The last gallant battle of HMS Li Wo

This is is a reconstruction of the end of HMS Li Wo, making an attack on a Japanese transport ship.

There were many courageous actions among those trying to get away from Singapore during these last few days. Terrible battles were fought against overwhelming odds in an attempt to get evacuees, including many women and children, away to safety. Other ships attempted to take the fight to the enemy. Most of these actions remain unknown or unrecorded, the witnesses died in the fighting, or the survivors were massacred by the Japanese or they died subsequently in the prisoner of war camps. It therefore important to remember just one action which may be taken as representative of many.

Just one ship and one man is remembered with the highest military honour from this episode:

On 14th February 1942, H.M.S. Li Wo, a patrol vessel of 1,000 tons, formerly a passenger steamer on the Upper Yangtse River, was on passage from Singapore to Batavia. Her ship’s company consisted of eighty-four officers and men, including one civilian; they were mainly survivors from His Majesty’s Ships which had been sunk, and a few from units of the Army and Royal Air Force. Her armament was one 4-inch gun, for which she had only thirteen practise shells, and two machine guns.

Since leaving Singapore the previous day, the ship had beaten off four air attacks, in one of which fifty-two machines took part, and had suffered considerable damage. Late in the afternoon, she sighted two enemy convoys, the larger of which was escorted by Japanese naval units, including a heavy cruiser and some destroyers. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant T. Wilkinson, R.N.R., gathered his scratch ship’s company together and told them that, rather than try to escape, he had decided to fight to the last, in the hope that he might inflict damage upon the enemy. In making this decision, which drew resolute support from the whole ship’s company, Lieutenant Wilkinson knew that his ship faced certain destruction, and that his own chances of survival were small.

H.M.S. Li Wo hoisted her battle ensign and made straight for the enemy. In the action which followed, the machine guns were used with effect upon the crews of all ships in range, and a volunteer gun’s crew manned the 4-inch gun, which they fought with such purpose that a Japanese transport was badly hit and set on fire.

After a little over an hour, H.M.S. Li Wo had been critically damaged and was sinking. Lieutenant Wilkinson then decided to ram his principal target, the large transport, which had been abandoned by her crew. It is known that this ship burnt fiercely throughout the night following the action, and was probably sunk.

H.M.S. Li Wo’s gallant fight ended when, her shells spent, and under heavy fire from the enemy cruiser, Lieutenant Wilkinson finally ordered abandon ship. He himself remained on board, and went down with her. There were only about ten survivors, who were later made prisoners of war.

Lieutenant Wilkinson’s valour was equalled only by the skill with which he fought his ship. The Victoria Cross is bestowed upon him posthumously in recognition both of his own heroism and self-sacrifice, and of all who fought and died with him.

COFEPOW has a little more detail:

The engagement lasted for nearly an hour, until finally, and seemingly reluctantly, the gallant little ‘Li Wo’ sank beneath the combined fire power of the cruiser and the destroyer – but her battle ensign still flying from the masthead and her captain, Temporary Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson. RNR, was still standing on her bridge and the transport she had attacked was abandoned on fire and sinking fast.

Jap machine gunners opened fire on the swimmers, on rafts and on lifeboats. They threw grenades at them and even lumps of coal and finally the destroyer cleaved its way through the wreckage at speed in an attempt to mow them down as they struggled in the water. Only eight survived to clamber on to a swamped life boat, and out of these two succumbed to their wounds.

Later, three of the others got over to another piece of wreckage that appeared to be more durable, leaving Charlie Rogers with one Leading Seaman and one Malay to drift on. The next day they had the good fortune to drift along side a naval whaler, which, though badly damaged, and swamped, had oars in it along with a sail. They got the sail up and started to move.

During the night they heard faint cries and found two rafts with seven more survivors from their ship. All they could do for these lads was to tow the rafts, for the whaler was near sinking as it was, but by the next day they reached Banka Island.

Here they all crawled on to the beach to lie exhausted, and it was in this state that the Jap invasion force found them and made them prisoners. That was the start of another saga.

See COFEPOW. Frank Plankton has an account of his experiences of coming under air attack whilst on HMS Kedah, which departed Singapore at around the same time.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda Gray February 20, 2014 at 4:33 pm

My dad, Tom Forster was the senior E.R.A. on board H.M.S. Li Wo and was one of the survivors who clung to a raft with a handful of men, and according to my dad who wrote about his story in a book I still have today, one of the ships of the convoy (once they had picked up their own survivors) tried to ram them in the water but when that failed they fired on them, he survived and made it to Bangka Island, (he wrote 13 of them clambered up the beach having had no water for 39 hours and managed to find a coconut plantation where he drank the milk of 30 coconuts but sadly only to be caught by the Japs and became a P.O.W. Dad survived and lived to 70. His wife (my mum) is still living and just celebrated her 90th on 3rd February 2014.

Jason October 16, 2013 at 7:56 am

The HMS Li Wo turned out to become a very heroic piece of Naval history. To Cyril, I too wished to have known the truth but thanks to technology, I;m slowly checking for myself. Your mother would be proud of him. My Grandfather was Lt.Edgar Derbidge, one of the few survivors that clung on after the ship went down. He made it to Bangka Island only to be taken by the Japanese to the POW camp. 2-3 wks later, he was shot in the stomach and died. Among other medals, he was posthumously awarded a MiD. My Grandmother never remarried and died peacefully at 94yrs.

Cyril John Cartwright August 23, 2013 at 11:54 am

My father was one of the hero’s on that ferry, My mother died 30yrears ago believing LS Cyril John Cartwright her husband died on the ‘Repulse”. I would dearly love her to have known the truth.

Editor October 31, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Thanks Peter, I hadn’t realised that.

A very interesting Victoria Cross therefore. Although they were not awarded as ‘unit citations’ there was an element of recognition for ship’s companies when the captain was awarded an honour.

Peter Tyson October 31, 2012 at 11:39 am

Could I just point out that nearly all of them were civilians, not just one? All of the ship’s officers and most of the crew were Merchant Navy people, with “acting” or “temporary” Royal Navy Reserve ranks. There were a few survivors from HMS Prince of Wales, but less than a dozen, and a few RAF and Army people. Essentially the vessel was civilian manned.

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