Extracts of Singapore Burning
From Chapter Twelve:-
This time the ammunition behaved and an eight barrel pompom could be deadly at
close range - a twenty second burst delivered 320 rounds. Yamamotos Betty
flopped into the sea on its belly. Some of its crew were seen trying to get out
when it exploded into a ball of flame of which soon the only trace was a ring
of sea on fire. Nakajimas aircraft was slightly higher and for a moment
looked as though it might have escaped. Then the first flames were seen flickering
forward from the tailplane towards the cockpit and by the time it hit the water
its whole fuselage was alight.
From his lofty vantage point on one of the Prince of Wales Air Defence
Positions Sub-Lieutenant Brooke, the young officer caught easing his bowels when
the first torpedo struck his ship, was among those who saw the Bettys shot down
and particularly remembered the descent of Nakajimas aircraft. Although
it was clear the men inside had only seconds to live I watched with undiluted
pleasure... We all cheered.
They were cheering on the Repulse too but not for long. All three of the
torpedoes Iki and his wingmen had dropped struck home followed within minutes
by a fourth from the aircraft on the starboard side. In all, five torpedo hits
in the space of a few minutes. Tennant knew there was no way his stout hearted
old ship, whose luck he and his crew had nurtured for so long, could take this
kind of punishment and, heartbreaking though it was, he did not hesitate. All
hands on deck. Prepare to abandon ship. God be with you, came the announcement
over the tannoy. Even as Tennant spoke the Repulse was already taking
on a heavy list to port.
From deep within the innards of the ship men came scrambling like flooded miners
towards daylight, climbing familiar ladders and companionways which were rapidly
assuming crazy angles. In the aft High Angle Control Position Taffy Bowen and
his companions, still concentrated on their tasks, had no idea of the seriousness
of the situation. The loudspeaker system in that part of the ship had been destroyed
by the bomb that hit the Walrus hanger at the beginning of the action. Their
midshipmen, one of the five Australians on board, eventually heard the news over
his headphones and hurried them out.
They made their way up a vertical ladder and then through the Captains
lobby flat, part of Tennants quarters, where about a dozen wounded, among
them the scalded stokers, were lying on stretchers. Some were groggy with morphia
but others were all too aware of what was going on. As he passed one of the stretchers
its occupant tugged at Bowens leg and asked for a hand up.
Being a kid like I turned to help him but one of the Royal Marine bandsmen
gave me a shove and said, Keep going. As it was, just after we got
out on deck the armoured door slammed shut. There was a warrant officer there
shouting go forward because the screws were still turning and they
didnt want people cut up.
From the time the last torpedo hit her it took no more than eight minutes for Repulse to
sink and it is unlikely that any of the wounded in the captains flat area
escaped. Fortunately most of the casualties were gathered in the two main Medical
Distributing Centres, one forward and the other aft and both down three decks,
where the cool headed devotion of some of the medics got most of their patients
off the ship though some succumbed to their wounds either in the water or later.
The last man out of the forward centre was Sick Berth Attendant Walter Bridgewater
who had been pushing the wounded up wooden ladders, sometimes into the arms of
passing magazine hands on their way up to the top. Bridgewater, who would received
a Mention in Dispatches for his actions, got all the wounded on deck except for
one man who appeared to be in a coma and incapable of helping himself. When
the ship gave quite a shudder I just decided I better get out myself and left
the last one propped up in a corner...I will always remember his helpless, pathetic
Bridgewater was almost on the upper deck when his arm became trapped behind the
angle bar of the scuttle covering a porthole he was trying to open and he resigned
himself to drowning . Then, all of a sudden, I felt my right arm free and
I was out in a split second, possibly the last to leave the old ship alive. Some
of the first to abandon ship had simply swum off the port side as it dipped below
water level; but this became increasingly dangerous as the list increased. An
avalanche of heavy items including the four inch gun mountings began to break
free and follow the swimmers overboard. There was obviously a danger that Repulse would
soon capsize and fall on people not yet far enough away from the ship. Some were
already finding swimming difficult as they tried to cough and spit out the fuel
oil they had swallowed and get the filthy stuff out of their nostrils and eyes.
It made more sense to climb the sloping deck to the higher starboard side and
climb over the guard rail. Then, bending their knees as if they were coming down
a steep and treacherously loose hillside, they went down the concave slope to
where the torpedo bulge and the red paint above it were now indecently visible.
The Express reporter Gallagher chose this route. But when he got to the
bulge he paused at the bulge for beyond it lay an uninviting prospect for a non-swimmer
with only his rubber life belt to rely on: a twelve foot drop into a darkening
...playing for time, I opened my cigarette case. There were two cigarettes in
it. I put one in my mouth and offered the other to a sailor standing besides
me. He said, Ta. Want a match? We both lit up and puffed once or
twice...He said, Well, Ill be seeing you mate. I replied, I
certainly hope so. Cheerio. The sea was black. I jammed my cap on my head
and jumped. I remember drawing breath first.
