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Into The Cauldron

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I had a peaceful night's stay in Colombo before setting off on the relatively short train journey to Deaetalawa. Keeping me company were many matelots; most had been survivors from the battles that had taken place against the Japs during the past few months. On arrival we were addressed by the officer in command He told us, in a relatively informal manner, that all they expected, as far as duties were concerned would be to keep the camp clean. Offering some advice in this department by stating, "Do the necessary spit and polish in the cool of the morning". This would leave us free to lounge in the shade during the blistering heat of the afternoon. After all I'd been through in the previous few months these orders were a welcome respite.

I'd been in the camp for a few hours, having just about settled in, when I heard of someone who'd obviously have quite a lot in common with me. The other lad's in my billet spoke of a fellow Force "Z" survivor who went by the name of "Shiner Wright". He was an A/B who'd served onboard the Prince of Wales and we spent the remainder of our first day talking about each other's experiences since the loss of our ships and during the subsequent fall of Singapore. We'd both been sent to the camp for 14 days rest and from that day on we never left each other's side. He hailed from Gloucester and I have to say that he eventually turned out to be one of the special "oppos" I had during the war, and was a great lad.

I remember one incident that happened whilst in the company of Shiner and to this day the words of the man I met on that occasion have always intrigued me. We were in company with quite a large group of matelots and it was apparent that a fresh face was in camp, as a lot of lad's were going across to one of the huts to meet him. As we entered the building I could see an old Indian bloke, he had a long white beard and was dressed in a white robe. It turned out that he was a fortune-teller.

 

By this time a large queue had formed to have their fortunes told, I was having none of his ramblings and went to walk out of the hut. At that moment Shiner said "Come on Yorky get in line let's have a laugh". Eventually I relented and about fifteen minutes later was sitting in front of him. He looked at my hand then scanned across my face and said; "You've just been through a lot of trouble". This statement did absolutely nothing to allay my scepticism of his psychic powers. Most of the lad's were in the camp because they'd been through a rough time, so it was safe to assume that we'd all been through extremely harrowing circumstances in our recent pasts.

However he continued and his words made my hair stand on end; looking directly at me he said. "Now listen to what I'm going to tell you; have no worries, whatever situations you may encounter, you will return to your homeland and on the 11th of July 1942 you will marry your sweetheart Teresa". I was absolutely dumbfounded, I'm just glad that Shiner was with me at the time, otherwise people could have sound reason for not believing this statement. I had nothing in my possession that would have given him any inclination of her name and I still can't believe how he managed to make this prophecy. The only other man in the camp who knew of Teresa was Shiner and up to that point he hadn't been in front of him. As my story progresses you will see if his predictions were proven correct. I have to say that it was the most peculiar incident I've ever witnessed, at the end of his deliberation he offered me a lucky coin, which I readily accepted. To this very day I still keep it in a drawer at home.

I spent the next couple of days writing to Teresa and on more than one occasion, I recalled this strange incident I also foolishly reassured her that, all being well, I'd soon be on my way back home. I only stated this point because many other lad's had returned to Britain once their spell in Deaetalawa had come to an end. Although I'd only been in the camp a short while my strength was rapidly returning and I felt much better in myself as I'd put a bit of weight back on. The horrors of my time in Singapore were already a distant memory and I awaited my next orders with baited breath; mind you, I still remember the following incident as though it were yesterday. It was about my fourth or fifth day in camp, when late in the evening; Shiner and I were approached by a P/O.

 

He said "Able Seaman Wynn, Able Seaman Wright get your bags and hammocks packed and fall in at 0800 hours tomorrow morning". All that could be heard throughout our mess were deep moans from the other lad's of, "You jammy pair of sods you're going home, what about us" along with similar comments. I couldn't hide my excitement and quickly stowed my kit and in a matter of minutes I was ready to go. The following morning we said our goodbyes and within the hour were on the train back down to Colombo. At this point we hadn't been told of our future destination, although we naturally assumed that in a matter of weeks we'd be back in Britain.

