The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse
As Told by John MacMillan
HMS Prince of Wales
The story of the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse is as simple as it is brief. The brevity of the action and the enormous losses sustained only added glory to the Japanese victory and shame to our crushing defeat. In a battle of less than two hour’s duration, the much boosted, newly constituted Eastern Fleet was destroyed and thus, a mighty and dangerous fighting unit was removed at a single blow from any interference in the future schemes of Nippon, in Pacific waters.
The entire world, already inured to expect great surprises, was thunderstruck at the news of the battle and not without cause; questions were asked demanding an explanation from those responsible. Nevertheless, a valuable lesson had been learned for future actions. It proved once and for all, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the overwhelming superiority of aircraft over the battleship and demonstrated that heavy naval units operating close inshore without an adequate protection, fall an easy prey to a well-organised, daring and spirited attack from torpedo-carrying aircraft.
On December 8th, 1941 Japan treacherously declared war on Britain and America, simultaneously attacking the possessions of both in the Far East. The Japanese had landed in force at Kota Bharu. The aerodrome was in danger and despite the heroic resistance of our troops; they were unable to stem the tide. It was such a situation, which occasioned the immediate dispatch to sea of the Eastern Fleet, in order to remove the menace of invasion, prevent future landings and inflict losses on the enemy fleet then known to be operating in the vicinity. It was a glorious opportunity to bring the enemy to action and one, which it would have been criminal to neglect.
On Monday 8th, all shore leave was cancelled, men were recalled from Singapore and by 4 a.m. the Prince of Wales had weighed anchor and the newly constituted Eastern Fleet, under the command of Admiral Philips, was slowly making its way in line ahead down the twisting, placid, palm fringed waters of Jahore Straits. This noble fleet consisted of the two ill-fated battleships, Prince of Wales and Repulse and three destroyers (Electra, Jupiter and Vampire) who provided an adequate anti-submarine protection from any denizens of the deep.
Soon the boom defence system at Changi and the minefields that guard the Eastern entrance safely navigated, so that at dusk the fleet had lost sight of land and was swallowed up in the approaching darkness. All night we steered in a north easterly direction, making, according to plan a wide circuit in order to avoid being spotted by enemy aircraft, and therefore carry out a surprise attack at dawn on Wednesday 10th.
Dawn on Tuesday revealed a sky overcast by heavy black, low clouds and a misty, placid sea – a day well suited to our purpose to escape observation. In this we almost succeeded till late in the afternoon when, the clouds disappearing, we were unfortunately spotted by a long range enemy reconnaissance aircraft which shadowed our course till dusk and, keeping its distance, performed its duty, that of reporting our strength, speed and course to its base.
This was an unfortunate occurrence – but there it was. We had been spotted. Our intentions would be known and thus, the element of surprise, so essential for the success of the operation was lost. It was now left either to abandon the operation, or press home the attack under vastly unfavourable conditions, because in all probability the enemy would have made off and instead of attacking a few cruisers and transports we would be welcomed by powerful units of aircraft. These considerations decided the Admiral to cancel the operation and the fleet now preceded back to Singapore. The entire crew, although a little disappointed by the news, realised that a sound decision had been taken.
The night of Tuesday/Wednesday passed without incident and the dawn of Wednesday morning was a sight never to be forgotten by those who were fortunate enough to witness a perfect dawn at sea. It contained all the uplifting glory of an oriental dawn, the brilliance and magnificence of which cannot be equalled. A clear blue sky, streaked with rays from the rising sun shone above, while around us sparkled the deep blue ocean, ruffled by a gentle breeze.
Little did those who beheld such an imposing sight realise that when the self same sun had reached its zenith the Eastern Fleet would be no more! Little did they dream that in a few hours time they would be called upon to endure, suffer and perhaps sacrifice their lives in one of the shortest and greatest battles in history! Fortunately the future was not known, else who among those noble crews could bear to live through a second time the ordeal so close to hand.
