December Catastrophe: HMS Repulse and Force Z
“A Proud Sign of Continuing British Sea Power”– Repulse and Her Men
When the war began, the Royal Navy had three battlecruisers in service: Hood, Repulse and Renown. Although Renown had been originally commissioned in 1916, she entered the yard for a major refit and modernization from 1933 – 1935. The ship was heavily armed with six 15-inch guns and she was capable of speeds in excess of 30 knots. Her armor, although improved, remained relatively light. She was deployed with the Home Fleet in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II.
Torpedoman Richard Smith fondly referred to Repulse as simply being “The Ship.” He elaborated by stating that aboard her, “you felt like you were above other ships in the fleet.” Smith added that he considered her to be fast, efficient, happy, and lucky. 1.
While there is no single definitive definition of what constitutes a happy ship, sailors the world over would tend to characterize such a ship as one where the men are smart in the naval sense, efficient, team-oriented, and extremely proud of their ship. Further signs of a happy ship include men and officers who are mutually respectful and supportive while serving with a captain who is held in high esteem by all aboard.
Seaman Robert Fraser considered Repulse a “home” where all mixed in together well with the old hands being very welcoming to the new. He called her a “beautiful ship” and defied anyone to say otherwise. 2.
Ian Hay started his life in the Royal Navy as a boy seaman at HMS Ganges in 1937. He served aboard the battleship HMS Revenge prior to transferring to Repulse. Hay offered his impressions of his first days aboard the battlecruiser,
On the 3rd January, 1939 an era began in my life, which I still hold close to my heart, the memories will never fade of the wonderful times I had onboard this ship … The setting where Repulse was berthed couldn’t have been more fitting, moored alongside Nelson’s Victory, a proud sign of continuing British sea power. The only trouble was, the whole ship looked like it had just been salvaged from the depths of the ocean. I had a job to walk on the decks, in fact in certain places on the ship the deck wasn’t visible because of coils of electrical cable, riveting and welding equipment.
… I was sent to my mess (and shortly discovered) that Repulse had been chosen to take the King and Queen to Canada on a Royal Cruise … even the skipper had lost his cabin to the Royals. In fact, the whole ship from stem to stern was in some sort of alterations of one kind or another. This effectively meant that for the rest of my first day, I went on cleaning duties. It was hard work, as our task was to polish the teak deck to clear it of the tar that had been used to seal it when it had been laid.
My first evening onboard was spent listening to … the other lads (talk) about life on Repulse. They all agreed that it was a fine place to be, adding that the elder men onboard felt her to be the most efficient ship in the Royal Navy and were rightly, very proud of her. After a few days of cleaning work I had a welcome respite, being picked along with a few others, to go to the dockyard stores and pick up fresh materials for the refit.
… The situation with Germany was becoming much worse and all efforts to defuse the situation were falling on deaf German ears. Because of this, whenever I was off duty I heard one recurring statement from the elder men onboard. Their main concern was that as we practiced for hours on end each day to greet the Royals onto our ship in the manner which they felt befitted them, the German sailors we would soon meet in combat were more than likely on gunnery practice in the Baltic. I listened intently to their comments and even as a young lad I could see they were right. Our country already had a Royal Yacht, why wasn’t it being used? We were a warship but at that moment in time we looked more like a cruise liner. 3.
Another crewman was Royal Marine Frank Claxton who reported aboard Repulse in November 1939. Claxton had left school at age 14, and, because times were hard for his family, he took the first job that came his way: bicycle delivery boy for a shoe shop. He slowly worked his way up from third assistant in the shop to second and then first. He quit that job because he did not like being confined indoors. He especially hated the “groveling and sniveling” associated with trying to sell shoes. He then got a job with a company that manufactured canvas products that included tents and sails which he learned to set up for the firm’s clients. By now, he was 20. Rather than wait to be drafted he let his experience with canvas and rope and the sense that “Hitler needed to be stopped” lead him to consider the Royal Navy. To his surprise, the recruiter told him that there were no slots available, but that if he joined the Royal Marines, he would certainly be able to go to sea. Despite the 12 year term of enlistment required, he still preferred the Marines to the Army and, after a brief deliberation, went ahead and enlisted.
Claxton went by rail from Plymouth where he had recently finished his training to join Repulse at Scapa Flow. During a long layover in London, he and several others who were also headed to Scapa decided to walk around to see a bit of the city. They were in a park near Parliament when the air raid sirens began to sound. A man walking nearby advised them to follow him to the nearest shelter. Being young and cocky, they laughingly and disrespectfully told him “to bugger off.” The man went his way and, a few steps later, Claxton suddenly realized that he recognized him. The man was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. 4.
Upon arrival aboard Repulse, Claxton was assigned to “B” turret of the ship’s 15-inch gun main battery. The entire gun, from turret to magazine, was manned by Marines and Claxton’s station was the shell room deep below decks. It was cramped with shells that each weighed a ton. The shells were packed in amid the machinery used to lift and hoist them up to the guns. The deck was always wet with condensation and oily from the hydraulic and lubricating fluids required by the machinery. The entire compartment would creak when the ship was out to sea which initially made it “absolutely frightening” for Claxton. As the ship was operating under wartime conditions the men spent every other day on watch: four hours on station with four hours off. Unless there was an actual encounter with the enemy, Claxton and the men with him in the shell room would spend their watch standing at their station just waiting for instructions. They passed the time playing cards or chatting among themselves about any number of topics. They often shared fond memories of civilian life, speculated about what each would do if the ship were to be sunk, and discussed plans on how to quickly get out of the shell room in emergencies. Once closed up in the shell room, they were not allowed to leave. If they needed to make a head call, or use the bathroom, they would do so into a bucket which they would carry out when their watch was over. 5.