On arrival at the docks our orders became clearer, a P/O confronted us, on establishing that we were the men he was looking for he blurted "Come with me". We retorted "Where are we going". His final words were "You'll soon find out now shut up". He put us on a wagon and a few minutes later we were on the quay. There to greet us was the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, it was to be our new home. At first I wasn't too worried by this as I still felt we could be on our way back to Britain. However once we found our billets and spoke to a few of the lad's onboard things looked very different. This warship wasn't going home; in fact she was to be one of the mainstays of Allied defences in this part of the world and sadly once more I was back into the fray.

We'd been onboard a few hours when I received some upsetting news, this being that since the day my Mother had been informed by telegram that I was a Repulse survivor, she'd written to the Admiralty on several occasions trying to locate my present whereabouts. With all the commotion and lack of information surrounding the fall of Singapore, they'd replied to her requests stating that I was missing in action. This, in effect meant that all my mail both to my family and more importantly Teresa hadn't been reaching home. I was reassured that from this moment on, my relatives would be informed of my well being. However I later found out that they never received any such notification.

 

Shiner and I were billeted on the forecastle mess-deck (for'd end of the ship), a short while later I was mortified when informed of our action station. This was in a similar location to my previous duties onboard Repulse and was in "B" turret, 8-inch main armament shell handling room. Once more I was placed in a very precarious location if under attack, you can well imagine that I'd long since lost the feeling of invulnerability nurtured whilst serving onboard Repulse. Although I have to add that Dorsetshire was in some ways better armed to repel an air attack than the battlecruiser, because her main armament was of more use during times such as this. It was of a design that allowed her to fire a maximum of 12 rounds per barrel, a minute. Another advantage was that the guns could elevate to a maximum height of 70 degrees. This meant that unlike Repulse's huge 15-inch main armament, the cruiser's guns could possibly be used against incoming aircraft.

Living conditions onboard this 10,000-ton "County" class cruiser were very agreeable. The reason for this was that they had quite a high freeboard, which had the effect of giving the crew a bit more headroom than was usually the case with many other designs of warship.

The following day we left and our first duties were very familiar to me; it was the old routine of convoy duties. We escorted the troopships for a couple of days, finally being relieved by our fellow cruiser, HMS Glasgow. After this we carried on to Trincomalee, if I remember correctly we only stayed there for a day or so. Matters were now very tense as the Japs controlled most of the waters in this part of the world and allied shipping had to be on their guard at all times. We left "Trinco" on the 26th of February, once at sea the skipper posted notice that we were destined for further convoy work.

 

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HMS Dorsetshire, pictured in happier times

 

A few days into these duties I received some terrible news, on February 27, 1942, the destroyer that saved my life when Repulse sank, namely HMS Electra; had been involved in an action whilst steaming with a force of allied warships. They'd encountered a far stronger fleet of Japanese cruisers and destroyers. The action had taken place over the course of two days; and became known as "The Battle of the Java Sea". Understandably the result was an overwhelming defeat for the allies. The proud "Electra" had eventually succumbed to superior odds; however the most distressing information was that her crew had suffered severe losses in the battle. I never received any more upsetting news throughout my remaining time in the Far East. I feel it realistic to state that every single man from Repulse had nothing but total admiration for all the lad's from this fine warship. On that bleak day in December 1941 they'd given their all in defence of our stricken crew. I only wished that I'd been granted the opportunity to help them in their moment of need; it was a terrible end to a great ship.

As for ourselves we stayed with the convoy for a couple of days until our skipper "Captain Agar VC" informed all hands that we were steaming to assist in the deployment of a detachment of Royal Marines. Their duties once on station, were to man some motor launches which were to be used in the evacuation of allied personnel from Akyab on the coast of Burma. Thankfully our part of the operation went off without any hitches and inside of a day we left the area returning to Trincomalee on the 5th of March. We now had quite an easy spell as Dorsetshire stayed at "Trinco" for a couple of weeks. This enabled Shiner and myself to get to know the crew a bit better. Three lad's in particular became very close friends of ours, namely "Geordie Hughes, Jack Plummer" and one other lad whom regrettably, I can only remember by his surname, which was "Parry".