Meanwhile, the destroyer screen were searching like fox hounds among the many groups of green, whale backed islands for any further signs of further landings to the south, but without result. At approximately 11 a.m. the ominous drone of a large number of aircraft was heard to be approaching the fleet from the rear. The alarm was sounded. All hands immediately rushed to repel aircraft stations. The fleet took up its battle positions and everyone breathlessly awaited further orders.
The aircraft were soon identified as enemy and as they approached within range the Prince of Wales, closely followed by the Repulse opened the firing. The battle had begun which was so soon to prove so disastrous to the allied powers in the East.
Under Japanese air attack
Prince of Wales left front - Repulse left behind
At this point I was three decks down in the main wireless office, listening with anxious heart to the battle din roaring above. First the 5.25’s opened up in all their fury, belching forth flame and death, followed later by the steady, heartening one assuring bark of the pom-poms – then silence again. The first attack had been beaten off. The enemy paid a heavy price for their daring, but that did not deter them from the object. A second attack was being prepared. The enemy now altered his tactics and splitting up into several formations, launched a low flying torpedo attack at different angles on our port side.
Once more our guns broke the uncanny silence, creating uproar, scarcely able to be borne. The foremost formations were piteously attacked and destroyed, some aft, crashing in flames into the sea before they had time to release their deadly cargo; others a victim to their own torpedoes, blew up in mid air, scattering the sea with wreckage.
Our captain by his skilful manoeuvring succeeded in dodging not a few of these death-dealing missiles, but alas there were too many to be watched. First a splash as the torpedo entered the water, and then a thin white line of foam defined the course. With a deafening crash the torpedo struck the Prince of Wales amidships, causing great damage and loss of life. All the electrical and hydraulic equipment was put out of action and the ship was in darkness, but for emergency lighting.
Ammunition for the guns now needed to be handled from the magazine to the guns by a human chain of sailors.
Meantime, the Prince of Wales began to develop a list to port, which became so great that the guns on the port side could not be lowered sufficiently to fire at the low flying Japanese planes, which now with advantage began to drive home their attacks. At this stage another torpedo struck the Prince of Wales, causing damage to the steering, with the result that the ship began to career about in wide circles and was unable to dodge enemy torpedo. In order to correct the severe list to port, the starboard side was flooded and many gallant men were trapped below and drowned in this drastic attempt to save the ship.
Meanwhile in the darkness of the ship I had managed to find my way from the main wireless office to the armour-plated deck below the aircraft hangar. In this region there was a considerable number of sailors, all apprehensive and alarmed at the course of events. The damage and destruction here was at its worst because some bombs from a high level Japanese attack had penetrated the first deck and exploded in the armour-plated deck below, causing tremendous damage and death as the blasts spread fore and aft.
Suddenly I felt the ship heaving quickly to port and many, now unable to keep their footing, fell heavily against the partitions, while others rushed for the nearby exit, which led to the upper deck, beside the superstructure. This was the moment for action and with a great effort I managed to get a grip on the iron stairway leading to the upper deck and pull myself away from the doomed below.
On reaching daylight and the upper deck, the ship had now developed such a severe list to port, it was only with much difficulty, and on my hands and knees I managed to crawl over the deck to the side rails of the ship. Only one other rating escaped after me and I saw him walking up the superstructure of the bridge, which was now almost horizontal. I stood for a moment of the side of the ship, cool, calm and collected and saw others in their panic sliding down the side of the ship and disappear back into the bowels of the ship through the gaping holes made by the torpedoes.
A black, thick mass of fuel oil and wreckage were spread over the sea and bobbing heads of survivors could be seen, as everyone strained frantically to get away from the side of the ship and grasp hold of anything that would help to keep them afloat. It was into this depressing and frightening scene I jumped. I felt myself going down and down, and I thought I was never going to reach the surface again. When I did so I swallowed several mouthfuls of oil, which almost choked me, and then I swam with all the strength I could summon, away from the ship, lest I be sucked down with it.
At what I deemed a safe distance I stopped and turned round and saw the Admiral and Captain Leach on the bridge, saluting the flag as the Prince of Wales slipped beneath the surface. I must stress that at no time did the Japanese planes machine gun any of the survivors as they struggled in the water, although I did understand that they sprayed the decks during the action. Shortly after this several Brewster Buffalo aircraft swooped overhead, but alas, too late to have any influence on the situation.