“I Feel We Could Have Accomplished More”– Routine, Monotony, and Disappointments
During the early months of the war, Repulse remained with the Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow which the crew, along with sailors from other ships, unanimously found to be inhospitable. According to Claxton, it was an unpleasant place with “nothing there … no people … just a load of islands and the fleet.” Another Repulse crewman, Ted Matthews, who had come to Repulse by way of Ganges and the training cruiser HMS Cornwall, called it a “godforsaken hole.” 6. A sailor from another ship wondered how anyone could possibly live there and recommended that it be left to the natives with whom he was equally unimpressed. Every fourth day at Scapa, the men would be given two hours ashore. Most would head directly to the Navy-run pub for their allotted two pints of beer.
While based at Scapa, Repulse’s primary mission was to remain ready for action against any Kriegsmarine capital units that might sortie towards open water. Repulse was also to remain prepared to interdict German merchant shipping. Whenever the ship sailed she did so as a convoy escort. Repulse helped to shepherd troop convoys to or from Canada or to Freetown in Africa and back. The majority of the men aboard Repulse felt that a combat ready asset such as their ship was being wasted on such duty. Morale remained high, but the common thread of sentiment about convoy duty aboard the battlecruiser was that it wore hard on the men and left nothing to show for their efforts. They had worked and trained hard to represent King and Country on the high seas. They chafed at being stuck in tasks that they felt were unbefitting of a battlecruiser.
With rationing in full effect at home, the food available to the fleet was usually canned, plain, and unappealing. The memory of herrings in tomato sauce and baked beans for breakfast has endured with Royal Marine Claxton for over 60 years. According to Claxton, convoy duty, for all its monotony, did have some advantages. During 1939 and 1940, Claxton’s primary impression of Canada, a regular stop on Repulse’s convoy routes, was that it scarcely seemed aware that there was a war going on. Whenever they anchored in a Canadian port, the men found food and other consumer goods, long since scarce or forgotten about in England, to be plentiful and inexpensive. The same applied to tropical Freetown where fresh and very exotic fruits and vegetables were abundant and inconsequential in cost. Many of the crew relished such overseas port calls that allowed them to eat better than if they had remained in home waters.
Convoys to Freetown also afforded the men some relief from the dreary and cold climate of Scapa. While they would start off with foul weather gear and heavy duffel coats, a few days steaming southward would provide such warmth and sunshine that tropical clothing, including short pants, would make up the uniform of the day. The return trip, however, would necessitate the breaking out of heavy gear once again.
Repulse stayed at Scapa with the Home Fleet through all of 1940 except for a brief sortie to Norway after the German invasion of that country in April. There were two primary naval actions at Narvik, but Repulse did not participate in either. The first engagement involved a Royal Navy force of five destroyers that entered the fjord sheltering Narvik to challenge the German force of 10 destroyers anchored there. The enemy destroyers, accompanied by several auxiliary vessels, were supporting the Wehrmacht troops that captured the port. The second battle took place on 13 April, three days after the first, when the British again entered the fjord in hopes of finishing off the German ships that had survived the first battle. Repulse was to have led a destroyer force into Ofotfjord, but the battleship Warspite had arrived on scene and, being the senior ship, took the battlecruiser’s place. In addition to her seniority, the Warspite’s heavy guns could elevate at higher angles than those of Repulse. Warspite, therefore, offered the tactical advantage of being able to fire on targets that might seek shelter behind any of the fjord’s many heights. Repulse was relegated to steaming off shore, out of the way, and did not contribute to the action.
Their exclusion from the Second Battle of Narvik was especially bothersome to the crew and Ian Hay expressed feelings that were widely shared throughout Repulse,
I never experienced many greater disappointments than the … orders we received. We were told to stand off at the mouth of the fjord and await the arrival of HMS Warspite, an older battleship. Apparently, she was carrying an Admiral and he wanted to supervise the action. It was upsetting to be so close to inflicting damage on the Germans and then having to back down. We later heard that our Captain protested but all was in vain. The action was a success on our part and the destroyers did a thorough job on the Axis warships … although I feel we could have accomplished as much and maybe more than the Warspite. After all our months of convoy duties we should have had a chance to show our mettle. 7.
In late May 1941 intelligence picked up a major movement by the Germans. The battleship Bismarck was headed for open water. Her presence in the Atlantic shipping lanes could not be risked. Accordingly, Repulse was ordered to form up with other major Home Fleet units that included the battleship King George V and aircraft carrier Victorious for search, pursuit, and possible action against the German ship.
On 24 May, battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Hood caught up with Bismarck in the Denmark Strait and the ships engaged in a brief but significant exchange of large caliber gunfire. Hood was sunk with all hands except three by a catastrophic explosion. Prince of Wales, newly commissioned, but having technical difficulties with her main battery, took several damaging hits and withdrew from the action.
Reg Woods of Repulse had joined the Navy after working at Cammel Laird shipyard. His job at the yard had been to drill holes into plates that were to be riveted into the double bottom of Prince of Wales as she was being built. He recalled thinking that a ship of such size, strength, and sophisticated construction would surely be unsinkable. He was stationed on the after pom-pom, an eight-barreled automatic antiaircraft gun, as Repulse pursued Bismarck at 28 knots through heavy seas. He was excited by the announcement made over the ship’s tannoy that Hood and Prince of Wales would soon engage Bismarck. He remembered the complete silence that fell over Repulse when news of Hood’s loss was received. The two battlecruisers had served as part of the same squadron and many aboard Repulse had good friends aboard the sunken Hood. Woods’ mood shifted to one of apprehension about the possibility of action between his ship and the powerful German battleship. 8.