 

Eventually our siesta came to an end, for on the 24th of March we set off for Colombo to allow our ship to enter dry dock where she'd undergo repairs of some nature. However this intended work was suspended on the 31st March, when we were ordered to make ready for pending operations. After a couple of day's frantic work we were ready to sail, it was now April 4th. Waiting in port for us to join her was our sister ship HMS Cornwall; in a matter of hours both ships left on their final mission. We were sailing to rendezvous with Force, "A" which was under the leadership of Admiral Somerville. To be under the command of this fine officer was very reassuring as he'd already proved his leadership capabilities and was a well-respected officer.

The force at his disposal consisted of the battleship "Warspite" along with the modern aircraft carriers "Indomitable" and "Formidable"; accompanying them were the cruisers "Enterprise" and "Emerald". The objective of our soon to be formed battlegroup was to intercept a Japanese fleet which was thought to be steaming towards Ceylon. They were under the command of Admiral Nagumo; little did we realise that this immensely powerful foe would encounter our two warships before we could reach the relative safety of Force "A".

As the day drew to a close everything was totally peaceful; however, I have to admit that I felt slightly apprehensive over the possibility of a further sea battle. Being fully aware that during the past few months I'd lived a charmed existence, it was a constant worry that sooner or later my luck could well run out. Nevertheless shortly before turning in for the night I received some good news. At the first dog watch (between 1600-1800hours) of the following day (5th) I was changing my action station. No longer would I be locked in the bowels of Dorsetshire for at the appointed hour I was to report to one of the 4-inch Ack-Ack guns. This meant that I'd be in a far safer situation than presently occupied. During the course of that day we'd also be rendezvousing with Force "A". After several weeks of steaming alone, the old adage of "safety in numbers" immediately sprung to mind. So its fair to say that from this point on I certainly became far more relaxed in dealing with our present situation.

The morning progressed with no sign of our battle group; however everyone felt it would only be a matter of time until our paths crossed. Suddenly the silence was broken as the aircraft alarm sounded, I immediately reported to "B" turret. Although, I have to add, no one was unduly concerned with this alarm, as it was quite common when in hostile waters to be kept at action stations for quite lengthy periods of time, just to keep us on our toes. Whilst in the confines of the shell room, Shiner and I must have been showing some signs of worry as I distinctly remember the Leading rating in our station enquiring if we were OK. We replied "yes fine" but Shiner added "just let the bombs start dropping and me and Yorky are straight up that bloody ladder". This help relieve the tension, although I must add that we weren't joking.

 

We'd already been on ships that had succumbed to aircraft attack and knew full well if Dorsetshire were to be attacked by a similarly well-trained force she'd be in dire straights. We waited forlornly for cruising stations to be sounded, but it never came. The next thing I remember was when word came down that a Jap reconnaissance plane had been spotted. I now began to worry, thinking "oh God not again". The whole situation was following a very similar pattern to the demise of Repulse. Suddenly it began; the noise of our anti aircraft guns made its way down below, but in a matter of moments the entire ship was rocked by what we felt were the near misses of enemy bombs. One being so close it actually lifted her out of the water; the force of this detonation threw us around like rag dolls. My initial fears were well founded; we were now in severe trouble. The lights flickered and deep ominous vibrations racked the ship. In amongst all these explosions we felt Dorsetshire rapidly taking on a list. Unbelievably after only a few minutes of action the "Abandon ship" was sounded. Shiner and I immediately made for the ladder; mind you we weren't the first up top, the Leading rating who'd consoled us a short time beforehand beat us to it.