It was surprising how quickly the tight circle of debris and survivors widened and spread outwards from the spot where the ship went down. After some time in the water I was picked up by HMS Electra and once on board was given a tot of rum, and immediately became violently sick. Fortunately all the fuel oil I had swallowed was brought up, but less fortunate survivors suffered greatly from nausea for several days. Loaded with survivors the Electra then made for the naval base at Singapore at top speed, in order to get the wounded into hospital for urgent treatment.
There is one incident I must mention, which was proudly spoken about among the survivors and that was the selfless bravery of Commander Lawson, of the Prince of Wales. Commander Lawson and several ratings went to attempt to repair the damage done to the steering, deep down in the stern of the ship. Having estimated the damage the Commander ordered the ratings back on deck and continued to work alone at the impossible task. He was never seen again as he had sacrificed his life for the ship and saved the needless loss of life of the ratings who were sent to assist him – the action of a gallant officer and a gentleman – one feels proud to have served with such a man.
On arrival at the F.S.E. (Fleet Shore Establishment) in Singapore we were housed in the barracks and the next day given various pieces of female equipment to put on, as they had not sufficient clothing at the depot. I can assure you it was a ridiculous and grotesque company that mustered on the parade ground the next morning. It was then the numbers of the missing were more accurately assessed and the full consequences of the sinking of the two capital ships.
Within the next few days and weeks most of the survivors were dispersed – some sent to Ceylon, some to the front line to strengthen the army and some to serve in the local defence establishment in Singapore. I was sent with another A.B. to XDO (Extended Defence Office) office in Fort Canning, the army headquarters. XDO controlled minefields around Singapore. Here I remained in comfort, attended by houseboys until about a week before Singapore fell. I was removed to the Queen Alexandra Hospital with a bad attack of dysentry. While in hospital we could hear the shells flying overhead and later the ominous crack of rifle fire, which bespoke the approach of the Japanese troops.
All those who were fit to walk were advised to leave the hospital and make their own way to Singapore as the hospital was almost surrounded. I made my way to Singapore and returned to Fort Canning. Never once did a sentry challenge me, as I entered the fort!
On arrival I discovered the navy contingent had gone so I made my way to the docks as I was told they left only a few hours ago. At the docks I boarded the Admiral’s barge, but when two high-ranking officers arrived later, I was told to find some other ship. A.B. Shaw from London and I, feeling rather bitter and resentful, were taken on board a small M.L.432. This was really a blessing in disguise because the Admiral’s barge was never heard of again and all on board perished.
All the native crews had abandoned their ships with the approach of the Japanese troops and the nearer they approached Singapore, the more truculent became the natives. On Friday night, the 13th of February, we set sail from Singapore. Did ever a ship sail under less propitious circumstances?
We sailed across the minefield without incident and in the morning could see the black pall of smoke from the burning fuel dumps over Singapore. We hid by day on one of the many islands. Our intention was to sail down the Bangka Straits to Singapore, along the coast of Sumatra to Batavia and thence to Australia. It was thought if we went north, via the Malacca Strait to Ceylon we could be heading into trouble, yet many of those who took that route managed to escape.
There was tremendous slaughter of all the small ships and gunboats between Singapore and the Bangka Straits – heavy bombing attacks by aircraft by day destroyed and sank most of the ships. Most of which carried civilians, women and children and all were lost.
On one of the islands we hid at during the day, we found the bodies of survivors above the high water mark on the beach, with their wounds covered with maggots and ants and the stench rising to high heaven. We did what we could for them, but we had to leave them as we were already overcrowded. The next day at dawn we ran into a Japanese cruiser. Thinking it was Dutch we immediately made the challenge signal, but received no response, then hoisted the white ensign to be followed by a volley of shells, which straddled the ship.
My last duty was to drop the confidential codebooks overboard only a few minutes before we were boarded by a Japanese naval party. Thus commenced a long period of captivity under the Nippon Government.