Stung by the sinking of Hood and fearful of incurring further losses among its battlecruisers, Home Fleet ordered Repulse to proceed cautiously. The thinly armored ship was to approach no closer than 5,000 yards to Bismarck at any time. She was not to engage unless the German battleship was already under fire from King George V. Repulse ultimately left the actual combat to aircraft from carriers Ark Royal and Victorious, battleships King George V and Rodney, and several cruisers. For all her time at sea, Repulse was low on fuel so she turned back for port on the day after Hood had been sunk. According to crewman Matthews, the order for Repulse to avoid direct engagement with Bismarck was not popular with the crew,
Everyone was totally devastated; we’d chased for days, and just as action with her appeared inevitable, we had to stand off. 9.
“Bleating Like a Flock of Lost Sheep”– There Was Time for Fun
While the monotony of the comings and goings from Scapa Flow in the maddeningly fruitless pursuit of action against the German navy wore on the men, there were still sufficient opportunities for them to keep their spirits up. Seaman Ted Matthews wrote of an incident that took place while Repulse was operating out of Scapa Flow,
We’d been at Rosyth for a few days and were about to put to sea. Before we could leave we had to allow the battleship Rodney to enter harbor. As she had an Admiral on board this would mean that all our crew on deck would have to salute her (this is a naval custom called “rendering honors”) … At this point it (had been) stated that (a member of) Rodney’s crew had been discovered on Flotta Island, Scapa … in a compromising position with one of a farmer’s sheep. I couldn’t say who first spread this rumor, but it was never to give her ship’s company a minute’s peace and this time was to be no different. As soon as we were ordered to salute, it started. Can you imagine some 1,300 matelots saluting the Admiral, whilst at the time bleating like a flock of lost sheep? The aftermath of this action was a reprimand for the whole ship’s company. The skipper wasn’t at all impressed and gave us some stick about it for some time afterwards. I still think nowadays that he must have found it funny once the dust had settled. The stigma never left the Rodney, but make no mistake there was no ship in the Navy that we had more respect for as a fighting unit. Their gunnery and efficiency were second to none, but I don’t think they ate much lamb onboard. 10.
“The Most Sincere Gesture From a Captain”– Morale Lifted
The high speed pursuit of Bismarck which had consumed so much of Repulse’s fuel also caused her breakwater to be pushed back flat by the heavy seas. She was ordered to Newfoundland for refueling and repairs. Royal Marine Claxton unabashedly stated that it was just as well that Repulse did not linger to meet the German battleship. Repulse’s low fuel state had caused her to drastically reduce speed in order not to run dry in mid-ocean. Claxton was certain that Bismarck would have “blown her out of the water” 11. The marine’s shipmate, Ted Matthews, recounted that,
… (W)e’d used up almost all our fuel reserves, this meant that we reduced speed to no more than 8 to 10 knots which left us wide open to attack from the abundance of U-boats known to haunt this area. From my point of view, I found this more nerve wracking than when chasing the
Bismarck. We had now lost our greatest defence over torpedo attack … speed … any increase at all would mean running dry in mid Atlantic. After an extremely tense period it was with great relief that we managed to reach land with no mishaps and everyone was able to relax properly for the first time in almost a week. 12.
Repulse slowly steered for Conception Bay, Canada even as the now distant battle against Bismarck raged. If the crew’s morale suffered from the ship’s removal from yet another coveted combat situation, an action by the captain, once they reached shore, certainly helped temper such feelings. Matthews remembered,
At this point I was privileged to witness the most sincere gesture from a Captain (Captain “Bill” Tennant, later Admiral Sir William George Tennant; MVO, CB, CBE, KCB. He was also recognized with awards from France, Greece and the United States) to his subordinates I’ve ever heard of to this day. The harbour town of Conception Bay was living on the poverty line. It shouldn’t have been the case as they had an abundance of that vital element in any mechanized war; iron ore … the British government, in their wisdom, decided not to buy this material from these people, some of whom were actually fighting in the war on our side …
Our skipper must have been fully aware of the plight of these people (and made) … to ease their situation which had the added effect of showing to his crew that he truly cared for their welfare. The area … was a great fishing community but nobody could afford to buy their salmon. He quickly remedied this point by purchasing, out of his own pocket, fresh salmon for the whole ship’s complement … most of us came from poor backgrounds and at that time salmon was a delicacy; the cost must have been immense … he did it because he was someone special. I’ve only served under two officers, during my time in service, whom I have had total respect for. He is one … With this act of humanitarianism he’d both helped the people of the town, and also sent our morale through the roof. 13.
Repulse was next assigned to convoy duty along the coast of Africa from Freetown to South Africa into the latter part of 1941. Despite all of their wartime responsibilities, the crew still managed to make time for some carefree playfulness. John Garner, a Royal Marine serving aboard the ship recalled that,
It was a very happy time on board as I think the climate (off the African coast; especially in comparison to that of Scapa Flow and the North Atlantic), to some extent, helped in making the crew put the war out of our thoughts. When we finally got to Saint Helena (in the South Atlantic off the west central coast of Africa), some of the lads played a great joke on a lot of the crew. At that time fishing had become a great past-time and those who weren’t fishing had all gone into the swimming pool that had been set up on the foc’sl (forward portion of the ship) … after a while one of the men who had been fishing caught the most horrible looking fish I’d ever seen. It was a bloody massive red and white thing that was so ugly I was frightened being on the same ship with it. The next plan of action (was) to get the lads out of the swimming pool was to spread the word that this bloody thing was poisonous and the most obvious place for it was the swimming pool. This had the desired effect, I’ve never seen such panic; there were matelots (shipmates) everywhere screaming and bawling. 14.
