion amid-ships. I immediately realised that the first assault had been successful, and found out later that we'd been hit by a high level bombing attack. Thankfully it didn't seem to affect the ship, as we could feel by the vibration from the propellers that she was still under way, making good speed with no apparent list.

Gradually the deafening thuds of our 4-inch guns began to fade away, in a matter of minutes all firing ceased. Our isolated position in the depths of Repulse made this silence seem eerie. However we reassured ourselves during this tense time with the thought that the aerial attack could well be the preliminary action leading up to a full-blown surface engagement with the Japanese navy. Everyone was eagerly awaiting the order to commence supplying "Y" turret with rounds of armour piercing shells. Sadly this was never to happen and we were to be locked in our compartment for the entire duration of the battle. Suddenly the triples burst back into life, and the barrage resumed; unlike the previous attack this action persisted for what seemed an eternity.

The first thing that made me realise this was a full blown encounter, was when Repulse started to heel over from port to starboard and vice-versa. It was obvious we were under a severe and prolonged attack. Also the deckplates in our compartment were visibly shaking with the vibration from the propeller shafts. I can't begin to imagine the kind of speed Repulse must have been reaching to cause this effect to the deck. However we had absolutely no idea that Captain Tennant was having to deal with a new form of weapon. No longer was it the high-level attack of distant bombers. Rather it was a frightening onslaught of torpedo bombers, carrying warheads recently developed by the Japanese, deadly accurate and delivered by planes far superior to those flown by our own airforce. Our anti-aircraft crews must have had the shock of their lives.

Regrettably it didn't take long for the effects of this ferocious attack to be felt. Suddenly all the lights momentarily failed, this was followed by a tremendous explosion. We'd been caught by the first torpedo to strike its target and if I remember correctly it was on the port side. The force of this explosion threw a few lads up against the bulkhead and I think one was knocked unconscious. In what seemed only a matter of minutes we felt another detonation. This one was definitely closer to our delivery room and sure enough, within a matter of seconds rivets started to pop on the ships side. Almost immediately water began entering our compartment, it was obvious matters were going badly for the ship.

I was now becoming extremely worried for my safety and the faith I felt in the impregnability of Repulse was rapidly vanishing. Everyone was desperate to get out of this compartment before it was too late. We tried the hatches but they were still bolted down, anyway we couldn't have moved them. They were so heavy that a winch had to be used to open them and this operation could only be carried out from outside the compartment. Something had to be done very quickly. One of the lads took matters into his own hands and shouted up to "Y" turret on the voice pipe, despite constant efforts he couldn't get a reply. It was a terrible situation, because although we knew that Repulse had been damaged, we still had no idea exactly how dire the situation was. Thankfully our anti-aircraft guns could still be heard, this gave us some small comfort as it obviously meant the battle wasn't lost. Although it was painfully clear regardless of the outcome to the action, if the hatches weren't opened very quickly we'd all drown.

Any hopes still harbored that our ship could ward off this ferocious attack were soon shattered. We had no forewarning of this final phase of the action; Repulse still appeared to be steaming at high speed when suddenly, there were three successive explosions. The force of these seemed to momentarily stop the forward motion of the ship. In a matter of seconds we knew Repulse had been severely damaged, as the vibration from the propellers decreased alarmingly. Although far more worrying was that she now took on a frightening list to port. To stay one second longer in this area would mean certain death and I for one wasn't going to wait for orders to evacuate. The only other lads who seemed keen to get out were Taffy Johns and Geordie Jeans. We tried for the last time to raise some kind of response from the turret, but it was to no avail. With hindsight its obvious that they must have already left their station. This meant that the only possible escape route would be to climb up the shaft, which normally carried the 15-inch shells from our room up to "Y" turret.

The trunking had the added benefit of small footholds throughout its length. That day those small holds were a lifesaver. Geordie led the way and I was last in line of our trio. As he entered the shaft I remember him shouting to the lads still waiting forlornly for orders from above "Come on lads its over, get out now"; no one moved.

I still can't understand why they stayed, because Repulse had now developed a terrifying list, one that would be impossible to recover from. As I entered the trunking, the horrible thought that we could still be trapped began to haunt me. If the hatch at the base of the turret were still closed we'd never escape. It would have definitely been locked during the action, all we could hope was that one of the turret crew had released the fixing bolt before leaving the area. Thankfully Geordie shouted down that the hatch was clear. I breathed a deep sigh of relief, but this was short lived; water was now pouring down on us from inside the turret. This could only mean one thing; Repulse was partially submerged.