Thankfully it wasn't the hazardous escape route that I'd previously experienced on Repulse and within a minute everyone was out of the room and making their way towards the upper deck. Although I did have one scary moment, this occurred whilst making my way towards the final ladder. As you can imagine it was quite a mad scramble and try as I might I couldn't get a foot on the rungs. Because of my small stature I kept getting knocked to the ground and at one point, was actually getting trampled on. I had one overriding ambition and that was to get in the water, for some reason I felt that once I set foot in the ocean I'd be safe. So with this thought in mind I jumped onto the side rail of the ladder and physically pushed myself into the heaving mass of bodies. Once embedded in this tangle of arms and legs I was carried along by the sheer force of men pushing their way towards daylight.

On reaching the upper deck a great sense of relief came over me, I now felt comparatively safe. However escape from our stricken ship was fraught with danger, even though she was in the throes of sinking, Jap warplanes were still driving their attack home. As a constant stream of aircraft kept skimming the decks, dropping bombs and machine-gunning any poor souls unfortunate enough to be in their line of fire. I looked across to the Cornwall hoping that she could be beating off the attack, but sadly she was in a similar predicament and was a mass of smoke and flames. This obviously meant both ships were doomed. I realised the only escape route was to get in the water as soon as possible and make for a life raft. I have to add that many lad's had done just that and the entire area surrounding the ship was alive with bobbing heads.

Whilst looking for a suitable point of entry, quite a funny incident took place. I was with a stoker and as we scurried along the rapidly submerging deck I happened to glance towards the bridge, there in all his glory was the skipper. At first I couldn't understand what he was up to, although in a matter of moments this became clearer. When we were twenty feet or so away from the bridge he shouted down to us. I couldn't believe it. He wanted the remainder of the crew to stand their ground for a moment whilst he addressed us. This was crazy, we didn't have time for speeches since the bow was already lifting clear of the water as the stern began to sink; to wait any longer would mean certain death. Therefore, the stoker shouted " come on you silly bugger we've got no time for this, I'm off ". With that last indignant gesture we dived into the Indian Ocean. On hitting the water I struck out as hard as possible, my lucky escape from the suction of Repulse still fresh in my mind.

 

Soon afterwards I was clear and turned for my last glance of the cruiser as her bow slipped under the water, little did I know, this was the beginning of the most harrowing thirty hours of my young life. A few minutes after our ship sank the Japs dealt with the Cornwall in a similarly efficient manner. However after disposing of the warships they suddenly did the unthinkable. Their planes began to peel off from the area in which Cornwall had sunk heading straight for groups of lad's already congregated in the water. Suddenly they opened fire, slaughtering defenceless men who no longer poised any threat to them. Mercifully the attack didn't last long, but during that short act of brutality they caused unbelievable death and carnage. Some lad's were killed outright, many more died as a result of wounding. These poor souls would endure hours of suffering before finally passing away. It was the most barbaric act I've ever witnessed, and to this present day it fills me with anger to recall the incident.

After the planes dispersed we began to reform into small groups, a short while later I saw a couple of boats coming over to us. Once they where in our close proximity I could see that they were full of injured men, many were badly burnt, others had been caught by Jap machine gun fire. Unbelievably Captain Agar was onboard one of them, I've no idea how he managed to escape but nevertheless he seemed to be free of injury and was actually doing his best to round up all the injured that were still in the water. It was upsetting to see Commander Brias in the same boat; he was in a terrible state, having being severely wounded during the action.

The skipper managed to herd most of the lad's together, it was a terrible situation as there wasn't enough room on the available boats and rafts for everyone to get out of the water. As soon as he was satisfied that the majority of ratings were under his control he gave an order for everyone to take off whatever clothing they had and place it on top of their heads. This would guard against sunstroke, as owing to the time of day we'd been sunk, the heat was unbelievably oppressive. Thankfully the sea resembled a mill-pond and the only sound to break the silence were the cries of injured men. Although every now and again fresh voices could be heard shouting for their mates though sadly many would never be found.