“We Are Going Off to Look For Trouble”– Force Z and the Far East
By September 1941, the British were gravely worried about their position in the Far East. The strong Anglo-Japanese alliance with which England had opened the 20th century had gradually weakened until the British were forced to prioritize their overseas relationships. In the end, the power whose interests would be least likely to clash with those of Britain dictated a choice. London spurned Japan for the United States. British Far East interests could be found in India, Burma, Malaya (Malaysia), Hong Kong, and Singapore, but by 1940 Japan was bent on expansion. The Japanese, firmly entrenched in Manchuria, pushed further into China. When the Vichy French government conceded rights to Japan in French Indochina (Vietnam), the Japanese were quick to station army troops there. Furthermore, French Indochinese air fields were opened to Japanese military aircraft, and Cam Ranh Bay offered forward basing to the Imperial Japanese Navy. Japanese military forces were now positioned less than 500 miles to the east or northeast of Siam (Thailand) and British controlled Malaya. England’s government and military studied their options and reached the decision to make a show of force in the region.
Repulse and battleship Prince of Wales were ordered to the Far East just weeks prior to Japan’s attack on the Americans at Pearl Harbor. Repulse made a brief stay in Durban, South Africa which earned the ship a visit from Prime Minister Jan Smuts. As the Prime Minister addressed the crew, he spoke to dispel any misconceptions that the Japanese, against whom Repulse would soon see action, were a race of myopic, undersized, or inferior people. He added comments about the serious likelihood of war with Japan that he emphasized would be fought with courage, skill, and tenacity by well-trained and well-armed Japanese forces. This seemed to take many aboard Repulse aback as, unfamiliar with the world in general, they had been assuming that the widely circulated cartoon-like propaganda representations of their potential enemies were accurate. More by hearsay or by assumption, many Royal Navy sailors still felt that fighting the Japanese would “be a piece of cake.” They were certain that Japan’s armed forces were second rate and equipped with nothing better than antique airplanes and outdated ships.15. The South African Prime Minister concluded with a foreboding comment which stayed hard with Repulse’s crew. He stated that he was sorry, but he knew with certainty that some of the men to whom he was presently speaking would not live to see the end of the war.
Repulse and Prince of Wales arrived in Ceylon in late November. There had been lengthy debates in England as to how Singapore was to be defended and by what forces in case of war. First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound had wanted to send the bulk of the Royal Navy’s battle forces, but he was over ruled by Prime Minister and former First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill. Churchill firmly believed that the appearance of just a few capital ships would suffice to deter any possible Japanese aggression. He was certain that, even should an assault against the city be launched, the ships’ heavy guns would be more than adequate for its defense. Possibly making direct reference to the deployment of Prince of Wales to Singapore, Churchill stated that, “A KGV class battleship exercises a vague general fear and menaces all points at once. It appears and disappears causing immediate reactions and perturbations on the other side.” 16.
The small British force, under the command of Admiral Sir Tom Phillips aboard Prince of Wales, was to have been accompanied by the new aircraft carrier Indomitable. The carrier had just entered service a month earlier, but while on her shakedown cruise she struck a reef and became suddenly unavailable. The loss of the air cover that the carrier’s airwing could have provided to Phillip’s force would shortly prove disastrous. Some of Repulse’s crew would remain bitter long afterward about what they felt was a sacrifice made through tactical (lack of air cover) as well as strategic (overall indefensibility of Singapore) misjudgments. Repulse and Prince of Wales departed Ceylon on 29 November for Singapore where they arrived three days later under the designation of Force Z.
Robert Fraser for whom Repulse was both a “beautiful ship” and “home” had left school at age 14 to work as a “trapper boy” at a mine near his home town. His job was to stand by to open doors for draft animals whenever they needed to go into or out of the tunnels. As unemployment was rampant in those days of economic depression, he could only work two or three times a week. Fraser was looking for security when he joined the Navy in 1939 at the age of nineteen. He was excited by the prospect of seeing action when he reported aboard Repulse in June 1941. His yearning for battle would come six months later. Until then, Fraser and his companions went about their shipboard work. They used their spare time to read in the ship’s library, watch films in the on-board cinema, or listen to the Marine band’s frequent concerts. Fraser, in particular, looked forward to visiting all the ports of call along Repulse’s route to Singapore.
The former trapper boy enjoyed his visit to Durban, South Africa where families with strong ties to England waited outside the navy base gates to take sailors home or about town. Fraser was met by a couple whose son had been killed in action aboard a Royal Navy ship in the Mediterranean. He remembered that they drove him around and invited him to their home where they treated him as if he were their own son. When Repulse anchored at Mombasa in eastern Africa, Fraser marveled at how much he could buy on his navy pay. He bought a pair of pajamas for his sweetheart whom he would marry after the war. He was thrilled by the reception that the British ships were given on entering Singapore. People lined the docks cheering and waving flags as the ship steamed by. Ashore, he felt as if he were a part of a fairytale storybook. He marveled at seeing rickshaws and exotic peoples. He thought Singapore was “grand.” When news came on 07 December that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, Fraser was “disgusted.” He understood that “war is war” but still felt that the Japanese, by attacking without warning, “were not playing the game.” He and his shipmates were particularly put out to discover that a good portion of the American fleet upon which England was counting for support was now sunk. 17.