Geordie forced his way into the turret, helping both Taffy and myself up the final few feet of trunking. I remember shouting down to the lads one last time "are you coming up, you've got to, otherwise it'll be too late". I looked for signs of life but everywhere was in pitch darkness, we couldn't see if any were following behind us. I have to add; with hindsight, if any were on their way up they never made it. Not one man we left in the shell room survived the battle.

Our first hopes to escape the rapidly submerging turret were soon dashed. The deck hatch, which led onto the main deck, was pinned open, but it was already underwater and a constant torrent was entering through the gaping hole. The only other way out of this dire situation was through the upper hatch, which was located in the turret's roof. I found the ladder leading up to it; suddenly Taffy started to panic because he didn't have a life belt on. We told him to go first and stay put till we got out, we'd then help him off the ship. So up he went clipping the hatch open.

By this time Repulse had a list that must have been approaching 45 degrees, as Geordie and myself got up top we looked in desperation for signs of Taffy but he'd disappeared. We never saw him again; some while later we found out that he never survived.

Things were now very desperate and the whole area around the ship was a scene of total devastation, however we didn't have time to take stock of the situation. No-sooner had we sat on the turret roof than we slid straight down the port side into the sea. I immediately struck out in a desperate bid to gain some distance on the rapidly submerging Repulse. It was a hell of a job as the suction kept drawing us back towards her. I was now starting to swallow oil that was on the surface of the water and don't mind admitting that I was just about tuckered out; when miraculously we broke free of the invisible force pulling us to our doom. The only thing I can put this down to is that Repulse must have sunk, thus ending the whirlpool effect she'd been creating.

It was a great relief for a few moments to be swimming effortlessly, but then came the full horrors of a sinking ship. The sights in the water were beyond belief; we were in amongst scores of dead and dismembered bodies, who only a matter of hours previously had been fit young lads onboard our great ship. It was the most horrific sight I had ever witnessed, and the memory of that time has never left me. Thankfully I still have one great recollection of the spirit of my shipmates. We'd been in the water for twenty minutes or so, and quite a large group had congregated to await rescue by our escorting destroyers.

Then the singing began. It wasn't hymns or prayers but rather "Roll out the Barrel" and such like. It was a fantastic, defiant gesture on such a horrific day. Mind you it didn't surprise me, the spirit of Repulse is still evident these days when we meet for our annual reunions, so you can only imagine how strong it was during that emotion charged time. The destroyers did a fantastic job of finding survivors and I only waited about thirty minutes or so before the outlines of HMS Electra could be seen edging her way towards us. By now I'd swallowed a lot of fuel oil and this stuff was taking a heavy toll of the lads in the water. It was a hell of a job to get up the scramble nets on the side of Electra, but her crew soon had our entire group onboard. Then she set off in search of further victims of the sinking.

The next memory still brings tears to my eyes. Just after Geordie and myself had found some space to lie down, our divisional officer came across. His name was Lieutenant Commander Williams; he was overjoyed to see the pair of us in one piece. He said, "I'm glad to see you made it lads" I responded by saying "we didn't know what to do; we didn't get the order to abandon ship". His reply was "the communications went down, it was impossible to send the signal to isolated stations". He then got upset as he began reeling off the names of lads in our division, whilst asking me if I knew anything of their whereabouts. All I could say was the truth and that was every man he enquired about was still unfortunately in the shell room when we escaped, as such the chances didn't look too good for them.

I hadn't heard Geordie speak since we lay down, so turning towards him, shaking his leg I said, "well at least we're O.K. now aren't we". He never responded. I just thought he was exhausted, then Lieutenant Williams knelt down beside him, looking across to me he said "sorry lad he's dead, it looks like the oil has got to him". I was heart broken, I owed my life to his bravery, and would never have got off Repulse without his help and guidance. Shortly afterwards I stood by the guardrail and paid my last respects to a fine lad as he was laid to rest in the sea. After this I began to feel very weak, this didn't go unnoticed by one of Electra's crewmen, he pulled me to one side and poured a large measure of rum down my throat. In an instant I was violently sick, all the oil I'd swallowed during my time in the water was purged from my stomach. The rum was a real lifesaver and a matter of minutes afterwards I was up and about apparently none the worse for the experience.

