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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. Yamamoto’s 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. Nakajima’s 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 Nakajima’s 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 Captain’s lobby flat, part of Tennant’s 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 Bowen’s 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 didn’t 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 captain’s 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 look.”

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 sea.

...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, I’ll 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 director’s 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 captain’s launch, all polished brass and wood into the water. Most of the survivors were either clinging to bits of wreckage or one of Repulse’s 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 figures.

I told them they looked like a couple of Al Jolsons. They said, ‘We must be an Al Jolson trio, because you’re 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 of oil.

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 Bowen’s 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, “You’ve put up a good show. Now look after yourselves and God bless you.” As if to emphasise Tennant’s 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.


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Buy this book from
  Singapore Burning - Heroism and Surrender in World War Two
Viking Penguin,
London, 2005

ISBN 0-670-91341-3
A Penguin paperback edition is scheduled for May 2006.
(The Amazon catalogue entry that it came out in September this year is a mistake. As yet, no paperback exists.)
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