Since November 1941, or even earlier, both the British and the Americans had been certain that Japanese military activities around the South China Sea would lead to war. They remained unclear, however, as to when, where, and how the war would exactly begin. Just two days before Pearl Harbor, Admiral Phillips flew to Manila where he met with US Army commander General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Thomas C. Hart, Commander-in-Chief United States Asiatic Fleet. The three men agreed that Singapore would be impossible to defend against the type of well-planned Japanese attack that was being anticipated. They concurred that Force Z should relocate to Manila, but lack of air cover would prevent such a move for the time being. Admiral Hart offered to send a number of destroyers to help strengthen the British naval presence at Singapore. General MacArthur indicated that American B-17 long range bombers would be available to attack Japanese air bases in Indochina. Before anything could be finalized, a report was received that a large Japanese convoy had sailed from Cam Ranh Bay. Admiral Phillips departed after just one day in the Philippines. 18.
Among the Japanese preparations made prior to war was their naval command’s sending of additional attack aircraft to French Indochina. The planes included new torpedo bombers to complement the existing force of high altitude level bombers already stationed there. All of the pilots belonging to the three Japanese naval aviation groups stationed at or near Saigon had been specially chosen for their experience and flying proficiency. The pilots practiced specific tactics to be used in attacks against surface ships underway at sea with live weapons. They developed precise strike doctrines based on low altitude torpedo attacks. Practice had shown that aircraft flying slowly just off the sea’s surface aided the proper running of torpedoes and resulted in a better than one in two probability of obtaining a hit against a target. By flying low to the water, the aircraft were also better protected from shipboard anti-aircraft fire because defensive guns would not be able to shoot at low enough angles to hit them. Statements by gunners from Repulse would later confirm this. 19.
As word of the Pearl Harbor attack came through to Singapore, the Japanese were making simultaneous landings in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Borneo, Siam, British Malaya, and Guam. Any possibility of American air power coming to the aid of the British was quickly and suddenly removed by Japan’s destruction of most of the B-17 force at its base in the Philippines. On the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese made multiple amphibious assaults along the Malay coast. Although the Siamese positions fell quickly, British ground forces kept up a vigorous rearguard resistance at Kota Bharu.
Admiral Phillips decided that all available Royal Navy units at Singapore should form up for an attack against the Japanese amphibious forces.The specific target was to be the Japanese landing and supply ships at Kota Bharu. The Royal Navy force hoped to arrive undetected in order to catch the Japanese by surprise. Prince of Wales, Repulse, the British destroyers Express, Electra, and Tenedos, and one Royal Australian Navy destroyer, HMAS Vampire steamed out of Singapore on the afternoon of 08 December. As Repulse made preparations to get underway, Captain Tennant addressed the crew:
We are going off to look for trouble. I expect we shall find it. We may run up against submarines or destroyers, aircraft or surface ships.
Tennant provided the following outline of planned action:
- We are going to carry out a sweep to our Northward to see what we can pick up. We must be on our toes.
- For two months past the ship has felt that she has been deprived of her fair share of hitting the enemy …
- There is every possibility that things are going to change completely.
- There is every possibility that we shall get a good deal of bombing in harbor.
- I know the old ship will give a good account of herself; we have trained hard for this day. May each one of us, without exception, keep calm and if and when action comes that is very important.
- Lastly, to all of you, whatsoever happens do not deflect from your job say when high-angle guns are engaging a high flying aircraft and all eyes are in the sky, none of the short range guns on the disengaged side should be looking at the engagement, but should be standing by for a low dive-bombing or torpedo bombing attack coming from the other side. Similarly in a surface action at night, provided the disengaged guns look out on the disengaged side they may be able to repel a destroyer attack that might otherwise damage the ship.
- For all of us, concentrate on the job. Keep calm.
- Lifesaving gear is to be worn or carried or is to be immediately to hand not because I think anything is going to happen to the ship; she is much too lucky, but if anything happens you have your life saving gear handy. That is all you have to think about in regards to yourself. You are then absolutely free to think about your duty to the ship.20.
It is not entirely clear if the above was stated over the ship’s address system or if it was distributed in written form. Robert Fraser, the former mine trapper boy, stated, “I read Captain Tennant’s note on the board.” 21. Repulse steamed out of port to misty and rainy conditions that were encouraging for Force Z’s hoped-for surprise attack. The British force steamed northwest of Singapore and around the Anambas Islands. In clearing weather, early in the morning, the destroyer Vampire signaled that she had sighted an enemy plane. Despite being in range of Japanese land-based aircraft, Phillips pushed on. At a position 150 miles south of Indochina and 250 miles east of Malaya, the force spotted three Japanese reconnaissance planes. With no remaining hope of achieving surprise, Phillips ordered a turn to head back to Singapore.
“Enemy Bombers Approaching. Height 21,000 Feet”– Repulse in Action
Around midnight of the 9th – 10th, as it continued on its southwesterly course, Force Z was again diverted. The Royal Navy ships altered course on reports that there were ongoing Japanese landings at Kuantan which lay about midway between Kota Bharu and Singapore. Although the reports proved false, Phillips lingered in the area to investigate. He sent the destroyer Express close inshore, but no Japanese ships or activity were detected. Just a few hours before dawn on the 10th, a Japanese submarine sighted Force Z. The British position was given and an 88 plane strike was launched from the Japanese air bases in and near Saigon.