Our greatest fear was that of sharks, the oceans in that part of the world being literally infested with them. Most of our early worries were allayed by the hopes that the explosions of the battle would have killed many and drove the rest away. However our fears started to reappear once we'd drifted a couple of miles from the scene, it was now quite peaceful and every now and again the odd fin could be seen in the distance. This caused immediate panic and the slightest object brushing past our submerged legs would send us into an uncontrollable frenzy.

 

One such occasion will never leave my memory; I was quietly treading water; when suddenly I felt movement against my side I immediately kicked out; within seconds a body floated to the surface. It was a good mate of mine "Peter Hamm", I looked at him and could see he'd had his leg blown off; I will never forget watching him slowly drift towards the horizon; it was so sad. During the course of the day I found out that Peter had been onboard one of the lifeboats but due to the severity of his injuries he'd passed away. I'd seen him after he'd been placed over the side to make way for another injured lad.

Since entering the water I'd been hanging onto the side of a small cork raft, as long as you were careful and locked your arm around the ropes that encircled it you could gain some semblance of rest. After an hour or so I was woken from my slumber, when I heard someone shout "Yorky". On looking in the general direction of the voices, there plain as day were my mates "Geordie" and "Jack" heading straight for me.

It certainly lifted my spirits to see them alive and well, once matters calmed down I enquired as to the whereabouts of Shiner and Parry. They reassured me as to their apparent well being; confirming that they'd been spotted paddling around a life raft earlier on in the day. This initial elation took a knock when we came across Parry. He was in a bad state; eventually we got him over to the raft where he settled down to a certain degree. However not long afterwards we were party to quite an ugly incident. This happened when another rating swam over to us. I must admit that I never actually knew the man, however his reputation preceded him. He was, basically, a bully and most of the lad's onboard Dorsetshire normally avoided him like the plague; however this day he met his match

He came across and looked on top of our float; lying there in a semi-conscious state were a couple of badly injured lad's. They had to stay on top because their wounds were so severe it would be impossible for them to survive in the water. He was having none of it and demanded that we move one of them out of the way. The hand holds on the side of the raft weren't good enough for him, he was going on top. I have to add that even though this bully wasn't in anyway injured, he expected us to put a wounded lad in the water to allow him to rest in relative luxury. In unison we told him to "sod off" and leave the lad's alone. He wouldn't take this re-buff and attempted his usual strong-arm tactics of earlier days; matters were now different. In the comparative safety of the ship we were all scared of him and would do almost anything to avoid his wrath. However this was a life and death situation, nothing he could threaten or administer would be as bad as our present dilemma. As soon as he tried to pull himself up, we grabbed him, despite his efforts we pushed him underwater for a good minute or so. On surfacing the look of fear on his face was unbelievable and without saying a word, he swam across to another raft, never bothering our group again.

The day passed onto evening with no signs of rescue; it was noticeable how things gradually quietened down with the disappearing sun. The atmosphere became very sombre; no more calling out for lost mates or singing, just the sound of the sea lapping against the life rafts. The silence was only broken by the occasional splash of a body being sent to the deep from one of the many overfull rafts. This was by far the hardest time of all because death was waiting for anyone who showed the slightest weakness. For myself it took every ounce of will power I possessed to keep going. It may sound a little far fetched to recall the earlier incident at the rest camp during this point in my story, but I have to say that the prophecy of the old Indian kept going through my head. I was absolutely determined to make it come true. The possibility of never seeing Teresa and my family again wasn't a matter for consideration and I forced myself to think positively. Surely it could only be a matter of time before search planes located our stricken crews. For even in the dark of night we could still be picked out as our life belts had small red lights on the side of them, I just prayed that they'd get here before it was too late.

It was now pitch black and the cold night air gradually replaced the blistering heat of the day, we overcame this chill by constantly submerging our entire bodies in the water. We did this because the ocean was still relatively warm and the only areas of you to feel the cold were ones, which protruded out of the sea. I had the added discomfort of a constantly deflating life-belt, although this could well have worked in my favour, because it give me a chore to carry out at regular intervals, therefore making me concentrate.