The sights I witnessed whilst walking around the decks of Electra were absolutely horrific. Countless lads had severe and fatal burns, many more were suffering a similar fate to Geordie, except their deaths didn't come as quickly, some endured hours of agony before passing away.

During this time the crew of the destroyer were still working flat out picking up survivors; although I still recollect one man being as welcome onboard as a shoal of piranha.

He was on his own in the water, close to where Prince of Wales had sunk, some time earlier. As the lads manning the scramble nets beckoned him, I could see he was wearing a leather skullcap and thought he was one of the Walrus pilots who'd either been shot down by attacking planes or simply run out of fuel. It was impossible to recognise people by their features because the oil stuck to you like glue; subsequently everyone ended up looking the same. As the lads got him up on deck a shout went out that he was Japanese.

Without hesitation he was thrown straight back into the oily depths below. I realise that as you read of this incident it may appear that we acted in a callous manner. But it has to be understood that every lad onboard 'Electra' had been witness to death and suffering on an unprecedented scale. Unfortunately for the pilot concerned he received the full wrath of our anger. I have to add that if he'd been allowed to stay onboard I'm quite sure he'd have been killed.

Once all survivors had been picked up we set off for Singapore. It was a terrible journey and as for my own feelings I became very upset as the final realisation that Repulse had gone really struck home. I had no way of knowing, which of my many mates who, at the time, I couldn't locate, had actually survived the battle. Therefore as we sailed from the final resting-place of the battlecruiser this made me feel that I was in some way deserting them. I wanted to go back over the spot to see if any other lads were awaiting rescue. It all felt like a terrible dream; unfortunately it wasn't and our problems were only just beginning. We were the first of a series of defeats that the allies were about to suffer, culminating in the humiliating loss of Singapore. The pupils were now the teachers and our previously low opinion of the Japanese fighting man was about to be shattered. Little did I realise that I was about to see at first hand the complete and utter collapse of our military power in the Far East.

It was about midnight when we arrived at Keppel harbour, voluntary workers had responded to an appeal for helpers to feed and clothe survivors. It must have been harrowing work for them to carry out as everyone was covered in thick black oil and many were close to their wits end. Before we were allowed to stand down the formalities of finding out who'd survived the battle had to be endured. We were reassured that once this information was fully documented our families would be sent a telegram, informing them of our well being. My mother received her notification on the 16th of December. It must have been the longest six days of her life. However my main priority was to let Teresa know I was O.K the authorities were allowing individuals to send personal telegrams. The only trouble was, I couldn't find any paper to write a message on. A Repulse shipmate of mine, "Stan Hayward" soon found a solution to this problem. He went into the toilets and grabbed a couple of pieces of toilet paper, within ten minutes our messages were in print and on their way. Mind you it took until 6th January 1942 for Teresa to receive this additional message.

After reporting to an officer we were given some cigarettes, then allocated a bunk, I couldn't wait to get in the shower, although trying to clean up was just impossible. No matter how hard you attempted to wash the oil off your body it was no use. After about fifteen minutes of this futile exercise I gave up and turned in for the night; still absolutely covered in oil. Awakening the following morning brought the full horrors of this present situation home to me. The majority of my closest mates had perished and the Japs were now tearing down the Malayan peninsula. During the course of the following days, I became fully aware of the finality of this predicament. Many great shipmates whom I'd been with for almost two and a half years were now being detailed off and sent on their separate ways. It really was the end of our great crew. In just two short days my world had fallen apart.

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The opening attack on Force 'Z'. Above, one of our escorting destroyers makes an evasive manoeuvre. While Prince of Wales (foreground) and Repulse rapidly alter course.

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Below, the first bomb to strike its target. Repulse right of picture is enveloped by water splashes. The dark smoke (centre of ship) is from the detonation of a 250kg bomb.

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Above, although still making good speed; Repulse is a mass of smoke, from the earlier high level bombing. Below, the end is near as both Repulse (foreground) and Prince of Wales are clearly crippled from the persistent aerial attacks by Japanese warplanes.

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