The destroyer Tenedos, which had been detached from the force to head back to Singapore, caught the attention of the Japanese air groups first. She signaled her plight and Force Z was put on the highest alert. Tenedos would survive, but her signal was the first word Force Z had of an impending strike against it. Repulse soon came under attack and received a bomb hit that did not much affect her integrity or combat effectiveness. The attack has been well recorded by former crewmembers. Stationed on the aft anti-aircraft gun director, Seaman Ted Matthews remembered,
… (O)ur height finder … had the planes in his sights; reporting to the transmitting station, ‘Enemy bombers approaching. Height 21,000 feet.’ Within moments they’d passed from the starboard side of the ship to port. At that time I couldn’t see their bombs but everyone was certain they’d been despatched. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the results of their action to be felt … we started getting explosions (on) either side of the ship – covering Repulse in heavy spray. Suddenly there was a tremendous detonation … we’d been hit. They caught us on the port hangar (for storage and maintenance on the ship’s scout/spotter planes and just aft of the second funnel) and almost immediately our position (likely the aft H/A – high angle gun – director) was covered in steam as a pipe had been ruptured by the explosion. I remember being shocked at the accuracy of the attack; it was far more precise than anything we’d previously encountered with the German Air Force. 22.
As a civilian Steward Derek Jones had been working in domestic service as a footman when the master of the house was called up by the Army. Jones then followed his older brother’s example of enlisting in the Royal Navy. Whenever Repulse was in action, Jones would forgo his steward’s duties to serve as an ammunition bearer. He remembered that,
I was locked in my delivery room (a station between the ship’s magazines and guns that served for ammunition transfer) when I heard the explosion and to some extent felt its force as it had gone off in the compartment next to ours, actually blowing a hole in our deck head. The smell was terrible and there was quite a severe fire burning. This was extremely worrying as we couldn’t get a message below for them to stop sending up more cordite (powder charges for gun shells). It just kept mounting up in our compartment. We couldn’t send it up to the guns as at that time they were out of action. If one single lick of flame had entered our compartment, we would have been blown to bits.
… (O)ur crew then got sent down below to move injured men to the sickbay. Some of their wounds, through burns, were horrific and I was shocked to see how many lads had been killed. After helping for as long as needed, we were sent to a small compartment just above the four-inch magazine to recover as we’d been inhaling smoke for quite some time. 23,
The first wave of the attack had passed. About 20 minutes later, however, another group of Japanese planes appeared and split their attention between Prince of Wales and Repulse. These were all torpedo planes. Out of a total of 17 attackers, eight made their low level runs against Repulse. While Prince of Wales was hit and suffered heavy damage, Repulse maneuvered and defended herself well enough to avoid all of the torpedoes launched at her.
Former shipyard worker Reg Woods recalled of the second attack,
… I still remember that even after (the) first attack, it didn’t shake our confidence … Suddenly I saw a low flying formation of planes coming towards us. I estimated their height was in the region of 100 feet or so. They certainly didn’t look like the Swordfish our air force flew. 24. The speed they were travelling at made them look more like (far newer and faster) Spitfires. Almost immediately our ships, which had been steaming in close formation, took separate evasive actions, our skipper then began throwing Repulse around more like a minesweeper than a battlecruiser.
To our amazement these were torpedo planes and as they turned away from us we could see the tracks of their torpedoes plain as day in the water. Moving at what seemed like incredible speed straight towards the ship, just as contact seemed almost inevitable, we combed their tracks (the ship was turned head on into the oncoming torpedoes to minimize the size of their target). It was a superbly executed maneuver by Captain Tennant. This further cemented my belief in him being the finest skipper in the British Navy. Immediately after this onslaught a further alarm sounded followed by bomb splashes all around the ship. The Japanese had coordinated a high-level bombing to coincide with the torpedo attack … We tried to engage the low level planes but at that time had no real success. 25.
Lack of air cover and the sheer number of enemy aircraft doomed both British ships. Prince of Wales took numerous hits and was seriously damaged by about noon, some 40 minutes after the first attack. Repulse came under a renewed strike in which the Japanese planes split formation to attack the ship from both sides. The following crew statements about the final attack on Repulse serve to give a broad view of what that action must have been like.
According to Seaman Matthews,
… I could see that Prince of Wales was in severe trouble, she appeared to be steaming in circles and I hadn’t heard any of her 5.25s (secondary battery guns being used for air defense) fire for some time (a torpedo had hit one of her propeller shafts and electrical power had been lost). Several groups of planes came in for a further low level attack and we all knew that this could only mean more dicing with more torpedoes. The vibration and speed of Repulse was truly unbelievable, our skipper had us falling over everywhere in his attempt to comb the incoming torpedoes … I began to notice that the bombers were starting to fly directly overhead after they’d dropped their torpedoes. It was as if they were taunting us. I could even see the pilots’ faces quite clearly.
Repulse had moved in a sort of protecting circle around Prince of Wales. I suppose it was an attempt to draw some of the enemy fire from her (or possibly lend anti-aircraft gun cover) as the situation for her crew must have been terrible. They were sitting ducks … I can’t remember how many torpedoes we’d dodged when suddenly I felt a tremendous explosion on the port side amidships. They’d found their target and we’d definitely been hit. I remember wondering if we’d sink as I’d never been onboard any ship that even had a slight collision before, never mind been hit by a torpedo. I needn’t have worried, Repulse wasn’t going to give in that easily, she seemed to shake herself down and keep going. The fight wasn’t over. The Japanese were going to have to try harder than that. 26.