Others got down on their bottoms, almost as if they were on a water slide, gathering
speed as they went. This was not always a good idea. Ankles, heel bones and even
spines were fractured by hitting the bulge legs first too fast; flesh flayed
by the rivets and marine encrustations encountered en route. One of the luckier
ones was Ordinary Seaman Bowen who did part of it this way, climbed the bulge
and dived off. Most former boy seamen had been taught to swim properly. Now he
swam the fastest crawl he could ever remember doing for, like all young sailors,
Bowen had been told how a sinking ship could pull down the men who had abandoned
her. Then he heard one of his mates shout, You can stop swimming now Taffy.
Two sixteen-year-old boy seamen were among those who had the awful luck to leave
the starboard bulge immediately over its single torpedo hole and be dragged back
into the blackness of what had become stagnant caverns of diluted oil . But a
petty officer soon spotted what was happening and warned people off. Otherwise,
there was precious little suction from the Repulse because, instead of
filling slowly from all sides the way an old pot drowns in a pond, she was going
down stern first. A midshipman made a sixty foot dive into the water from the
gun directors platform on the foremast and survived though years later
friends would wonder if it did not bring on the brain tumour which killed him.
There had been very little time to lower boats though somebody had got the captains
launch, all polished brass and wood into the water. Most of the survivors were
either clinging to bits of wreckage or one of Repulses twelve Carley
floats, huge canvas rings of canvas covered cork with slatted wooden floors.
Everybody was black with fuel oil which stung the eyes dreadfully and sometimes
made those who had swallowed too much of it retch until it killed them. Gallagher
briefly found sanctuary on a round lifebelt already supporting two blackened
I told them they looked like a couple of Al Jolsons. They said, We must
be an Al Jolson trio, because youre the same...Another man joined us, so
we had an Al Jolson quartet on one lifebelt. It was too much. In the struggle
to keep it lying flat on the sea we lost our grips and broke up, possibly meeting
again later though not being able to recognise each other because of our masks
The water was warm, fear of sharks which had beset some people when they first
entered it, had largely evaporated some believing it was the oil as much as the
explosions which had kept them away. Sing-songs were started: the inevitable Roll
Out the Barrel. As the Repulse started to go down some of her crew
gave her a last cheer and officers were seen to salute.
In Bowens group the cheering stopped when they saw a Marine bandsman they
knew hanging in the chains of the paravane mine sweeping device on the bow. It
was well known that musician could not swim and it seemed that, suspended there
at the equivalent height of a four storey building and getting higher, he was
too terrified to let go. Some of his friends began yelling at him by name to
drop. Still the bandsman clung on until suddenly, as if he had heard the pleas
of the men in the water for the first time, he fell, legs pedalling furiously,
to be returned gasping to the surface by his life belt. Some sailors paddled
over on a Carley float and picked him up.
Another late departure was Captain Tennant. Most of his crew had last seen Dunkirk
Charlie leaning over his tottering bridge with a megaphone as he told them, Youve
put up a good show. Now look after yourselves and God bless you. As if
to emphasise Tennants words of praise, there came from the starboard side
the defiant rattle of a lone Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun which could still be
depressed low enough to take on low flying aircraft. Behind it was Midshipman
Robert Davies, A cherub faced Australian always considered a bit on the quiet
side by his gunroom messmates. Thanks to Davies Repulse was literally going down
fighting but the eighteen-year-old had harnessed himself to the gun and left
it too late to save himself.
Tennant very nearly went with him. The list was now so steep, his ship was practically
on its side, he chose to walk down to the port gun deck rather than attempt what
had become an almost vertical climb the other way. When he met the sea he was
still wearing his steel helmet which he had forgotten he had on. He might have
floated serenely away had not Repulse, in her death throes, chosen that
moment to turn almost on top of him, taking him down to some black place where
he nearly gave up and started swallowing water. Then the rubber life belt around
his lean frame and his long legs kicking took him back towards the light.
Breaking the surface was marred only by sharing that small piece of it with some
hard piece of flotsam. It was than that he realised he still had his helmet on;
without it he felt he would have surely been knocked out and might yet have drowned.
As it was, he was quite stunned. One of the Carley floats was nearby and somebody
was offering his hand and saying, Here you are,sir.
After their astounding victory a few of the Japanese aircrews diverted
to the newly captured British landing strip at Kota Baharu, either
because they considered their aircraft too short of fuel or too damaged
or both to risk the long flight back to Indo-China. But most of them
did return, engines spluttering as their fuel feeds began to run
dry, to the airfields around Saigon they had left some twelve hours
before. One of the Bettys, which had been damaged by anti-aircraft
fire, crashed on landing and was written off though it appears the
crew survived. Had all the ninety-five aircraft 22nd Air Flotilla
employed on the operation been lost it would have remained an enormous
triumph and worth every one of them. As it was, total casualties
were the crews in the three aircraft shot down by the ships: eighteen
Japanese airmen for 840 British sailors.
There was a night of riotous sakai fuelled partying. But not long after dawn
Lieutenant Haruki Iki, who had lost two Bettys from his Chutai during the last
devastating attack on the Repulse, had roused his hungover crew and ws heading
south. It was not hard to find the place for it was still stained by oil and
debris and what might have been bodies. Iki took the Betty down low and circled
the spot and then opened the bomb doors . Out of them dropped a small, flat
circular object with cork floats and weighted so that it would fall the right
way up. The wreath, briefly splendid, settled amidst the flotsam. Iki is sometimes
quoted as saying it was for all the dead and perhaps it was.