It was without question the longest night of my life and possibly the strongest recollection I have of it was watching Parry go through absolute hell. The poor bugger was severely dehydrated; this made him have fearsome hallucinations over a previous incident that happened onboard our old ship.

Several months before I joined Dorsetshire he'd witnessed a Royal Marine committing suicide in one of the main turrets. That night he relived the event on numerous occasions, whenever he began to shout and scream I had to slap his face in an attempt to waken him. Mind you all this act accomplished was to make him beg me to let him swim from the safety of the raft, as he wanted to die. I'll admit that on a couple of occasions I found it extremely difficult persuading him to see reason, fortunately I held out and he came through with no lasting injuries. I have to add that Parry must have never forgotten my help, for many years later I received some correspondence from a lady who turned out to be his sister. The contents of the letter went into great detail of that horrific night. She thanked me for staying with her brother, helping him pull through. It was a marvellous gesture on her behalf, I'm just sorry that I never got in touch, it was a silly mistake on my part.

 

During the night our spirits lifted momentarily when someone gave the shout of "theres a light", for a few short minutes we waited for confirmation that it was a rescue vessel. I still remember our disappointment on realising that it was a torch light from one of the boats that was manned by Cornwall survivors. The majority of her lad's were about two miles away. In the pitch darkness this distant glow had given the false impression of an approaching ship.

To break the monotony those that were able took it in turns to swim around inside the protective circle of our rafts, this helped to keep our limbs loose. Although many were so badly injured that the worry of losing some movement through inactivity was of no consequence, they were fighting for their very existence. As time wore on, rumours kept circulating that some of the lad's had given up hope of rescue and were taking the plugs out of their lifebelts. They drifted into the night, never to be seen again. I have to add that I wasn't witness to any of these acts but I've no doubt that if I hadn't been keeping an eye on Parry he could have quite possibly committed a similar action. On numerous occasions I had to physically force him to keep his lifebelt in place.

Gradually dawn broke and with it our hopes of rescue grew stronger. It was noticeable that we'd lost a lot of lad's during the night. Many whom I'd seen hanging onto rafts late the previous evening were no longer with us. By this time I was severely dehydrated and began to feel very light headed. An hour or so after daybreak everyone took turns reporting to the sides of the lifeboats to receive some rations. I still remember what we had, a spoonful of fresh water followed by one ship's biscuit; it was bloody beautiful. Up until that time I'd never realised just how weak your body becomes due to lack of water, for within seconds of this nectar touching my lips, I felt that I could have run a marathon. However this euphoria was short-lived; soon after my revitalisation I witnessed a terrifying sight.

On the day our ship was attacked you may remember that at the first "Dog Watch" I was changing my action station from the delivery room to one of our ack-ack guns. Obviously because of the battle this didn't happen, the man whom I was to relieve from the station was George Kerr. I looked into the boat after receiving my ration and saw two lad's huddled together with their arms round each other. Both of them appeared to be at theirs wits end, I quickly realised one of them was George. The burns on his back left little doubt in my mind that if help wasn't forthcoming in the very near future he wouldn't survive, as it was burnt to its very sinews and muscles. I stayed in close attendance until first of all the lad with George went limp; he wasn't shaking any longer. Instead he appeared peaceful and at rest; we all knew he'd died. Within a minute or so George seemed to become coherent and as he looked at his mate lying by his side he uttered a few words, then quietly passed away.

Despite our dire circumstances everyone within the vicinity of the boat filled up tears, it broke my heart, for he'd shown such dignity in death. The pain he endured must have been unbelievable, though never once did he shout in pain or cry for help. After they were laid to rest I spoke to a couple of lad's who'd been close to George's action station. They told me that during the battle his gun had received a direct hit and almost all of the guns crew had been killed. It was a sobering thought to think that if the action had started several hours later it could well have been me in the boat and not George.

 

 

 

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