Reg Woods described his actions and thoughts while working one of the ships octuple pompoms,
… (O)ur gun was the scene of some degree of chaos. The ammunition in the pompoms was beginning to jam and foul up with frightening regularity; reason being the cartridges were separating whilst in the firing mechanism of the gun barrels. We thought this was due to the ammunition becoming too hot and the different metals in the shells having different rates of expansion causing them to literally fall apart. At one point we had 7 out of 8 barrels out of action. The thing that made it even more frightening was that the Japanese on the sides of the planes with machine guns would be directing a lot of their fire on our position so as to knock our gun out of action. To add further danger to the situation, we were all totally covered in cordite from the shells that had fouled the gun; one stray bullet would have been curtains for our crew … With hindsight, I must have been living purely on adrenaline … Possibly my strongest recollection which still fills me with pride … years later … is that even though we were attacked by planes we never thought existed … our backs firmly up against the wall, I never saw one of the lads shirk his commitment to the ship or his mates. It’s obvious in any type of dangerous situation, if men of this caliber surround you the fear factor is greatly reduced. 27.
Marine John Garner was a part of the after triple barreled 4-inch gun crew that claimed credit for downing one of the attackers. He recalled,
As with all gun crews the pace of the action was frantic and never ending. Planes seemed to be attacking from all angles and the noise was unbelievable. I still remember one that our crew managed to nail. They came from the port side to the starboard quarter after launching their torpedo … we’d just loaded up all three barrels, and immediately laid the gun onto them and, wallop. They got hit with all three shells; the plane just exploded in a massive ball of flames and fell into the sea. There were no survivors. It did our morale good to inflict some damage on them as we’d taken quite a hammering up to this point. 28.
Many crewmen whose normal jobs were not directly related to defending the ship against air attacks were pressed into service as ammunition bearers. Ian Hay was, by now, dashing back and forth between gun mounts and ready ammunition spaces. He rushed along with many others to pick up shells to deliver, one at a time, by hand to the gunners. Hay said,
… the run back along the exposed area of deck was to become terrifying. It had by now claimed the lives of three of our delivery party, all by machine gun fire. I lost count how many times we went down for further ammunition. It was like playing some crazy game of dare. Once you handed your shell to the loader you had no chance to speak to each other. There would have been no point. Everyone was terrified but we all did our work without exception. It was just after the first torpedo hit that I saw a sight that’s haunted me to this day. We were on the way to feed the gun crew of S1, when the shout came up … “Get down!” We dived into the gun well as a hail of bullets tore into the boat deck. Immediately afterwards I heard men screaming and shouting. It was obvious some had been caught by the machine gunners. I got up to see Bob (Hewlett) in pain, but still giving orders, he’d been shot in the arm but thankfully survived. Then he screamed, “Don’t just stand there, get some ammunition, star shells, anything, into the breeches” 29. I could then see the carnage. Most of the gun crew had been killed or injured. A matter of minutes later there was another tremendous jolt, on the starboard side, roughly where we were located, so we felt the full brunt of this torpedo. I now knew deep down the Japanese wouldn’t let us escape …30.
In all, Repulse was bracketed and hit by four torpedoes. She began to flood and her list quickly became severe. Knowing that the situation had become hopeless aboard the ship, the order to prepare to abandon was given. The battlecruiser’s captain described the end of the action as follows,
Men were now pouring up on deck. They had all been warned 24 hours before to carry or wear their life saving apparatus. When the ship had a 30 degrees list to port, I looked over the starboard side of the bridge and saw … two or three hundred men collecting on the starboard side. I never saw the slightest sign of panic or ill-discipline. I told them from the bridge how well they had fought the ship and wished them good luck. The ship hung for at least a minute and a half to two minutes with a list of about 60 degrees to 70 degrees to port and then rolled over. 31.
Reginald Jeffries of Derby had excelled in math at school. He later apprenticed in engineering in which he earned his certificate prior to joining the Navy in 1938. Although times were hard because work was not always available or steady, he got a job with Rolls-Royce in his home town. He worked on aircraft engines designed for the Spitfire fighter plane. He later transferred to the Admiralty torpedo factory at Weymouth when his family moved south so his mother, who suffered ill health, could enjoy a warmer climate. Ironically, some of the torpedoes being produced in England during the pre-war years were sold to the Japanese Navy. Jeffries took a motorcycle trip around Europe in the summer of 1938 and became keenly aware that war was on its way. After joining the Navy his aptitude was noticed and he was given training that quickly earned him advancement to ordnance petty officer.
During the attack on Repulse Jeffries was responsible for antiaircraft gunnery in the after portion of the ship, but struggled with pom-poms that were overheated and jamming. He remembered that it was sunny, hot, and humid and that he sweated a great deal as he wrestled with Repulse’s malfunctioning guns. He was able to see several downed Japanese planes with their pilots calmly sitting on the wings in hopes of rescue. Some Japanese planes strafed the ship, but the grief they caused would be far less than that brought about by the torpedoes that were to strike her. Jeffries was showered with water thrown up by the torpedo hits and soundly jarred by the impacts that seemed to lift the ship out of the water.
When it became clear that the ship would soon have to be abandoned, Jeffries moved about the upper decks to assist wounded and disabled men with their lifebelts. The flotation belts were rubber rings that he inflated by blowing into them. He secured the inflated rings to their users by means of straps that went over their shoulders. He then lined these men up along the edge of the deck so that they could be gently pushed over the side when the order came. By the time he was done, water had already reached the roof of the after 15-inch turret. Jeffries jumped overboard into a sticky and tarry pool of fuel oil. He flipped off his steel helmet and slipped out of some of his anti-flash gear, but he could barely inflate his own life belt because his lips had gotten slick with oil.
Jeffries swam over to a group of survivors and, seeing the three escorting destroyers nearby, tried to remain calm while awaiting rescue. The group sang songs, among them “Roll Out The Barrel,” and called encouragement to other groups that were swimming or drifting by. Jeffries reassured himself that there would be no problem with sharks as the explosions and concussions caused by bombs and torpedoes would certainly have run them all off.
