HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were sent to Singapore as a deterrent force. One week later, hope was sunk ...
10 December 1941, 11:13. “Action Stations – enemy aircraft in sight!”
Perched precariously over 50 metres above the decks of the Repulse, the vessel’s height-finder had the Japanese planes in his sights. Peter Gyllies, an Australian midshipman, was acting as anti-aircraft direction spotter: “The first attack came from 18 high-level bombers,” he said, perched in his privileged but perilous position with a grandstand view of all the action. Seaman Ted Matthews remembered hearing: “’Enemy bombers approaching. Height 21,000 feet.’ Within moments they’d passed from the starboard side of the ship to port.”
Soon the radar screens of the Repulse and Prince of Wales were filled by a growing cloud of Japanese bombers. The crew could now see nine of them abreast high up over starboard. The Prince of Wales opened fire first. The Repulse’s high-angle guns joined the fray. Then the destroyers. Then everything and everyone. All at once.
The planes dropped their loads simultaneously, bombs arcing down towards the Repulse as its gunners returned serve, shell casings clangorously piling up.
“At that time I couldn’t see their bombs but everyone was certain they’d been dispatched,” said Ted Matthews. “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 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.”
One Japanese bomb had exploded amidships sending a sheet of flame, smoke, and fragments skyward. The boiler room was put out of action. The Marines’ mess was on fire. Stretcher parties. Fire hoses.
The gun crews had a chance to grab a quick smoke and mop their drenched brows as the planes flew nonchalantly northward. Elsewhere mayhem. 11:30. Torpedo bombers off starboard. Low. About 3000 feet. But fast. Could our fastest guns even get them at that speed? Where’d they go? Into the clouds. Where? Where? There! Port side of the Prince of Wales. Groups of two or three. Diving in now. Full speed. Low. 500 feet. And …
“Stand by for barrage! Stand by for barrage!” the Tannoys on both ships blared.
Those on the Prince of Wales watched disbelievingly as the 30-foot long weapons splashed down and headed towards them in a flurry of foam at 40 knots. The planes jinxed away in high-speed twists and turns of deceit.
“Without any prior warning, a great number of Japanese planes suddenly appeared seemingly from out of nowhere and attacked the ships in our flotilla,” said Bill Moss on the Wales. The Japanese planes started to bomb us, but as we soon discovered, they also had many torpedo-bombers and they hit us with quite a few of their torpedoes.”
“We proved sitting ducks for their bombers that morning,” said Christopher Peacey. “I felt bombs striking the ship, then a torpedo struck the propeller shaft and we took on a lot of water. The ship started listing and was obviously going down.”
[This is an edited extract from The Depths of December: The Sinking of the Repulse, the Prince of Wales,and the British Empire in December 1941 by Stuart Lloyd.