Far East disaster for the Royal Navy

Photograph taken from a Japanese aircraft during the initial high-level bombing attack. Repulse, near the bottom of the view, has just been hit by one bomb and near-missed by several more. Prince of Wales is near the top of the image, generating a considerable amount of smoke. Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.

Force Z comprised the battleships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. The only two capital ships in the region had left the port of Singapore to steam up the coast of the Malaysian peninsula to confront Japanese forces invading from Thailand. The Naval force lacked an Aircraft carrier, HMS Indomitable had been due to join them but had been damaged. Despite the fact that the Royal Navy’s own Fleet Air Arm had been pioneers in the use of air borne weapons against war ships the threat from the Japanese was underestimated.

Force Z went to sea without air cover and when the two ships were discovered by Japanese bombers and torpedo planes they came under a relentless attack. Cecil Brown was a journalist on board HMS Repulse:

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.

See Cecil Brown: Suez to Singapore

The crew of the sinking Prince of Wales abandoning ship to the destroyer Express. Moments later the list on Prince of Wales suddenly increased and Express had to withdraw. Observe the barrels of the 5.25 in guns, which were unable to depress low enough to engage attackers due to the list.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Motyka March 30, 2014 at 7:29 pm

Hindsight being 20/20 as it always is, the Admiralty should not have sent Repulse and P.O.W. to Singapore in the first place, and had Indomitable been with Force Z, she would have suffered the same fate as well. Had they survived, I doubt that they would have been able to do much to further stem the “Oriental Blitzkrieg” and would have been withdrawn to live and fight another day under much more favorable circumstances.

Margo October 14, 2013 at 7:22 pm

Thank you for this writing, my father was on the Repulse. As a child he mentioned different dates but never any details about the wars he served. That I guess was his natural way of dealing with the memories. My dad is still alive living in the bay area, his name is Trevor Lovekin. I feel proud of what he went through, and reading this makes me understand a little bit more about his nature.

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