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The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulseicon for Recommended story

by CSV Solent

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Contributed by 
CSV Solent
People in story: 
Commander R.V. Ward
Location of story: 
Kuantan, Malaya and various other locations
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
20 June 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Jeanne on behalf of Commander Ward and has been added to the site with his permission. Commander Ward fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse by the Japanese on 10 December 1941

Written by R V Ward, Commander RNVR (VRD) Survivor

No-one seems to have heard of the awful event of 10 December 1941, when HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk near Kuantan on the east coast of Malaya, by Japanese torpedoes and bombs, there being no worthwhile defensive support. About 1200 men were lost.

I was one of the survivors of the incident, having experienced this dreadful attack, swimming around the Prince of Wales for one and a half hours (among sharks) before being picked up.

What I cannot understand is why nobody, either a private individual or a newspaper has ever chosen to tell of this tragic event.

I am now 92 years old and feel it would be a pity if the public could not have this story before it is too late.

I passed out as Paymaster Sub-Lieutenant RNVR on 29 September 1941 and went home for leave. Then on 29 October I was ordered to report at Greenock to “Party Piano” with whites. That didn’t mean much to me, except that I was obviously going to the tropics. When I reached Greenock, it was clear I was privileged to join the navy’s newest battleship, Prince of Wales, commissioned in March 1941. So I joined the staff of the Commander in Chief and we left Greenock on 23 October. We sailed well out into the Atlantic because of U-Boat activity, called at Sierra Leone to refuel, then at Simonstown and Capetown, where we had two splendid days of leave, and I was able to visit Muriel’s aunt and uncle (Ellen and Harry). I had a motor tour of the area including Table Mountain. Some splendid photos were taken including the one be found in “The Orient in Turmoil” showing me with two animal friends.

Next we proceeded to Colombo and then on the Singapore, being joined by HMS Repulse and the C. in C., Admiral Tom Phillips. Because I was not a member of the ship’s company, only “taking passage” I had no cabin but slept on a mattress on deck under the 14” guns. One night I was woken up by holding (in my sleep) the chain around the deck — I had not sleep-walked for years and this could have been a bad time to try it. We did some cypher duties in the naval base at Singapore and then left as Force Z on 8 December 1941 with Repulse and a destroyer escort. The purpose was to frighten off the Japs who obviously had their eyes on Malaya, Singapore and the U.S.!!

We sailed north-east around the Anamba Islands, as the water around the actual coast of Malaya had been heavily mined. On the morning of the 9th, we were spotted by a high flying enemy aircraft off Khota Bahru. By mid-morning waves of Jap planes were coming over, some bombers, some torpedo carriers. The enemy had a very early success, when a bomb hit our port side propellers, distorted them and so, as the shafts continued to spin, the distortion caused them to open up gaps in the hull so there was considerable flooding especially in the engine rooms. These were evacuated. Now both ships were taking water and the tragedy was that because of the grounding of the Carrier Indomitable off the US earlier on, we had no defence against air attack.

P.O.W. was listing 40 degrees to port. The cypher office was flooded, and so with others I moved into the nearby lower steering position where Commander Lawson was in charge. Main power had been lost, ventilation failed and only emergency lighting was available, six decks down from the bridge, in that lower conning tower. I was standing near the ‘plot’, where the actual course of the shop was being recorded and I saw that the course was one of ever decreasing circles, obviously because we had power on the starboard side only and the rudder had been damaged to that we had actually lost control of the ship.

Now the ship was sinking lower and the list increasing, so the Commander ordered us to get out on deck — he stayed behind and was lost. We left through the escape ‘tube’, inside which were small footholds, but the tube was too narrow for us to enter it without first removing our life jackets — obviously an unwise, though inevitable thing to do, considering our prospects for the next few minutes. A young sub-lieutenant was ahead of me and part way up the tube he declared he could go no further, at which I gave his bottom a huge shove so that he struggled to the hatch at the top (fortunately it was not clipped shut) and we were out on deck seeing the damage for the first time. HMS Express was alongside; men boarding her along ropes, jumping from P.O.W. Some missing the deck and being caught between the two ships. Some wounded were successfully transferred to safety. Because the rising keel of the P.O.W. was threatening the stability of Express, she withdrew to a safer position. The last person I spoke to was Captain Leach — I gave him a message from Commander Lawson — but the Captain was lost, together with Admiral Tom Phillips and 327 men from P.W.O. and 513 from Repulse.