The ordnance petty officer watched as Repulse rolled over. He saw men moving about the ship’s upturned red-painted bottom. He could see some of the holes made in the hull by torpedoes and watched as men were blown out and clear of them by the tremendous release of the air pressure that had built up as the ship’s internal spaces filled with water. Seeing the ship’s propellers still slowly turning, Jeffries had to avert his eyes from the sight of survivors clinging to the ship’s rails and rigging as she went stern up. Repulse’s battle ensign still hung from the mainmast as she disappeared under the water.
Looking up, Jeffries saw a Japanese plane slowly circle over the destroyer Electra. He could read the international Morse being flashed by the pilot’s signal lamp. The message asked the British to cease fire, pick up survivors, and clear the area. After spending about an hour in the water, Electra’s whaleboat came by and picked up Jeffries. He remembered the frustration of trying to revive shipmates when he was finally aboard Electra. He could only tug at their arms or push on their chests in a primitive effort at CPR. None of his efforts helped. Electra made it back to Singapore and Jeffries, like all the other Repulse survivors picked up by the destroyer, could not thank the crew enough. Exhausted, they staggered down the gangway to the pier where the galley staff of the cruiser Exeter, just months away from her own doom, had prepared hot soup and tots of rum for them. 32.
“I Knew Something Bad Had Happened”– Aftermath
Several days later at Singapore things went on as if nothing had happened. Jeffries was given charge of a party of sailors, each armed with a rifle and a small quantity of ammunition. The men were instructed to go to a nearby base warehouse where they would find crates of Bofors anti-aircraft guns. Jeffries was to unpack and assemble them. Despite his training and experience with naval weaponry, he had never before seen this type of gun. He did not know how they went together. The job was urgent however, as the Japanese were on the way. Air raids had already been taking place. Jeffries and his party scrounged around until they found an assembly manual. They also came across an army engineer who was willing to help. Together, they eventually managed to assemble the weapons, but none had come equipped with sighting mechanisms. Jeffries found a workshop in which he managed to produce enough makeshift sights to fit onto all the guns. Just as he and his men were getting set to try a little gunnery practice, a military vehicle stopped by and informed them that they were all to be sent back to England.
Since the survivors had been issued a small amount of spending money, Jeffries went to a nearby cable office. He paid for a message to be wired to his parents to let them know that he was safe. Months later, when he knocked on the door of his family home, he met up with his cable. It was delivered that same day to inform everyone that Jeffries was alive and well. 33.
Marine Claxton had been knocked overboard of Repulse by a sudden lurch, and when he popped to the surface all he could see was the ship towering above him. He “swam and swam and swam” in order to get away from her and to avoid either being crushed or sucked down when she went under. The ship was still making way, however, and by the time she sank, Claxton was clear of her. He floated amidst other survivors, bodies, and dead fish until, after four or five hours, he was able to pull himself onto Electra’s deck by the cargo net hung for that very purpose over the destroyer’s side. He made shore aboard the destroyer, was tended to, and returned to duty after several days.
As a Royal Marine, Claxton was expected to join other ground troops from the shore garrison or from among the survivors of Repulse and Prince of Wales to help defend Singapore. He was issued a rifle, bayonet, and ammunition and sent to stand guard outside a headquarters building containing military documents. He performed the role of sentry through a month of nights during which he was plagued by mosquitoes and a host of other “creepy crawlies.” He never saw any sign of the enemy. Soon afterwards, as the Japanese began to draw closer, he was ordered to assist with the evacuation of British civilians. He did not feel that it was fair that these persons to whom the war had not caused any injury or suffering should get such preferential treatment. He dutifully did as ordered, but the small ship aboard which he was finally very belatedly evacuated was captured at sea by the Japanese. Claxton was to spend the rest of the war as a Prisoner of War. 34.
About 50% of Repulse’s original crew was ultimately rescued from the water. Total losses for the Royal Navy that day were 327 men from Prince of Wales including Admiral Phillips, and 513 from Repulse. When Churchill was informed of the losses he stated,
As I turned over and twisted in bed the full horror of the news sank in on me. There were no British or American capital ships in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific except the American survivors of Pearl Harbor, who were hastening back to California. Over all this vast expanse of water Japan was supreme, and we, everywhere, were weak and naked. 35.
Back home, there were numerous loved ones of those lost who may well have also turned and twisted in bed at the horror of the news. Jean Gordon McClean, the sister of Reginald Gordon, a Repulse crewman who did not survive, recalled from the time when she was still very young,
I lived in a little country place called Carntall situated a few miles from Belfast … I … remember my eldest brother joining the Navy. I just remember seeing him home on leave once, in his sailor suit, as I called it. He was in the HMS Repulse which was sunk off Malaya by a Japanese air torpedo attack. One day as I recall a neighbor came to our school to take my other brother, two sisters and me home. When we got there, my Mum was crying. Our house seemed to be full of friends and neighbors. I knew something bad had happened, but I just didn’t understand what was wrong. My Mum had just heard the Repulse had been sunk, and my brother was missing and presumed drowned. He was only nineteen years old. Our Auntie took us aside and told us to try to be good for Mummy. My Dad was in the Army so she was bringing us up on her own. I remember our home was very sad and quiet for a long time after that. 36.
On 11 December 1941, the day after the action, an article, “Blow Staggers London,” appeared in The New York Times about the loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales. It concluded by stating, “Britain’s grim determination to win through to a victorious finish, which was strengthened when the United States declared war on Japan, remains unswerving …”