I slid down the starboard side of the ship as far as the armoured layer and then jumped clear into the oily sea and put a fair distance — say 5 yards between me and the fated ship. Non swimmers were going under and I could hear the crashing of heavy items below decks, falling from deck to deck head (floor to ceiling). In the water there were several large baulks of timber, which had been stored on deck, presumably for emergency repair work during the voyage. I swam to one of these and helped about ten men to join me, showing them how to do a clumsy breast stroke to keep afloat. There were some carley floats around but they were all more than full. We swam for a total of one and a half hours and then Express returned, P.O.W. having gone under — gracefully but tragically — so we swan towards her and safety. The survivors with me tried to climb ropes let down by ship’s company of Express, but before they reached safety, their oily hands lost their grip and they went back into the sea. I used my Fire Service experience and tied a bowline around my body and was hauled aboard. The first thing I saw was the Flag Lieutenant lying on the deck minus one leg — so there were sharks around. Express men stripped off my oil-soaked clothing and cleaned me off with cotton wool from the Sick Bay.

Now I must mention that as P.O.W. lay, keel up, for a moment before she disappeared, I saw a man carrying a suitcase, running along the keel of the ship. Of course he could not survive the sinking but would be dragged down in a gigantic whirlpool. But he DID survive and I know this because when, 50 years later, I was broadcasting my story for Radio Solent, he heard the broadcast, wrote to me and reported that he managed to get away and was now retired and living in Portsmouth.

Like everyone else, I lost all my possessions, souvenirs etc., except my ring which I still wear. We were taken back to Singapore on Express, provided with baths, food and beds.

My wife was informed by telegram four days after the event, that I was a survivor. This was unusual, because the practice was to report losses to the next of kin and not survivors!

Statistics covering the attacks on P.O.W. are:-

Torpedo attacks 50
Hits 11
Bomber attacks 16
Hits 2

Repulse and Prince of Wales still lie 30 fathoms down in the South China Sea where a white ensign, changed from time to time, ‘flies’ in the sea, attached to a propeller of the P.O.W. It was originally put there by navy frogmen as a tribute to the total of 850 men lost in the action. The site is now protected as a War Grave, which is near Kuantan on the west side of Khalangsian Peninsula.

After two weeks in Singapore on the staff of Commander-in-Chief Eastern Fleet, Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, we moved to Java in H.M.S. Durban as the Japs were already in Singapore. There we worked in Lever Building, then in the French Consulate from 6 January to
16 January 1942, when we were taken to Colombo in H.M.S. Emerald.

From 21 January to 10 December 1941, I lived in the Grand Oriental Hotel, Colombo, still on the staff of Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, now C. in C. Ceylon. Then I moved to HMS Rajaliya, RN Air Station Puttalam, some 50-60 miles north of Colombo and by the side of a spectacular lagoon, though the station itself was merely a large hole cut out of the jungle, large enough to receive visiting aircraft from our own or foreign ships in the area needing repair or servicing. Accommodation was in crude kadjan huts but life was very interesting because of the local wild life — elephants, crocodiles, cobras, monkeys and many other small mammals. We could swim in the sea a few miles west of the camp. Routine was broken for me, first by a short secondment to the Dutch Hospital Carrier, ‘Ophir’, and then to the US Aircraft Carrier, Saratoga, both in the Indian Ocean. Whilst in Ceylon, I was promoted to Paymaster Lieutenant (25.9.42).

It was at Puttalam that I was fortunate enough to meet Surgeon Lieutenant D W Bain. I reported to him that my ears were troubling me. Both eardrums had been perforated by the effects of explosions while I was in the enclosed ‘metal drum’ of the P.O.W. Dr Bain treated my ears and, thanks to him, I have very good hearing indeed.

One morning, while at Puttalam, I received a phone call from my brother Alf who, although I believe he was in the UK had actually arrived in Burma. But he had managed to get to Trincomalee on the north east corner of Ceylon — could I meet him there? I got permission to borrow a staff car from the Air Station and made my way to ‘Trinco’ and spent a couple of very happy days with him.

I finally left Ceylon in HMS Sussex, went through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean, (calling at Algiers, Morocco for an unforgettable haircut!) and reached Scapa on 28 May. From there I made my way, with much difficulty, back to Southampton and Bitterne.

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